The Lord’s refuse


April 5, 2017 by AK

Christopher Caldwell’s speech at Hillsdale College, How to Think About Vladimir Putin, suggests an angle and a point of view symptomatic of a certain strain of thought on the American right. I believe it rests on error. No matter what perspective the observer chooses, mistaking myths and half-truths for verifiable facts will distort his view and cloud his judgement.

…there were the young women who called themselves Pussy Riot, performance artists who were jailed for violating Russia’s blasphemy laws when they disrupted a religious service with obscene chants about God (translations were almost never shown on Western television); Putin also released them prior to the Olympics.

The most important misstatement here is that Pussy Riot disrupted a religious service: they did not. One has to have a rather vague idea of the case to believe that such disruption actually occurred. From the testimony of the few people who were present in the cathedral when the ladies rushed in to shoot their musical video, it was clear that no service was going on and the church was almost empty.

The three Pussy Riot members who got caught were convicted of “hooliganism” aggravated by insulting a religious or social group. This may be a distinction with little difference but the crime of “blasphemy” does not appear in Russia’s statutes.

Finally, Pussy Riot’s “chants” were not “about God.” The song partially filmed in the cathedral was a prayer, if a paradoxical kind, a supplication in forceful language. It was undoubtedly anti-clerical, since it accuses the Moscow patriarch of believing in Putin rather than in God and the church of being wedded to the KGB. (Searching for “Pussy Riot” and “text” or “lyrics” will turn up some worthwhile attempts at translation, such as this, this and this.)  Was its language obscene? To begin with, Russian, like other Slavic languages, has an unquestionably taboo stratum known as mat. Pussy Riot steered clear of that vocabulary.

However, the text of the song does include two words not recommended for use in polite society. One is “bitch,” possibly addressed to the patriarch, possibly an emotion-charged filler. And then there’s “the Lord’s shit,” where ‘s stands for the possessive case, not for is. It’s an imprecise translation – the Russian original isn’t that clear-cut. What in the world does it mean, sran’ Gospodnya?

An urban legend claims that the term (back-translated as “the Lord’s shit”) was invented by Russian voice-over translators (such as the inimitable Leonid Volodarsky) to render “holy shit!” – so it was originally a mild expletive.

At any rate, it’s most likely a neologism. It’s the name of an album by a Russian punk band recorded as early as 1991. This photograph from a modern art exhibition suggests a literal meaning, the creator’s excrement. However this 1996 song by Aquarium offers a more figurative take – the text goes like this (it turns out I translated two stanzas in 2006):

Noble lords have made friends with the Lord’s shit-folk.

Second, sran’ Gospodnya doesn’t sound like a neologism. It has a Slavonic ring: sran’ stems from ancient Slavic vocabulary and Gospodnya comes from Old Church Slavonic (OCS), incorporated into modern Russian like some other OCS words. Their combination sounds similar to strast’ Gospodnya, the Lord’s passion (singular). The latter was sometimes used in colloquial speech as a reaction to a tale of unusual intensity. Also note that the old Russian word for shit and its derivatives were not considered particularly rude until the 18th century.

All in all, it might have been a mere expletive, or a pejorative for clerics unworthy of their calling, or an allusion to some unidentified damnés de la terre. It was not an obscene remark about God.

What’s a “Putin critic”?


April 1, 2017 by AK

Googling “Putin critic” turns up reports of a Russian defector assassinated in Ukraine; of a memorial to a Russian opposition leader killed near the Kremlin; of the current opposition leader jailed for a street protest; of a Russian investigative journalist who barely survived a poisoning – and so on.

As a one size fits all descriptor, “Putin critic” is technically acceptable but not particularly helpful to the audience. There are millions of Putin critics in Russia but rather fewer opposition activists and serious journalists. Also, consider the difference between a “Trump critic” and “Putin critic” as used by the mainstream media.

Nailed to a bar


March 26, 2017 by AK

Tom the Amateur Reader, the author of the Wuthering Expectations blog, quotes from the 1970 collection of translations from Alexander Blok by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France:

I am nailed to a bar with liquor.

It’s the first line of this poem from 1908. (I tried to translate it in 2006.) Its second word is the translator’s first challenge. Yes, пригвоздить means, technically speaking, to nail: the root –гвозд- corresponds to nail and the prefix при- indicates the act of attaching. However, Russians don’t use пригвоздить to describe, say, the nailing of a board to a wall: the word belongs in a loftier register. Alas, a stray arrow nailed the noble hero to his chariot: that sort of narrative.

On the other hand, the “bar with liquor” is actually a bar in a трактир – simply put, a cheap restaurant patronized by all matter of society.  (Originally, a roadside inn.) That’s where Dostoyevsky’s characters hold philosophical debates. It’s decidedly democratic, mostly plebeian but not off-limits to gentlefolk, especially the poorer sort. The word sounds common, undignified, low. Yet the clash of registers does not produce a comic effect. The line borders on the pompous and pretentious but sends no one laughing. Quite the contrary: the reader feels this business of drinking at the bar is deadly serious for some reason.

What’s a translator supposed to do with this? I don’t know – at least give it a thought.

If Trump is after big stakes…


March 26, 2017 by AK

My latest two cents considering Obama the Cunctator and Trump the (hopefully) Knot Cutter.


Manufacturing regime change out of stagnant air is not, generally speaking, a sound suggestion. Smartly supporting a groundswell of discontent is a different matter. On a side note, the United States was the first major power to recognize the Russian provisional government after the overthrow of the Romanovs – on March 22, 1917.


If President Trump is truly an aging Narcissus, few things would please him more than toppling a powerful leader whom he, Trump, has previously considered close to a peer. (This one’s not new, actually.) If the POTUS is indebted to that leader to any tangible degree, the latter’s demise would instantly incinerate the former’s IOUs.

SWIFT and the long run


March 26, 2017 by AK

The Economist wrote in November 2014 considering the proposal that Russian banks be disconnected from the SWIFT payment system:

Now there are calls for Russian banks to be banned from SWIFT in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A group of American senators is arguing for the measure…

The impact of a reprise on Russia’s already fragile economy would be huge. Its banks are more connected to international trade and capital markets than Iran’s were. They are heavy users not only of SWIFT itself but also of other payment systems to which it connects them, such as America’s Fedwire and the European Central Bank’s Target2.

Russian officials and senior bankers equated the possible SWIFT ban with a “declaration of war.” Bluffing, most likely, but Obama’s administration never took the risks needed to call that bluff. Perhaps it reasoned like The Economist:

Another risk is that using SWIFT in this way could lead to the creation of a rival. Russia’s central bank is pre-emptively working to develop an alternative network… If China and other countries that feared being subjected to future Western sanctions joined the Russian venture, it might become an alternative to SWIFT—and one less concerned with preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

It only took a suspicion that the SWIFT ban might be a credible threat for Russia to start working on an alternative. It must be in an advanced stage now. What The Economist termed a risk was an inevitability. Washington’s dilemma was “either we cut them off now, or we don’t – ever.”

I’m sure that Trump’s administration would have been tempted by the former option. Obama, in contrast, was content with finding Russia on the wrong side of history and imposing sanctions of a longer-term nature. History could still prove him right, but there’s one little problem with the long run.

“The largest coordinated outpourings of dissatisfaction” since 2011-12


March 26, 2017 by AK

Good reporting by Howard Amos, a Moscow-based freelancer, and Jim Heintz of Associated Press. Russians are taking to the streets under anti-corruption slogans, and not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg:

Navalny and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption had called for the protests, which attracted crowds of hundreds or thousands in most sizeable Russian cities, from the Far East port of Vladivostok to the European heartland. The protests were the largest coordinated outpourings of dissatisfaction in Russia since the massive 2011-12 demonstrations that followed a fraud-tainted parliamentary election.

Navalny (predictably detained today) has expected marches and gatherings in more than eighty cities and towns. In twenty-something of these, local authorities have OK’d the protests; elsewhere, people have turned out knowing they could be detained for taking part in “illegal” demonstrations.

In Moscow, the city permitted a gathering in Sokolniki, northwest of the city center, but Navalny’s team insisted on Tverskaya, the high street running northwesterly from the Kremlin past the famous statues of Pushkin and Mayakovsky.

Today’s crowds across Russia may have outsized the largest of the 2011-12 rallies, although it’s too early to tell. That and the unprecedented number of locations – from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad – are quite a surprise to me. I thought the anti-corruption drive had lost steam somewhat.

Tomorrow, about ten thousand long-haul drivers are planning on a nationwide strike against the road toll system called, inexplicably, Platòn, i.e., Plato. For more local color, I suggest The Russian Reader‘s translations. I tend to disagree with their politics but their translations are indispensable.

By the way, which one’s the Great One?


March 23, 2017 by AK

Reviewing five recent books on the Russian Revolution of 1917 for the LRB, Sheila Fitzpatrick quotes S. A. [Stephen Anthony] Smith, professor of history at All Souls College, Oxford:

The Soviet Union proved capable of generating extensive growth in industrial production and of building up a defence sector, but much less capable of competing with capitalism once the latter shifted towards more intensive forms of production and towards ‘consumer capitalism’. In this respect the record of the Chinese Communists in promoting their country to the rank of a leading economic and political world power was far more impressive than that of the regime on which it broadly modelled itself. Indeed, as the 21st century advances, it may come to seem that the Chinese Revolution was the great revolution of the 20th century.

By the absolute number of its victims, it was the great revolution of the century. Other than that, it wasn’t even capable of “generating extensive growth in industrial production.” China only started developing in earnest when the revolutionary strictures were relaxed or reversed.

A separate question is whether the military-driven Soviet growth of the 1930s and the 1950s, against a backdrop of hecatombic repression, is a sure sign of greatness. It’s not that Russia had never experienced economic growth prior to 1917. For example, Russian industrial production grew by 8% per annum in the 1890s – so it must have doubled during the decade – without mass famines, deportations and executions. Historians appreciate finance minister Sergei Witte’s contribution to that growth but manage without extatic paeans to his grandeur.

Fitzpatrick comments on S. A. Smith’s warning:

Now that’s a conclusion that Putin’s Russia – still uncertain what it thinks of the revolution, and therefore how to celebrate it – needs to ponder: the ‘Russian Revolution’ brand is in danger.

Putin’s team are not the greatest brand managers out there, and this particular label makes them uncomfortable whenever they have to bring it up. They would gladly retire it if they only could.

Buch, East Berlin


March 21, 2017 by AK

The “sleepy German suburb” of Buch – a hotbed of rightwing nationalism according to the New York Times – reminds me of a middle-class Moscow residential area, only cleaner, greener, lower-rise and more orderly (note the neatly parked cars). I can understand why some residents fear that new tenants might be not so keen on keeping public spaces tidy and, once they have arrived in large numbers, the neighborhood could lose its “cozy, safe” appearance.

Not that the new arrivals would actually make it dangerous but the veneer of understated middle-class respectability might have to come off. In places like Moscow, where housing built under central planning is still predominant, subtle differences among almost identically built neighborhoods can signal major variance in property prices and perceived levels of genteelness.

Essential skills for dictators


March 20, 2017 by AK

Thomas Mann wrote in his 1939 essay Brother Hitler:

And then he — who had learned nothing, and in his dreamy, obstinate arrogance never would learn anything; who had neither technical nor physical discipline, could not sit a horse, or drive a car, or fly a plane, or do aught that men do, even to begetting a child — he develops the one thing needful to establish a connection between him and the people: a gift of oratory. It is oratory unspeakably inferior in kind, but magnetic in its effect on the masses…

Mussolini could ride a horse, drive a car and pilot an airplane. He was a good fencer. Needless to say, he had several children. He had the discipline to successfully run a newspaper for years. In all of that, he was Hitler’s opposite. Like Hitler, Mussolini was an effective speaker, but his speeches were more traditionally structured and he did not appear exceptionally feral compared with some other Italian firebrands.

What does it prove? Probably nothing at all.

[Turns out I wrote about it in 2015. Bonjour sénilité.]

Lâstik and lastik


March 18, 2017 by AK

In The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Geoffrey Lewis mentions a certain late-Ottoman author and civil servant:

…Kemalpaşazade Sait, alias Lâstik (‘Galoshes’) Sait, who held several senior posts in government service but was best known as a writer of articles on literature for the newspapers Tarik and Vakit, and as a minor poet. The reason for his nickname was that he was reputed never to take off his galoshes even in summer.

Since the Russian word lastik (лáстик) means “eraser” (BrE “rubber”), I thought for a second that Said Bey might have been a perfectionist keen on killing needless words until the text was suitably laconic. The next moment, he turned a semblance of Chekhov’s Man in a Case.

Both the Turkish and the Russian word were derived from Greek via late Latin, after which the transmission routes may have diverged. Lâstik entered Turkish from the French, evolving from the adjective in gomme élastique. The stress must remain on the last syllable: it is typical of Turkish and in line with the original. The circumflex above the a indicates that the initial l should be palatalized, as in French (Turkish also has a “dark,” “hard” l). The modern meaning of the word seems to include a wider range of rubber items than just galoshes, including the eraser.

The Russian word, ластик/lastik, strictly stands for one thing: a piece of rubber or rubber-like material used for erasing pencil or pen marks. (The other meaning, a durable cotton fabric used as lining, supposedly from “lasting,” is virtually extinct.) The stress is on the first syllable, and the l is hard. Like канва (from Fr. canevas) and кадриль (from Fr. cadrille), ластик feels completely domesticated in Russian, thanks partly to its ending, akin to a Slavic suffix, and partly to its root, pleasantly reminiscent of native words like ласточка (a swallow) and ластиться (to make up to somebody). There is no consensus view of its path from late Latin to Russian but I have an amateur theory of my own.

I think it’s a shortened version of the dated word гум(м)и(э)ластик (gum(m)i(e)lastik), whose origin – also a conjecture of mine – is not the French gomme élastique but, rather, the German-Latin gummi elasticum. See, for example, Der practische Naturforscher by the “practicing physician” Dr. Franz Walchner of Bühl, printed in Karlsruhe in 1842. This would explain the position of the stress and offer a plausible source for another Russian word, гуммиарабик, from gummi arabicum.


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