Russian-English

Before perestroika, the language of Soviet politics was dry, emotionless and often meaningless. Inevitably, in a freer environment the pendulum swung toward a more lively style. But much of the new liveliness has been of a peculiar kind. In the 1990s, politicians and the media took to borrowing words and phrases from the language of the criminal underworld. For example, the expression "turf war" was first used to describe gang disputes over territory and then migrated to politics and business.

Similarly, some of the words and phrases born in gangland or behind bars have been absorbed by current Russian informal language and political lingo - so much so that we forget about their origin. Thus "razborka", which originally meant a meeting of gang members to "settle accounts," is now used to describe a brawl, a family fight, and yes, a turf war.

Why are many of us attracted to this kind of slang? For one thing, there's no denying that rogues have a way with words. Take "otmorozok," which I often translate as "freak"; literally, it's something like "one who has had his brains bitten off by cold." Colorful, isn't it? The same is true of verbs such as "obut" (to put shoes on someone) or "kinut" (to cast off). Both mean "to dupe" or, to suggest a slangier equivalent, "to take to the cleaners." I've heard them used dozens of times, particularly during the 1990s, when people were so often, well, duped.

The most famous example of formerly taboo language used to great effect by a Russian politician is Vladimir Putin's "mochit v sortire" - literally, "to soak in the bathroom." We'll chase the bandits wherever they are, Putin said after the terrorist attacks in 1999, and... what's a good English phrase? Rub them into the dust? Wipe them out? Perhaps. Of course, there are more elegant ways of saying it. George W Bush famously said after 9/11: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." But there is a reason why Putin's crude language helped to make him such a popular president. It captured people's rage.

Because it was so effective, Putin has used similar language on several other occasions. Is this a trend? I for one would not recommend that Putin's successor emulate him in this regard.

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