When Leaving Is Not Quite Leaving

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Вывод / отвод войск: troop withdrawal / pullback

Every year as August approaches, I cross my fingers and hope that this month, so cursed for Russia, will pass peacefully without military, economic, social or political disasters. For a few years, August wasn't too bad. But this year, the curse is back.

To keep my mind off the horror of these particular августовские события (August events), I've been concentrating on questions of language. Since I don't know Georgian, I've been reading and re-reading the Russian texts, trying to parse meaning and implication. It's hard going.

One of the biggest questions concerns the distinction between отвод and вывод that was made by General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the General Staff. He was quoted as saying: "Есть понятие вывода и отвода ... и я надеюсь, что вы эту тонкость хорошо подметили" ("There is the concept of vyvod and the concept of otvod ... and I hope that you have grasped that subtle distinction").

That distinction is indeed subtle. Both terms are translated as "withdrawal" or "pull out." The only inherent distinction that I can discern is this: The prefix от- is generally used for motion away from something; the prefix вы- is generally used for motion out of something. So отвод is "pulling back" from a place and вывод is "pulling out" of a place. This seems to be confirmed by what Nogovitsyn added: Мы не покидаем Южную Осетию, а отводим войска на границы её территории (We aren't leaving South Ossetia but pulling back our troops to the borders of its territory).

But I got more confused when I looked at the Russian text of the six-point agreement, which reads, in part: Вооружённые Силы Российской Федерации выводятся на линию, предшествующую началу боевых действий (The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are pulled out to the line they held prior to the start of military operations). Is there a difference between this and what Nogovitsyn said? I don't know. But then, I don't have any idea what line Russian troops held before the military operations began.

I have also been puzzling over the official Russian definition of their military operation: операция по принуждению грузинских властей к миру (literally, operation to compel the Georgian authorities to peace). As far as I can tell, this was coined for these particular events. Call me a cynic, but whenever political leaders come up with a new phrase to describe military actions, I get nervous. I'm not sure how миротворческие операции (peacekeeping operations; literally, peacemaking operations) differ from операция по принуждению к миру (peace-compelling operation) in theory or practice.

If I were a lawyer in addition to being a translator, I'd want a footnote defining another point of the agreement. What are the дополнительные меры безопасности (additional security measures) granted to the Russian troops?

The last bit of linguistic clarification concerns территориальная целостность (territorial integrity). With regard to Georgia, President Dmitry Medvedev said, "Территориальная целостность -- это отдельное понятие ... Это желание людей жить в одном государстве" ("Territorial integrity is a separate concept ... It's the wish of people to live in one state"). As far as I can tell, "territorial integrity" is one of those phrases that gets put in international treaties but that doesn't have a universally accepted definition. Hence it's difficult to determine the extent to which Medvedev's definition -- delivered off the cuff in a press conference -- is a radical departure from those sometimes vague and overqualified definitions.

Do I understand the meaning and implications of all this? No. Is it fair to put these words under the linguistic microscope? Yes -- because they were spoken publicly by the country's leaders in wartime, and no -- because there is not yet enough context to understand them. That's why this is a column of questions rather than answers.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.