Nothing to Snivel At

Скулить: whine, whimper, complain

I'm still trying to get a handle on Dmitry Medvedev's presidential speaking style. I had pegged it as stiffly formal until August, when he suddenly started peppering his speech with derogatory references to Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgians that sounded like they came from the lips of his presidential predecessor. "Я никаких решений не принимал, надеясь, что у этих придурков хватит всё-таки ума остановиться в какой-то момент" (I didn't make any decisions, hoping that those boneheads would come to their senses and stop at some point). "Отморозки тем и отличаются от нормальных людей, что, когда они чувствуют запах крови, их трудно остановить" (That's what makes goons different from normal people. Once they smell the scent of blood, it's hard to stop them).

Russia's southern neighbors weren't the only ones to get a taste of Medvedev's rougher talk. On a trip to the Far East, he gave a dressing-down to a gold prospecting company exec: "Я понимаю, что бизнесу работать нелегко, что бюрократический аппарат у нас ещё тяжелый, но не надо скулить" (I realize that business has a hard time and that our bureaucracy is still burdensome, but stop whining").

Скулить is the word you use to describe a puppy squealing to be let into the kitchen. When applied to people, it is one of the many expressive Russian words for complaining.

The most neutral term for complaining is жаловаться. На что ты жалуешься? (What are you complaining about?) Плакаться (literally, "to cry") is complaining histrionically. Хватит плакаться! Лучше постарайся что-нибудь изменить в своей жизни (Stop wailing! It's better to try to change something in your life instead). You often hear the phrase плакаться в жилетку (literally, "to cry onto someone's vest"). English has a similar expression, but we note the part of the body rather than the item of clothing that gets tear-stained. Губернатор запретил своим министрам плакаться в жилетку журналистов (The governor banned his ministers from crying on the shoulders of journalists).

Сетовать is a good choice when you want to complain with dignity. Нам грех сетовать на судьбу (It's a sin for us to lament our fate).

If you want to complain with a tinge of reproach, you can use the verb пенять. This is often heard in the expression: Пеняй на себя! (You have only yourself to blame; literally, "complain to yourself.") It is also part of one of my favorite expressions: Нечего на зеркало пенять, коли рожа крива (Don't blame the mirror if your face is crooked). In other words, the mirror doesn't lie.

Three other Russian verbs describe complaining in terms of sound effects. Стонать (to moan) can mean to complain loudly and continuously. Лето было плохое -- и дожди, когда не надо, и жара, когда не надо, и все виноградари стонут (It was a bad summer -- rain at the wrong time and heat at the wrong time -- and all the winegrowers are moaning about it).

If you want to describe sniveling, you can use the wonderfully evocative хныкать, a word that makes you sniff just to say it. It can refer to whimpering sadly or complaining pathetically. У тебя есть всё, что ты хочешь! Перестань хныкать! (You have everything that you want. Quit grousing!)

And then there's ныть, which can be used to describe anything that aches, from a sore finger to a broken heart. У него ноет сердце (He is sick at heart). It can also refer to obnoxious whining, the kind of behavior that in my childhood was soundly denounced by the parental units as "bellyaching." Олигархи ноют, что налоги слишком высоки (The oligarchs are bellyaching that taxes are too high).

On second thought, maybe I agree with Medvedev on one thing. Хватит скулить! (Stop squawking!)

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