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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Spetsspeak:' Language For the Privileged Few

An elevator in the Intourist Hotel and a departing minister's parting shot remind us that despite Russia's progress towards being an open society, the good life still belongs only to those who have special access.


In the Soviet era, it was special access that separated the rank-and-file from the elite, whose daily existence was full of institutions described by the prefix spets, short for spetsial'no, or special.


For example, while the ordinary masses stood in line for canned herring in tomato sauce at grubby state stores, high-ranking Communist Party officials did their shopping in spetsmagaziny, drove around in spetstransport and lived in spetsdoma.


This brings us to former Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov's recent refusal to enter a reshuffled cabinet after being demoted from deputy prime minister. One reason the chubby monetarist mentioned was that only deputy prime ministers have access to the spetssvyaz, the special direct phone line to Boris Yeltsin's office.


Without spetssvyaz, Fyodorov would have to make appointments to speak to the president, just like the rest of us.


It goes deeper than that.


Ever notice how many Soviet hotels and office buildings seem to skip a floor? Well, the floor is there. It's just off-limits to ordinary folks, perhaps because they keep the listening devices there, or the beer, or whatever.


To get to these places, coyly called tekhnicheskiye etazhi, or "technical floors," you need special access.


In the Intourist Hotel, there is a small key-operated elevator button that will take you on a spetsyezda, or a "special ride." We didn't have the key, so we never got to take that special ride to that special floor.


Russian colleagues warn that spets is not restricted to its connotation of "special things for the privileged." Spets can also just mean plain "special," as in spetsodezha, the special overalls one dons to do car repairs.


Russians say on nastoyashchy spets, "he's a real ace," of someone who really knows his business.


We're also aware that Russian has another word for "special": osoboye. The feeling here is that spets is just special, while osoboye is really special. The best way to describe the difference would be a comparison of the two elite police forces, Spetsnaz and OMON.


Spetsnaz, or spetsial'noye naznacheniye -- Special Forces -- do tough jobs. The OMON, Otryad Militsii Osobogo Naznacheniya, or "The Really Special Militia Brigade," does the real dirty work.


Put otherwise, the Spetsnaz are just snazzy, while the OMON are plain ominous.