Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Gorbachev Guide To Poor Verbal Skills

English speakers know the world is divided up into poor spellers, horrible spellers, and the truly illiterate. But shucks, even those among us who have to spell-check our telephone numbers know how to spell the name of our native countries.

Apparently this is not true of a group of local counterfeiters, whose otherwise excellent 50,000 ruble notes were identified as phonies because of a single flaw: The word "Russia" was misspelled.

To be precise, the phrase "Bank of Russia" is spelled Bank Rossi, missing one very conspicuous i on the genitive case ending.

If there is one legacy of socialism to be proud of, it is Russia's place as one of the world's most literate countries. If they ever catch these fumbling fakers, they will probably make them write Bank Rossii 100 times on the prison blackboard. Why, the counterfeiters are probably hiding more from shame than fear of the punishment facing them.

Or so we thought. When our Russian colleagues heard of this debacle they were not surprised. It turns out that literacy propaganda churned out in the Soviet days notwithstanding, many Russians have a very low opinion of their compatriots' command of the native tongue. This is largely because of the way their leaders speak: Generations of Soviet and Russian statesmen have astonished the people with their poor verbal skills.

We'll allow for the fact that Stalin and Khrushchev were not ethnic Russians, and granted, leaders of other countries have not always possessed silver oratory tongues (George Bush comes to mind). But even Bush could say "We passed a law" without making a mistake, a pleasure that evaded Ruslan Khasbulatov during his tenure as parliament speaker. Whenever Khasbulatov said My prinyali zakon, he mispronounced prinyali ("passed").

Probably the worst contemporary violator is Bush's one-time counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. He routinely mispronounced words, including several of his catch-phrases, including novoye myshleniye ("new way of thinking"). The word for "thinking" is pronounced myshLENiye; Gorby insisted on MYSHleniye. It was Gorbachev who inspired a group of sociolinguists to go out into the street with written lists of words the president often mispronounced, such as NAchat' ("to begin"), as opposed to naCHAT'. The informal study showed that people on the street had no better idea how to say these words.

The last Soviet leader could never pronounce Azerbaidzhan, usually resorting to Azerbarzhan or Azaibadzhan. In this linguistic quirk, Gorbachev recalled Leonid Brezhnev, who consistently referred to Mozambique as MoZAMbik rather than MozamBIK.

Lenin only knows how the bushy-eyebrowed one would have spelled it.