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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Genius of Russian Gets Lost in Political Quotes




Russian has the expression krylatye slova (literally, winged words) to describe particularly felicitous turns of phrase that find a permanent place in the legacy of the language. Thumbing through a Slovar' krylatykh slov (Dictionary of Quotations) is a quick, easy way to get acquainted with the genius of Pushkin, Mayakovsky and all the others who mastered the power of the moguchii russkii yazyk (mighty Russian language).


The opposite of krylatye slova, I guess, would be politicheskiye tsitaty (political quotations), which demonstrate what happens when you put that mighty language in the hands of people like Andropov, Zhirinovsky and Yeltsin. Any collection of these utterances is enough to convince one that Lenin was wrong when he claimed, "Bezgramotnyi chelovek stoit vne politiki" ("An illiterate man is excluded from political life").


Each year the popular newspaper Argumenty i Fakty publishes the most noteworthy political quotations and awards the most expressive politician a prize called the Zolotoi yazyk (Golden Tongue). For 1997, as always, competition was keen.


Gennady Seleznyov, speaker of the State Duma, was nominated for conceding, "Za chto ni voz'myomsya, vsyo poluchayetsya na pol'zu kriminalu" ("No matter what we do, everything turns out to benefit criminals). Yeltsin's economic adviser Alexander Livshits confessed, "Ekonomicheskaya situatsiya dostatochno ustoichiva: Ona nakhoditsya v sostoyanii ustoichivoi stagnatsii" ("The economic situation is fairly stable: It is in a state of stable stagnation").


Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky earned "honorable" mention for his analysis of the international political scene: "Ot chego korovy s uma skhodyat? Ot britanskoi demokratii" ("What makes cows go mad? British democracy").


But the winner in 1997 was Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who managed to insert a vague sexual tone into some of his most notable head-scratchers. "Rossiya so vremenem dolzhna stat' evrochlenom" ("In time, Russia must become a Euromember"), Chernomyrdin has said. He also noted last year that, "Pravitel'stvo -- eto ne tot organ, gde mozhno odnim tol'ko yazykom" ("Government isn't an organ operated by the tongue alone"). And Russia has the prime minister to prove it.


But we shouldn't be too hard on Chernomyrdin. It was he, after all, who uttered the oft-quoted words which -- mark my words -- will someday serve as the epitaph of Russia's entire transition to democracy. In 1994, he declared, "Khotelos' kak luchshe, a poluchilos' kak vsegda" (We were hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does).


More bitterly, the quotation is often cited as, Khotelos' kak luchshe, a poluchilos' po-russki(We were hoping for the best, but it turned out the Russian way).