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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Linguistically Dissecting the Keys to Corruption

The fact that corruption has infiltrated every level of society may not come as a shock to anyone who has spent more than two weeks in Russia. The fact that you can tell how corrupt or corruptible someone might be from his choice of vocabulary, however, may catch more people unaware. But Georgy Satarov, a one-time aide to former President Boris Yeltsin, has recruited linguists to help him do just that — root out the clues of corruption.

Diagnostika korruptsii v Rossii, or the diagnostics of corruption in Russia, is the name of this ambitious project launched by Satarov’s INDEM research center. One of their tasks was to compare typical newspaper articles pro korruptsiyu with the rhetoric of bureaucrats, otherwise known as eksperty, or experts, in the field of corruption.

In the newspapers they found many sportivniye metafory, or sports metaphors, comparing korruptsiya to a bor'ba (battle), konkurentsiya (competition) or voina (war).

What they found — you can all hold on to your hats — is that Russia would collapse without corruption. Indeed, corruption is so ingrained that it would be dangerous to try to cut it out like a cancer. No primenyat' khirurgicheskoye vmeshatel'stbo pozdno, or it is too late for surgical intervention, Satarov says. Eto kak rak, pustivshy metastazy. It’s like a cancer that has metastasized. Instead of rooting out the disease, they’ve got to go to Plan B: lecheniye organizma, or the treatment of the entire organism. But in order to treat the disease, you’ve got to diagnose it, right? That is where Satarov’s linguistic SWAT team takes over — identifying the corruptible by their speech.

As it turns out, there are certain recurring korruptsionniye evfemizmy, or corruption euphemisms, that allow bureaucrats to cover their tracks. Giveaway words such as korruptsiya or vzyatka — bribe — are carefully avoided. But the phrase nado pomoch', or we must help, comes up again and again when a politician tries to get legislation passed or seek permission from a superior for a business deal that could be very profitable for him.

Incidentally, helping is a two-way street. It is not only used by the corruptible, but also those seeking to corrupt.

An industrial giant looking for some preferential taxation scale, or l'gotnaya shkala nalogooblozheniya, might come to his governor or Duma deputy with an open wallet and an opening line: Mne nyzhna vasha pomoshch', or, I need your help.

Speaking of legislation, or zakonodatel'stvo, you don’t have to read too far between the lines before you can follow the trail of corrupt politics, or sledy korrumpirovannoi politiki. When you see these words, you’re going to need more than pomoshch'.