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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Tongue in Tune With the Times

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Vertikal vlasti: the executive chain of command, the line of command, the top-down command structure.

U.S. presidents give us a phrase or two that live on in parodies and cartoons for years (like George Bush Sr.'s famous "Read my lips!"), but none of them have changed the lexicon of governance quite like their counterparts in Russia.

I'm not sure if this has something to do with the Russian language, or if it's just that in this period of reinvention, each Russian leader leaves his mark on the language of the new state and social structure. The Gorbachev era gave us glasnost, perestroika and uskoreniye (usually translated as "the acceleration of production"), not to mention a nationwide confusion about proper word stress ( nachat, for example, Mikhail Sergeyevich stressed on the first syllable) and some colorful verb forms ( lozhte bumagu na stol -- which teachers throughout Russia politely corrected to polozhite bumagu na stol).

The Yeltsin era gave us such economic terms as vauchernaya privatizatsiya (voucher privatization) and the dread defolt (default), as well as a fine example of the slovo-parazit (parasitic word, a filler) thanks to his frequent use of ponimayesh to punctuate sentences.

What about Vladimir Putin?

One thing is for sure: He's a man of his time. One of the hallmarks of the post-Soviet Russian language is the infiltration of criminal jargon into conversational Russian, and Putin -- to the chagrin of his protocol department -- has demonstrated a fine command of gangster slang. Banditov i v sortire zamochim (We'll waste the criminals even in the outhouse) is probably the most famous, but he also famously clarified that kozly is prison slang for "a man who is sodomized" in quoting the Chechen graffito Allakh nad nami, kozli pod nami (Allah is above us, the buggered [Russians] under us).

And linguistically speaking he doesn't hold much truck with the loosey-goosey nevidimaya ruka rynka (invisible hand of the market). Vladimir Vladimirovich's speeches are peppered with references to a strong state, for example: chem silneye, tem svobodneye lichnost (The stronger the state, the freer the individual).

There is also gosudarstvennoye regulirovaniye ekonomiki (state regulation of the economy), zhyostkiye mery (harsh measures), tvyordaya ruka (a firm hand) and a sprinkling of adjectives like distsiplinirovanny (disciplined), professionalny (professional), vnyatny (clear-cut) to be followed by the noun of your choice.

And then there's the famous ukrepleniye vertikali vlasti. This is translated variously as "strengthening the executive command structure," "the top-down command structure," or "the line of command."

The idea is that there is one strong, top-to-bottom line of command from the federalnaya vlast (federal authorities) to the mestnoye samoupravlenie (local governments).

The goal of this line of command is to put an end to bespredel, another favorite word of the times: a state of anarchy, when no laws or rules are heeded. Bespredel can be translated as "over-the-top lawlessness, mayhem, a total breakdown of law and order, lawlessness run amok." Vladimir Vladimirovich doesn't like, and even gets nervous about, unfettered freedom: svoboda, lishennaya pravovogo poryadka, skatyvayetsya k bespredelu (Without law and order, freedom dissolves into lawlessness).

So the annotated translation of ukreplenie vertikali vlasti goes something like this: "I'm sick and tired of you guys 10 time zones away doing whatever you feel like doing. From now on when I sneeze here in the Kremlin, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk you had better blow your nose."

Note to officials in other time zones: Get out your handkerchiefs.



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