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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bitter Smell of Bird Cherry

Cheryomukha: bird cherry; army slang for tear gas

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The tragic events in Moscow over the last week have filled our vocabulary with words we wish we never had to know. As we learned last year, ugonyat/ugon is the verb for "to hijack" and can be applied to any vehicle. Ty slyshal? Ugonyali samolyoty i vrezalis v bashni! (Did you hear? Planes were hijacked and crashed into the towers!) Ugon mashiny can mean either "car theft" or "carjacking." Pokhotit/pokhishcheniye are the words for kidnapping. Pokhitili lyudei. (Some people were kidnapped.) Last week the word used was zakhvatit, to take people hostage or to seize a building, and the hostage-takers (an awkward phrase in English) was used to describe the zakhvatchiki. Oni vzyali tseluyu auditoriyu v zalozhniki. (They took the entire audience as hostages.) Terroristy byli smertnikami. Sredi terroristov byli i zhenshchiny-kamikadze. (The terrorists were death commandos and among them were women suicide-bombers.) (Smertnik is more commonly used to mean a person on death row.) One journalist wrote that the terrorists were « raskhodny material » -- they were disposable, "cannon fodder." One of the terms used often to describe the terrorists was otmorozki, from the word for "to freeze," which might be translated as "monsters," "zombies." President Putin called them podonki, which can be translated as "scum" or "lowlifes."

Vo vremya shturma primenyali spetssredstvo. When they stormed the building, they used a special substance. It's the spetssredstvo that has been the main topic of news since the storming. Spets- is a shortened version of spetsialny, but in its abbreviated form it has associations with spetsnaz (voiska spetsialnogo naznacheniya -- special forces), and has a tough military sound to it. Spetsovka is a special uniform, usually some kind of work clothes, as in the phrase, "ona byla v emcheyesovkoi spetsovke" (she was wearing the special uniform of the Emergency Situations Ministry). Spets by itself can mean an expert, an "ace." Ego vyzvali iz drugogo podrasdeleniya. On nastoyashchy spets. (They pulled him in from another division. He's a real ace.) The first reports on the gas were that it was some kind of tear gas, which is called slezotochivy gaz or, in military slang, cheryomukha (bird cherry), an ironic reference to the smell of the bird cherry, whose flowers are particularly fragrant. During the attack the Alfovtsy (Alpha group) also used svetoshumoviye granaty (flash grenades), that blind and stun the victims. One of the reasons for using the gas was explained laterLyudi dolzhny byli zakryt glaza, chtoby ne obzhech setchatku (people were supposed to close their eyes so their retinas wouldn't be burned). Unfortunately, the gas for many turned out to be lethal: gaz letalnogo iskhoda.

This terakt (terrorist act) was related to the war in Chechnya, where the federaly (slang for federal troops) have been fighting with nezakonniye vooruzhenniye bandformirovaniya (illegal armed bands). I think the unwieldy word bandformirovaniya was coined to distinguish the Chechen rebels from regular troops, since technically only an independent country can raise an army. By using the word banda, with its mafia and crime associations, the Russian officials and military also stress the criminal nature of the Chechens' actions. To fight them, the Russian army has been carrying out zachistki, "clean-up operations." In the hospital and on the ground, troops carry out filtratsiya -- "screening," to make sure that none of the criminals have gotten mixed up with the hostages.

Terroristy byli unichtozheny. Dlya neitralizatsii terroristov byl primenyon fentanil. (The terrorists were destroyed. To neutralize the terrorists they used fentanyl.) In Russian, as in English, the military does not use the word "kill" in reference to terrorists or opponents. As if to distance ourselves from the brutality of the act, and to depersonalize the people that were killed, we say "eliminate," "liquidate" or "neutralize." Such is the universal language of war.

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