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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Past Master of Inarticulate Eloquence

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Khotelos kak luchshe, a poluchilos kak vsegda: We wanted the best, but things turned out as usual.

Okay, folks, time to stop drinking. Time to get out of the beer bar and raise ourselves up to the more elevated world of Russian politics. Unfortunately, in this elevated world we find that bez pol-litra ne razobratsya (it's a mind-boggler, a stumper, literally "you can't make sense of it without a half liter").

This is particularly true for the sayings of Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin -- post-Soviet Russia's longest-serving prime minister -- who holds a special place in the annals of Russian political oratory. Most of his oft-quoted lines are not exactly aphorisms ( aforizmy ), although a few are; nor are they exactly neologisms ( neologizmy ), though there are a few of those as well. You can't exactly call them bon mots either, since there is nothing particularly bon about the mots he uses. They seem to be the outbursts of a man, who, in less polite company (if one can call the State Duma polite company) would express himself in plainer language. In his attempt to let you know what he means to say without actually saying it, he has given us a treasure-trove of -- for want of a better word -- Chernomyrdinisms.

For example, Ya gotov priglasit v sostav kabineta vsekh-vsekh -- i belykh, i krasnykh, i pyostrykh. Lish by u nikh byli idei. No oni na eto tolko pokazyvayut yazyk i eshchyo koye-chto (I'm prepared to invite absolutely anyone to join the Cabinet -- whites, and reds and multi-coloreds, too. As long as they have ideas. But they just stick out their tongues and something else, too).

" Koye-chto " is a great word to use for "something" when you can't say the thing you mean to say -- it drips with innuendo.

Another Cherno-euphemism is "some other place," as in the famous: Pravitelstvo v otstavku? U kogo ruki cheshutsya -- cheshite v drugom meste! (Force the Cabinet to resign? If someone's hands are itching to do this -- why don't they scratch some other place!)

Chernomyrdin has had some trouble with other places, too: Vechno u nas v Rossii stoit ne to, chto nuzhno . What he meant to say was something like, "In Russia the wrong issues are always coming up," but any time you use the word stoyat (to stand, to rise) you've got to be careful, since koye-chto can also raise its head.

Ditto with the word organ, which can mean any kind of organ, governmental or bodily. Chernomyrdin's assistants must have groaned when he announced, Eto ne tot organ, kotory gotov k lyubvi (This isn't the organ that is ready for love). But apparently others are very ready indeed: Bot Mikhail Mikhailovich -- novy ministr financov. Proshu lyubit i dazhe ochen lyubit. Mikhail Mikhailovich gotov k lyubvi . (Here is Mikhail Mikhailovich, the new finance minister. I ask you to love him, in fact to love him a lot. Mikhail Mikhailovich is ready for love.)

Another of these dual-meaning words that kept getting Chernomyrdin in trouble was chlen , which in both Russian and English can mean a member of an organization and a particular bodily part. Chernomyrdin got himself in trouble when he declared of the Communist Party: Ya mogu rabotat s Seleznyovym, no s chlenami otdelnymi -- ya ikh v upor videt ne mogu! (I can work with Seleznyov, but with individual members -- I just can't stand to look at them!)

And then there are other Chernomyrdinisms, such as: Esli ya yevrei, chego ya budu stesnyatsya? Ya, pravda, ne yevrei (If I were a Jew, why would I be embarrassed about it? But then I'm not a Jew). Or My vsegda mozhem umet (We can always be able). Or Mnogo deneg u naroda v chulkakh ili noskakh. Ya ne znayu, gde -- zavisit ot kolichestva (The population keeps lots of money in stockings and socks. I don't know where -- it depends on the amount).

And his most famous phrase of all: Khotelos kak luchshe, a poluchilos kak vsegda . Which is true not only of Russian politics, but of Viktor Stepanovich's speaking skills as well.

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