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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Money on the Quote

Utrom -- dengi, vecherom -- stulya!: you have to pay cash on the barrelhead.

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Russians are fabulous quoters. The average Russian has a mental library of apt quotations and aphorisms that includes the Bible, 30 or 40 Russian and foreign poets, standard translations of Shakespeare and dozens of novelists. They use them straight, they use them ironically, they twist and tweak them to fit the circumstances. Everyone nods or laughs, and you, the hapless foreigner, wonder what on earth that was all about.

One of my favorite sources of aphorisms is the work of Ilf and Petrov. I highly recommend their novels to anyone under the impression that corruption and scams are a phenomenon of the post-Soviet period, introduced by the Wicked West. When someone says, Etot oligarkh -- veliky kombinator (That oligarch is a real conman!) he's referring to Ostap Bender, the hero of Ilf and Petrov's comedic novels. Bender once said, Benzin vash --idei nashi (the gas is yours, the ideas are ours), which can be used to describe any deal in which one side puts up the money and the other side (supposedly) provides the know-how. Oni ne predlagali partnyorstvo. Oni na samom dele predlagali " Benzin vash --idei nashi" (They didn't propose a partnership. They proposed that we bankroll their so-called brilliant ideas!)

It was a wise man who insisted on getting paid by Ostap Bender before handing over the goods: Utrom -- dengi, vecherom --stulya! (literally, "you give me the money in the morning, I'll give you the chairs at night," or "you have to pay cash on the barrelhead.") This is a good phrase to use whenever someone wants you to do work without paying in advance (or at all). Da, ya napishu statyu. No utrom -- dengi, vecherom --stulya! (Yes, I'll write the article, but give me the money in advance.)

Ilf and Petrov also gave us the oft-quoted phrase, Spaseniye utopayushchikh -- delo ruk samikh utopayushchikh (literally, "the task of saving drowning men is up to the drowning men themselves"). This is used whenever it's clear that no one is going to help you and you must rely on your own devices. Another useful phrase is kipuchy lentyai (a bustling lazybones) -- someone who makes a fabulous show of frantic activity, but actually does nothing. On, kazhetsya, khoroshy sotrudnik. Da net! On --kipuchy lentyai (He seems like a good worker. Not at all! He just puts on a good show.)

Another phrase you hear often is krizis zhanra (crisis of genre), which refers to any standard form of art or work that is no longer popular or relevant, or anything that is no longer going well or easily. Ya pytalas pisat otchyot, no ne poluchilos. Krizis zhanra. (I tried to write the report, but I didn't get anywhere. I've lost my touch.)

Gigant Mysly (a giant among thinkers) is used ironically to refer to any silly person with an unjustifiably high opinion of his intellect. Sbylas mechta idiota (literally "an idiot's dream has come true") refers to any time you get what you hoped for and discover that it's less than you had expected. Menya naznachili direktorom. Sbylas mechta idiota. Odni problemy . (I was named director. What an idiot I was to want it. All I have is problems.)

And I always think of Ilf and Petrov when I'm nearly mowed down as I try to cross one of Moscow's streets. Peshekhodov nado lyubit. Peshekhody sostavlyayut bolshuyu chast chelovechestva. Malo togo -- luchshuyu ego chast. Peshekhody sozdali mir. (We must love pedestrians. Pedestrians make up the majority of humanity. Moreover -- the best part of humanity. Pedestrians created the world.)

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