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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rumors Creep and Crawl

Telega: poison pen letter

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I don't think my Russian friends and colleagues will take offense if I say that Russia is a gossipy country. I don't condemn it; to the contrary, I take off my hat. Rumors and gossip serve a critical life function in Russia. In a country where decision-making everywhere from the boardroom to the Kremlin is as opaque as a foggy, starless night, and where official pronouncements are more likely to conceal than reveal the truth, having a reliable system of information gathering and exchange is a survival technique. And Russians have mastered it.

A rumor is slukh, from the word for something heard (hearsay). Po-moyemu, on rasprostranyayet o tebe slukhi (I think he's passing around rumors about you.) You can also use the word porodit, "to generate," as in Vystupleniye direktora firma porodilo mnogo slukhov. (The speech by the director of the company generated a lot of rumors.) More colloquially, rumors are said to "crawl" about, like the snakes they are: Polzut slukhi, chto on zdorovo vypivaet. (Rumors are going around that he is a heavy drinker.) Or they simply "get around":O nyom khodyat slukhi. (There are rumors about him.)

If you want to say that "everyone has heard it," you can say, U vsekh na slukhu. Or you can switch the emphasis a bit and say, Eto u vsekh na ustakh (everyone is talking about it) or simply govoryat... (they say...) If you are talking about "word of mouth" transmission of information, you say Iz ust v usta. You can emphasize the reliability of your information by saying, Ya eto slyshal iz pervykh ust (I heard it first hand, or "I heard from the horse's mouth.") Ya slyshal iz tretykh ust, used less commonly, means "I heard it third hand."

When you are not at all sure of your information, you can say, za chto kupil, za to i prodayu -- literally "I'm selling it for the purchase price," i.e., "for what it's worth ..." And when you are quite sure that the original truth has gotten garbled in transmission, in Russian you say, Eto kak isporchenny telefon. Davai sprosim ego, chto on skazal na samom dele! (This is a broken telephone. Let's ask him what he said!)

Gossip is another matter; here the truth is held in less high esteem. Spletnya (an item of gossip) comes from the word plesti, "braid," "weave," that is, something tangled. Ne slushai ego! On uzhasny spletnik (Don't listen to him! He's a terrible gossip!) O chyom vy tut spletnichaete?! (What are you gossiping about?! -- often pejoratively asked of any women deep in conversation.)

This is but a short step away from the worst of rumors and gossip: denunciations. It's a sad reflection on Russian history that there are lots of words for this: donos (denunciation), kleveta (slander), (compromising information, "dirt"), nagovor i ogovor (slander, unjust comments). kompromat. (A newspaper printed some dirt about the candidate) V gazete opublikovali kompromat na kandidata . V 37-om godu po donosu sazhali. (In 1937, people were imprisoned on the strength of a denunciation.)

Anonimka is an anonymous letter: Yeyo uvolili -- direktor poluchil anonimku o yeyo romane s sotrudnikom konkuriruyushchei firmy. (She got fired -- her boss got an anonymous letter about her affair with someone in a competitor's company.) Telega (literally "a cart,") is a poison pen letter. Posle togo kak yego zaderzhala militsiya, k nemy ne rabotu prishla telega. (After he was detained by the cops, a poison pen letter arrived at work.)

And as anyone who has ever been the subject of rumors and gossip knows, the problem is that no matter how improbable the rumor, someone will always believe it and say, Nu znaesh -- net dyma bez ognya! (There's no smoke without fire!)

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