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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bureaucrats Take It on the Chin

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??? ???? ???????: "rank respect rank" (once said of relations between state officials)

I wish I'd been a Kremlin-watcher, one of those embassy folks who spent Soviet holidays peering through binoculars to make charts of where Soviet officials stood on Lenin's Mausoleum and then wrote policy papers on what this boded for the future of the Soviet Union and the fate of the world. Of course, later it turned out that Sidorov stood next to Petrov because they liked to gossip about sports during the boring bits. But those holidays on the mausoleum are over; the binoculars have been traded for a linguistic microscope.

I read President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address to see what it said about his mood and political intentions. This is probably also a fool's mission -- psycholinguistics can be more fancy than fact -- but, on the other hand, word choice can be revealing.

In 2005, bureaucrats took a beating from Vladimir Vladimirovich. First, he referred to state officials as ?????????????. This mouthful of a word comes from the root ???-, which has one set of meanings connected with "doing, creating and fixing" (the verb ?????? means to fix) and another set connected with "order, rules, assembly or position." The noun ??? can mean a rank or position. This gave us ???????? (official, bureaucrat) and ????????????? -- officials or officialdom. It also gave us the wonderful word ????????????????, which meant the system of promotion in rank. Today, this term is largely found in historical fiction. Nowadays we just speak about ????????? ? ????????? (a job promotion; literally "a raise in position").

In the old days of the Russian Empire, a state official had one of the ranks in what was called ?????? ? ?????? (Table of Ranks), which listed 14 levels of state service with positions and salaries. There were ??????? ????????? (staff officials) and the romantic-sounding ????????? ??? ?????? ????????? (literally "officials for special missions"). These folks were given special assignments (in fiction and film, this usually involves seducing a foreign countess to get critical intelligence). Judging by language, Russian officials were a right proper bunch. The phrase ??? ???? ??????? (literally "rank respect rank") referred to the tradition in which one addressed an equal as a superior and a subordinate as an equal. Today, of course, ???????? has lost this connotation: Now it can be said with a snort to mean "a paper-pusher."

But perhaps Putin dreams of restoring the noble traditions of Russian state service. When he unleashed his fury on state officials, he used borrowed words, especially ?????????? (bureaucracy): "???????????????? ????? ??????????" (the unscrupulous part of the bureaucracy); or "? ???? ????? ?? ?????? ???????? ?????? ? ???????????? ????????????? ???????????????? ??????????" (We have no intention of putting the country at the disposal of an ineffective, corrupt bureaucracy). He also referred to "??????????????? ???????" (bureaucratic response), which he defines as "?????????" (stagnation), that is, the tendency to do nothing. After all, the bureaucrat's motto is better safe than sorry. And lest some believe that he's only fed up with his own bureaucracy: "????????? ? ????????????? ?????????? ... ????? ???? ?? ????? ?????????? ???????????????" (the bureaucracies in political parties and corporations behave no better than the state bureaucracy).

But that's just the warm up. Putin said some members of his government see themselves as "????????? ? ?????? ?????? ????????? ?????, ?????????? ??????????????? ?????? ??? ????????????? ???????" (a closed and at times simply imperious caste that perceives state service as just another branch of business). And that's not all. It gets as bad as "??????????? ????? ?? ??????? ??????????????? ????????" (the state bodies are an out-and-out racket).

From which I conclude: Down with foreign corruptions -- castes, rackets and bureaucrats -- and long live the dignified Russian ????????.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator.