Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beyond Apparatchiks and Refuseniks

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

???????: shady businessman

Way back in Russian 101, we all learned that when the suffix –?? (more precisely, the suffixes –???, -???, -???, -????) is added to a root, the word produced denotes a person in a particular profession: ????????? (mathematician), ????????? (porter, someone who carries, from ??????), ???????? (worker), ?????????? (translator).

Life was sweet and translation a breeze until the new Russian reality introduced ??????? and ???????, both of which are miserable to translate. The trick is figuring out what they mean. This, as I recall from books on translation, is a highly recommended first step.

??????? refers to someone who works in the ??????? ???????????? ? ????????? (rather badly translated as "power ministries and agencies" or "power structures"): the armed forces, intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies. In English it's hard to find one word to describe a member of this group -- probably because in the United States, these folks are usually bickering so much over jurisdiction and funding that they can barely be in a room together. It seems that most publications have given up trying to translate ??????? and simply transliterate it with a parenthetical explanation of who the fellow is. And so silovik has joined sputnik as an accepted borrowed word from the Russian.

??????? is someone who works (if that's the right verb) in the ??????? ?????????. From the word ???? (shadow or shade), this is usually translated as the gray, underground or hidden economy. So what exactly is it? Good question. In the Soviet Union the gray economy referred to any kind of non-governmental (read: "very wicked") services or production. ?? ??????? ?????? ??? ????????? ?????? ??? "???????," ???????????? ??? ?????? -- ????? ??????????????????? ????????? ??????????. (He started his career as an underground businessman under Soviet power; this gave him criminal status, since any kind of private enterprise was illegal.)

Today, if you ask five economists what it is, you get seven answers. According to one definition, it covers any economic activity that is illegal, partially legal or hidden. There's ????????????? ??????? ????????? (the criminal economy) -- anything against the law and off the books; ???????????? ??????? ????????? (informal economic activity), which includes dastardly deeds like selling your neighbor a bushel of cucumbers without being a registered company and paying taxes; and ??????? ??????? ????????? (hidden economic activity), which is when you either hide your participation in the enterprise or what you're doing -- and don't pay taxes.

Informally, ??????? ????????? is "semi-legal" business -- that is, you're registered, you pay some taxes, you follow some laws, but you're cooking the books, doing deals under the table and using every trick up your sleeve to avoid paying all your taxes. Defined this way, we can say that it is "practices followed by 99.9 percent of all businesses in Russia." For the less cynical, I'd translate ??????? as a shady businessman.

One of the tricks of the ??????? is to work with ?????-?????????? (literally "a one-day firm"). In English, we could switch a.m. to p.m. and call it a fly-by-night company. These folks register their operations, sign a fictitious contract and take in funds by bank transfer, then cash out and close up shop before the quarterly tax reports are due. Cash goes back to the contractor, minus a cut for the company's time and trouble. This is also called ?????-????????? (an "encashment" firm, from the verb ???????????? -- to cash; notice the –??? ending again). Even though they remind you of the storefront operations at home ("We Cash Checks!"), they are operating on the shady side of the law in Russia.

And doing business with them will definitely make you a nogoodnik in the eyes of the tax inspectorate.

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