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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dance of the Butterflies

????????? ??????-???????: dance to someone's tune, to do a song and dance

I paid close attention to President Vladimir Putin's recent comments on Russian and Soviet history, particularly his evaluation of how it compares on a scale of sinfulness with that of the United States. For anyone following his statements lately, it should come as no surprise that the United States essentially got a ?????? (a "D") and Russia got, if not ??????? (an "A"), at least a ???????? (a "B") from Putin at a recent teachers' conference.

But what caught my ear was the phrase about textbook authors: ??? ????????? ??????-???????. They are dancing the butterfly polka?

I was happy to discover that I wasn't the only one to be puzzled. During a discussion of the speech on a radio talk show, one moderator asked some historians and teachers: "??????????? -- ?? ?????????? ??????-????????" (Tell the truth: Are you dancing the butterfly polka?) And then: ??? ????? "??????-???????," ??????? (By the way, what is the butterfly polka?)

One guest replied dourly: ??? ? ??????? ??????. (You'd have to ask some Poles.)

I didn't have any Poles to ask, but I did ask all my friends and acquaintances. Most had no idea what the dance was. ?????-?? ????????? ?????, ??? ???????. (Some old dance, like the mazurka.) ??? ??, ??? ?????????, ??????, ?????? ?????????? ??????. (It's what, say, drunk customers in a tavern might have danced.) Another had a more professional take on it: ??? -- ??????, ????????, ???? ??????????? ?????. (It's a lively, sprightly, somewhat old-fashioned dance.)

If few people knew exactly what the dance was, it didn't really matter: Putin was clearly using the expression figuratively, which was made clear by the rest of the sentence: ??? ????????? ??????-???????, ??????? ?????????? ??, ??? ??????. Here he is adding a few dance steps to the usual expression "??? ??????, ??? ? ?????????? ??????." (He who pays the piper calls the tune.)

So was this Putin's own expression?

Judging by the Internet, no. But people seem to use the phrase in a number of ways.

Sometimes it seems like a stand-in for any kind of lively dance. ????????? ? ???????? ??????????? ????? -- ??? ????? ??? ????????? ?????????????? ???????? ????????? ??????-???????. (Starting a civil war in Belarus would be like making a melancholy hippopotamus dance the polka.) ??????? ??? ????????? ??????-??????? ??????? ?????. ??????? ??????????. (Let's all dance the polka in the middle of the street. I want to have some fun.)

In other cases, it seems to be like a "song and dance." ????? ??????-??????? ?? ????????? ????? ???????????, ????? ??? ????????? ? ??????? (What kind of song and dance did you do for your bosses so they'd let you go on vacation?)

In yet other cases, it seems to be the equivalent of "dancing to someone's tune." ?????? ???????? ?????? "??????-???????" ? ????????????? ??? ??????????, ?????????? ????????????? ???????? ??? ????????? ?????? ????????? (Why is the trade union dancing to the tune of their employers or bureaucrats, signing meaningless contracts or sending them letters of protest?)

Actually, given the context of foreigners supposedly ordering a particular slant on Russian and Soviet history in textbooks, the image that came to my mind of the cattle-rusting bad guy in a Western shooting at the feet of the wholesome settler and growling, "Let me see you dance, boy!"

Nasty. There's only one problem. According to a Russian specialist: ????????? ??????? ?? ???????? ?????? ?????????? ? ?????? 90-? ??., ?? ?????? ??????, ? ?????????? ???????? ??????????? ?? ?????? ??????????? ???????????. (The last competition [for textbook writing] sponsored by the West was held at the beginning of the 1990s using [international financier George] Soros' money, and all the competitions since have been sponsored by the Russian government.)

Oh, well. At least we learned a new expression.

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