Russian is a tough language to learn not because of the complex tenses and six cases, but because the style of communication is what matters most. The Russian style not only expresses the mood of the speaker or writer, a certain political situation, or the time and circumstances of the moment; the Russian style also “smells.” Or stinks.
Thus, Russian politics are all about the style of expression, and the language used to convey a political message in Russia is more than just a mere communication tool. It’s a cult and has been one since 1917.
Within the first year after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin changed the Russian alphabet, the grammar, the syntaxes and even the time: The country finally adopted the Gregorian calendar and established time zones. But the most significant alteration occurred in the style of Soviet discourse. Stalin later converted what wasn’t even his native tongue (he grew up speaking Georgian) into a veritable arsenal for warfare, redefining way state officials spoke, wrote and, regrettably, thought. It was all done to mask his Big Lie in layer upon layer of obfuscation and hidden meaning.
Stalin’s style was difficult to ignore because there were four main foundations underlying it.
Stalin’s classic essay “Marxism and the Issues of Language Studies” gives a perfect example of this style: “The question arises, what have changed in Russian language since the October Revolution? The vocabulary shifted significantly, in a sense that it got amended with a large number of words and idioms.”
The question here only “arose” because Stalin himself raised it.
As developed in the Stalinist style, this is when the speaker seamlessly assigns a much broader and encompassing name to refer to a specific thing or constituency. Some pure examples remain in the Soviet archives, such as this statement from 1976:
“Those forces in the West are capable of any deception method to complicate the issue of the termination of the arms race.”
“Those forces in the West” refers to the American military-industrial complex but note how much more ambiguously menacing the reformulation is. “Forces” suggests a multitude with global reach.
This is when the speaker says something even if no one is seeking his opinion. Overreaction laden with clichés of ideology and emotive abuse is the defining feature. A classic form of such commentary was an unsolicited “reaction to anti-Soviet hysteria in country X”.
The following quote, for instance, is taken from a 1977 Soviet communique:
“In China, (we observe) a widening scale of the anti-Soviet campaign that is maintained by propagandistic institutions and officials at all levels. Chinese press and other media distributes daily obvious lies and slanders in regard to the USSR, those are not much different from imperialist propaganda that has long discredited itself with the peoples of the world.”
Now here’s one by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, reacting to a U.S. State Department report on human rights in June 2015, which of course contained criticism of Russian human rights abuses:
“The report published on June 25 by The Department of State of the USA on the conditions of human rights in the world, as with all previous opuses, is plagued with politicized remarks and rude ideological stock phrases. The document is nothing more than a serial specimen of American mentorship and lecturing manner in the area of human rights. This manner is grounded on a false logic of US’s infallibility and perceived problems other states have on the issue.”
In neither case was Moscow’s response necessary. It was freely offered, almost with a joyous expectancy of being able to get its “retaliation in first.”
The Russian Civil War birthed a new gangland vocabulary for everyday use to denigrate real and perceived opponents of the Soviet order. It transcended Stalin’s own style to amplify the underlying mood of belligerence, if not mercilessness.
In the 1930s, the Stalinist criminal vocabulary became the subject of a famous satire, Golden Calf by Ilia Ilf and Eugeny Petrov. The central character, Ostap Bender, is a talented adventurist who tries to make his fortune on the edge of NEP (the New Economic Policy, which constituted a temporary turn back to capitalism in the USSR from 1921 to 1930). In one of the episodes, Bender travels on the train with a group of Soviet journalists whose verbal resources are maximally constrained by the new rules on revolutionary reportage. Bender creates a dictionary of over 100 clichéd constructions which perfectly comply with the Party’s editorial standards for journalism, he successfully sells it to the bored journalists who can now use it as boilerplate.
Today, Vladimir Putin has resurrected Stalin’s four foundations of style and encouraged his diplomats and government officials to employ them with the same frequency and purpose as his Soviet forbears.
I have analyzed all official communications of the Russian Foreign Ministry from September 2011 to June 2015, indexed them, and run them through a specific linguistic software called Voyant Tools, based on Stanford Natural Language processing toolkit. The total database consists of 2.5 million words, and 21,765 documents. Here’s what I found.
Self-questioning is barely present in Foreign Ministry statements until fall 2012, with the occasional use of a formulation such as, “Some partners of Russia question that…” But starting in 2013, when Putin took a harder stance against the West, self-questioning became much more frequent. The method skyrocketed in 2014, reaching 188 total uses, most commonly deployed by the nameless “press statements” on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Official press statements are much less speculative and rarely employ Stalin’s favorite tool: a meager 25.
Lavrov is a great fan of self-questioning. He holds 66 of 189 uses of the formulation “the question arises” and its manifold variations.
The winner of self-questioning, however, is Lukashevich, with 101 uses, but some of his briefings and statements just repeat Lavrov’s earlier sentiments.
Likewise, metonymy has made a comeback. Consider this comment by Lavrov in his November 2013 Address to the State Duma:
“Some countries are guided with an opportunistic interest to circumvent the global limits on the use of force in international relations… It’s obvious for us that some countries exercise the power they possess more frequently and tend to redraw the guiding principles of international relations.”
He means only one country.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, however, the frequency of Stalinist metonymy grows. “Western partners,” “hegemonic force,” “some country that imagines itself a policeman of the world”—all these become have become frequent stand-ins for “White House” or “United States.”
Putin himself is famous for deploying Bender-like formulations. He uses “whack” like an Italian mobster when he refers to what Russia will do to terrorists. Another favorite: “If my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather,” used to derisively dismiss what he considers a non-possibility, such as the capacity for the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian transitional government to perform.
Typically, professional diplomats don’t resort to gangland jargon, but in Putin’s Russia, the exceptions are subtly smuggled in.
For instance, one Foreign Ministry briefing on June 29, 2012, read, in Russian, “Americans prefer to pull down their allies rather than take their interests into account.” To the untrained reader, this sounds hostile but ho-hum. However, the usage here of the verb, opustit (“to pull down”), in the Russian criminal argot refers to homosexual rape. Opustit, in fact, refers to how tougher inmates make weaker ones their “bitches.”
When Russia abandoned its Soviet identity in 1991, its Foreign Ministry’s language changed accordingly. Diplomats attempted a sober neutrality and a more rational mode of communicating with the outside world. Until 2007, Russian diplomacy maintained a formal, if sometimes murky, style which rarely conveyed a single, unambiguous meaning. Moscow knew that its post-Soviet leaders would need wiggle room to dodge and obfuscate; in a democracy, climb-downs from original “official positions” were inevitable in the course of engagement other countries.
But in 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, Putin put aside this new mode of Russian “diplospeak.” He presented the idea that the collapse of the USSR “was the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” This was hardly unambiguous and signaled a calcification in the Russian view of recent history. Further, Putin blamed the West in seeking to humiliate Russia, thus wakening the “sleeping beasts” of the Soviet style.
I was working in Russian media at the time and remember this grim return to form quite well.
First, the vocabulary zombies crept back into conservative pro-government newspapers. The language again started to resemble the stochastic cocktail of Pravda, the old Party daily, as well the Benderist GoodFellas jargon. Today, these styles are everywhere.
Take, for instance, this Foreign Ministry Press Department statement on Macedonia from last May:
The news published by the Serbian media about the detention in Macedonia of some Montenegrin, who assisted the Kosovo Albanian extremists is a convincing proof of the plans run from outside that presume loosening the political situation in the country, trying to push it into the abyss of a color revolution. This is proof that Western organizers of such catastrophic scenarios prefer to exercise their proxy using the Ukraine, and now Macedonia, as citizens of those countries which, like Montenegro, are attracted by the lure of NATO. The more than obvious danger for Europe is now provoking chaos in the Balkans, spiraling conflict in the region, which has has not yet recovered from the bloodshed of the 1990s.
The first sentence is 32 words in Russian! And note the context: Macedonians protested against corruption and the feebleness of their own government in countering it, with some calling for an end to Macedonian-Russian cooperation on a notoriously crooked gas pipe project. They also called for faster accession into NATO. Finally, the Foreign Ministry is actually reacting to Serbian press speculations about events in a neighboring country, rather than to any on-the-ground, factual information. This is the classic proactive commentary of the bad old days.
I mentioned earlier that the thug’s lexicon is particularly noisome to the Russian speaker. This is intentional because the Foreign Ministry, despite its remit, is actually communication to a domestic rather than international audience.
To some extent, this irony can even be quantified.
A data analysis I performed of Foreign Ministry communication from September 2011 to June 2015 shows that a mere 10 percent of the statements contains a direct call to action (“do something, change something”). Another 14 percent is suggestive (“it’s time to think about…” or “our partners have to think about…”). This 24 percent can thus be viewed as written for a foreign audience.
However, some official statements are “factual,” such as the reporting on a meeting between Lavrov or his deputies with foreign officials. These constitute 18 percent of the total. Then there are those statements and interviews that attempt to “explain” Russian foreign policy, from global warming to the war in Ukraine. These statements are meant exclusively for Russians and are often untranslated into any other language. They constitute 75 percent of all Foreign Ministry communications. And sometimes the Russians they’re geared toward are in fact other agents of the Putin regime.
Consider this masterpiece published by Ministry on the day after former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered:
We assume that support and protection of the human rights should be a goal rather than a tool of the political fight. In the European Council on Human Rights we oppose politicization of human rights and a compulsory export of standards that are typical for an isolated group of states as if those standards are global. It’s unacceptable to exploit the human rights agenda to undermine the principles of the international laws and UN Charter, to substantiate the incursion with the internal affairs and violent scenarios of the solution of contradictions and arguments, establishment of economic sanctions. Such actions only deteriorate the situation in the “target” country and contribute to further violations of human rights.
This statement was meant to explain Lavrov’s participation in the UN Human Rights Conference in Geneva, taking place that week. The real ear for this denunciation of “politicized” human rights—i.e., human rights as they apply to Russia—is in fact the siloviki in the Kremlin. The Russian Foreign Ministry was telegraphing its loyalty to Moscow.
Haifei Huang, a researcher from University of California Riverside, published a very interesting study last year, in which he explained the signaling theory of propaganda. In the modern world, he said, information is much less censored and restricted—but the institutions that engage in political communication must send “signals” to the superiors and subordinates. Also, they have to demonstrate that they are loyal purveyors of the propaganda wherever and whenever they are charged to distribute it.
To the Western, democratic imagination, this sounds bizarre and redundant. Consider how odd it would be for the U.S. State Department to reaffirm its commitment to Barack Obama’s foreign policies, which it is duty-bound to carry out in the first place. But under authoritarian regimes, public declarations of fealty, couched in the discourse of statecraft, are everyday occurrences. Under Stalin, professions of embracing the party line were daily occurrences. Putin has revived them.
The problem, though, as Huang points out, is that signaling can reach everyone including those it’s not intended to. The Foreign Ministry’s messaging may show an unwavering line to Russians, but foreign embassies read and translate and disseminate these back to their capitals, and Western correspondents relay them in international newspapers. The impression given is that of an arrogant, thin-skinned and geopolitically psychotic nation, whose interests can only be misunderstood and inevitably transgressed.
— With additional research by Phillipp Kats.