Russian President Vladimir Putin let loose a volley of trash-talk at his annual press conference
Putin sometimes veers off into country-bumpkin expressions, which occasionally defy translation
For most U.S. politicians, such comments would be impossible to get away with, but they are seen as part of Putin's attraction
It was a classic “Putin moment.”
A huge hall filled with almost a thousand journalists, his formal “year-ender” December 17 news conference, broadcast live on all the major Russian TV networks and websites.
A question about Turkey, and why it shot down a Russian warplane in November.
President Putin was still furious. With a sneer and a snort, he let loose a volley of trash-talk.
“If anyone in the Turkish leadership decided to lick the Americans in a certain place – I don’t know if they acted correctly or not – I don’t know whether the Americans need that.”
Laughs, and even applause from some of the Russian reporters. Foreign journalists looked stunned.
What Putin left out was the real ending of that Russian expression: “lick someone’s a*s.” But every Russian in the room knew what he meant.
Vladimir Putin has a presidential potty mouth that he uses to great effect.
The public first heard it in September 1999, when Putin was an unknown prime minister. Russia was hit with several deadly terrorist bombings of apartment buildings. Vowing revenge, Putin didn’t hold back: “We’re going to pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said. “That means, you’ll excuse me, we’ll catch them in the toilet, we’ll wipe them out in the sh*t house, finally.”
That tough talk shocked many Russians. They’d never heard anything like that from a leader before. But it also boosted their spirits; a tough, vigorous leader had their back and would fight to protect them.
A few months later, the ailing president, Boris Yeltsin, stepped aside and Vladimir Putin took the reins as Russian president.
But he didn’t change his locker room talk.
At a summit meeting in 2002, a foreign journalist asked the president whether Russia was repressing human rights in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where most people are Muslim.
“If you’re really ready to become an Islamic radical and you’re ready to have yourself circumcised, I invite you to Moscow,” he shot back. “We have a multi-faith country and we have experts in that. I’ll recommend doing the operation so that nothing grows back.”
Male circumcision is practiced more by Muslims than any other religious group.
The first translator was left speechless and sputtered an attempt at explaining what Putin had in mind. “Uh…uh…uh, uh come to Moscow…” Another translator jumped in: “If you want to do a circumcision….You are welcome…and everyone is tolerated in Moscow.” No translation was provided regarding anything not growing back.
Putin’s sense of humor often has an ironic twist to it. “If a grandmother had certain sexual indicators, she would be a grandfather,” he said in June of 2006, answering a question about sanctions against Iran.
Michele Berdy, who writes a column on the Russian language for The Moscow Times newspaper, has followed Putin’s rhetorical style for years. She thinks “it’s a way of being like the guy next door.”
“I always thought it was a controlled way of slipping into ‘Hey, we’re all just one of the guys, sittin’ around, throwin’ back beers, and talkin’ about life the way it really is,’” she adds.
The Russian president occasionally veers off into country-bumpkin expressions, which occasionally defy translation.
“One of the first ones was a goat reference when Tony Blair was visiting,” Michele Berdy recalls.
“Above us is Allah, under us are goats,” is what Putin’s interpreter translated him as saying to the former British Prime Minister. But a Moscow Times article explained that the Russian for goat has a second translation – bastard, or something even more insulting – and suggested that the interpreter suffered from excessive modesty.
“It involved goats and prisons and allusions that the translators, I think, understood but had no idea what to do with,” Berdy adds.
But there was no issue about what he meant when he put down a question about his supposed wealth in 2008 with this zinger: “That’s such garbage! They picked it out of their noses and smeared it on their papers!”
Putinisms have become famous in Russia, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re often about sex.
“They’ve asked me when I began having sex,” Putin said in July, 2006, at an internet conference. “I don’t remember … I remember exactly when I did it the last time. I can define that right down to the minute.”
Many of Putin’s zingers are launched in apparent anger, which helps to solidify Putin’s macho image.
“It’s also this sort of ‘man’s man,’ slipping into foul language, and always putting somebody down, making fun of somebody,” says Berdy. “Like the Turks licking the Americans. It’s insulting and it’s putting down the Turks and the Americans in the process.”
In December 2011, young people wearing white ribbons on their coats gathered on the icy streets of Moscow to protest what they said were rigged parliamentary elections. Putin smirkingly derided the symbol of their protest movement. “Frankly speaking,” he said, “when I saw those little ribbons, I thought it was some sort of action against AIDS. I’m embarrassed to say I thought they were wearing condoms.”
That comment infuriated the opposition and Vladimir Putin’s crude expressions have not gone down well with many in Russia’s educated class, the intelligentsia. For them, speaking proper, literary Russian is highly valued. But Putin, when he is not making off-color jokes, does speak excellent Russian.
“That’s why I’ve always thought that his slipping into this is very strategic,” notes Michele Berdy. “He decides when he want to leave standard literary Russian and get into non-standard Russian.”
Putinisms are decidedly not politically correct, but PC language now is a dirty word in Russia. Some Russians deride the West for wimping out in a lame attempt not to insult anybody.
For most American or European politicians, comments like Putin’s would be impossible to get away with.
In Russia, however, they seem to be part of Putin’s political attraction. After all, who can miss the point of this shorthand explanation of how the law should work, that he unleashed in 2003:
“Everyone has to understand, once and for all, that you’ve got to obey the law all the time, and not just when they grabbed you ‘in a certain place.’”