Friday, February 12, 2016

War On Earth Or World War III? Medvedev Interview Stirs Translation Tempest

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks to Handelsblatt during an interview at the Gorki state residence outside Moscow on February 11.

Carl Schreck

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev grabbed global headlines this week with his interview in the German newspaper Handelsblatt in which he was quoted as warning that the Syria conflict could lead to a “new world war.”

But did Medvedev actually utter a phrase suggesting World War III is potentially nigh?

That question is the center of a kerfuffle that drew critical remarks from the U.S. State Department ahead of the annual Munich Security Conference, which kicked off February 12.

In the interview, published February 11, Medvedev was asked his opinion about the prospect of Arab countries sending fighters to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s staunch ally, is battling both the extremist Islamic State group and more moderate opposition groups. Some of those moderate groups have received backing from the United States and its allies.

Handelsblatt’s German translation quoted Medvedev as saying that such a move could spark “einen neuen Weltkrieg,” or “a new world war.”

The word “Weltkrieg” and its English translation was, in journalistic parlance, sexy enough to earn a spot in the headlines of the Handelsblatt story. Global news agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP also used the word. 

The “world war” quote even made its way into the daily State Department press briefing in Washington the same day, in a question posed to spokesman Mark Toner. He said the specter of a “broader conflict” was “concerning” but accused Russia of exacerbating the Syria conflict with its support for Assad.

But the accuracy of the Handelsblatt translation was called into question on social media after Medvedev’s office released a Russian-language transcript of the interview that quoted him uttering a notably softer phrasing.

Medvedev, who spoke Russian during the interview, was quoted as saying that world powers must force all sides to sit down at the negotiating table and “not start yet another war on Earth.” (In Russian: “не начинать очередную войну на Земле.”)

Russia’s state-funded global news network RT, meanwhile, accused Reuters of misquoting Medvedev by reprinting Handelsblatt’s “incorrect” translation.

“The [Reuters] report referred to a German translation of his words, which is incorrect and implies that Russia is warning that a full-scale war between leading world powers may be ignited from the Syrian conflict,” RT wrote in a February 12 post on its website that did not include a byline.

Massaged Transcripts

The translation tempest ultimately prompted Handelsblatt to issue a clarification and defend its use of the phrase “world war.”

In a note on the English-language version of the newspaper’s website, Kevin O’Brien, editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition, wrote that “the Kremlin…approved a German-language version of the interview.”

“The German quote approved by the Kremlin contained the term ‘einen neuen Weltkrieg,’ or a new world war,” O’Brien wrote. 

The Kremlin and Medvedev’s office operate in separate bureaucratic structures, and it was not immediately clear whether O’Brien intended to refer to the prime minister’s office as “the Kremlin.” Typically, Medvedev’s staff would manage such an interview.

O’Brien did not respond immediately to an e-mail seeking clarification about the Kremlin’s potential role in approving the German translation. In an earlier e-mail, he referred questions about Medvedev’s verbatim quote in Russian to correspondent Mathias Brueggmann, who spoke Russian to the prime minister during the interview.

Brueggmann, head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. He interviewed Medvedev together with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Sven Afhueppe, who spoke in German during the meeting.

The Russian government has previously massaged or omitted contentious comments by foreign and domestic officials in official records of public statements.

Standing next to Putin at a May 2015 news conference in Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in German, called Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula the previous year “verbrecherisch,” or “criminal.”

The official Russian-language interpreter at the press conference, however, omitted the word “criminal” during the event, and the official Kremlin transcript left out the word as well.

It is, however, included in the transcript published by Merkel’s office.

At last year’s Munich Security Conference -- an influential gathering that draws diplomats, foreign ministers, business leaders, and academics -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to hoots of derision from the audience at his defense of the Crimea takeover being in line with international law by saying, in Russian: “I guess it’s funny.”

He suggested that he found things said earlier “funny as well, but I controlled myself.”

These comments were not included in the Foreign Ministry’s official transcript of the event. 

Whether Medvedev’s office took similar liberties in transcribing his interview with Handelsblatt was not immediately clear.

Of course, publicly releasing the audio recording of the interview would certainly settle the matter once and for all.

Are Uzbek Schools Reviving A Soviet Term To Avoid Islamic Ones?

In many Uzbek schools and colleges, the honorific "Aka" for males or "Opa" for women -- denoting respect for elders but literally meaning "Uncle" and "Aunt" -- are tacked onto teachers' first names. (file photo)

Merhat Sharipzhan

An Uzbek university is said to have forbidden students from using a widespread term to address teachers and professors in favor of Russian-style patronymics reminiscent of Soviet days. 

It's still unclear whether this week's purported order to avoid "Ustoz" (Teacher) came from Uzbekistan's Education Ministry or otherwise "on high," as students and educators at Kokand State Pedagogical Institute insisted to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. 

The university rector's office insisted it issued no such ban. 

A reversion to teachers' first names followed by patronymics (ending in "-ich" for men and "-ovna" for women) would be especially puzzling in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov's administration has spent the two decades since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. trying to scrub society of its most Russified elements.

So why would those same officials reverse course, even on such a minor point?

One educator suggested to RFE/RL that the rationale for reintroducing the onetime protocol might be to encourage students to remember their professors' names rather than defer to the anonymity of a title.

Another aim might simply be to standardize university mores across the country. After Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, students took to addressing their teachers in a variety of ways, although the most popular was almost certainly "Ustoz."

In many Uzbek schools, the honorific "Aka" for males or "Opa" for women -- denoting respect for elders but literally meaning "Uncle" and "Aunt" -- were tacked onto teachers' first names.

Some of the most popular forms of addressing teachers across Central Asia's most populous country, however, have been Arabic words or other terms with their roots in religion, specifically Islam. The words "Mualim" for males and "Mualima" for females are such examples, meaning "teacher" -- traditionally in religious schools but used more generically in Soviet times. The same applies to "Domla" for male teachers, a term for a person who reads prayers during marriages or other important ceremonies.

Ubiquitous Arabic

So are Uzbek authorities trying to rid their schools of terminology directly or indirectly linked to Islam? 

The official Soviet doctrine of atheism and secularism was rigorously preached across the former U.S.S.R., so the current Uzbek regime might see a return to Soviet protocol as a path to secularize Uzbek youth.

It might sound ridiculous to some. 

But beyond Uzbekistan's own highly publicized campaign against Islamist extremists like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Central Asia is rife with efforts to counter the influence of Islamic ideologues: shaving beards and closing down Islam-inspired political parties in Tajikistan, suspending students in hijabs in Kyrgyzstan, and confiscating talismans and harassing Muslim students' families in Turkmenistan.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Central Asians are believed to be fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, and a significant number of them are thought to hail from Uzbekistan. 

But eliminating the Arabic language's presence in Central Asia would be a virtually impossible task, given its prevalence.

And what's next for Uzbek schools? Commonly used words for book ("kitab") and even school ("maktab") in Uzbekistan derive from Arabic. Are officials going to ban the use of the word "talaba," a ubiquitous word in Uzbekistan (and elsewhere in Central Asia) for "student" that gained international notoriety with the rise of the radical fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan?

Photogallery Cast Me If You Can: No Offer For DiCaprio In Putin Biopic Yet

Leonardo DiCaprio (right) met Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Carl Schreck

It was a purported casting choice that captured imaginations across Russia and beyond: Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio as Russian President Vladimir Putin in a biopic. 

The film project exists, with the alluring teaser: "From the KGB, to Prime Minister…to President. The Man, The Myth!" 

The casting choice, at least for the moment, does not. 

The independent Russian TV channel Dozhd on February 2 cited two unidentified sources "close to the producers of the film," with the working title Putin, as saying that DiCaprio had tentatively agreed to play the role of the authoritarian Russian leader. 

The news surged through Russian-language social media, with the pro-Kremlin news site LifeNews calling DiCaprio's alleged casting a "dream come true" for the American actor, who last month said that playing Putin would "be very, very, very interesting." 

"I would love to play him," DiCaprio, a nominee for a 2016 Oscar for best actor for his role in The Revenant, told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. 

It seems, however, that Dozhd's sources may have gotten ahead of themselves. 

Grant Cramer, CEO of Knightsbridge Entertainment, which is indeed developing the Putin biopic, told RFE/RL that his company hasn't reached out to DiCaprio.

"I do know Leonardo and consider him one of the finest actors and human beings there is, and so he would be a dream choice. But we haven't gone to him yet," he said in an interview.

Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency cited Valeriy Saaryan, vice president of production for Knightsbridge in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as saying that four "A-list actors are taking part in the casting" and that the film's director has "two Oscars."

Cramer called this characterization "a little premature." 

"We're in discussions with a major director who's very interested, but actors have not yet been approached," he said, adding that he first heard of the report of DiCaprio’s alleged interest in playing Putin when RFE/RL contacted him for comment.

He said that when the company heard of DiCaprio's interest in playing Putin, "everybody kind of got excited and said we'd better hurry and get the project to the point where we can make an approach."

PHOTO GALLERY: Hollywood Stars Who Could Play Historical Figures

  • Old Josef Stalin -- The rotund Depardieu may have to shed a few kilos if he wants to remind cinemagoers of the Soviet dictator when he films a movie based on the French novel, Stalin's Sofa.

  • Young Josef Stalin -- Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and Ali G fame could easily be mistaken for the future dictator when he was a mere seminary-school dropout and common criminal known as Koba Dzhugashvili.

  • Vladimir Lenin -- Silver-screen star Leonardo DiCaprio bears a striking resemblance to the founder of the Soviet state.

  • Lavrenty Beria – Veteran film and TV actor Danny DeVito is our choice to play the wily longtime head of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.

  • Leon Trotsky – A bespectacled and bearded Daniel Radcliffe, forever known as Harry Potter, would look good playing the Marxist revolutionary and Soviet politician assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

  • Sergei Kirov – U.S. actor Beau Bridges might not be a household name, but he could be after playing the prominent Bolshevik leader assassinated in 1934 (reputedly on Stalin's orders).

  • Nikolai Yezhov – Johnny Depp would be an ideal choice to play the henchman who headed the NKVD during Stalin's Great Purge from 1936-38 and was executed on Stalin's orders in 1940.

  • Vyacheslav Molotov – We dipped into the The Simpsons' cast of characters to match Ned Flanders with Stalin's longtime foreign minister and namesake of the incendiary bottle bomb.

  • Nikita Khrushchev -- A 1990s version of the energetic U.S. actor and stand-up comedian Don Rickles would be perfect for the role of Stalin's successor.

  • Nadezhda Krupskaya -- Scarlett Johansson, who has ancestral ties to imperial Russia, is uniquely suited to portray the Bolshevik revolutionary and wife of Lenin.

  • Leonid Brezhnev -- Having famously played the ab-ripped Batman, Christian Bale would have to rely more on his fat-man look if he were to play the Soviet leader who followed Khrushchev.

Knightsbridge describes the planned project as "an intimate look into the life and rise of one of the world's most powerful men."

Cramer said filming would likely start early next year.

Neither DiCaprio nor his representatives could be reached for comment on February 2.

Putin and DiCaprio met in 2010 in St. Petersburg, where the Russian leader -- then the country's prime minister -- praised the actor as a "real man" for attending a summit on saving wild tigers. The actor encountered mechanical and weather difficulties on two separate flights en route to the summit in Russia's Tsarist-era capital. 

DiCaprio told Putin that he had two Russian grandparents, and that he had always wanted to travel to St. Petersburg with his grandmother, the BBC reported at the time. 

The original Dozhd report prompted yuks on social media, including photoshopped images melding the two men's faces.

Another Twitter user riffed on The Revenant, in which DiCaprio's character is mauled by a bear, with a photoshopped image mocking Putin's penchant for appearing in Kremlin-sanctioned photoshoots aimed at demonstrating his manliness.


Putin’s Selective Reading Of Soviet History

Vladimir Putin seems to have played fast and loose with the facts when it comes to a supposed difference of opinion between the communist leaders Vladimir Lenin (left) and Josef Stalin (right).

Merhat Sharipzhan

Russian President Vladimir Putin often accuses the West of distorting history. But in his latest comments about Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and his successor, Josef Stalin, Putin’s penchant for reshaping the past to suit his goals was on stark display.
Speaking to pro-Kremlin activists in the southern city of Stavropol on January 25, Putin -- for the second time in a week -- accused Lenin of setting a time bomb that blew the Soviet Union apart in 1991. He also seemed to conflate Russia with the entire U.S.S.R., saying:“They placed an atom bomb under the building called Russia, and it later exploded.”
The bomb, Putin said, was Lenin's concept of the Soviet Union as a federative state, with each of its republics having the right to secede. He said Lenin was on the wrong side of a dispute with Stalin, who he said opposed giving the largely ethnic-based republics that right.
According to Putin, Lenin’s concept was one of the major causes of the Soviet collapse.
Putin’s remarks were striking because the former Soviet KGB officer has been known to be very cautious when talking about Lenin, whose embalmed corpse still lies in a mausoleum on Red Square 92 years after his death -- and who is still revered by millions across Russia.
Putin’s attempt to portray Stalin as a wiser leader -- one who opposed the republics’ right to part with the U.S.S.R. -- is badly undermined by a look at the dictator’s record on the issue.
Here’s why:
The first Soviet Constitution, adopted by the Second Congress of Soviets on January 31, 1924 -- 10 days after Lenin’s death -- enshrined as law the 1922 Treaty on Creation of the Soviet Union.
Signed by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Trans-Caucasus Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the treaty granted each of those entities the right to leave the union. At the time, Stalin was one of several men jostling for power in the wake of the Bolshevik leader’s death.
In 1936, when Stalin’s autocratic power was at its peak and his Great Terror purge campaign in full swing, the Soviet Union adopted a new constitution that changed the legal status for Central Asian ethnic autonomous republics within the Russian Federation, which are currently Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and turned the Trans-Caucasus Federation into three separate republics, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.
The number of the republics with so-called union status within the U.S.S.R. was increased from four to 11 by Stalin. In other words, at a time when Stalin could potentially have used his power to strip Soviet republics of the right to secede, he instead extended that right to a total of 11 republics rather than four.
If Stalin indeed opposed the right of ethnic republics to secede from the Soviet Union, he had more than enough clout to change the constitution in the opposite direction, turning the U.S.S.R. into a unitary state. But that never happened.
In 1940, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were forced to join the Soviet Union along with Moldova, bringing the number of republics to 15 -- though many Western countries never recognized the Baltics as part of the Soviet Union.
Stalin died in 1953 and the right the republics to leave the Soviet Union was reiterated in the Soviet Constitution adopted under Leonid Brezhnev in 1977.
In 1991, they all left the Soviet Union -- a right granted them, in part, by Stalin.

Ethnic republics that had only autonomous status remained within the larger union republics -- Chechnya, Daghestan, Tatarstan, and Buryatia within Russia, for example, and Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan.
Exactly why Putin criticized Lenin in public and once more praised Stalin may be known only to Putin.
Was it another attempt to justify Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, and its backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine? Was it another attempt to glorify Stalin among ordinary Russians?
Although Putin said in Stavropol that the issue of Lenin’s burial is not on the agenda, his bold statements regarding what he suggested were Lenin’s “mistakes” -- including the destruction of Russia as a state and the killing of Tsar Nicholas II and his family -- sounded like an attempt to revise Lenin’s role in Russian history in general.
The answers could come soon, with the centennial of the Great October Revolution of 1917 approaching next year.
Will Russia bury Lenin by then? 

Trump's About-Face: Campaign Uses Photo Of Soviet Soldiers In Ad About U.S. Veterans

The video shows Soviet Red Army veterans wearing their medals.


The front-runner for the Republican Party's nomination for the 2016 U.S. presidential election has issued a campaign advertisement on assisting U.S. veterans that uses a photograph of Soviet World War II veterans.

Real-estate mogul Donald Trump published the video on his Facebook page on January 22, but it has since been removed.

It has been picked up and republished by Russian media.

Donald TrumpDonald Trump
Donald Trump
Donald Trump

In the ad, Trump says "our great veterans are being treated terribly." As he promises to "take care of our veterans…[and] wounded warriors," the video shows Soviet Red Army veterans wearing their medals and St. George victory ribbons while holding invitations to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

His campaign later reissued the video on its YouTube channel with a different video edited in.

Last July, Trump's campaign posted on Twitter a photo of Trump with the slogan: "We need real leadership." That montage included in the lower-right corner a stock photograph of historical reenactors dressed in World War II-era German uniforms.

The campaign deleted that tweet and blamed the incident on "a young intern."

With reporting by The Guardian and

Putin's Invitation To European Jews Sparks Mixed Reactions

Russian President Vladimir Putin was responding to remarks by the head of the EJC, Russian-born Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, who warned that anti-Semitism in Europe had reached World War II levels and that "Jews are fleeing once-prosperous Europe."

Claire Bigg

Russian President Vladimir Putin has an unexpected offer for European Jews subjected to what he describes as rampant persecution in the West -- move to Russia.

"They can come to us," he told a delegation of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) in Moscow on January 19. "They left the Soviet Union. Let them return."

Jews in Europe are "trying to hide their ethnicity," he continued, saying that some of them were "afraid of wearing a yarmulke in public."

Putin was responding to remarks by the head of the EJC, Russian-born Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, who warned that anti-Semitism in Europe had reached World War II levels and that "Jews are fleeing once-prosperous Europe."

European countries, in particular France, have seen a number of high-profile anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, including a deadly hostage-taking in a Paris kosher market two days after a shooting rampage at the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015.

But while the pro-Kremlin broadcaster RT praised Putin for offering "refuge" to European Jews "as a rising wave of anti-Semitic attacks engulfs Europe," his remarks have met with a good deal of skepticism considering Russia's own spotty track record in fighting hate crimes.

Authorities in Russia's remote Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which lies close to the Pacific coast on the border with China, have been quick to back Putin's proposal. Governor Aleksandr Levintal has already extended a warm welcome to all Jews fleeing from Europe.

The prospect of relocating to Russia, let alone to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, appears unlikely to appeal to many European Jews. Most of those who hail from former Soviet republics came to Europe in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and have long assimilated into their adopted countries.

"Vladimir Putin's offer was perhaps well-meaning, but personally I'm absolutely not interested," says Diana, a Moscow native who now lives in Paris. "I've lived in France for more than 20 years. I love France and I feel like a French citizen."

Despite recent attacks against Jews in France, Diana, a finance specialist, says reports of unbridled anti-Semitism are greatly exaggerated. "I have never felt threatened or suffered from anti-Semitism in France," she says. "I have no intention of leaving France; it's not more dangerous here than in Israel, Russia, or elsewhere."

Putin's proposal has generated a lively debate online, with many commentators pointing out that while Europe's Jewish community has indeed been targeted by a number of attacks in recent years, anti-Semitism has long been on the rise in Russia, too.

"Nationalists with clubs assault a train passenger in New Moscow," reads another sarcastic comment, referring to an apparently racially motivated incident reported in Russian media this month. "Jews, come to us." 

According to Israeli authorities, nearly 5,000 Russians of Jewish descent moved to Israel in 2014 -- more than double than in any of the previous 16 years.

Russian Activist Calls On Rogozin To Put His Tooth Where His Mouth Is

"We will build the cosmodrome by 2015, I promise," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said.

Robert Coalson

How much more can Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin give for his country?

According to lawyer Lyubov Sobol, of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's Anticorruption Fund, Rogozin now owes Russia one tooth -- and she has launched a campaign on social media to get him to pay up. As of mid-afternoon on January 14, more than 350 people have retweeted Sobol's original appeal for Rogozin's pearly white.

"Let's force Rogozin to keep his promise, eh?" Sobol wrote, linking her tweet to an April 2012 story about an appearance by Rogozin on state television in which he promised that the Vostochny cosmodrome would be operational by the end of 2015.

"We will build the cosmodrome by 2015, I promise," Rogozin said. Unfortunately for the populist Rogozin, instead of just saying "I promise," he used a Russian folk expression with that meaning that translates literally as "I give my tooth."

Now the calendar shows 2016 and the cosmodrome is scheduled to be operational in 2018. Rogozin, on January 2, posted on Facebook a link to a story about how construction workers at Vostochny decided to work through their New Year holiday because they "have no time to rest." The article notes that the first test launch from the new facility -- which is intended to reduce Russia's reliance on the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan -- was postponed from December 25, 2015, until "the first quarter of 2016." Rogozin noted the launch will be "the event of the new year."

Sobol says it is time for Rogozin to keep his word.

Social Media Takes A Bite

Her appeal has predictably launched memes such as one saying that "Rogozin is a man of his word": 

And this one urging Rogozin to respond: 

Rogozin himself has not reacted.

In December, Rogozin was also the center of social-media speculation that he had accidentally shot himself in the foot at a shooting range. An aide denied it, claiming Rogozin had injured his leg playing handball.

The burly former Russian ambassador to NATO regularly posts images of himself in various macho activities such as shooting or riding his motorcycle. On January 10, he posted a video of himself at a shooting range during his recent visit to Belgrade.

The same day that Sobol made her appeal for Rogozin to keep his 2012 promise, the ruling United Russia party issued a statement saying that it would make no campaign promises in connection with parliamentary elections coming up in September.

"It is generally not clear now what can be promised, so -- in the best sense of the word -- the platform will be abstract," the party's statement said. "And, naturally, it will be based on the programmatic statements of the president."

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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