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Words Mean Things

Is that a dictionary he's got there?
Is that a dictionary he's got there?
Yesterday, Russia's most famous tweeter, Dmitry Rogozin (who is also Moscow's ambassador to NATO), issued a series of tweets on the theme of Moscow's so-called "zone of privileged interests."

"I was wondering why people in the West got so worked up over [President Dmitry] Medvedev's words that the Russian Federation has "privileged interests' in the post-Soviet space. Now I understand..." ran the first tweet.

"The difference is in the translation of the sense of what was said. We, Russians, mean that these interests are "priority" [prioritetnyye], that is, "exclusively important," ran the second.

"But in the West they decided that the Russian Federation is talking about a sphere of influence, understanding "privilege" as somehow meaning that our interests are more important than the interests of our neighbor countries," said the third.

"This is probably a matter for linguists, and not for political speculators," Rogozin concluded.

Medvedev first made the "privileged interests" statement in August 2008, shortly after the Russia-Georgia war. He used it again in a Euronews interview the next month, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others have picked up on it since then. There is a good, detailed essay on the phrase here that not only quotes its main occurrences in recent times, but delves into pre-revolutionary and Soviet history for analogous foreign-policy terms.

Not only is the term "privileged interests" unclear in the ways that Rogozin discusses, it is also unclear geographically, as the analysis notes:

The term "privileged interests" is a novel term in the Russian political discourse, with only a few dozen attestations on Russian websites as of early September 2008. The precise meaning of this terms is unclear. The countries and regions in which these "privileged interests" are to be found remains uncertain. Presumably it applies to the near abroad, the states of the Former Soviet Union, those territories that came under the control of Moscow following the collapse of the Russian Empire. Possibly it extends to the members of the Warsaw Treaty Organization [WTO] - those territories that came under the control of Moscow following victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Possibly it extends to those territories which came under the control of Moscow in the time of the Czars. Such a claim, consistent with the revival of the trappings of the Russian Empire, would be a less expansive claim than the Warsaw Pact countries, but more expansive than the Former Soviet Union. This might include Finland, and Poland.

That question aside, you could make the case that Rogozin has a point. At least in official discourse, the use of "privileged interests" does seem to follow his definition. In his first use of the phrase, Medvedev said: "Finally, fifth, as is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friends and good neighbours. We will pay particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly ties with these countries, our close neighbours."

About a month later he told the Valdai Discussion Club that:

Russia is a state with a thousand years of history. It is perfectly obvious that we are interested in a stable situation with our neighbours, absolutely all of them, without exception, even those with whom we now have rather difficult relations. And these states have every reason to want things in Russia to be as calm and predictable as possible. What does this mean? It means one simple but very important thing: our neighbours are without any doubt states that are traditionally close to us and they represent the traditional sphere of interests of the Russian Federation. And the Russian Federation is for them exactly the same sort of traditional sphere of interest.

However, he immediately followed this egalitarian formulation with something more ominous that I doubt many of Russia's neighbors would agree with: "We are so close to each other that it is impossible to come between us: it is impossible to say that Russia would like things a certain way, and our neighbours another."

On the other hand, Medvedev's official site (as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry's) translates the Russian "privilegirovannyye interesy" as "privileged interests," not as "especially important interests" or even as "vital interests" or anything else. That is, the Russian government has adopted the word "privileged" and, presumably, its meanings. In English, the word means "having or enjoying one or more privileges" and "not subject to the usual rules or penalties because of some special circumstance."

Maybe it really is a mistake to translate "privilegirovannyye" as "privileged." After all, most students of Russian have, at one time or another, had their knuckles rapped for translating "akkuratny" as "accurate" instead of the correct "careful, tidy, thorough." So, if Rogozin really thinks his definition of "privilegirovannyye" is correct, he should see that the official translations are corrected before he goes after "people in the West." (My Oxford Russian-English dictionary, though, says the Kremlin translators are correct....)

Since Rogozin advised us to seek the counsel of linguists, I asked my old Russian teacher, Cornell University's Slava Paperno, undoubtedly one of the first people to rap my knuckles for mistranslating "akkuratny." Slava is the author or co-author of numerous dictionaries, articles, textbooks, and language-study computer programs, as well as an acclaimed translator of books from English into Russian.

When I showed Rogozin's tweets to Slava, he attributed the "misunderstanding" to Russia's reckless borrowing of (particularly) English terms during what Rogozin would no doubt describe as "the terrible ‘90s." "The Russians brought this upon themselves," Slava wrote to me in an e-mail. "When they start using borrowed words in new, frivolous (i.e. non-Russian) meanings, how can they expect to be understood? They are losing control of their language, not to mention their thought."

When I read this, I suddenly had a very clear flashback to one evening during "the terrible ‘90s" when I was listening to some official (Gaidar? Chubais? Who knows?) and heard him say it was necessary to "prolongirovat kredit" (to extend the loan). That is, he used some weird version of the English word "to prolong" instead of the perfectly good Russian word "prodlit." In that case, the Russian speakers had to figure out what he meant, while, apparently, in the case of the privileged interests, the English speakers are the ones being misled.

Words do matter and translators have a tough row to hoe (translate that!). And if the world is as confused about what President Medvedev means by "privileged interests" as Rogozin seems to think, it would stand to reason that the Kremlin would do more to clear up the issue than have their NATO ambassador issue a few tweets.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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