| Belyanin ||The Party Line |
Soviet life created its own weird language. Now, the authors of a new dictionary are attempting to catalog that language before it disappears.
By Michele A. Berdy
Published: September 23, 2005
After a semester studying in Moscow in 1978, I worked at the Novosti Press Agency as an English-language editor until 1982. Every day, I edited articles for the flagship Soviet foreign publications Soviet Union and Soviet Woman with titles like the hortatory Руки прочь от социалистического Вьетнама! (Hands Off Socialist Vietnam!) or the vaguely minatory Мы стоим на страже социализма! (We stand guard over socialism!) or the self-congratulatory Новый мясокомбинат обеспечивает всю Москву! (A new processing plant provides meat for all Moscow!). After eight hours of this virtual Soviet reality -- punctuated with dreadful political information meetings but comfortably interspersed with hourly breaks for coffee, cigarettes, shopping and gossip with my congenial co-workers -- I would go out into the real Soviet world to scrounge for food (hard to find, despite that new processing plant) and then meet up with my friends in the bohemian and dissident set, who were the only people, except informers, who could safely associate with a little capitalist-imperialist like me.
Each of the three worlds of workplace, street and home had its own distinct language. This is, of course, the rule everywhere, but in the Soviet period the distinctions were particularly acute. And the stakes were high if you slipped up at the workplace and showed yourself to be anti-Soviet. You had to make sure you were using the right code in the right place.
For four years, I led a normal, schizophrenic Soviet life. Today, like most Russians my age, I recall that period as a mix of comforting stability; sickening lies and hypocrisy; absolute safety on the streets; moments of unbearable tedium; small but intense pleasures, such as being second in line for the first lemons of the season; glorious high culture; occasional moments of tragedy or fear, such as the arrest of an artist friend; and wildly entertaining, literate, wide-ranging discussions around the kitchen table.
So I opened a new dictionary of the language of the Soviet period the way people open an old high-school yearbook: filled with nostalgic pleasure to rediscover forgotten jargon and phrases, wall posters and slogans, hated authority figures and hilarious in-crowd slang.
The dictionary, compiled and newly revised by the linguists Valery Mokiyenko and Tatyana Nikitina, is titled Толковый Словарь Языка Совдепии, a name which, like much of the language it contains, is hellishly difficult to translate. Cовдеп was the abbreviation of Cовет депутатов (in full form, the "council of worker, peasant and Red Army deputies") that came to be shorthand for the Soviet Union. Over time, it came to be used especially in the form Cовдепия as a derogatory phrase for the worst of the old regime. To convey the flavor of the original, it might be translated as "The Dictionary of the Worker's Paradise."
For those who have forgotten that world or never visited it, the dictionary is a gold mine of information. It deciphers all those abbreviations that once slid off the tongue and now are frustratingly opaque: КCCР? Казахская Социалистическая Советская Республика (Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic). ПГК? Партийно-государственный контроль (party-state control). БПП? Без права переписки (without the right to correspondence, part of a prison sentence that really meant execution).
Illustrations like this literacy poster appear in the dictionary.
The book is filled with hundreds of the stock phrases and cliches that we heard all day, every day. Back in the U.S.S.R., everything was a battle: беспощадная/ жестокая/решительная/суровая борьба за победу социализма, за мир, за технический прогресс, за хлеб. (A merciless/fierce/resolute/ bitter battle for the victory of socialism, for peace, for technical progress, to harvest the grain.) Loyalty was lauded: Безграничная преданность делу революции (Boundless loyalty to the cause of the revolution). Approval was avid: Программа КПСС получила горячее одобрение партии. (The Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was enthusiastically -- literally, "hotly" -- approved by the Party.) Socialist countries were brothers: Вместе с нами братские страны! (Fraternal countries are with us!) And victory was always just around the corner: Мы придём к победе коммунизма! (We will achieve the victory of communism!).
Good things got better: Авторитет нашего социалистического государства на международной арене неуклонно возрастает. (The authority of our socialist government on the international arena is steadily rising.) Митинг на заводе явился еще одной яркой демонстрацией братского сотрудничества между СССР и Народной Республикой Ангола. (The rally at the factory was yet another shining example of the fraternal cooperation between the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of Angola.)
But bad things were threatening: Мировой капитал - агрессор, стремящийся захватить пролетарскую страну. (World capital is an aggressor striving to seize this proletarian country.) Or sometimes just plain rotten: Нью-Йорк - город контрастов и фальшивых человеческих ценностей. (New York is a city of contrasts and false human values.)
Of course, советский народ (the Soviet people) didn't take this lying down. They rebelled with their language, wittily and wickedly poking fun at the holiest of holies. The dictionary is filled with hilarious examples of anti-Soviet Sovietisms: чучело (scarecrow) for any statue of a Party leader; членовоз (partymobile, or literally a "member carrier") for a limousine that ferried around Party members; Вовчик ("Vladdy") the diminutive of Vladimir used to mean a statue of Lenin; скоммуниздить (to rip something off), in reference to communist expropriation, with some implied obscenity thrown in.
And then there were unintentional howlers committed by the Leninist pious, such as the names they gave their children in the first years of Soviet rule: Нинель (Lenin spelled backwards), Эра (Era) and Энгельсина (Engelsina) for women and Электрон (Electron), Урал (Ural), Новомир (New World) and Электрик (Electric) for men.
On the street, the language was not entirely party-line, but not entirely dissident either -- after all, you never knew who might be standing next to you in line. Someone would ask, Что голоса говорят? (What do the "voices" have to say?), meaning "What are the foreign radio stations reporting?" (from Голос Америки -- the Voice of America). Or if there was a line snaking out of a store, you'd ask Что дают? (What's for sale? Or literally, "What are they giving away?").
If you read the dictionary the way I did, from start to finish as if it were a novel -- and with an old Bulat Okudzhava tape playing in the background -- you dissolve into the Soviet past, which visually comes to life with illustrations of posters and billboards. Anyone who wants to read Bulgakov or Ilf and Petrov in the original Russian will find this dictionary indispensable.
That said, the dictionary has several drawbacks. The compilers included only selected slang, leaving out such gems as джаз на костях -- "jazz on bones," that is, homemade record albums engraved on old X-ray film. And they don't always make clear the distinctions between pre-Revolutionary and Soviet usage: For example, the word говорильня (gab fest) was used to describe the tsarist Duma, not just Gorbachev-era Party congresses.
Nor do they always include dates for usage or illustrative quotes, which are sometimes from the post-Soviet period and not from firsthand sources. So, for example, if you read their definition of стиляга (a hot dresser), you won't know that it primarily referred to imitators of Western fashion in the 1960s. Or while they define обкомовский (the adjective derived from областной комитет -- the regional committee), they don't describe the word's associations. The other day I told a friend: Я вошла в кафе и думала: обкомовская гостиница конца семидесятых! (I walked in the cafe and thought: It's a regional committee hotel at the end of the 1970s.) I'd expected the dictionary to decipher the word so that young folks who never actually saw a regional committee institution in the 1970s would know it referred to somewhat shabby pompous elegance: tables with pleated draping around the edges, bottles of liquor lined up on the bar next to a plate of open-face salmon sandwiches covered with a paper napkin. These drawbacks make the dictionary particularly frustrating for translators, who are oddly not included in the list of potential readers.
And perhaps the authors are themselves too close to the period. There is a slight tendentiousness -- a muted contempt -- that is understandable and even rather gratifying from time to time, but ultimately not appropriate for a scholarly volume. But this is the second edition. I hope there will be a third that will build upon the extraordinary resource Mokiyenko and Nikitina have developed so far.
"The Dictionary of the Worker's Paradise" (Tolkovy Slovyar Yazyka Sovdepii) is published by AST-Astrel.
| 2005-09-27  ||22:57:58|
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