Monday, October 29, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Putin Doesn’t Know What the Phrase He’s Famous For Means, Bukovskiy Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 29 –Vladimir Putin does not know either the origin or the meaning of the phrase – “mochit’ v sortire” -- that he is famous for and that has since been picked up by others, according to Vladimir Bukovskiy, a Soviet-era dissident who has returned to Russia in hopes of succeeding Putin as Russian president.
This crude phrase, which Putin used to describe what he planned to do to Chechens fighting against Moscow, is typically if somewhat euphemistically translated as “drown in an outhouse.” It has its origins in Russian prison camp speech, something Bukovskiy says that Putin and many others do not understand.
In remarks earlier this month at Moscow’s Sakharov Center, Bukovskiy talked about Putin’s use of this term and what it says about him and the county over which he now presides. Those remarks were picked up on Live Journal by the blogger “gladkeeh” and now have been posted at
Bukovskiy’s off-the-cough comments on this point are so instructive that they merit extensive quotation:
The former dissident said that on his return to Russia he was “shocked by the transformation of the Russian language,” something that he suggested was “a reflection of the state of society.” “Today,” he continued, it is “an insane mixture of English and criminal jargon.”
But although today’s Russians now use this language, “they do not know either the one or the other.” Because of his own life experiences, Bukovskiy said, “for [him] both languages are native.” But most people “do not know the one or the other and thus use terms drawn from English and from camp jargon incorrectly.”
Such use, he stressed, “makes [him] terribly angry” because it is so dishonest. Those who employ it want to suggest that they are “tough” and have spent time in prison. But “they are lying, they never spent time in the camps or prisons! They were the ones who sent people there.” And they “are lying” when they claim to know the West.
An example of this, Bukovskiy said, is Putin’s use of the phrase “mochit’ v sortire.” “I know its origins,” the former inmate said, “but Putin doesn’t.” He was told to use it by his handlers who suggested that this would make him look tough. “But he doesn’t know [this] jargon,” as anyone familiar with it quickly realized.
The current Russian president also does not know what the phrase means, Bukovskiy noted. Why does on speak of drowning someone in an outhouse and not somewhere else? “I know,” Bukovskiy insisted, but it is all too clear that on this point at least, Putin does not have a clue.
The origins and meaning of the term, Bukovskiy said, derive from the Soviet GULAG. In the camps, the outhouses always stood apart from the places where the prisoners were housed. And consequently, when the prisoners revolted, their first goal was to kill the informers and where better to hide the bodies than in the outhouses?
Thus “the expression ‘mochit’ v sortire’ is about informers during uprisings in Stalin’s camps,” he continued. The prisoners “killed” them and then for reasons of convenience and secrecy and to send a message, the prisoners “drowned” them, Bukovskiy said.
“What does Putin know about all this?” the former dissident asked rhetorically. “Absolutely nothing,” as his use of the term both initially and subsequently shows all too clearly.
On the one-hand, this “tough guy” language suggests that Putin and his command are prepared to kill Chechens and others anywhere they find them and then and only then “drown them in outhouses.” But on the other, Putin’s use of this term raises an interesting question:
“Why is [the Russian president] going into a single outhouse with terrorists?” Bukovskiy asked, add that this is something no one can readily understand.
And then the former dissident concluded: Putin’s use of a phrase he does not know the origin of shows that the Russian president “is an imposter” who is only too glad to draw on such prison camp speech to make himself look tough. But however much he does so, Bukovskiy said, he cannot conceal that “in reality he is a small-time KGB rat.”

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