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Feature Story December 13, 2001
 
Operation Enduring Sovok
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 6 of 7
 

Sovok is found in great breadth and volume in the printed work of twentieth-century Russian writers and scholars. A Soviet professor never wrote, V mire (In the world)... He always wrote v nastoyashyem mire (In the current or real world)... The pages of Russian books are littered with utterly meaningless filler phrases: kak govoritstya, v obshei slozhnosti, tak skazhem, v dannom momente, etc., etc. This tradition of verbal diarrhea, so familiar to foreigners who have worked hard to grow accustomed to it, was what caused such freakish phenomena as the anchorman Yevgeny Kisyelov, a man physically incapable of speaking a simple declarative sentence.

Mark Twain once said that to read Fenimore Cooper's books was to believe that people once lived in a world where words meant nothing at all, where four-foot pigs of thought were routinely pounded into twenty-foot rails of conversation... Twain never lived long enough to see the Soviet Union. He might have thought Cooper's books more realistic.

This is one area in which Putin scores a mild Sovok rating. In most cases he's an anti-Sovok even here: he usually speaks directly and to the point. The famous line about the Chechens -- if they're in the outhouse, we'll whack them in the outhouse -- was probably the bluntest sentence to come out of the mouth of a Russian leader since the Stalin era (and even Stalin's utterances were usually fraught with ugly double and triple meanings). There was Khruschev's "We will bury you" line, on the surface not sovok, but actually fairly sovok close-up, because he was just posturing. It's a characteristic of sovok to make idle threats, boasts, and promises, and to do so confidently, precisely because they are meaningless. Putin, on the other hand, apparently actually meant it about whacking the Chechens.

However, Putin is guilty of one sovok verbiage crime: flattery. Whenever he talks about the "professionals" in the army or honors a famous artist or actress or singer, he reverts into streams of sickening, saccharine compliments. Compliments are very sovok. Though the sexual orientation of sovok is located squarely between the neuter and passive-homosexual poles, the sovok man prides himself on his compliments to women. He takes the female target by the hand, caresses her hand, gets on his knees, sings to her, calls her a queen and a princess, and so on and so on, before going to the banya or disappearing into his garage for ten long hours. Putin routinely indulges in this kind of behavior. His threadlike thin lips will sputter out endless paeans to minor bureaucrats and aristocrat Presidents of the United States alike. He gets carried away. It is one of the few worsening cosmetic tendencies of his Presidency. As Prime Minister, he was all business, all the time. Now he enjoys chairing celebrity panels and presenting things -- bunches of flowers, plaques, medals. This is one of the few things about the Putin presidency that directly appeals to the sovok constituency.

It should be noted that sovok in general supports Putin -- for now. Putin in many ways has been to sovok like the proverbial Svetlana Viktorevna steak that is second to none in the world. Sovok recently has gotten to watch Putin outmaneuver his Western counterparts and has been able to say to itself sincerely: we're no worse than the Europeans. When Putin and Bush went to China for the Asian economic forum, Putin looked just as much and no more extremely foolish than did George Bush in those Chinese chamises -- something sovok was undoubtedly proud of.

Sovok is always superficially nationalistic. U nas lusche (it's better at home) is its official foreign policy. But sovok also secretly dreams of divorcing his wife, moving to America, and returning ten years later to show her how he's "risen up" (podnyalsya). It likes to talk about the power of Russian industry, but it doesn't want to work more than two hours a day. The first sovki were probably Gaev and Ranevskaya from The Cherry Orchard, who did a lot of talking in the provinces but panicked when the market invaded from the city. Sovok likes posturing. It is not particularly interested in actual conflict.


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