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12 April 2012

Dangerous words #1: “anti” – in a friendly evening at Papa’s

Doug Steele, the father of Papa's, plays the smoking flute
To Papa’s Place in Myasnitskaya for a party to celebrate the fourteenth birthday of this excellent establishment.
     A Russian friend says to me: “In our office we love your blog, Ian. We call it ‘anti-Michele Berdy’.”
     “Anti-Michele Berdy!” I say, aghast. Michele, the author of the Russian Word’s Worth , writes a wonderful column every Friday in the Moscow Times about how to use the Russian language.
     “Yes, anti-Michele Berdy,” he says with a grin.
     “But I’m not anti-Michele. Quite the opposite. I think she is wonderful, and her articles are fascinating and informative.”
     “I agree with you,” says my friend, grinning even more broadly. “We all think that.”
     “You are the opposite. She writes about Russian for English-speakers and you write about English for Russian-speakers. You are anti-Michele Berdy.”
     “Aaaaah!” I say, the light of revelation dawning in my slightly inebriated brain. “You mean like the ‘Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant’?”
     “Yes, exactly.”
     I should explain for non-Muscovites that a Putinoid numpty in the Moscow City administration caused a stir three years ago when he suddenly lighted upon a Georgian shashlik house which has existed for more than half a century on the west side of the Leningrad Chaussee more or less opposite the Sovietsky Hotel and decided to force it to change its name. The Sovietsky Hotel was, and is, a famous establishment, adjacent to the Yar restaurant (see Forthcoming Events, 26 March). It accommodated the high and mighty in Soviet times, and has been restored to its Stalinist glory in recent years while becoming, I gather, a really good hotel. Certainly it is impressive inside, with huge portraits in the stairwell and elsewhere of some of the greatest luminaries of the Communist nightmare.
     The little Georgian establishment on the other side of the road had lived contentedly since Stalin times with its ironic name. But when some now-forgotten spring-heeled jack, at the height of the purse-proud triumphalism of Russia’s rich years, decided that his superiors might like it if he harassed some Georgians, he forced the restaurant to change its name—which it had no option but to do. Suddenly the Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant was anti-Soviet, which was not the fashionable thing to be in the years when Stalin was being widely touted once again as the greatest man in Russian history.
     But I was anti-Michele Berdy in the older sense that the Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant was anti- the Sovietsky Hotel—in other words over the road, opposite it rather than opposed to it. This is not the way in which we commonly use the word “anti” in English. To be “anti” something means you are against it. You would be anti-Soviet if you thought socialism a bad thing. You would be anti-Georgians if you thought they ought not to be allowed to run shashlik houses on the sacred territory of Mother Russia without somebody letting them know who is master. You would be anti-Michele Berdy if you thought she was using the foreign-owned Moscow Times to disclose secrets about the sacred language of the narod which inhabits the sacred territory of Mother Russia.
     However, if you are simply trying to explain the rich Russian language in clear and amusing terms, or you are trying to feed Muscovites good shashlik, then nobody should be “anti” you. It is another dangerous word for Russians.
     My friend, who generally speaks excellent English, was grateful for the warning. We decided to bury the painful memory in a flood of Papa’s beer, which was no problem as neither of us could truthfully be described as being anti-drinksky, in either the English or the Russian senses of the word.


  1. Ian, please let me point out that Russian "anti" has the same "against, opposite of, antiparticle of" meaning as English "anti".

    So "Anti-Sovietsky" means exactly "Anti-Soviet".

    Italian "Antipasto" -- that is the only "anti"-thing which I heard don't have a grudge against its "pasto" tail.

  2. Thanks for the warning :)

  3. Come on, Ian, you take jokes too seriously. Roman is totally right. Both "anti-Michele Berdy" and "Anti-Sovetskoye" fit perfectly into this category, it's just humor:)