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06 April 2012

Voice of Russia's windy grammar brings enticing thoughts of the open air on a sunny Friday in early spring

Hands up anyone who believes this sentence: “Cossacks are an entity of people who live in southern Russia and Ukraine, whose main occupation is being warriors.”
I am thinking of dressing up for my ride
across Europe this autumn with the Cossacks
     Once again, the Voice of Russia provides a good example of the way not to use English. Leaving aside the factual nonsense—what groups of people in Russia live today as “warriors”?—that sentence is part of a piece about a proposed visit of Cossacks to France, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's retreat from Russia, which contains so many examples of ungrammatical English that it would be boring to list them all. In that sentence there are at least two.
     First, you can have a group of people, or a political or social entity, but not “an entity of people”. An occupation is something that you do, not something you are. That is a profession or trade. The Cossacks’ main occupation might be war, or you could say that Cossacks are warriors. But their “occupation” cannot be “being warriors”, or being anything else for that matter. That is a state of existence. You could say, “Cossacks would once again like to be warriors.”
     So that sentence might read as follows:
“For approximately four centuries before the Revolution, Cossacks formed semi-autonomous communities in what is today southern Russia and the Ukraine, where they lived by warfare, initially as a form of self-defence against the neighbouring Russian Empire. After that Empire expanded to include their lands, they provided reconnaissance cavalry for the Russian Army and mounted enforcers for the Tsarist police.”
     That version may be a good deal longer, but at least it is accurate. Later on, there is an example of even sloppier fact-checking:
“The entry of Cossacks into Paris in 1814 was a picturesque sight, but now, the only thing in Paris which reminds of that event is the name ‘bistro’, which is applied to small restaurants there. When Russian Cossacks sat in Paris restaurants, they cried to the waiters: ‘Bystro!’, which means ‘Quicker!’ in Russian—hence the name.”
     Wow! The Voice of Russia cannot even speak Russian, it would seem! Быстро means “quickly”, not quicker, which is быстрее. I also suspect many English-speaking readers, to whom this piece is directed, will feel faintly patronized by having the word “bistro” explained to them, especially when it is implied that some special knowledge of France is required to understand the word.
     But that is small stuff. Now for the really bad news. That comes towards the end, in the description of the journey that 25 modern-day Cossacks intend to make this autumn, from Moscow to Fontainebleau, to commemorate their ancestors’ long march. They intend to cover as much of the distance as possible on horseback, taking two months to do so.
     “I have no doubt that the horses will manage the route,” says Pavel Moschalkov, one of the organizers of the expedition. “But I am afraid that in some countries—first of all, in Germany—we will not be allowed to ride on horseback. Most likely in Germany we will have to carry our horses in special cars.”
     I can quite imagine. Russia will permit people to cross country on horseback, and so, I can image, will Poland and possibly even France. But not Germany, where alles должен быть in ordnung без исключения. How depressing is that! I can also imagine that if their route took them across England, the other Teutonic country in Europe, the Cossacks would have so many Health and Safety problems, and right to roam issues about the threat to private property, that the whole thing would be impossible.
     That is the glory of Russia—you can do pretty much what you like off the beaten track in this great country (except invade it!). I would forgive all the wonky English and factual absurdities of the Voice of Russia for just one afternoon cantering through autumn forests towards the Berezina River, with thoughts of footsore Frenchmen up ahead, a sabre in my belt and a nagaika (the fearsome Cossack whip) handy in case I feel the need to express my disapproval of modern Teutonic ideas about the dangers of having fun in the fresh air without a certificate of competency, a First Aid crew nearby and a team of vets in attendance at all times.
     The modern Cossacks will probably be forced to wear riding helmets outside Russia, and cover their traditional costumes in high-viz jackets, and install brake-lights on the buttocks of the horses. Such, I am afraid, is the price of ordnung. Hands up anyone who believes that’s cool.

1 comment:

  1. Tsarist police?? I cannot believe you used this Sovietism. How about Kaiserisch police for Germany or Austria in the nineteenth century? What you mean is Russian police or maybe the police of the Russian Empire!