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21 May 2012

21 May: black day for the British Army, and the Cossacks they tricked

War criminal?
Lord Aldington: the man who broke the rules
in 1945 and sent 45,000 Cossacks and others
to “slavery, torture and probably death”.
Today, 21 May, is a day on which it is worth remembering something other than the English language. It is the anniversary of the signing, in 1945, of a British Army order which had the effect of handing over to Stalin 45,000 Cossacks, White Russians, German solders in the XV Cossack Cavalry Corps and other miscellaneous refugees from eastern Europe. The order was drafted and signed by the young “spring-heeled jack” (as Lord Lambton later called him) who was the General Staff Brigadier at the headquarters of 5 Corps of the British 8th Army in south west Austria at the time. He later came to prominence in British public life as Lord Aldington, but was then an ambitious young lawyer who was friendly with the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and keen to use that friendship to get himself a safe seat in the House of Commons at the 1945 general election—which he did.
     The price of his smooth passage from the Army, where he had fought bravely and efficiently for five years, into the corridors of power and the smoke-filled rooms of the Tory party hierarchy, was the sacrifice of these 45,000 people, including women, children and old men. Aldington knew that he was condemning them to what Harold Macmillan, then a political liaison officer at Allied Headquarters in Italy, and later Prime Minister, had written in his diary a week earlier after having visited the headquarters where Aldington worked, was “slavery, torture and probably death”. Aldington had no grudge against these people; he simply did not care whether they lived or died, so long as Mr Eden’s informal request to co-operate with the Red Army was fulfilled.
     The Soviet commander in Austria was Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin (whose face adorns the wall of the Frunze Military Academy not far from Park Kulturi metro station). Tolbukhin handed Aldington’s superior, General Keightley, a list of about 20 names of people that the Soviet intelligence services believed were in the British area, and whom the Soviet hierarchy wanted to lay its hands on. Keightley was outraged and said, “Over my dead body!”
     But Aldington, who was Keightley’s administrative Man Friday, thought it better to oblige the Soviets and hand over the people, even though he knew this was contrary to the terms of the Yalta Agreement which had, since February that year, governed the post-war repatriation of displaced persons in Europe. The basic idea was that people who had been Soviet citizens before the war should go back to the Soviet Union and the rest be treated as refugees, pending further decision on their disposal.
     The only way to take decisions on an individual basis was for everyone to be screened, one by one—as was done in most other theatres of war. But that would obviously defeat the Soviet aim. Equally obviously Aldington could not order soldiers into the camps to pick out the 20 named men—who were all well known: Generals Shkuro, Krasnov, Sultan-Ghirei Klitch; none of them Soviet citizens—and deliver them to the Red Army. That would cause an outcry and might scupper his prospects of a smooth ride into parliament.
     By far the easiest way to deal with the issue was to categorise everyone in the British area as Soviets (minus the mysterious case of one Ukrainian SS Division) and hand them over ostensibly within the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Presumably Aldington did not envisage receiving any dangerous flak from within the Gulag. The fact that there were a couple of thousand German military personnel, who could never possibly have been thought of as Soviet, did not seem to trouble him. But they had to go, because one of the names on the list (or so we think: it has never  been found) was their commander, General von Pannwitz.
     Aldington’s plan nearly came unstuck, for two reasons. First the Supreme Allied Commander in the area, reflecting Winston Churchill’s declared will, issued orders that no-one was to be handed over until they had been individually screened. Field Marshal Alexander had fought in Latvia, against both the Germans and the Bolsheviks in 1919 and was well aware of what might happen if the wrong people were delivered into the wrong hands. So Aldington hurried the handovers up, pleading the urgent need to clear the area while British troops were so few on the ground (which was true).
     The second problem came from the Americans who were occupying southern Germany. They were quite prepared to send a huge column of lorries south over the mountains to take away any surplus people in order to keep the 5 Corps are free of refugees. Suddenly numbers were no longer an issue. Aldington told them that he had the matter well in hand now and did not need the Americans’ help.
     The story of the handovers is a grisly and bloody one. It seems that all the twenty men on Tolbukhin’s list were executed in the Lubyanka in January 1947, but many of the rest survived their ordeal and returned to life. A couple even wrote books about their experiences.
     The controversy flared up again in the 1970s when the British records were released into the public domain under the 30-year rule and several authors wrote books about the events. The best known, and the most comprehensive, was Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Victims of Yalta.  As an indirect result, in 1989, Lord Aldington went to court claiming that Tolstoy's allegation that he bore responsibility for the handovers and therefore, in part, the resulting deaths was libellous. The headmaster of his old school, Winchester College, of which he was then Warden, wrote a circular to parents saying (in rather tortured language): “No Brigadier in the British Army could conceivably have undertaken what Lord Aldington is accused of doing.”
     But Tolstoy had over-reached himself. He was now pursuing a vendetta, and a poorly informed one at that. The standard of his research had declined since he wrote Victims of Yalta. He was looking for enemies to vanquish and the evidence he brought to trial was inaccurate in parts, incomplete in others and in many respects irrelevant. The result was that the trial was badly conducted and Aldington won the largest libel award in British legal history--£1.5 million. (More than double that at current prices.)
     Unable to pay, Tolstoy declared himself bankrupt, so Aldington never got a penny. Fourteen further cases flowed from this original litigation. Some came about because Tolstoy tried to appeal the verdict and the award, including one to the European Court of Human Rights, which caused a change in the British libel laws. Others sprang from Lord Aldington’s attempts to get his costs out of Tolstoy, which was unsuccessful, and to have his collaborator in the original trial, a man called Nigel Watts, sent to jail, in which he was successful.
     Some of this litigation was provoked in part by the fact that it became clear as time went on that Ministers in the British government had been secretly helping Aldington with information for his case, and also withholding important documents that Tolstoy needed to present his arguments in court. Added to that, the judge was plainly biased in favour of Lord Aldington—a fact I have had confirmed at first hand by his best friend, a judge in Edinburgh, who has told me a lot about what the judge thought of the trial.
     It is one of the most incredible legal epics of modern times, and anyone in Russia who is interested in how English law works in the real world, should read the book about the whole story, of both the handovers and the litigation, which I published, with the help of my patron, the Earl of Portsmouth, in 1999 (The Cost of a Reputation, for details see opposite).  The saddest irony of the whole affair is that the reason why the victims were so keen to surrender to the British Army in 1945 was that, as they repeatedly said, “believed in British justice.”
     A flavour of the evidence which came to court in 1989 can be gained from this extract from the sworn witness statement of one of the German Cavalry Corps officers, Karl-Gottfried Vierkorn, who survived eight years in Siberia, and returned to Germay to write a book about his experiences. In his evidence for Tolstoy, he described how the British officers deceived them as to their fate, so they voluntarily got into the lorries which drove them out of the almost open camp in which they had been accommodated for ten days or so, and from which, if they had been told the truth, they could easily have escaped. After a while they noticed more and more armed British soldiers guarding the route so they no longer had the possibility of escape. Then they saw they were approaching the Soviet lines, which were at the other end of a bridge over the river Mur at Judenburg. The effect on the men was electric:
“I then remember hearing a sudden disturbance in the corner of my lorry. I looked and I saw a young lieutenant whom I had always known to be a very calm and restrained person. He was trying to cut his arteries with a sharp knife. Quickly those around him fell upon him and wrenched the knife out of his hands. Shortly after this, I remember the lorries of the convoy moving across the bridge in Judenburg separately. On the other side of the bank was the Red Army and we were handed over to the Soviets. Everyone in the lorry looked very wooden and motionless. When the lorry stopped we all knew we were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Hardly had the vehicle stopped than what appeared to be a wild pack of heavily armed Soviet soldiers and Commissars fell upon us. Many of them seemed to be under the influence of drink and presented a terrifying appearance. Their uniforms, in stark contrast to those of the correctly attired British, were filthy and ill-cared for; for example their boots and belts had not been polished. Their army shirts were mostly unbuttoned and wide open, revealing a variety of fantastic and obscene tattooings. With indescribable longing, I remember gazing after the British drivers as they turned their vehicles and drove back to the other side.”
     In court Lord Aldington’s barrister used Vierkorn’s inability to speak English perfectly to extract from him the completely erroneous admission that he and his fellow officers had gone voluntarily to the Soviet Union so as not to “desert” the Cossacks who had served them. That was not at all what Vierkorn had been trying to say, and was the precise opposite of the content of his witness statement. But the lawyer ignored this.
     “So, great credit to all the officers who did this,” the barrister said condescendingly. The judge did not bother referring to this in his summing up of the evidence for the jury.
     It is hard to know which comes out worse from this episode, the British Army or the English court system. Fortunately, I think it would be fair to say that both have been reformed and improved since these things happened.

18 May 2012

In memoriam: My incredible night with Donna Summer

My debt to Donna Summer is huge. The news of her death this week came as a hammer blow. I had no idea she was ill. Now she has gone, the world will never be the same.
     Reading the obituaries, my mind was immediately cast back to that incomparable summer of 1974 in her native New England when on one unforgettable night she and I more or less invented the Euro-disco fusion which became her trademark. The measure of her achievement is that I was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, much of a dancer. But she made me a king for a night, swirling round about me like a dervish at a Sufi wedding.
     We had met quite by accident. I had taken a holiday job as a roadie for a small Chappaquiddick-based band called Martha and the Vineyards, and was sitting one depressing Saturday afternoon in a shabby sandwich bar somewhere in Boston, maltreating a milkshake. She was dancing that night somewhere close by and came in for a break from rehearsals. As she entered the room, I noticed the air start to shimmer and vibrate with the energy of an ethanol cloud which is about to burst into flame spontaneously.
     It did. We did. The world did!
     That night has gone down in legend. Elderly Bostonians still talk about it. But our affair ended as quickly as it began. What makes it so galling to recollect is that it was all my fault. What happened was that Donna invited me to lunch the following day to meet her parents. It being the Sabbath, and because she had told me that (as most of the obituaries have noticed) her father was a Minister on Sundays and a butcher on weekdays, I could not resist making a joke about Abraham, Esau and the Lord’s sheep. I cannot at this distance remember exactly what I said, but it certainly involved raised knives, a readiness to plunge them into members of one’s own family and the Lord’s last-minute command to stick it into a sheep instead.
     Probably it would not have mattered how I had phrased it. For me, the glorious summer of 1974 was at a premature end. I was not even allowed to finish my mutton. Her father was pretty clear about that.
     Donna went on to become one of the greatest stars of the disco firmament, and I went back to college to complete my dreary, half-digested dissertation on the New Ice Age (or Global Warming as it is now called).
     But that four hours of colour, light, movement and the hot breath of high-intensity romance changed my life forever. Spirits moved me and I lived a lifetime in one evening. Even though we were only in a clunky Travolta-style, floor-lit dance-hall in a sweaty suburb of Tea Party City, Donna’s music took me far away, high up on a hillside, high up where the stallion meets the sun. It could have been magic—but it was not. I know; I was there. It was not magic: it was her.
     Donna later recorded a song inspired by that evening. If I have a linguistic point to make this morning, it would be that her ode to our night together illustrates the incredible poetic possibilities of simple English, something a language with a more complicated word-building cannot hope to emulate. Surprisingly, I notice that none of the obituarists have mentioned that song in the catalogues of her greatest hits. Perhaps they are jealous, knowing that they have never had one of those unique, unrepeatable evenings which make the whole of life worth while—and they know that now they never will. Donna has left us.
     Anyone who has access to YouTube can get an idea of what it was like by clicking on this link to the song I am referring to. In the early part you can even see grainy shots of me dancing with Donna on the night in question. I'm all blacked up and in the white evening coat that I used to travel with in those days, hoping for better things. The tune is after Frederick Chopin, and words were written down, presumably in some sort of psychic trance, by Barry Pincus-Manilow, who became a famous songwriter after he dropped the Pincus.
     But that night was nothing to do with him. The poetry, the movement and the magic was pure Donna, who will never be forgotten so long as I live.

17 May 2012

Brief boobs #7: “No commercials and censorship”

Just to make sure the Financial Times does not run away with all the prizes in the Brief Boobs section (see previous post), the Voice of Russia’s entry must be acknowledged too. My attention was only recently drawn to a web article placed nearly a month ago—and still uncorrected, which shows how few people have read it—that says quite clearly that Russia’s proposed public television network will be censored.

     I am sure that that was not what the headline writers intended. I assume they meant to write: “No commercials or censorship”, or “No commercials and no censorship”.
     But the problem with the Voice of Russia is that it is managed by people who, like Soviet industrial bosses, seem to think that quantity is the only criterion of value. It would cost money to employ foreigners—who might in any case be spies—to put the station’s output into the language of the people to whom it is directed. The result is not just embarrassment, as I have often noted before, but misunderstanding. This is a shame, as Russia is a fascinating country which is going through major changes that the world would be interested to learn about if they were described in a way which people might want to read or listen to.
     To show that the headline is not an isolated boob, I will quote a few other floaters from the body of the article. First, there is simple carelessness: government officials will not be allowed “to join the boy” (sic), and “the state will provide financial support for the vhannel” (sic). Less excusably, we read:
Vice-President of the Center for Political Technologies Sergey Mikheev believes that the main feature of the new channel is to make it equally accessible to all political forces”
     That’s all. No full stop, even. A British reader would be inclined to ask, what exactly are “political technologies”? Why must such off-puttingly obscure language be used?
     But the linguistic point is that to say the “main feature” of the channel “is to make it available” is complete grammatical nonsense. I presume they meant to say the “the main aim of the new channel is that it should be open to all.” Or that “the main feature of the channel is that it will be open to all.”
     I re-phrase the end because, of course, any broadcasting channel which is only about politics will be so boring that no-one will take any interest. And the official Russian obsession with force—“How many divisions has the Pope?”—is also a turn-off for people from countries with a more modern approach to life and society.
     But, in the end, the real question is quite simple: why does the Russian state bother putting out this sort of каша (porridge)? Clearly few people read these pieces, or someone would have written in pointing out the obvious mistakes. Why do so few people take an interest? I do not know, of course, but I can guess. For me, the clue is at the top of the piece, under the assertion that the channel will be free of censorship. I see this give-away: “The channel’s editor-in-chief and director general will be appointed by the President.”
     Enough said. No need to read another syllable. Back to the internet, Voice of the World!

Brief boobs #6: “Storm in a teacup/pot”

As with Brief Boobs #5 (5 April), it is the Financial Times which is at fault today—which is surprising for such an excellent newspaper. An article on this morning’s website describes the crisis at J.P. MorganChase, the once “white-shoe” (i.e. Protestant) bank in New York, as a “storm in a teapot”.

     What on earth are they thinking about? Every British schoolboy knows—as we used to be allowed to say before we surrendered our language to the PC kommissars—that it is a “storm in a teacup”. The whole point of the saying is that it is a question of making a huge fuss about a trifle, much ado about nothing, as Shakespeare might have put it, had he been working on the banking news desk at the FT today.
     A teapot is a big thing which, because it has a lid, can in theory allow highly localised storms to take place within it. Perhaps this already happens, just without any of us noticing the fact due to the presence of the lid. It is of the essence of lids that they keep a lid on things. But a storm which can be confined to a tiny, open-topped vessel like a teacup, must be a small, unimportant thing.
     Perhaps the FT has outsourced its sub-editing to a country which does not employ the “graduates” of British schools—whether boys or girls—in newspaper correcting roles. If so, it deserves censure. It is a sensible thing to save costs where they can be reduced without compromising product integrity. But when the product, which in a newspaper is words, suffers from cost-cutting it is time do something serious about it.
     But what if it the country that provides the sub-editors is, as I suspect it is, Britain itself? That would be a sign of the times. Next we can expect headlines like “Storm in a jerrycan”, “Storm in a tank” or, if the sub-editors have been reading too much popular German literature on the bus down from Hackney, “Storm in a drang”.
     If education is the citadel of culture, and if British culture is, as many critics suggest, suffering from the effects of decades of egalitarian, value-destroying socialism, then we can expect more of this sort of thing in the future because, as every Russian schoolboy knows: “There are no citadels that Bolsheviks cannot storm.”
     And that, it would seem, includes the Financial Times.

16 May 2012

Recommended event: Russian Week in London, at MacDougall’s

The white lady in the middle seemed to be craning her neck
 to catch a glimpse of the great work too
Every year towards the end of May the three great London art auction houses that deal in Russian art hold their main annual sales. It is known as Russian Week.
     I cannot speak for the other two, but I know a bit about MacDougall’s because it is the only one that advertises viewings in Moscow of the works on sale (and in Kiev, where there are, apparently, almost as many billionaires per head of the population as here). They will be auctioning many fine paintings, including the one I showed in the post on 18 April, Ivan Ivanovsky’s depiction of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, one of the many he painted of the city on the water. I reproduce to the right of this my photograph of two people looking at this amazing work—even more striking, of course, in real life than in the catalogue—which I took at the private viewing which was held in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral art annexe last month.
     You might not be in London at the end of May, but if you are, and are interested in Russian art, you should go and see what MacDougall’s have to offer. Better still, if you have £2 million burning a hole in your pocket, you should have a word with William MacDougall, the civilised Anglo-Scottish but Moscow-resident хозяин, who will explain to you in seductively smooth terms how you can convert your money into an investment-grade visual asset. Personal service is, so far as I can see, why MacDougall’s, though by far the youngest of the world’s Russian-specialist art auction houses, is the fastest growing. For further details see their website.

14 May 2012

Recommended event: South African Film Festival

Readers of this blog who wish to have an unusual experience of English in a South African setting might like to consider visiting the excellent-sounding South African Film Festival, which is happening at the Khudozhestvenny Kino (Arbat) towards the end of this week and over the weekend.
     If my experience of the comparable festival two years ago is anything to go by it will be both interesting and fun. Some of the films are to be screened in the English original, others dubbed into Russian. The offering on the opening night is in English with Russian sub-titles.
     See full details of the programme, times etc. at this address: http://www.arbat-moskino.ru/index.php/???????-?????????/?????-?????????/

“The Green Dream”: Is this the stupidest statement of all time?

Stewart Stevenson MSP: Scotland's Minister for the
Environment and Climate Change
Going greener with every Tweet
One of the most important aspects of language etiquette is knowing, not just what to say, but what not to say—in other words, when to remain silent. As the old English proverb has it: empty vessels make the most noise. Or, as Gene Hackman memorably put it to the racist, wife-beating, small-town policeman in Mississippi Burning: “You know why you’re so stupid, Deputy? Because you don’t know when to shut up.”
     The same applies to Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Climate Change. I have mentioned this strange man before (see 3 April: Is This the Dullest Video of All Time?), but in searching for something else this morning, I accidentally came upon his Twitter account again, and I found that he has not stopped mentioning the weather—or should I say, climate change, which is a euphemism for global warming. On 5 May, he wrote this:
“Large snowflakes currently falling in Banffshire. And in Feb it was too hot to sit out. Climate change very real today.”
     Five points immediately spring to mind:
-                     What is the significance of the size of the snowflakes? Do they suggest the planet is getting warmer or cooler?
-                     Why should cooler weather in May than February indicate anything other than that an unstable system constantly fluctuates?
-                     How is the case for global warming assisted by cooler than expected weather?
-                     How can any argument for (or against) global warming be supported by a data set of two observations, three months apart in a single location in north-east Scotland?
-                     And why does the Minister say that it was “too hot to sit out” in “Feb”, when the Tweet that I presume he was referring to (“First lunch outside in Banffshire this year. Hats essential. Have returned indoors to escape heat!”) was broadcast on 25 March?
     Beyond the self-advertising imbecility of his observation and reasoning, what makes the whole thing intolerable is the holier-than-thou, heart-on-his-sleeve concern for the weather, which I presume he thinks has something to do with “climate”. Even Russians who do not speak very good English realise that the two are completely different concepts: just as people and populations are different concepts.
     But not our Stewart, sadly. As Minister for Climate Change, he cannot shut up about the weather. So, after his absurd Tweet of 5 May, we get: “Sunny day, sunny me” (7 May); “Weather fine but chilly” (8 May); “Sunny out there” (9 May); “Bit damp out there” (10 May); “Beautifully sunny out there” (12 May); “Weather improving” (yesterday).
     Is there no stopping these people?
     Unfortunately not. But if you want some light relief, I suggest watching this video showing His Holiness the Minister addressing an almost completely empty Scottish Parliament chamber on the skull-crackingly boring subject of “Scotland’s world-leading carbon reduction target” which St Stewart aims “to cut by 42% by 2020”—if he’s in power that long. Let’s hope not!

12 May 2012

In memoriam: Vidal Sassoon

Some clients, Vidal felt, ought to keep their skulls covered.
Here is he is taking a close look at the upper reaches of
another dear friend, Mary Quant OBE,
who is now 78 and naturally bald

The death of my old friend Vidal Sassoon in Los Angeles this week, at the tender age of 83, reminds me of the days back in so-called Swinging London when we used to swap orphanage stories while he worked on my hair, giving it that revolutionary “bald” look which has since become both his and my trademark. (See About Me, opposite)
     Vidal told me he had been sent to a Jewish orphanage in Petticoat Lane. It occupied a large Victorian house and contained the first bath he ever saw. There he read books avidly and took elocution lessons.
     In my case, my loving parents sent me to a multi-denominational orphanage housed in a complex of pre-Victorian buildings just over the Thames from Windsor. There we used to spend our summer afternoons splashing up and down the river, occasionally getting a less sophisticated form of bath in the muddy, polluted water while trying to step into our sculls after getting blind drunk on Courage Best Bitter at the little pub reserved exclusively for orphanage boys.
     “It takes skill to scull when out of your skull,” I said.
     Vidal laughed kindly.
     In those days, we had a lot to talk about as he danced around my skull waving his scissors and comb. But that was all before we fell out over Bryan Ferry, the simpering crooner in Roxy Music—remember them? It was not the music that drove us apart, but the spelling of Mr Ferry’s Christian name. Brian should be Brian, in my view. At my orphanage, I said, we used to shove the heads of boys called “Bryan” down the lavatory and then flush it. Today that would be called “hazing” or “water bogging” and would attract a seven year sentence for first offenders (unless you are American, of course, and your victim a Muslim, in which case it is called serving your country).
     But in those happy days, when the expression of personal opinions had not yet been criminalized in Britain, I suffered nothing more for my prejudice than the loss of a beautiful friendship. Sadly, it was not long after I said the unkind words that Vidal moved to Los Angeles, where he lived ever after—though not always happily, as he confessed recently on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs.
     Now he has moved on to great big orphanage in the sky, and I will never have the opportunity of making up for my rudeness about Bryan Ferry, whose song, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, has recently been banned in Scotland since it is thought to encourage a habit that is bad for health, generally polluting and a major contributor to global warming.
     So, just to spite the hypocrites, fascists and trouble-makers in the Scottish Parliament, I am going to raise a glass of Bruichladdich and listen to the old fraud singing his wonderful song while I say a silent farewell to dear old Vidal, whose choice of book, incidentally, when offered a spell on that desert island with Kirsty Young, was The Brothers Karamazov. (What did they read in that orphanage?)
     Cheers, old boy! It’s been a lotta fun being bald!

08 May 2012

Voice of Russia: a laughing stock?

Busy with more interesting things yesterday, I did not notice any of the coverage of President Putin’s inauguration. Then a Canadian friend sent me an astonishing message:
     “They cannot even spell ‘inauguration’,” he wrote (his capitals)

President Putin Innaugurated

If you don’t believe me, see  http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_05_07/74054153/  
     My friend also wrote:
“Tell me please that we are not slipping back into 1984 mentality. What totally irresponsible garbage this selection of prose is. Is this the official state of the Voice of Russia, 2012? Do I hear the click of jackboots somewhere? Terrible.”
     Over the top? Judge the contents of the article for yourself.

-                     The President was “elected in one of the most closely watched and one of the most unprecedentedly transparent elections ever held in modern history.”

-                     Not only for Russians but “for many countries and many people the world over, it is also a new dawn.”

-                     The implications are vast: “Many look to Russia and in particular to Vladimir Putin as the last hope to counter the global expansion and what many see as the subjugation and enslavement of the world by the culturally insensitive and morally destitute west and its surrogates.” Only one man stands between us all and the socio-political abyss: “As a genius in global politics and the leader of the largest country in the world Vladimir Putin is perhaps the only leader in the world who has the potential and the chance to return the world to its once multi-polar state, something that people all over the world are dreaming of as they become more and more disillusioned with the US and its fast food culture and policy of pre-emptive aggressive war and its blatant global military expansion.”

-                     Perhaps you read about the police beatings at Bolotnaya Ploshchad on Sunday? This is what really happened: “Western backed forces attempted to stage acts of provocation.”

-                     The piece ends with a description of President Putin: “A moral, upstanding, humble, intelligent, capable, strong and tireless leader with an immaculate political record, long term vision for Russia and the Russian people and the courage to draw the line when it is necessary, is now to run the largest country in the world once again and to lead it into a bright future and must be supported by all of us.”

      The author of the piece is said to be one John Robles. Perhaps it is all a joke, and that name is a knowing wink to insiders, with the miss-spelling in the headline as our clue. After all, everyone knows who “John Roubles” is, sometimes spelled “Rubles”…
     Have a bright day!

Another moral, upstanding, humble, intelligent, capable, strong and tireless leader shows his adoring people the direction in which the Americans might be found. “And don't forget the fast food outlets,” he is said to have added, with that endearingly enigmatic smile for which he was known by all progressive peoples world-wide.
     “Don't you worry, sir,” the sergeant replied. “We'll fry 'em good!”

05 May 2012

The Voice of Russia’s ghostly nude

No naked passengers on this flight
In one of its better examples of unintentional humour, the Voice of Russia published this week a report about the apparent relaxation of airport security which has been made possible by improved technology.
“Scanners,” the article tells us, “produce ghostly images which look like naked passengers.”
     Personally, I have never seen a naked airline passenger, even in what Voice of Russia calls “the zone of examination” at an airport. But I can imagine what some of them might look like, with a shudder of sympathy for the staff who have to peer all day at such bodies and try to guess which crevice in the rolls of fat might be large enough to conceal a lethal pair of tweezers, a Stanley knife or a little ball of Semtex.
     The article also tells us that the use of psychologists in airport security “zones” is “becoming more and more popular”. Nothing is said about how they are used, but my guess would be that they are there to keep the scanner operators sane.
     And that is not all. It is “no secret”, we are told with a conspiratorial wink, “that a complex security system, including the simultaneous use of electronic devices, people, sniffer dogs and other devices, is more effective.”
     The minor language point is that such a sentence assumes that people and sniffer dogs are non-electronic “devices”, which is neither polite nor accurate.
     The larger point relates to my previous post about the word “unique”. In the opening paragraph, the report says,
“Modern devices for revealing terrorist threat [it should be “a terrorist threat”, or “terrorist threats”] have become more perfect.”
     Perfection is a state of unimprovable quality. You can no more increase perfection than you can increase uniqueness. Something is either perfect (or unique) or it is not. Since improvement in most systems is continuous, we can safely assume that the systems, even at Russian airports, are not yet perfect—nor ever will be. Like the phrase “it is no secret”, the world “perfect” reveals a Soviet linguistic heritage at the Voice of Russia which does the post-Soviet country that the station is supposed to represent no favours.
     A fair copy of that sentence might be:
“Methods for detecting terrorist threats are improving continuously.”
     The only problem with putting it like that is that it becomes quite clear that it is just another statement of the obvious, and should therefore be cut out.

Native speakers misusing English #2: “unique”

It is hard to resist clicking on a headline like this: Blazing Mouse Sets Fire to House. I did so this morning, on the BBC website, and read about a mouse which emerged from a pile of burning leaves in the garden of a suburban home in New Mexico, where the owner was getting rid of organic waste, and fled into the house, setting it on fire. The entire building and everything in it was destroyed.
     According to the BBC, Captain Jim Lyssy of the Fort Sumner Fire Department said, “I’ve seen numerous house fires, but nothing as unique as this one.”
     The first language point to make is that I doubt that Capt. Lyssy wanted to say that the fire was unique, but that its cause was. The more important point is that there can be no degrees of “uniqueness”. To describe something as “unique” it to say that there is only one. Therefore, you cannot have, as many native-speakers often say quite wrongly, that something is “very unique” or “absolutely unique”. To describe something as “totally unique” is a redundancy. “Unique” and “totally unique” have exactly the same meaning. The word “totally” adds nothing and so is not necessary.
     Likewise, for Capt. Lyssy to say, about the mouse-induced house-fire, that he had seen “nothing as unique” implies that he thinks there can be degrees of uniqueness, which there cannot—no more than there can be degrees of “one-ness”. A quantity is either 1 or not 1. It can be “nearly 1” or “almost 1” or 1.00001, but not “very 1” or “totally 1”. Amongst adjectives, the word “unique” is unique and so must be used uniquely, if you get my meaning.
     The nice part of the story is that it illustrates the useful phrase: “poetic justice”. The reason why the mouse was in the pile of burning leaves in the first place was because the owner of the (now ex-)house, Luciano Mares, 81, put it there. He found it on his property, and decided that rodent trespass warranted the death penalty. But instead of killing the mouse as humanely as he reasonably could, or introducing it to his cat, this geriatric sadist decided he would sentence the trespasser to be burnt alive, like a medieval witch or heretic.
     So he threw it into the pile of burning leaves.
     So his house burnt down, and everything in it.
     Serves him bloody well right, as we used to be allowed to say in Britain and are, thankfully, still free to say in Russia.

03 May 2012

Moscow News: “Do the math” (as the Americans say)

Дворец Советов: now Kropotkinskaya
When I first visited Moscow, a ticket on the Metro was 5 kopeks
I am increasingly keen to read the Moscow News whenever I see it lying around, as it seems to me to be a steadily improving newspaper. From the unreadable bilge printed by its previous, crypto-Soviet editor a couple of years ago, it is now becoming interesting, controversial and authoritative, which is all one requires in a newspaper—except, of course, a reasonable freedom from weird mistakes. Unfortunately there was one such today.
     In a piece entitled Moscow Metro Blues (page 2), I saw the following sentence:
“Over 7 million people ride the metro daily, resulting in $68,100 worth of ticket sales each day.”
     You don’t have to be especially numerate to see that that does not look right. So I “did the math”. An average ticket on the metro (allowing for discounts etc.) costs rather more than 20 roubles. If 7 million people use a ticket a day, that is something over 140 million roubles. Call it 150 for ease of calculation. As there are about 30 roubles to the dollar, that means than daily revenue is 150 divided by 30, which is 5. So the system earns from ticket sales, not $68,100 per day, but about $5 million. Why did nobody notice that?
     Incidentally, $5 million per day equates to about $1.8 billion per annum. The next paragraph in the article noted that the city is going to spend $3.4 billion on new metro construction this year alone, or nearly twice the total revenue from ticket sales. That, surely, is the real story. Where is the money coming from; and where is it going—by which I mean: to whom, for what, on what contractual basis, and when?

At the risk of repeating myself: On the front page of the same issue, there is an interesting story entitled Bloggers Replacing Bureaucrats, which describes how the young poker king of Shchukino has offered to help the unconventional candidate for mayor of Omsk, Ilya Varlamov, try to win his election. The article says: “Another famous blogger, Artemy Lebedev, is slated to develop design and infrastructure in Omsk in case Varlamov wins.”
     The piece was written by Yulia Ponomareva, who wrote the article that provoked my post, on 26 March, Common mistakes #7: “in case”. In that piece, Ms Ponomareva made exactly the same mistake as she did today. Clearly she does not read my words as carefully as I read hers. What she should have written is “in the event that Varlamov wins.” See the earlier post for the reason why.

Jaw-dropper of the day: Russian car taxation proposals

Today's Moscow Times carries a story about Prime Minister Putin's attempt to tax the rich by raising the duties payable on so-called luxury items. One such item is the huge, expensive and arguably unnecessary cars which are so popular amongst the nouveau riche in Russia because they make the back-seat owner feel like God, and allow his or (occasionally) her chauffeur to drive like the Devil.
     It is not an unreasonable proposal, and ought to have considerable public support. However, it seems that there is, as always, a catch which will let the rich get off scot free. The engine sizes at which the new duty will start have been made so large that they will apply only to railway locomotives. Not even the owners of tanks or self-propelled howitzers will be called upon to pay the new super-tax, since the engines of their vehicles will be under the new limit, which the Moscow Times tells us is 410 litres—see the paragraph below.
     Bear in mind that that a Citroen Deux Chevaux was so called because it had a 2 horsepower engine with a capacity of 0.6 litre. A modern car like a Ford Focus typically has a 2 or 2.5-litre engine. A Ferrari Enzo has a 6-litre engine. The largest Volvo truck engine is 13 litres.
     So it comes as no surprise that the government was able to announce a “soak the rich” policy while levying a tax that will allow any conceivably street-legal machine to evade the tax by making it kick in at 410 litres, which is nearly 70 (seventy) times the size of the engine in a Ferrari Enzo. That, I suppose, is krysha for you—or Moscow Times copy-editing.

Technical note: The standard BMW 750 Li has a 4.4 litre engine.

02 May 2012

Master class #2: Marilyn Murray/Moscow Times

Image management, 1930s-style
One of the great mysteries of this year surrounds the series of long articles by an “educator” called Marilyn Murray which is being run in the Moscow Times. For such a good paper to carry such light-weight psychobabble so often suggests to some observers that the concept of “krysha” is not limited to the world of the Russian mafia.
     Since Ms Murray’s basic theme is that Russians need to learn from her how to think and behave, she will not complain if I take a few moments to explain how she, herself, needs to learn how to think and write. Her article in today’s paper is all about image. The essential message of this blog is that image in print involves writing English fluently and clearly, which Ms Murray does not seem able to do. It might help many Russians to know that they are not alone in having difficulty with written English, an excusable defect in a non-native-speaker, but less so in an “educator” whose родной язык is English and who says her favourite book is the Bible (which is very well written in English). Starting at the beginning:

        “Image management is a phenomenon practised worldwide, but it has been polished to perfection in Russia.” Why “phenomenon”? Why not: “Image management is practiced worldwide”? And how can you “polish” a “phenomenon”? You can polish an image, but not a phenomenon. And since she says later on in her article that Russia manages its international image badly, the word “perfection” is either misused (if applied to the country) or wrongly applied (if she means to say Russian people are perfect at managing their image). She would have been better to have written: “Image management is popular in Russia.”

        An example of “image management” in her opening paragraph is “the unbelievably high spike heels that are part of the standard uniform of so many young, modern Russian women.” All “uniforms” are “standard”, by definition. There is no need to use both words. And something “standard” cannot be worn by “so many”, since it is not “all”, or nearly all, and therefore means that it is common rather than almost ubiquitous, which is what it ought to be if it is to be described as “standard”. What she might have said is “…the heels which are so often worn by young, modern Russian women.”

        “I have studied and observed the various causations of image management over the years”. Why “studied and observed”, rather than just “studied”, or “observed”? What extra sense does Ms Murray intend to convey by using the two words rather than just one. Instead of “causation”, she might have said “reasons for”. “Causation” is not a common word and is generally used today to mean the act of causing, which it is clear from the context is not what she intended to say. In any case, the phrase is redundant. Any study of the field will include a study of the reasons for its existence. A fair copy might have been: “For many years, I have studied image management…”

        We then get a few statements of the obvious, never a sign of deep thought. First she says that the most common reason for image management is “to enhance self-esteem”. Well, who’d’ve thought it! Then Ms Murray says, “the primal need for safety is the most important requisite for survival”. This means that to survive you need to be safe, which is not a point that most Moscow Times readers would need to have explained to them. Then, just in case you are still awake, the educator shares with us this observation: “Marine life, birds and animals that are capable of melting invisibly into their environment are masters at image management.” OMG! This sentence has so many problems they deserve another paragraph.

        First, “marine life” is singular, not plural, and therefore should be separated from the plural words, “birds” and “animals”, when sharing a common (plural) verb (“are”). Creatures can “melt into their environment” and thereby become “invisible”, but they cannot melt “invisibly”. Melting is, at least at first, a visible process; evaporating perhaps, which turns a liquid into a gas, but not melting which turns a solid into a liquid. Not even water is totally invisible. And these creatures are not “masters at image management” for two reasons. First, to be a “master” implies a skill, not an instinctive reaction. I am not a “master” at breathing in my sleep; I do that automatically. No “marine life” sits in its “environment” and devotes time and thought to improving its “invisible melting” skills! Secondly, “image management” and camouflaging oneself are two different processes. One is designed to make you less visible; the other to make you more visible, in a controlled way. This is a completely inept turn of phrase. Ms Murray would be better to have written: “Many sea creatures, birds and animals have developed remarkable abilities at camouflage.” But, as I said in the previous paragraph, I think most people know that. Better to have omitted the sentence altogether.

        There are also some highly questionable points which are stated as fact. Like: “Russian culture is known for its black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.” Is that so? Who, where, when? It is true that many Russians think like that, but so do many Calvinists and other readers of the Old Testament—though not all, of course. In what sense is intellectual apartheid a peculiarly Russian phenomenon?

        Next, she says, “As a result, some leaders have habitually maintained that to admit any defect or weakness would create a vulnerability that would expose the country to invasion.” Historically, this is complete tosh. Is she aware of how often Peter the Great expatiated on Russia’s vulnerabilities and inadequacies? And Catherine the Great? And Alexander II, and Lenin? Has she ever read Stalin’s famous speech—quoted in most serious biographies—to the First Conference of Industrial Managers in 1931 in the course of which he dwelled at length on Russian’s historical backwardness and ended by saying: “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced industrial countries. Either we make good this gap in ten years or they will crush us”? He was admitting weaknesses in order to try to prevent invasion. And what about Khrushchev’s secret speech about the evils of Stalinism at the twentieth Party Conference in 1956? That was “admitting defects” by any standard. And what about Gorbachev? I could go on. Where does Ms Murray get this silly idea from?

     At that point, a long way from the end, with many more juicy grammatical faux pas to point out, I got bored with all the empty-headed prattle and gave up. Russians would be right to be annoyed at a person who says, as Ms Murray does, about their country: “Unless an unhealthy system acknowledges its defects and weaknesses and seeks to correct them and learn from them, it will continue on a toxic path until the decay becomes so intense that it destroys itself.”
     What conceit! Especially from a person who does not seem to know the history she is basing her generalisations on, nor appears to realise either that decay cannot become “intense” (as pain, for example, can), or that it cannot “destroy itself”. Decay may destroy the organism in which it occurs. But decay cannot destroy decay.
     I think Ms Murray needs to enrol for a few semesters at the Vladimir Putin Charm School: P.O. Box Kremlin, Moscow, where they will teacher her a thing or two about image management for people with defects, weaknesses and a message to impart to humanity. In her spare time, I could also recommend a course at the Ian Mitchell School of Sentence Construction and Correct Word Use: P.O. Box, Khimki. But to be eligible, she would need to accept that she is a victim of SDS, or Syntactical Decay Syndrome. I therefore do not expect to see this “educator” on my doorstep anytime soon.

Dangerous words #2: ****

I rarely use social networking sites but recently, on one which I will not mention, with a Russian lady-friend whose name I will not mention, as a result of an enjoyable semi-public event, which I will also not mention (all to protect the lady’s name, fame and reputation), I had the following tongue-in-cheek—on my side—exchange.
     “That was a great night. Wonderful ****!” my friend, whose English is excellent but not perfect, wrote.
     Gosh, thought I. What did I get up to? We had all had, shall we say, rather more than a few beers. So I wrote: “Careful. The word **** has a very specific meaning in English. I wonder if that is what you intended.”
     “We haven’t drunk enough yet,” she posted, mysteriously. “And **** too :)”
     “Are you sure you want to say you want more **** ?” I replied.
     “Maybe. But I have no idea, what does it mean. My English teacher didn’t taught me.”
     “That is why you need a REAL teacher,” I added, and we drew the exchange to an end there.
     I went to another event a few weeks later and, by co-incidence, met the lady again. We had a laugh about the exchange above and she asked me what **** means in English. When I explained, she went puce with embarrassment.
     “So what did you really mean to say?” I asked after I had calmed her down, and reassured her that no-one else would have been any the wiser.
     “I just wanted to put kisses,” she said.
     “Ah! In that case you should have put xxxx.”
     “But in Russian it is very bad to put crosses because it is somehow connected with a funeral, and death, so I put stars.”