How to Talk Like a Russian Diplomat

Слышь: Yo! I’m talking to you!

Not every
diplomat can become an overnight “хит интернета” (Internet hit) after just one
speech at the United Nations. That honor goes to Vladimir Safronkov, deputy
permanent representative from Russia, who publicly took to task Mathew Rycroft,
the U.K. Ambassador to the U.N. last week.

brouhaha was not because one delegate yelled at another delegate — that happens dozens of times every day. And it wasn’t because of the nature of Safronkov’s accusations
—everyone has heard Russia’s version of the Syrian war a million times. No, the
скандал (scandal)
was over the way Safronkov spoke to his esteemed British colleague. Officially
it was called достаточно жестко (sufficiently harsh). Unofficially it was
called everything from грубое панибратство (crude over-familiarity) to приблатн
ённое хамство (obnoxious thug slang).
In fact, much of the Internet thought he sounded like a
гопник, one of those squatting, sunflower-seed-spitting,
good ole boys who do manual labor and a bit of robbery on the side.

wouldn’t know this from the official transcripts, which cleaned up Safronkov’s
language, primarily switching his familiar, street-talking
ты to the more decorous and collegial
вы. So he didn’t
actually say: Посмотрите на меня и не отводите глаза (Look at me and don’t look
away). He
said: Посмотри на меня! Глаза не отводи! Чё ты глаза отводишь? (Hey, look at me! At me, I said!
Where you looking?) And he didn’t end his tirade with the strong but literary: Не
смейте, г-н Райкрофт, больше оскорблять Россию! (Don’t you dare, Mr. Rycroft, insult
Russia again!) He continued to use
ты: НесмейоскорблятьРоссиюбольше! (Yo, quit putting Russia down!)

Should you
ever need to put someone firmly in his place, let your business partners know
how disappointed you are in them, or establish rules of behavior with your
neighbors, you may want to master some
гопник-talk. To channel your inner Russian Ratso
Rizzo, all you have to do is remember a few simple rules.

forget the word
что (what). Practice saying чё or чо. Cut it short and spit it out: Тычё? (What’s wid
you?) Or stretch it out for five beats:
Чёёёёёёё? (What you
saying? Say again. Are you nuts or what?)
Чёнет? (Whadya
mean, no?) should be used whenever you are displeased or surprised by someone’s
Чёда? (Whadya mean, yes?) should be used
when you either require more information or when you think you’ve been

Then, cut
words in half. In fact, make as many words as possible one syllable, two at
most. Remember: not
слышите but слышь (listen); not сейчас or even щас, but ща (in a sec); not зажигалка but жига (lighter).

The more adventurous can try to master the
sound б—я [blya], (an abbreviation of a very nasty word for a woman of ill
repute), which can be used to describe anything really good or really bad; to
express surprise; and of course to address people, from your significant other
to a salesperson. Or it can be added to any word to imbue it with a kind of
cheery informality. For example, на, б— я is a friendly гопник way of asking
someone to take your payment for goods or services.

And, best
of all, eschew cases. Instead of
Скольковремени, ask: Скольковремя? (You got the time?)

Got it?
Great. Next week: how to squat and spit sunflower seeds.

Michele A.
Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, author of “The Russian
Word’s Worth,” a collection of her columns. Follow her on Twitter