November 01, 2000

Stomping on the Throat

Stomping on the Throat

Russians love clichés derived from poetry. After all, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote, “поэт в России больше, чем поэт” (“a poet in Russia is more than a poet”). Public speeches, newspaper articles and even private speech are full of poetic phrases.

But, what is a cliché for a Russian, is a Chinese puzzle for even an educated foreign reader. Poetic clichés, complicated by word plays are often used in newspaper headlines, but frequently they are paraphrased or cut up in such a way that the unitiated will have a hard time tracing the etymology, much less grasping the hidden cultural meaning.

Examples abound. On the day this column was written, September 6, a headline in Sevodnya newspaper declared: “Перо вновь приравняли к штыку” (“The plume once again has been equated with the bayonet”). This is in fact a wordplay on a famous quote by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: Я хочу, чтоб к штыку приравняли перо (I want the plume to be equated with the bayonet) – the poet was simply saying he wanted the poet’s pen to become a powerful weapon. This quote has suffered from overuse, but it still works. The article cited above was criticising the government’s intention to make “top secret” the line item in the state budget providing for mass media subsidies. The only other top secret line item in the budget is for the “state arms program,” so the ironic Mayakovsky-related word play hit the mark.

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