What’s Behind Putin’s Dirty, Violent Speeches

Although seemingly spontaneous, the Russian president’s deployment of vulgar language has almost always been intentional and strategic.

Illustration of Vladimir Putin with red and blue squares.
The Atlantic ; Kay Nietfeld/Picture Alliance/Getty

Nravitsya, ne nravitsya—terpi moya krasavitsa,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the press conference after his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron this month: “You may like it, you may not, but you’ll have to endure it, my beauty.” He was referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly “not liking” the ruinous Minsk-2 agreement, which would create a Russian protectorate in Ukraine.

The etymology of the quip set off a lively online debate. Many Putin-watchers suspected that the phrase originated with the punk band Krasnaya Plesen’s (“Red Mold”) sex-obsessed, misogynistic, sadistic, profanity-filled, and at times necrophilic lyrics. Others claimed that the words were from a 1970s chastushka, a rhyming four-line folk ditty. The band, too, insisted that the line was borrowed from Russian folklore.

The refrain of the song in question goes: “A beauty is sleeping in the coffin, I’ve crept up and now I am fucking her / You may like it, you may not, sleep, my beauty.” Putin only had to change spi (“sleep”) to terpi (“endure”).

Whatever the source, this was only the latest of Putin’s many forays into khamstvo, the fat, bawdy underbelly of the Russian language. A shpana iz piterskoy podvorotni (small-time hoodlum from the slums of St. Petersburg, as my Moscow friends call him), Putin tends and lovingly enriches the vulgate of his childhood.

Khamstvo is not an easy word to translate. Boorishness, yes; rudeness—but of the especially pointed, degrading sort. Although seemingly spontaneous, Putin’s deployment of such language has almost always been intentional and strategic.

Putin’s first public use of khamstvo was “We’ll drench them in the outhouse,” a phrase he uttered in the fall of 1999, when, just appointed prime minister, he was gearing up to confront Chechen militant Islamists. The expression may have originated with the punishment for prison stoolies, who get their head plunged in the toilet. Like a lot of prison slang, mochit (“to soak” or “to drench”) has entered the general Russian lexicon as a synonym for “to whack” or “to beat up.”

His first mention of male anatomy occurred in 2002, at a press conference that followed a summit between the European Union and Russia. Replying to a French reporter’s question about the war in Chechnya, Putin said: “If you really want to become an Islamic radical and are ready for circumcision, let me invite you to Moscow. We have specialists in this area. I’ll see to it that the operation be done in such a way that nothing will ever grow back.”

He returned to male reproductive organs in a negotiation with then–French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’d come to persuade Putin to halt his invasion of Georgia in August 2008. “I’ll hang that [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili by the balls,” Putin reportedly said. (What is it about French presidents that prompts Putin’s sadistic salaciousness?) Three months later, during the annual multi-hour pryamya liniya (“direct line”) nationally televised press conference, a questioner began an almost certainly prearranged question with “You promised to hang Saakashvili by one certain spot—” “Why only one?” Putin interrupted. It took a few seconds for the audience to get the reference and break into applause.

In 2011, he reprised the testicular theme to shock attendees at the genteel Valdai Discussion Club, including Russian and foreign experts and glitterati, whose travel, meals, and accommodations had been paid for by the Kremlin. Asked if a new Putin, Putin 2.0, might emerge after his election to the presidency four months later, Putin replied, “Like everyone here, Vladimir Vladimirovich does not split in two.” Except that instead of the correct razdvaivaetsya, he used the mangled, demotic razdvayaytsa, which can be broken up into raz-dva-yayatsa, or “one-two-balls.”

Putin laughed. Some older Russians in the audience began to chuckle. Foreigners and younger people were lost. No wonder: He had recycled a decades-old punch line, from an endless series of jokes that had first begun to appear in the 1960s, about the civil-war hero Vasilyi Ivanovich Chapaev and his hapless adjutant Pet’ka. In one, having learned of a traffic jam in his division’s territory, Chapaev takes Pet’ka, who had been charged with setting up the traffic signs, on an inspection. One of the signs displays two male balls. “What is it, Pet’ka?” Chapaev asks. “Isn’t it obvious?” the semiliterate Pet’ka replies. “The road razdvayaytsa.”

Of late, Putin has greatly expanded both the targets of his jabs and his audience. In the 2019 Address to the Federal Assembly, the annual state-of-Russia oration, Putin called America’s European allies by the name the Soviets used for the Axis powers in World War II: “satellites.” They just “oink along” (podkhryukivayut) to America. Two years later, these same “satellites” “yapped along” as they ran after the United States.

In his prewar address to the nation on February 21, Putin accused the Ukrainian authorities of “duping” and “making fools of millions of people.” On that same day, at a meeting of the Security Council, his top aides denominated Ukraine’s negotiating proposal as “juridical cretinism” and the Kyiv authorities as an “openly neo-Nazi Banderovite regime” that does not think of its country’s national interests, only of how to “serve its [Western] masters.” The West did not fare much better: Its negotiators “play with marked cards and do everything to justify the hypocritical and lying position of the Kyiv government.”

Russian diplomats used to be known for their pedantic adherence to protocol and mandarin English. They have abandoned both in a catch-up to the boss. To Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, primitiv i khamstvo, “crude stupidity and boorishness,” are “part and parcel of the rhetoric from Washington.” “Hey, you, yes you, look here, don’t look away!” the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, called out to his British counterpart, using the familiar (and in this context very rude) ty instead of the polite vy. “Don’t you dare offend Russia anymore!” “We shit on Western sanctions,” Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, said.

Yet Putin’s diplomats may have to work harder still. No previous Soviet leader, neither Stalin nor the often crude Khrushchev, allowed himself to refer to the West in the terms that Putin has used. Zabaltyvat’ (“to bury in bullshit”); vrut (they “are bullshitting”); naduli, prosto naglo obmanuli (“they have swindled [us], shamelessly deceived”); protivno (“disgusting”); idite vy [na khuy, or “fuck yourselves”] with “your concerns.”

These phrases are not mere khamstvo. They are the language of war.