Russian Language Blog

Spy v Spy Posted by on Aug 9, 2010 in language, News, Soviet Union

«Песня о далёкой Родине» [Song about a faraway Motherland] aka «Где-то далеко» [Somewhere far away] I chose the video because of a very good (IMHO) translation in the comments (by SoundofMusic777).

It seems that hardly a day goes by without another Russian spy story in the news. First it was «горячая десятка» [the hot ten], including a fellow former «волгоградка» [resident of Volgograd] – Anna Chapman. And now it’s Anna Fermanova, a beautician from Texas.

The way news outlets describe these two, you’d think you’re reading tabloids or watching James Bond re-runs on Spike Channel (you know, the old ones with Sean Connery and Roger Moore): “agent 90-60-90” (don’t forget to convert these vital stats from metric system), “hot babe”, “sexy outlaw”, “flame-haired bombshell”, etc.

This is «не по-русски» [not in the Russian style] and best left to James Bond or, at the very least, to Jason Bourne. Russian iconic spy is, after all, «Макс Отто Штирлиц» [Max Otto von Stierlitz] or simply «Штирлиц».

If you’ve never seen «17 мгновений весны» [17 Moments of Spring], then I highly recommend it. «Дорогое удовольствие, конечно» [Of course, this is an expensive pleasure] – the DVD collection, that is. «Но оно того стоит» [But it’s worth it].

But the whole spy ring «афера» [shenanigans] and, specifically, constantly coming across the word “spy” got me thinking about, what else, Russian language in all its richness.

To begin with, it’s a “spy” v. “spy” issue.  A spy who’s a bad guy – works for a foreign government, collects intelligence to be used against Soviet Union Russian Federation – is called «шпион». Or if it’s a she – «шпионка». «Шпион – это человек двуличный, беспринципный, жестокий и морально разложившийся» [A spy is someone who’s two-faced, unprincipled, cruel, and morally corrupt]. In case you have any doubts about it, remember «быть шпионом – плохо» [To spy is bad].

«Говорят, шпионы отравили воду самогоном» [Rumor has it that spies poisoned water with moonshine] – from a song by «Владимир Высоцкий» [Vladimir Visotzkiy]. Yes, only «шпионы» would do such a despicable thing.

If, on the other hand a spy’s work benefits his Motherland, then he is «разведчик» and she is «разведчица». «Разведчик – умный, отважный и преданный Родине» [An intelligence agent is someone who’s smart, brave and loyal to the Motherland]. Besides, «разведчик за юбками не бегает» [An intelligence agent does not chase skirts]. «быть разведчиком – трудно, но почетно» [To gather intelligence is difficult, but honorable].

The only time «разведка» [spying, intelligence gathering] turns bad is when, once again, it’s done by «агент иностранной разведки» [agent of foreign intelligence service].

«Шпионить может каждый» [Everyone can spy]. After all, «шпионы» [spies] are known to rely heavily on technology and gadgets – «шпионские штучки» (again, James Bond comes to mind).  Not only do they spy, they «вербовать» [recruit] people to gather «ценная информация» [valuable information].

Another method of intelligence gathering is to find «болтливый человек» [talkative person] who also has access to «секретная информация» [secret information]. As the saying goes «болтун – находка для шпиона» [loose lips sink ships; lit: A chatterbox is boon to a spy].

That’s why «Штирлиц» [Stirlitz] exemplifies the ideal of «разведчик» (of course, being a fictional character certainly helps):

«невозмутимый» [calm] – «характер – нордический» [disposition – Nordic], able to think and act calmly even when «под колпаком» [under watch] of enemy counterespionage agents;

«сообразительный» [quick thinking] – «Солдаты СС перекрыли все выходы, но Штирлиц вышел через вход» [SS soldiers blocked off all the exits, but Stirlitz escaped through the entrance] (this, of course, is one of the many jokes about Stirlitz);

«преданный Родине» [loyal to the Motherland] and «верный жене» [faithful to his wife].

In fact, Strilitz’s only weakness seems to be «ностальгия» [nostalgia].

In addition to «шпион» and «разведчик», there’s one more word that you might like – «сексот». Contrary to how it sounds, it has nothing to do with sex in general or sex appeal of a particular agent. Instead, it’s short for «секретный сотрудник» [secret agent]. I’ve never heard it used in regular conversations, but apparently it’s used by «соответствующие органы» [here – appropriate agencies].

P.S. «Кстати, Путин мечтал быть разведчиком с детства» [By the way, Putin dreamt of being a spy since childhood]. Do you know which movie influenced his professional choice? Hint: It’s NOT “17 Moments”.

P.P.S. Are you curious as to why the stress in the word «беспринципный» [unprincipled] is on the last «и» and not on the first one (as in the word «принцип» [principle])? If yes, let me know and I’ll do a quick post about it.

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  1. Ryan:

    Hi yelena,

    I can’t say for certain, but Russian speakers like to wreak havoc with the “original” stresses of borrowed words in my experience, and almost invariably the stress shifts to the right of the word. Native Russian words, from what I understand, tend to be stressed on their second syllable, so maybe the pronunciation принцИпный meant Russians decided to welcome the word with open arms into their language. Or maybe -ный triggers, often or always or maybe even just occasionally, a stress shift in the root? Adjectives in -ческий seem to invariably stress the vowel right before the ч, лингвистИческий vs linguIstic, исторИческий vs histOrical, etc. and maybe it’s a similar process. 20 seconds of glancing through the dictionary brings up the stress-shifting triplet Avarice, авАрия, аварИйный.

    • yelena:

      @Ryan @ Ryan – lol, you’re right. The funny thing is there are tons of borrowed words that are constantly mispronounced by Russian speakers (gotta write about it I guess).

      @ Han – thanks. I’m going to write an explanation and post it early next week.

  2. Han:

    Great post, didn’t know any of it. And I’m interested as to why!

    Thanks :3

  3. Ryan:

    Yelena: I don’t know that borrowed words are really mispronounced; after all, once they’re borrowed they’re Russian, and an English speaker would be a real hypocrite to tell off Russians for changing up a word’s stress 🙂