Michele Berdy, the Moscow Times language columnist, reviews a new dictionary of Soviet-era jargon:

The dictionary, compiled and newly revised by the linguists Valery Mokiyenko and Tatyana Nikitina, is titled Толковый Словарь Языка Совдепии [Explanatory dictionary of the language of Sovdepia], a name which, like much of the language it contains, is hellishly difficult to translate. Cовдеп was the abbreviation of Cовет депутатов (in full form, the “council of worker, peasant and Red Army deputies”) that came to be shorthand for the Soviet Union. Over time, it came to be used especially in the form Cовдепия as a derogatory phrase for the worst of the old regime. To convey the flavor of the original, it might be translated as “The Dictionary of the Worker’s Paradise.”
For those who have forgotten that world or never visited it, the dictionary is a gold mine of information. It deciphers all those abbreviations that once slid off the tongue and now are frustratingly opaque: КCCР? Казахская Социалистическая Советская Республика (Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic). ПГК? Партийно-государственный контроль (party-state control). БПП? Без права переписки (without the right to correspondence, part of a prison sentence that really meant execution)…
If you read the dictionary the way I did, from start to finish as if it were a novel — and with an old Bulat Okudzhava tape playing in the background — you dissolve into the Soviet past, which visually comes to life with illustrations of posters and billboards. Anyone who wants to read Bulgakov or Ilf and Petrov in the original Russian will find this dictionary indispensable.

Sounds like a useful thing to have, even if “indispensable” may be overstating it in this era when such expressions can presumably be deciphered via the magic of search engines. (My thanks to John McChesney-Young for the heads-up.)


  1. This type of communist semantics and phraseology is sometimes called “Orwellian language” in English from British author George Orwell’s novel “1984”. However, Orwell saw this type of language not only emerging in communist countries, but unfortuanetly, in Western capitalist countries too. Some of the first signs of it appeared in the early 1970’s when the Nixon administration tried to redefine things. I’ll never forget the one Nixon White House spokesman who said that the economic slump of that time was “not a depression just a mild recession.”
    Russian communist phraseology existed not only in the Soviet Union but also spilled over into its satellite states too. I remember seeing the expression “Inner-party democracy” in a North Korean text, “People’s economy planning” and “The spectrum of workers’ collectives in a peoples’ economy” in an East German publication, as well as “Lenin is a hero to all of the world’s progressive peoples” in a Romanian paper.

  2. “not a depression just a mild recession.”

    One White House economist, forbidden to use the word depression, ended up saying things like “Worst banana I ever saw.”

  3. The word “sovdepia” died sometime before my time. The derogatory word for USSR and everything related to it changed to “sovok” (homonym with the word for dustpan).

    The dictionary is now online (google the Russian name). I might be seriously wrong, but it doesn’t look like a solid job.

  4. That’s too bad, but it’s been replaced by the internet anyway. I’ve found even the most obscure acronyms by googling.

  5. There are two major reasons that talk of economic “depression” was replaced by “recession.” The first was cultural—in that, after the 1930s, “The Depression” was so strongly associated with the massive economic problems of that decade that it seemed inapt to talk about smaller economic downturns using the same terminology. The second was practical and rooted in rigorous econometrics (and already alluded to with my use of “downturn” in the previous sentence). Following the transparent meaning of the words, “depression” refers to a time when the size of the economy is small, while “recession” refers to when it is shrinking. It takes a steep and/or prolonged recession to produce a depression. It is actually easier to identify when the economy is shrinking, by comparing gross products* in successive quarters, than when it is small. The former is simply a binary distinction, while the latter requires some kind of scalar comparison (to past size? to past size adjusted for population? to expected size if a recession had not occurred?) making it trickier—although you did hear some economists talking about the economic situation in 2008–2009 as a genuine depression, not just a recession.

    Sometimes, the distinction between recession and depression leads to some erroneous thinking. For example, you frequently hear pundits complaining about how the unemployment rate lags behind a recovery, as if this were in any way surprising. The unemployment rate depends on the actual size of the economy, not (directly) on the rate of growth, and the total number of jobs will not recover to where it was before a recession until after the economy has had several quarters of sustained growth.

    * You have to be a bit careful about comparing GDP and similar measures in unusual economic times. When different forms of stimulus were being discussed in 2009, there were a maddening number of pundits pointing out that defense spending has the best rate of GDP return of any kind of government investment. However, while that is true, it is extremely misleading; because of the lack of an open market for most heavy goods used by the American military, their GDP values are artificially inflated. In terms of providing economic benefits for ordinary workers, defense spending is actually among the worst possible options.

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