According to Michele A. Berdy in a Moscow Times article, Putin “owes his great popularity with the Russian public to the way he speaks. He’s the first Russian president who sounds like the guy next door.”

His are not the folksy inaccuracies of Mikhail Gorbachev (ложьте for положите), the verbal tics of Boris Yeltsin (Понимаешь? You know?) or the malapropisms of Viktor Chernomyrdin (Мы всегда можем уметь—We can always be able). And it’s not that Putin’s speech is crude (though it can be salty), street-tough (though cop-talk sneaks in) or inappropriate (though it comes close). But it is plain-talking, straight, down-to-earth Russian. He calls it like he sees it.

She gives many examples, well worth reading if you know any Russian. (Via Taccuino di traduzione.)


  1. aldiboronti says

    I suppose this is in terms of Russian Presidents rather than Soviet Chairmen? (Although was Gorbachev ever a Russian President). Anyway, having just read Taubman’s marvellous biography of Krushchev, surely he spoke exactly like the man on the Moscow omnibus? Some of his slightly more urbane fellow Politburo members used to despair of his language. He too called it exactly as he saw it.)

  2. Most of the time, though, Putin speaks a boringly pale, proper, correct variety of official Russian, replete with subordinate clauses (something most of his predecessors were unable of). That’s what makes his occasional slips into colloquialism so amusing.

  3. Michael Farris says

    Warning: OT Russian orthography question.
    Okay, the elementary textbooks on Russian all say that the sound represented by ш is always hard. So why is there a soft sign after the ty verb forms?
    Does it affect the pronunciation? (that is, would Понимаеш sound any different?)
    Is it an artifact of previous spelling (that is, there used to be a reason for it?)
    I’d be grateful for any enlightenment.
    You may now return to your regularly scheduled comments thread.

  4. Michael, to keep it short, ь after ш does not change the consonant and is more of a spelling convention now. I think it is a spelling rudiment of past pronunciation, ь and ъ having once represented a very short vowel in old, old Russian, but I am not 100% sure.
    Putin grew up in St. Petersburg, which is known for its own dialect, but I don’t think it made an audible difference. He sounds like an average speaker from either capital. Most Soviet leaders did not. Stalin had a Georgian accent; Khruschev and Brezhnev hailed from Ukraine, and Gorbachev, from Southern Russia (Stavropol)–all three had southern/Ukrainian accents (which tend to be considered uncool in the capitals). Gorbachev is remembered no less for his mispronounciations and ‘uneducated’ words–нАчать, зАчать, прИнять, лОжить–than for his semi-dry laws.

  5. More re Russian leaders and language: Chastushki, and page 7 of Alexei Lipatov’s strange superhero comic Stalin vs. Hitler, both of which allude to Lenin being unable to pronounce the letter R.

  6. Is it an artifact of previous spelling (that is, there used to be a reason for it?)
    Yes, but in OCS the ending was -shi (with a full i, not the half-vowel represented by the soft sign), and I don’t remember from my Slavic courses (30 years ago) when and why the ending changed. Renee?

  7. Wait, the soft sign was a vowel as well? Somebody lied to me, telling me the hard sign was a minimal vowel and the soft sign was the absence of a minimal vowel. Did they represent the same very short vowel?
    Also, isn’t prinyat’ pronounced with the stress on the first syllable? I’m ashamed to say that’s how I always pronounced it. It might be a feature of transbaikalian pronunciation, which they say actually is an accent, though I never heard a difference I could register.
    Anyhow, I always really enjoyed seeing Putin on the tv. Such class! What a difference from another president of this other superpower I could mention.

  8. Putin and “such class” in one sentence! Pouff, they will fire me for laughing out loud!
    And it’s definitely *prinYAt’*, not *prInyat’*
    LH, i at the end sound like Old Church; even than I’d expect it to turn up in verbs like “gryadeshi” (walks) than in *ponimaeshi”

  9. Very well, you asked for it.
    First of all let me clarify the issue of soft sign (as reflected at the end of prinyat’) and hard sign (reflected in orthography in such words as s’ezd). (LH, please insert them here for illustration – I am not at my computer at the moment). They are called yer and yer’, or hard yer and soft yer.
    In PSl, these ultra-short vowels inherit Indo-European short u and short i respectively. In the Late Common Slavic period the law of rising sonority operated, i.e the basic syllabic structure was now obligatorily consonant-vowel. Many phonetic catastrophes followed: this is how we lost the -r at the end of mati and s at the end of nebo, to name but a few. Many a syllable, especially word-finally, now consisted of a consonant-yer.
    Later (in the written period) through a process called “fall of the yers” the yers, according to their phonological position in the word, either fall or become full vowels e and o. More on the process in my entry
    Are you still with me? Good. Now to the somewhat unconnected 2nd sg. ending.
    In OCS, the ending of the 2nd sg present was -shi. the older generation of scholars assumed that in Early russian we have a dialectal difference, where -sh’ is the original Russian ending, while -shi appears in MSS due to Church Slavic influence. This view was supported by the fact that in Indo-European the ending was -si (cf Skt. bharasi ‘you(sg)bear’) adn as we have seen PIE i > PSl yer’. However, this view seems to be erroneous (we’ll not enter the discussion of what exactly is “Church Slavic influence in Russian”). The ending sh-yer’ (-sh’) is attested in MSS as late as 12-13th century, while previously the common -shi appears. The process whereby -shi > sh’ in Russian has to do with the phenomenon of shortening the word-final unstressed vowel. Any word-final vowel could be reduced provided that it was not the only vowel that comprised an ending. Reductions included -ti at the end of infinitives, u in such forms as vodoju, and such alternations as ty mogla by/ ty mog by, net from netu, etc. Of course, the reduction of -i in shi did not eliminate it altogether, but rather gave an ultra-short -i, yer’. When word-final yers fell, the soft yer caused palatalization of the preceding consonant (whereby creating a phonemic opposition of soft and hard consonants that we are so fond of in Modern Russian).
    Is this enough? 🙂

  10. BTW Ray, are you aware that the letter R issue is a ridicule of Jewish pronunciation?

  11. Thanks, Renee — I knew you’d come through!

  12. Renee: yes, but only what I read here.

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