Did Russia’s President Really Call U.S. Senators ‘Senile’?

It’s been a bruising week for American officials at the hands of Russia’s ruling tandem.

First, once-and-possibly-future president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the United States to a “parasite” on the world economy.

Now, just two days after calling to wish U.S. President Barack Obama a happy 50th birthday, President Dmitry Medvedev had this to say about some unnamed U.S. lawmakers, according to Reuters:

SOCHI, Russia, Aug 5 (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chided “senile” U.S. senators on Friday for urging Moscow to withdraw troops from Georgia’s breakaway regions.

The Senate resolution reiterates Washington’s long-standing call for Russian troops to comply with the terms of a ceasefire ending its five-day war with Georgia in August 2008 and withdraw from the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Speaking in his first interview with Georgian media since the war, Medvedev said the U.S. Senate resolution reflected only the “views of some of its senile members”.

“This is a foreign parliament and it is their own business,” Medvedev told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio, Russia Today television and Georgia’s PIK-TV at his seaside residence in Russia’s southern city of Sochi.

“I don’t care about their rhetoric,” he said.

The story immediately sparked debate in our newsroom. The above footage makes clear that Medvedev uses the term “prestarelykh chlenov Senata” (престарелых членов Сената). Is “senile” an entirely accurate translation of “prestarely”?

The Kremlin doesn’t appear to think so. It faithfully reproduces Medvedev’s language in its Russian transcript, of course.

But the word “senile” doesn’t appear anywhere in the English transcript. That version opts for the less antagonistic “senior citizens in the Senate.” No compliment, for sure, but a far cry from “senile members.”

Here’s more of the exchange as posted by the Kremlin:

A poll of Russian speakers in RFE/RL’s newsroom produced a range of views: from “senile” to “senior” to “aged” to “old folks” to “superannuated” to “dinosaurs.” But no consensus.

Without seeing the full interview, an experienced Prague-based Russian interpreter suggested that she would likely translate it as “pensioners.” What about “senile,” we asked. “Not that,” she fired back.

So there were nearly as many answers as there were respondents. And that’s the scurrilousness of Medvedev’s little dig.

Because while a precise translation is elusive, longtime Russia observers will tell you that “prestarely” is a loaded term.

In the late 80s, with perestroika in full swing and journalists enjoying greater freedoms, the Brezhnev-era Politburo started being described as “dom prestarelykh,” or old folks’ home. That description became a widely used pejorative across the former Soviet Union for a largely incapacitated member of that moribund institution. For many former Soviet citizens, the term evokes memories of an addled Leonid Brezhnev, a senescent Yury Andropov, and a terminally ill Konstantin Chernyenko.

Medvedev thus craftily tossed some red meat to America-bashers while maintaining decorum and providing himself a veneer of deniability.

Putin is frequently notoriously blunt — vulgar, even — when delivering barbs. He once suggested “wast[ing] Chechen rebels in the outhouse.” Irritated at a reporter’s question about the war in Chechnya, he hinted at castration, or worse, for would-be “Islamic radicals.” Defending the brief 2008 war with Georgia, Putin once asked if Russia was supposed to “just wipe the bloody snot from our noses.” (At around the 1:45 mark in this video, although the subtitles are misleadingly incorrect.) On at least one occasion that was clearly intended for external consumption, Putin expressed a modicum of regret over his tendency to “wag his tongue” in such cases.

Medvedev rarely resorts to such wagging.

As he told his interviewers in Sochi: “[I]n politics, connotations and nuances are very important.”

— Andy Heil

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