Saturday, August 20, 2011

Quote of the Day (Mikhail Gorbachev, With a Russian Phrase I Wish Were Used Here)

"Don't hang noodles on my ears."—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, lashing out at college friend and Parliament Speaker Anatoly Lukyanov for taking part in a failed coup against him, quoted in William Safire, “On Language: When Putsch Comes to Coup,” The New York Times, September 22, 1991

The Russian Revolution unfolded over an extended period of time, involving millions of people and the hopes of even more around the world. It was like a film epic—think Doctor Zhivago or Reds.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which began 20 years ago yesterday, involved only a small group of clumsy plotters and lasted all of two days. It was like a musical comedy—think Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, with the would-be junta and their fellow travelers forced to do more fancy footwork in explaining what they were up to (including an embarrassing initial news conference after it had been announced that Gorby had retired for "reasons of health") than Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse ever had to perform.

By the start of the next year, anyone singing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” might as well have been engaging in ancient history, as Communism fell in the nation that gave birth to it as an international force.

In the first hours when news of the coup broke, the world held its breath, as it waited to see what would happen. By the time Boris Yeltsin, in his finest hour, rallied the populace, the coup conspirators were exposed as revolutionary revanchists, a kind of Totalitarian Gang That Couldn’t Plot Straight. (Even the junta's collective name and acronym--“The State Committee for the Emergency Situation," or, in the abbreviated form of its Russian name, “G.K.Ch.P."--seemed an unpronounceable and satiric variation on far deadlier alphabet-soup organizations that had spread misery and terror in the U.S.S.R. for years, notably the KGB.)

For me, nothing exhibited the spirit of the hours when it all came apart than Gorbachev’s sharp rebuke to Lukyanov. The latter had engaged in spin, prevarication, mendacity—oh, hell, just plain bull—in telling about his part in the plot against his onetime ally.

Gorby was having none of it. His response—“Don’t hang noodles on my ears”—translated, according to the late language maven Safire, as “Don’t try to make a fool out of me” or “Don’t hand me any of that guff.”

The former translation probably comes closer to the true meaning of this old Russian saying, but the latter would have appealed to an ancient, fiery Irish nun who taught third grade in my elementary school more than 40 years ago. Whenever someone made the mistake of acting up in her class, she’d scan the room and announce, “I won’t take any of your guff!!!”

If Gorby had anything like the unyielding fury of that Sister of Charity, Mr. Lukyanov must have been like those children years ago in my school: awfully quiet in awaiting certain punishment.

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