Russian is an infamously complex language, and its enigmatic turns of phrase have been on full display this week, with online commenters picking apart a saying from President Vladimir Putin and attempting to figure out – was his recent advice to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky a vulgar threat, or an innocent idiom taken from fairy tales?
On Monday, Putin hosted French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow to discuss a wide range of issues, including European security concerns and the current crisis surrounding Ukraine. At a joint press conference after their meeting, Putin addressed the issue of the Minsk agreements – treaties signed in 2014 and 2015 that were meant to resolve the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. The Russian leader blamed Kiev’s leadership for failing to follow the terms of the agreements, and emphasized his point with a succinct rhyme.
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“In Kiev, first they say they will comply, then they say it will destroy their country,” Putin complained. “And the president said recently there’s not one item in the Minsk agreements that he likes. ‘Like it or not, my beauty, bear with it’. They must be fulfilled, it won’t work any other way.”
Putin’s choice of phrase, which rhymes in Russian, immediately attracted the attention of listeners online, some of whom accused the world leader of making a joke about sexual assault in connection with Ukraine. As one Western correspondent put it on Twitter, Putin “said Ukraine should be forced to implement Minsk accords using a vulgar reference alluding to rape.”
The controversy caught fire when social media users noted that the phrase bears a close resemblance to lyrics from a 1990s song by punk group Krasnaya Plesen, or Red Mold, which goes, “The beauty sleeps in her coffin, / I snuck in to f**k her. / Like it or not, / My beauty, sleep.” The rhymes in the original Russian heighten the similarity between the shock rock group’s words and Putin’s.
However, Russian speakers on Twitter were quick to point out that the president’s phrase is a common one, often used in routine family life or at school. As special correspondent for the Moscow daily Kommersant Elena Chernenko wrote, “That saying about the sleeping beauty for most Russians has no reference to rape or else. It is a common idiom that means you have to do something even if you don’t like it. Parents would say that to children who won’t eat or so.”
Putin’s version of the idiom, imploring the listener to “bear with it,” is a variant of the one used by Krasnaya Plesen. “Sleep, my beauty” is most likely a reference to the fairy tale character Sleeping Beauty. The phrase is common enough that its origins have been obscured, but, as one historian in Moscow explained, “In Russian folklore, the second part existed separately for a long time, and the Krasnaya Plesen group added the first part to it only in 1995. At least this makes this story less necrophilic [sic].”
Asked on Tuesday about the controversy surrounding Putin’s choice of words, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists that he did not believe the president was familiar with the work of Krasnaya Plesen, and that the phrase most likely came out of Russian folklore.
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