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The Jackals Scavenging Among Us

Шакалить (sl.): to beg, sponge, scavenge; to steal.

After Putin’s fiery speech at Luzhniki several weeks ago, Russians and expats alike went running to their dictionaries to find the meaning of the criminal slang шакалить, which the president used to describe how certain groups — presumably opposition and human rights organizations — “шакалят у иностранных посольств” (scavenge like jackals at foreign embassies).

Although Russians don’t use it very often, this very colorful word might turn up more now that they’ve heard the head of state use it in an official speech. After all, many Putin admirers copy everything Putinesque, ranging from taking up skiing and judo to wearing turtlenecks with sport coats. How often have you heard the verb мочить (soak; wipe out) used in various contexts after Putin popularized it in his famous “мочить в сортире” (“wipe [the terrorists] out in the outhouse”) in 1999?

Шакалить is derived from шакал (jackal), a contemptible animal known for its cowardice. Шакалы are notorious for feeding off the падаль (carrion) that stronger animals leave behind. Applied to a person, шакал describes a despicable, shameless coward.

Why did Putin use the term шакалить to describe those who receive support from Western organizations? True to his fondness for fueling speculation and intrigue, Putin cryptically threw out this prison slang without fully explaining what he meant. But in the context of a whole series of strong statements that Putin has made regarding Western meddling in internal Russian affairs, it’s possible to draw up an accurate portrait of these mysterious jackals.

Like the real jackals hiding in bushes and waiting to pick at the leftovers abandoned by other animals, Russian “jackals,” the argument goes, hide behind the high-flown mantras of democracy, freedom and human rights to carry out the subversive machinations and orders of Western governments — including staging Orange Revolutions. They are a classic пятая колонна (fifth column). Moreover, these jackals are подхалимы (toadies) who shamelessly grovel and попрошайничают (beg) for Western handouts. If we adhere to the true meaning of шакалить, personified jackals are the lowest подлецы (scoundrels) who are willing to betray their motherland.

By the way, there is a second, completely different meaning of шакалить: ходить по бабам (womanize) or донжуанствовать (act like Don Juan), but I doubt that Putin had this meaning in mind.

Some political observers believe that these incendiary, demagogic aspects of Putin’s lexicon are no joking matter, saying they fuel anti-Western hysteria and have a direct negative impact on international relations. Purely from the linguistic perspective, however, like most foreigners who study Russian, I am quite intrigued by Putin’s хлёсткий язык (sharp tongue) and his крепкие выражения (strong language).

It seems to me that Putin carefully picks his words and abides by the principle of Семь раз отмерь, один раз отрежь (Measure seven times before you cut, or think carefully before you say something.) Moreover, it seems that Putin intentionally exaggerates (сгущает краски, or literally, paints it on thick) to whip up patriotic passions and provoke heightened interest and intrigue around his persona. Some of Putin’s other examples include: “строгий дядя в пробковом шлеме” (presumably about U.S. imperialists in cork hats, a reference to the stereotype of the Western imperialist in Africa) and “товарищ волк знает, кого кушать” (comrade wolf — possibly the United States — knows exactly whom it wants to devour — presumably Russia.)

When I hear all of Putin’s jargon and idioms about Western-funded predatory jackals and wolves devouring the tastiest parts of the motherland, I think that — much like in Britain where the head of state sets the tone with the “Queen’s English”— maybe Putin is just trying to leave his linguistic legacy by creating a more colloquial “President’s Russian” that bears all of his trademarks.

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times. Michele Berdy will return to this spot in January.

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