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When Spies Become Intelligence Officers

Разведчик: an intelligence officer, prospector, scout, explorer

I’m sure glad the “шпионский скандал” (“spy scandal”) is over and the Russians are home. I was tired of worrying about their kids. I was tired of hearing myself mutter at the news. I mean, how many times can you say, “They weren’t charged with spying” in your kitchen before someone pays attention to you? And my friends were probably tired of my e-mail reminders to delete from their social media accounts any photos they wouldn’t want to see plastered on the front page of tabloids.

Although this subject is unlikely to come up again — because countries will stop spying on each other, right? — you might like some help breaking the spy word codes if you’re following the post-scandal punditry.

For example, you might hear: У вас — шпионы; у нас — разведчики. (You have spies; we have intelligence officers.) In Russian, like in English, spying is not a good thing. Шпион (spy), шпионаж (espionage) and шпионить (to spy) all have strongly negative connotations. Espionage is unpleasantly clandestine, and the spy’s intentions toward the spied upon are not benign. Take this example: Она шпионила за старшей сестрой, целующейся с мальчиком (She spied on her sister kissing a boy). You just know the little sister is a tattletale and Mom’s about to get a full report.

In contrast, разведывать/разведать is a more neutral verb pair that can be used in several different contexts. It can mean “to find something out”: Я попытался разведать кое-какие подробности о новой телепередаче (I tried to ferret out some details on the new television show). It can mean “to scope out” a situation: Пойду записывать сына на курсы и разведать обстановку изнутри (I’m going to go sign my son up for courses and scope out the situation from the inside). It also can mean “to prospect” for mineral or other resources: Мы поехали разведывать крупное месторождение платины (We went to prospect for a major deposit of platinum). In the context of a military operation or surveying, it can mean to reconnoiter: Необходимо было разведать местность (We needed to reconnoiter the territory).

Разведка is the act of exploring, gathering intelligence, or searching. You can hear this term used jokingly, say, at the dacha when the guys are drinking beers as they get the fire going for shashlyk. One of the wives might say: Наши мальчики затихли. Пойду на разведку, узнаю как там костёр. (The boys have gotten quiet. I’ll go check out how the fire is doing.) In this context, the fire scout (or, rather, the husband-checker) can be jokingly called разведчик.

In the context of recent events, разведка can be used informally to describe intelligence gathering services and personnel. For example, a journalist writes: “Шпионский скандал” показал нашу разведку в странном свете (The “spy scandal” showed our intelligence service in a strange light). More formally, the intelligence service is called Служба внешней разведки (Foreign Intelligence Service).

Разведывательная деятельность is intelligence gathering and doesn’t have the bad connotation of all the sneaking and skulking of шпионаж. The idea is that when we do it, our intentions are honorable. Consequently, разведчик is one of the good guys, an intelligence officer or agent on our side. For this reason, “шпионский скандал” virtually always appears in the Russian press in quotes, not only because it’s a citation from the English, but because our folks can’t be шпионы.

This is where I start muttering, “But I told you they weren’t charged with espionage.”

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.

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