Every society has to some extent its own idiosyncratic vernacular that is designed to either (a) obfuscate the intended meaning of said jargon or (b) reinforce certain social norms that wouldn't make sense elsewhere. The two ideas aren't necessarily mutually exclusive and there are different degrees of innocuousness to them. In the United Kingdom, for example, libel laws are particularly open-ended, so people (especially those who have their opinions broadcast or published) have to choose their words carefully. My favorite British euphemism is "tired and emotional," which basically means "drunk." In the United States, we had a sad but hilarious pre-Iraq War row with France that resulted in french fries being unofficially renamed to freedom fries in both the public and private spheres. This neverminds the fact that the "french" in this regard is actually the ingrained lazy way of saying "frenched," which refers to the style of the cut of the fries. A more serious American government euphemism is "public diplomacy," which refers to propaganda efforts targeted at the citizens of other countries. The Arabic-language TV station al-Hurra ("the Free") is the United States' government's answer to more popular regional stations like al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya and provides a pro-American, pro-Israeli perspective on Middle Eastern news and events. Studies in the region indicate that it is the least preferred of major Arabic-language networks and that CNN is regarded as a more trustworthy source of news by almost twice as many percentage points. Like the Voice of America and other similar government-funded propaganda outlets, al-Hurra is prohibited by law from broadcasting in the United States.

In terms of bizarre euphemisms, however, the former Soviet Union takes the cake with the sheer number of its terms and phrases that bear little relation to their intended meanings. In most totalitarian states, this is often the case. The Third Reich, for example, was also very heavily filled with this type of jargon, such as "evacuation," which referred to killing foreign civilians of occupied countries on sight. In the USSR, most of these phrases were inherently hostile and carried with them extremely negative connotations. Most have their roots in Marxist theoretical jargon, which can be interminably boring after a while. Here are a few highlights of the Soviet lexicon:

  • Rootless cosmopolitan: Under Vladimir Lenin, the USSR was all about internationalism and spreading the revolution to the rest of the world as quickly as was humanly possible. Shortly after assuming power, Stalin reversed this policy and officially promulgated the notion of "socialism in one country," designed to bolster the Soviet economy and military. That one country, however, was a diverse, multi-ethnic state that paid lip service to the notion of a united proletariat. Minorities within the USSR - of which Stalin was one - were expected to do their part in the service of socialism. Russia has always had a very significant Jewish population, and indeed, the USSR was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel shortly after its founding in the late 1940s. There was a real fear in the US and in the UK that Israel would fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, which was not at all alleviated by the prominence of the Zionist Labour movement in Israeli politics. Eventually, however, it became clear that this was not to be the case, and Stalin set out to remove Soviet Jews from public life. With the events of World War II still fresh in the mind of the world, however, Stalin could not simply rail against the Jews. Instead, he targeted "rootless cosmopolitans," i.e., people who had no vested interest in the land in which they lived and who owed their loyalty to an external fraternity (in this case, Zionist Jews). Rootless cosmopolitanism was a previously known concept that had to do with Russian literary criticism in the 19th century, so it wasn't especially invented to refer to Jews. However, that's exactly who it targeted. Stalin ordered Ilya Ehrenburg, himself Jewish, to write an article denouncing rootless cosmopolitans and proclaiming that it was an "historical inevitability" that Jews should assimilate completely into the broader Soviet life, and give up their religion, customs, and languages. According to Stalin, the problem was not necessarily with Jews, but rather with "Zionists," although to him, any adult Jew was to be considered a Zionist. References to "rootless cosmopolitans" do not appear with any notable frequency in Soviet-era documents after Stalin's death in 1953. The 1970s saw a new brand of Soviet "anti-Zionism" that resulted in the mass emigration of millions of Jews from the USSR to the US, Israel, and other countries.

  • Sluggishly progressing schizophrenia: Whoa, this sounds like a bad one. Could it be a form of dementia? A new addition to the recognized psychiatric standards of evaluating schizophrenia? A horrible mental illness with a slow onset like Alzheimer's? Actually, the answer is far more prosaic. In the post-Stalin Soviet era, political repression was sort of frowned upon. That's not to say that it didn't occur, but rather that it generally took on a more subtle form. The tactics were less outwardly heavy handed than before but were still particularly unpleasant. The fate that met many people who called for reform was a diagnosis of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia. Jaures Medvedev (of no relation to current Russian president Dmitri Medvedev) was an academic interested in both politics and the hard sciences who made the unfortunate mistake of criticizing the Soviet government's handling of a harrowing pre-Chernobyl incident at a nuclear facility near the town of Kyshtym in 1957. It was meant to be a closely guarded secret, but within a month or so, Medvedev spilled the beans to the public. He kept it up until 1970 and received the horrible diagnosis. According to available Soviet psychiatric records of the time, the onset of the typical case of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia could be identified through "patient" statements that reflected a messianic outlook or irrational agitation with the policies of the government. In Medvedev's case, his divergent personal and professional interests were taken as a sign that he was definitely suffering from some type of a split personality. Protesting the diagnosis was a definite sign that a person had the affliction. The rest of the criteria were so deliberately vague that the diagnosis could be applied to anyone. While dissidents and reformers who were diagnosed with SPS were spared forced labor, they often met unfortunate fates in Soviet psychiatric hospitals. Medvedev was subjected to three years worth of "treatments" such as forced electroshock therapy and constant streams of different anti-depressant drugs until he was finally expelled from the USSR in 1973. Most of the rest of the psychiatric community in the world rejected the notion of SPS as a legitimate form of the disease and their case was strengthened when prominent Soviet psychologists almost always refused to present or debate evidence for or against the uniquely Soviet condition. The use of SPS as a tool to stifle dissent came to an end in the 1980s but the legacy of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia lives on in China as the mental health of Falun Gong members and other dissident groups is often used as a pretext to remove these people from the public eye.

  • Parasite: One of the most common criticisms of communism as an idea is that it fails to take into account the idea that people will not want to work very hard if there is little or no incentive to achieve; that is to say, if I'm locked into my job and I have no real chance for advancement in either the hierarchy of a business or even in my wage, why would I possibly want to contribute anything more than the bare minimum? Taken to its logical extreme, why would I even bother working in the first place if I'll receive the same amenities as a chimney sweep or a doctor anyway? In the Soviet Union, unemployment was against the law, which neatly solved the free rider problem. Theoretically, everybody had a job of some sort. To be out of work was to be considered a parasite. What actually wound up happening in several instances, however, was that an employee might develop a track record for saying or doing things considered to be politically unacceptable and would suddenly find himself dismissed from his job and unable to attain another one, thus making the person guilty of parasitism and liable to legal action. Like SPS, this passive aggressive form of shutting people up went out of style in the 1980s, although people who were legitimately lazy and who did not work were still considered to be parasites.

  • Bourgeois/Reactionary pseudoscience: It might come as a bit of a surprise that the country that launched Sputnik had problems with science as a concept. Then again, after examining sluggishly progressing schizophrenia, it might not be that surprising after all. Indeed, the Soviet government was often at odds with the established norms of science for what often amounted to purely ideological reasons. During Stalin's time, Lamarckian evolution was the official government-sponsored line in explaining evolutionary tendencies. Today, we think of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection as the only form of evolutionary thought, and for good reason: there is a general scientific consensus that his explanation of the process is the best one. What differentiates Lamarck's ideas about evolution from Darwin's is that Lamarck held that individual organisms would develop traits to help them survive in their environments and then pass those traits on to their progeny rather than the somewhat bleaker notion of survival of the fittest. It should be obvious why Lamarck's idea was more appealing: Darwin's idea, when applied to economics, is basically capitalism. Lamarck offered a suitable, more uplifting alternative. Unfortunately, Lamarckian inheritance was largely discredited more than a century ago, and the decades-long adherence to this obsolete theory had a profoundly negative impact on Soviet studies of and contributions to biology as a field. Genetics as a field of study in general was despised by the political class of the USSR, with Stalin ominously referring to it as a "fascist science," associating it with the Third Reich's eugenic ideology of National Socialism. This view had an influence on fields as disparate as agriculture and linguistics. Stalin supported a previously unknown "scientist" named Trofim Lysenko who held that hybridization and experimenting with variable temperatures would produce significantly larger crop yields than previously accepted Mendelian standards. There was a tacit understanding that Lysenko's ideas did not really produce results, but Stalin used him as an example of an industrious, salt-of-the-earth farmer who used his own ingenuity and folksy wisdom to improve his harvests. The hope was that other farmers in the USSR would go back to planting crops, which had been something of a problem in the not-too-distant past. It had the desired effect, but often at the expense of legitimate studies into the field of agriculture. In linguistics, Nikolai Marr held sway with his Japhetic theory that held that the Basque language as well as all Semitic and Caucasian languages were derived from the same source (the "Japhetic language" spoken by Japheth, the son of Noah) and that this language was the original one spoken in Europe before the Aryan invasion of the continent. He further declared that all languages on the planet were descended from a single one made up originally of four words. By 1950, however, even Stalin was disclaiming Marr. Unsurprisingly, the one area of Soviet scientific research that survived ideologically unscathed was nuclear physics.

  • Damage: A command economy like the USSR's depended on full (or nearly full) employment and the quick attainment of stated goals. If a person or organization did not meet its goal for a particular period of time, they were guilty of damaging the economy and thus the state. Being accused of damaging was much like being accused of parasitism or sluggishly progressing schizophrenia in that it was used as a pretext for getting rid of political undesirables. There were different forms of damage, including sabotage, which basically meant making some form of a mistake or showing an insufficiently enthusiastic attitude about work. Like parasitism, however, there were people who really did attempt to damage the Soviet economy through carelessness or deliberately malicious actions, although in practice, most people accused of damage were managers and bureaucrats who were made to fall on their swords for failing to meet expectations.

  • Enemy of the people: This one is pretty easy to understand and due to its application is one of the ugliest of Soviet euphemisms. This phrase as a concept has its roots in antiquity, as the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians all had some form of this concept. Its most common form is "enemy of the state," but the Soviets made it more personal. An enemy of the state is someone who has done something to offend a nameless, distant government bureaucracy; an enemy of the people is someone who has done something to harm and offend you, me, our friends, family, and everybody else we know! Many of the people "guilty" of the offenses above were considered enemies of the people. In the beginning, the original enemies of the people were the Tsar and his family, who were summarily executed on the basis of the accusation. Next came businessmen and the affluent in general. Rootless cosmopolitans, parasites, damagers, bourgeois scientists, bourgeois nationalists, and others were subject to harsh measures as enemies of the people. Being convicted of such came with it the immediate loss of citizenship as well as forced labor at the very least (but frequently death). People in the immediate families of enemies of the people were also liable to be persecuted/prosecuted for their closeness and affinity, which was itself a crime. Family members above the age of 15 were also sent to forced labor camps or locked in prison for years "just in case." Those under 15 were sent to live in state-run orphanages and were not returned to their families afterwards. What this resulted in was the overcrowding of prison/labor facilities and a lot of runaway children who took to vandalism and dissidence. The law was amended somewhat in 1938 to lessen the punishments of relatives but it was not an entirely humanitarian concern: that same year also saw the height of the Great Purge, which would have taxed the infrastructure to an unbearable point. People at all levels of society were declared enemies of the people: officers in the Red Army, ethnic minorities, Stalin's pre-Revolutinary colleagues in the Bolshevik Party, writers, intellectuals, and others. Leon Trotsky, the prominent former head of the Red Army living in exile in Mexico at this time, had been declared an enemy of the people and was assassinated there on Stalin's orders in 1940. Soviet legal theory had it that the specific penal code relating to being named an enemy of the people was applicable in all areas of direct Soviet control or occupation. The purge was then exported to the Soviet-occupied portion of Poland at the beginning of World War II, where the Red Army slaughtered more than 20,000 Polish military officers, minorities, and intellectuals in what is known as the Katyn Massacre. Red Army prisoners of war who survived the conflict were deemed enemies of the people because to have lived was considered a sign of either cowardice or collaboration. Throughout the history of the USSR, the term never fell into disuse and was one of the most serious offense of which one could be found guilty.

There are many other codewords from this period that obscured nefarious intentions but this should serve as a decent introduction into understanding the mindset of a government committed to stifling dissent and demonizing its internal enemies. The Soviet Union was founded on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat but within a couple of years just became a regular dictatorship. Lenin had a more sophisticated intellectual background than Stalin (and many of these phrases were actually invented during Lenin's rule), but it was Stalin who really had the drive to make the country an international superpower. To accomplish this, he felt that he had to be as ruthless as possible and is said to have remarked "death solves all problems; no man, no problem." While Stalinism as such began to fall into heavy disfavor after his death in 1953, the unique vernacular that Stalin took advantage of for his own political ends stayed until close to the very end of the state.

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