Moscow, Nov. 8: President Vladimir Putin has a reputation for foul-mouthed asides, but Italian journalists sitting in straight-backed chairs in a Kremlin reception room cannot have expected what was coming.
Opposite them, Vladimir Putin, immaculately dressed and statesmanlike, answered a question about one of the country’s notorious billionaires. The interpreter’s voice petered away into embarrassed silence. “You must always obey the law, not just when they’ve got you by the balls” is a rough equivalent of what Putin had said.
For a western politician such a salty choice of words, shown on national television, might mean political embarrassment, even censure.
But President Putin, once seen as a faceless KGB officer with a wooden delivery, now regularly sprinkles his public statements with the argot of the street. Moscow liberals are appalled and say he is betraying his lack of pedigree for the highest office in the land.
But many ordinary Russians adore Putin’s earthy indiscretions for the grit and defiance of convention that they convey.
For many, they carry echoes of Nikita Khrushchev, the most boorish of Soviet leaders who took off his shoe at the UN and banged it on the lectern.
Prof. Robert Russell, the head of the Russian department at Sheffield University, said: “Like Khrushchev, Putin has an earthy turn of phrase. It means people see him as one of their own. He’s always controlled and usually rather unemotional but there’s something else Russians respond to, something more visceral. I think he does these things deliberately.”
Putin had only just come to power when he uttered his first corker, saying he would deal with Chechens by “wiping them out in the shit house”.
Last year when a French journalist asked a hostile question at a EU summit in Brussels, the Russian President said: “Come to Moscow. We can offer you a circumcision. I will recommend a doctor to carry out the operation in such a way nothing else will ever grow there again.”
When the translation was released, EU officials expressed their fury. In recent history, the Kremlin has not been blessed with great orators. Joseph Stalin, who had a gruff Georgian accent, was repetitive and uninspiring. Leonid Brezhnev was interminably hard on the ear. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke bureaucratic, convoluted Russian. Boris Yeltsin’s tone was annoyingly familiar and his words often slurred.