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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Touristical PURPOSES

It is a common feature of Russian use of English (and indeed of their own language) that ordinary words are subverted slightly to give sinister insinuations of wrongdoing. Perhaps the principal initiator of this curious habit was that most distinctive of Soviet statesmen, Joseph Stalin. The reader may be familiar with the Berlin Blockade, perhaps the first major crisis of the Cold War. During the multinational occupation of post-World War II Germany, the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies' railway, road and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. The Western Allies (the United States, the United Kingdom and France) occupied West Berlin, the Soviet Union East Berlin; Berlin was surrounded in its entirety by Soviet-occupied East Germany. The Soviet blockade of West Berlin started in June 1948 and continued for almost a year, leading the Allies to conduct the Berlin Airlift by which essential supplies for the population of West Berlin were flown in by a series of cargo planes on a 24/7 basis to prevent West Berlin from succumbing to Soviet control. When asked why the Soviet Union had initiated such an overtly hostile measure against her World War II allies, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin famously replied:

"Technical reasons"

What he meant by this intentionally obscurantist phrase, that became notorious in the history of Kremlinology as an example of obtuse Russian phraseology, was that he would do whatever he damn well wanted to as a means of forcing the West to secede West Berlin to him. In other words, there were no objective reasons at all for what he was doing; it was simply a straightforward power grab. And now the phrase "technical reasons" is ingrained in the psyche of Russia specialists as meaning the arbitrary exercise of power or authority. An example might be: "This bar was closed for technical reasons", which might mean something like the fact that the hospitality venue was closed by the Police for not paying a relevant kickback (the sort of thing that is regrettably common in Russia but not only in Russia).

The phrase "touristical purposes", that this author has heard several times previously in both Russia and Ukraine, is a reference to some purpose or objective that is anything but touristic ("touristical" is of course not a proper English language conjugation of any word) and might refer to prostitution, espionage, or some other illegitimate activity. The idea is to convey that there is some hidden purpose for travel that we are pretending is to see tourist sights whereas in fact it is for some other purpose that cannot be mentioned or hinted at in the paranoid culture that dominates many of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

"Technical problems" are rather different from "technical reasons". Technical problems tend to refer to some sort of unfortunate engagement with law enforcement authorities, and may well be a reference to an interaction with one of Russia's myriad security or intelligence agencies and in particular the FSB, by far the largest of these various institutions. It may also be a reference to someone's arrest or disappearance (i.e. execution). Generally Russians do not like talking about interactions with law enforcement or security forces; it is extremely bad karma and this aversion comes from Stalinist times when to do so might well result in one's own arrest and disappearance. Hence euphemisms have been created to refer to such interactions, and "technical problems" is one of them. Absent the occasional brave Russian journalist or an official government press release, you never talk about the Police or FSB or people being arrested in Russia.

"Technical solutions" are something different again. Russia is an extremely corrupt country, one of the most corrupt in the world. It has a vast, monolithic government that invades every corner of people's lives - so much so that people go to great pains to hide their existence from government, and residential addresses in Moscow with no street name or even street number go for a premium, as do apartments without mailboxes (so that no official mail can be delivered there). The greater majority of Russian government officials see their mandates to be to steal as much money as they can from the population whose lives they routinely invade. The way they do this is by creating some sort of bureaucratic blockage or obstacle to the citizen's participation in everyday life, and then they demand some sort of illicit payment (often dressed up as an official one - Russians are very good at drafting things like government invoices that actually have their private bank account details on them) in order to let you continue with your existence. A good example is the Prosecutor's Office. This is an almost uniformly appalling institution in Russia. If I want to get some money out of you, I go to the Prosecutor's Office and I pay the Prosecutor a bribe, who then summons you for some imagined crime (often very obscure and often something to do with tax evasion; spurious criminal investigations for tax evasion are a Russian habit). You then have to pay both the Prosecutor's Office and me in order to make the whole thing go away. This is what we might call a technical solution: bribing everyone and paying them off to be able to solve a problem with government.

Incidentally, the Soviet Union was also quite a corrupt place, but it was never as bad as things are now in modern Russia. It is not entirely clear why everything has become so much worse (and Vladimir Putin, when he came to power in 2000, tried to stamp down on the corruption that had become rampant in the 1990's by executing and imprisoning lots of people, but he did not succeed) but that is a question outside the scope of this essay.

The phrase "getting acquainted with one another" is of course a reference to sex, and usually of some illicit kind involving prostitution. Prostitution is rampant in virtually all the countries of the former Soviet Union and it was rampant during Soviet times as well. Russia is not of course unique in this regard; prostitution is the world's oldest profession, as the adage goes. Nevertheless in Russia, while it is so rampant (Moscow even has a weekly free magazine distributed under car windscreen wipers parked across the city and in hotel lobbies, packed full of advertisements for prostitutes; the FSB naturally has a prostitution division to entrap influential locals and foreign visitors, foreign diplomats and anyone else they are in the mood for compromising), prostitution is something that is not openly talked about. Instead it is referred to by euphemisms, and this is one of them.

"Cultural exchanges" may be a reference to prostitution, and it may also be a reference to a Russian or Ukrainian woman finding a foreign husband: something which is regarded as very desirable because it offers a route out of both of these benighted countries. (At the time of writing Ukraine is in the midst of a devastating war initiated by Russia; Russia is generally a terrible place to live for all sorts of reasons including those mentioned in this article.)

"Cultural excursions" may be a reference to international sex tourism; an excursion is a visit abroad. Very sadly, many Russian women within a certain age range are attracted towards international sex tourism in order to make money and with the hope of meeting a foreign husband; and the internet has facilitated this. However a cultural excursion may also be something else. This author has known the phrase to be used to refer to an illicit visit somewhere for some other kind of purpose: for example, to visit a part of a Russian city that a foreigner ought not to go to, in order to see something that does not paint Russia in a good light or to meet someone who foreigners are not supposed to meet (for example, a dissident Russian politician). So "cultural excursions" are not necessarily bad things (depending on one's point of view, of course; they may be a very bad thing from the point of view of the FSB who may be following you to the place you should not in their opinion be going). As always with the strange and sinister Russian expressions, everything depends on the context.

This is just a short introduction to the panoply of strange phrases that this author has encountered in his extensive travels in Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. (These unusual phrases are less common in the Baltic States, that left the CIS and joined the European Union.) We hope this has served as a useful primer to explain how Russians often use English to convey subjects that they are not supposed to talk about in their deeply oppressive, paranoid and often dangerous society.

We like cultural exchanges in the Russian Federation; how about you?

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