Political leaders often have a weakness for spiffy aphorisms, which is partly why so many are attributed to them. Another reason may be that a politician’s saying is nowadays more likely to be preserved for posterity.
A brief scan of The Thesaurus of Quotations will show precious few coming from politicians predating the 19th century – the Bible and Shakespeare will dominate. But come modern times, and politicians begin to hold their own against writers and philosophers, with Churchill setting the tone.
Some politicians, however, are quoted not for the sagacity of their aphorisms but for their inanity. America’s previous president George W. ‘The French Have No Word For Entrepreneur’ Bush claims the leadership of this category, but his position isn’t uncontested.
I’ll let you judge exactly where the recently published sayings of Leonid Brezhnev belong. Here’s a brief selection (in case your Russian is a bit rusty, I provide some parenthetic translations):
‘Any Soviet man has a right to a powerful car.’ [This means that someone has an obligation to provide one.]
‘Only time can correct some mistakes.’ [Particularly time served in a concentration camp.]
‘A Soviet policeman must be a bit of a doctor’ [To conceal the effects of his interrogation techniques.]
‘Our dream is to feed all people. The American dream is to turn them into gluttons.’ [That may be, but the Americans are succeeding where the Russians aren’t.]
‘The kinder the boss, the more worried the subordinates.’ [Logically, the sterner the boss, e.g. Stalin, the more serene the underlings.]
‘A man is different from a machine in that he can’t work without understanding the meaning of his work.’ [Obviously Leonid never had the pleasure of meeting our Dave.]
‘A factory is a much more precise model of the modern world than a theatre is.’ [Yes, it’s noisy, smelly and ugly-looking.]
‘Everyone wants to be friends with the nuclear bomb.’ [A friendship either made in heaven or leading there, I’d say.]
‘A good Jew is a Soviet Jew.’ [By inference, a non-Soviet Jew is bad – Ed Miliband, beware.]
Dubya’s primacy in the aphoristic stakes is clearly under threat. Before long the present Soviet – pardon me, I mean Russian – leader will follow suit by expanding his aphoristic legacy beyond the now proverbial ‘whack’em in the shithouse’ (or the bathroom, as the case may be). Actually, he already has:
‘Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart.’ [I agree, it takes a heartless animal not to miss the concentration camps.]
‘Nobody and nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy and ensuring human rights and freedoms.’ [Except perhaps its government.]
‘You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.’ [And if you don’t, we’ll whack you in the shithouse, or the bathroom, as the case may be.]
‘Russia needs a strong state power and must have it. But I am not calling for totalitarianism.’ [It would be silly to call for something that’s already there.]
‘I believe that the presidential term should be limited.’ [Presumably to the president’s lifespan.]
The sterling standards of intellectual attainment, rhetorical brilliance and erudition thereby set by Russian leaders are trickling down to the population at large. A recently posted internet video shows an interviewer approaching at random some well-dressed young people in the centre of Moscow, where all the best schools are.
One question dealt with Anna Karenina, and how the currently playing film may have distorted Gogol’s original. The youngsters countered by suggesting that this is par for the course: the 21th century imposes its own ethos even on the classics. They knew the value of relativism – what they didn’t know is that it wasn’t Gogol who wrote the book.
Another question dealt with the outrage of one Soviet writer, Pushkin, killing another Soviet writer, Lermontov, in a duel. The interviewees agreed that this was indeed deplorable; none let on he realised that the implied chronology was about a century out of kilter – or that, while both writers were shot in a duel, they didn’t fight each other.
Next time we feel like castigating the risible level of our leaders or the Mowgli-like savagery of our youngsters, we should remember all those poor people around the world who are at least as disadvantaged as we are. I’m man enough to acknowledge that this suggestion goes for me too.