It’s a basic fact of diplomacy that an attack on a country’s ambassador is tantamount to an attack on the country.
When one diplomat insults another, the issue isn’t between two men but between two countries. A diplomat isn’t the one talking; it’s his government that talks through him.
This tradition goes back a long time, and it has been maintained by even less civilised peoples, such as the medieval Mongols.
Killing or blinding another country’s ambassador was their routine method of declaring war: a point of no return was thus reached. Conversely, if they sent a parley to a besieged town, and the parley would be returned in a shop-worn condition or not at all, they’d capture the town and massacre everyone inside. Diplomatic protocol had to be enforced.
The Mongols’ cultural heirs, the Russians, are well aware of this heritage but tend to ignore it. Specifically, their diplomats don’t seem to realise that insulting their British counterparts constitutes a casus belli, and we’re too weak-kneed to remind them.
The case in point: the other day, at a session of the UN Security Council, Russia’s deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov attacked the British ambassador Matthew Rycroft, and through him Britain.
Safronkov took exception to the objections Rycroft had voiced towards Russia’s continued support of Assad and, by association, his use of sarin.
Fair enough, it’s his job to oppose the West on this issue – and increasingly any other. This doesn’t ipso facto constitute an attack. But the unconscionably rude form in which it was expressed most definitely does.
Jabbing a finger at Mr Rycroft, the Russian thug screamed: “Look at me when I’m talking to you! Don’t you look away! Why are you looking away?!? …Don’t you dare insult Russia again!!!” This sounds rude enough even in the English translation, but in Russian the tirade is sheer thuggery.
Alas, back in the seventeenth century English lost the very useful distinction between ‘thou’ and ‘you’, which exists in all European languages, including Russian (ты and вы). A plethora of telling nuances were thereby lost as well.
The second person singular ты is used when talking to family, friends, children and – by uncouth people – to waiters and taxi drivers. When an adult stranger is addressed as ты, rather than вы, he perceives this as rude (sometimes as a downright insult), and the speaker as a lout.
For one diplomat to address another that way in an official capacity is unimaginable. But then nothing is unimaginable in a country run by a fusion of mafia and KGB thugs. Safrinkov proved that by using the ты form when sputtering spittle at our man.
At least Safronkov didn’t bang his shoe on the table, like Khrushchev, nor use any obscenities, like his boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
For example, Lavrov swore at Blair’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who had dared to suggest that human rights in Russia could be a bit more robust. Safronkov’s spiritual guru replied: “Who the f*** are you to lecture me?” Considering that he can hardly put a grammatical sentence together, his use of colloquialisms is remarkable.
“Her Majesty’s Foreign Secretary”, should have been the answer to that one, followed by a threat to sever diplomatic relations unless abject apologies were immediately offered. In the past such a demand would have been made – and supported by cannon boats. But these days street thugs can swear at ministers of the Crown with impunity.
Lavrov’s boss Putin also tends to express himself in the underworld jargon, which is par for the course. He himself has described his youth as that of a “common Petersburg thug” – and that was before he joined the KGB and purloined billions.
The opposition writer Igor Yakovenko, widely regarded as Russia’s best journalist, has written a perceptive piece explaining how Russia’s linguistic landscape is dominated by the watchtowers of prisons and concentration camps.
He points out that the population constantly circulates ‘in’ and ‘out’. Today, he writes, a fourth of Russian men have been behind bars at some time, with a devastating effect on the language.
Even reasonably cultured native speakers, and I include myself in that number, often use underworld slang. But reasonably cultured native speakers don’t ascend to government posts in Russia. Only thugs like Safronkov do.
Incidentally, having thus demonstrated his subtle understanding of Russia, an asset that’s almost impossible for a non-native to acquire, Yakovenko then went on to demonstrate his ignorance of the West, a weakness that’s almost impossible for a native Russian to avoid.
He referred to the injured party as “Sir Matthew Rycroft”, explaining that he is “a knight-commander of the Order of the British Empire, and they have a custom that a knight-commander becomes a ‘sir’ straight away.”
Eh, not quite. One has to be knighted to be called ‘sir’, and an OBE (in Mr Rycroft’s case, a CBE) isn’t a knighthood. There’s no reason for a Russian journalist to be familiar with the British honours system, but one should be aware of one’s limitations and try to keep one’s foot out of one’s mouth.
Alas, this is only a small part of it. For the Russians, including talented and erudite ones like Mr Yakovenko, are ignorant not only of British social protocol but of the West in general. That’s why they invariably come a cropper when trying to transplant Western political and economic models into Russia’s soil.
That soil rejects them every time, for it’s overgrown with the weeds of Byzantine and Mongol mentality. The weeds, lovingly tended by the louts known as the Russian government, suffocate the thin growth of civilised people who are getting fewer and fewer.
“Le style,” said Buffon, “c’est l’homme même”. The style is the man. True. And also the country.