November 18, 2013

“We will bury you!” (Or something like that.)


On November 18, 1956, Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, attended a party at the Polish Embassy in Moscow.

It was at that event that Khrushchev uttered what became his most famous (and infamous) quote.

What he said in Russian was “My vas pokhoronim.” 

In American news reports, those words were translated as “We will bury you.”

The remark was part of some offhand comments Khrushchev made that night about two recent events.

One event was the brief revolution in Soviet-dominated Hungary, which had just been brutally squashed by Russian troops.

The other was the recent bombing and invasion of Egypt by France, Britain and Israel, precipitating the Suez Crisis.

At the Embassy party on November 18th, Khrushchev blamed Western-backed “Fascist gangs” for fomenting the rebellion in Hungary. He also denounced the “imperialists and their puppets” who had attacked Egypt, a recent Soviet ally.

Then, according to an Associated Press report, Khrushchev added:

“Socialist states...base ourselves on the idea that we must peacefully co-exist. About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist...If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”

The story caused quite a stir here in the U.S.

Headlines blared things like “‘We Will Bury You,’ Russian Boss Rants” and “Raging Soviet Boss Shouts At The West ‘We Will Bury You.’”
 
Given the growing nuclear arms race and Cold War tensions at the time, it’s understandable that most Americans assumed Khrushchev was either threatening or boasting or both.

His immediately notorious four-word quote seemed to imply that the Soviet Union could — and some day would — violently destroy America and its allies, implicitly in a nuclear war that many people worried was inevitable.

Today, many books and posts on the Internet say that “We will bury you” is a mistranslation of what Khrushchev said and that he was actually being more flippant than hostile.

A number of history and quotation books now suggest that the Russian words “My vas pokhoronim” really mean something like “We shall be present at your funeral” or “We shall outlive you.”

A recent post on the always-interesting site Cracked.com, titled “6 Mistranslations That Changed The World,” offered this explanation:

“As it turns out, a better literal translation of his words would have been, ‘We will be present when you are buried.’ This was actually a pretty common saying in Soviet Russia. What Khrushchev really meant was, ‘We will outlast you.’ It was just the usual ‘communism is better than capitalism’ posturing that went on all the time in the Cold War, but thanks to misinterpretations...Americans thought Khrushchev was threatening to literally bury us in the rubble of a nuclear attack.”

I grew up in the 1950s, when we practiced “duck and cover” drills at school and families were building fallout shelters in their back yards.

I tend to think that the modern spin on Khrushchev’s most famous quote overlooks a few simple facts.

Back in 1956, The nuclear arms race and the threat of nuclear war were real and taken very seriously.

So, “We shall be present at your funeral” or “We shall outlive you” or any of the other “better” translations that are now suggested would likely have sounded just as hostile and threatening to most Americans.

Thus, the “issue” of whether “We will bury you” was a mistranslation or misquote seems kind of moot to me.

Of course, six years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we found out that Khrushchev didn’t really have the sharries to start a nuclear war with the U.S.

He backed down after President John F. Kennedy threatened to push the button first if the Soviets refused to remove the nuclear missiles they had secretly shipped to Cuba.

I don’t know what Kennedy said to Khrushchev behind the scenes during that high stakes game of Cold War brinksmanship.

But I suspect it might have been something along the lines of “We will bury you.”

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