November 18, 2016

“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.

At that event, he made some boasting comments about the competition between Communism and “capitalist states” like the US.

One of those comments included what would become Khrushchev’s most famous (and infamous) quotation.

The words he spoke in Russian were “My vas pokhoronim,” an idiomatic expression that was traditionally used as a humor-tinged taunt in Russia.

Some translations say it means “We will outlast you.” But since the word pokhoronim does refer to burial, it has also been interpreted as “We will be present at your funeral.” 

It bears a similarity to the American English idiom “It’s your funeral,” which is often used jokingly.

US news reports translated Khrushchev’s remark as “We will bury you.”

In an era when nuclear war between US and USSR was a constant concern, Americans didn’t see it as funny.

The context of the quote involved comments Khrushchev made about two recent world events.

One 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 a huge stir in the US.

Headlines blared “‘We Will Bury You,’ Russian Boss Rants” and “Raging Soviet Boss Shouts At The West ‘We Will Bury You.’” 
Many Americans believed Khrushchev was saying that the Soviet Union could — and some day would — violently destroy the US and its allies, implicitly in a nuclear war.

Nowadays, most books and Internet posts that cite the quote say “We will bury you” is a mistranslation of the Russian idiom and that Khrushchev was being more flippant than fearsomely threatening.

A post on the always-interesting site, 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 in the hopes of surviving the expected nuclear showdown with Russia.

I tend to think the modern take on Khrushchev’s most (in)famous quote overlooks something.

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

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

So the fact that “We will bury you” may have been a mistranslation, misquote or misunderstanding, while interesting, may also be moot.

The concern caused by Khrushchev’s use of the words “My vas pokhoronim” would likely have been the same in the US regardless of the translation.

Of course, six years later, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, we found out Khrushchev didn’t actually 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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