As expected, Wednesday’s summit between Vladimir Putin and Biden in Geneva didn’t result in a reset of U.S-Russian relations, though leaders were able to agree on some important issues, like the return of ambassadors to their posts.
At the press conference after the meeting, a journalist asked Putin whether the summit had helped build trust between the two men. In response, he turned mysterious. Putin quoted Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “There’s no happiness in life, only a mirage of it on the horizon.” Putin clarified that there is no “family trust” between Biden and him, but he has seen the “mirage” of it.
Putin loves to make such colorful remarks, which then create headlines in Russian and foreign media alike. Mostly he is famous for his harsh words, which are sometimes quotes from or references to novels, poems, movies, and cartoons, and sometimes of his own making. Even for the Russian audience, it is not always obvious which of his words are original. We collected some of Putin’s most hardcore statements and where we think they may have originated.
“You can take your complaint to the International League of Sexual Reform.”
Ahead of the summit, Putin gave an interview to NBC News. It was his first conversation with U.S. media in three years and was likely intended to send a particular message to Biden before meeting him in person. However, some of Putin’s statements made it a little hard to tell what exactly that message was supposed to be. When Putin was asked whether he is “waging a cyberwar against America,” he answered that there has been no proof of Russian government involvement. He added, “Without evidence, you can take your complaint to the International League of Sexual Reform.” NBC News translated it literally, and it made no sense.
That’s because the International League of Sexual Reform, as you might expect, doesn’t exist. It is a quote from The Golden Calf, a novel by Russian writers Yevgeny Petrov and Ilya Ilf. It seems Putin was trying to say that nonexistent evidence should be taken to the nonexistent organization. Even with that context, the reference he chose sounds pretty bold.
“Don’t be mad at the mirror if you are ugly.”
Another Putin answer from the recent NBC interview. Reporter Keir Simmons asked him why Russia is cracking down on opposition, and Putin responded with his classic whataboutism. He recalled arrests of hundreds of activists after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 and accused the U.S. of “the persecution for political opinions.” “We have a saying, “Don’t be mad at the mirror if you are ugly,” he said. It is a quote from the play The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. Every Russian schoolchild is familiar with it.
“This is boring, girls.”
This is how Putin responded in January to a video investigation from dissident Alexei Navalny that revealed the Russian president is building a $1 billion palace for himself. He was at a press conference with Russian students and was quoting a line from another novel by Yevgeny Petrov and Ilya Ilf, The Twelve Chairs. The phrase “This is boring, girls” belongs to the protagonist Ostap Bender, who was persuading the chess players from a small town to change the name of the chess club for a more creative one.
“Why so serious?”
In September 2016, Putin visited Kalashnikov Concern in Izhevsk to congratulate people who produce assault rifles. One of the employees reportedly looked skeptical during the president’s optimistic speech. Then Putin addressed the man, “Why so serious?” and added, “He doesn’t believe me!” Social media immediately started to compare the Russian leader to the Joker, though it is not clear whether Putin was intentionally quoting the character.
“Where is the money, Zina?”
Probably one Putin’s favorite quotes—he has used it at least six times. The most recent time came in February, when Putin asked ministers to figure out why scientists in Novosibirsk (a city in Siberia where a lot of research is conducted) receive low salaries. It is a line from Soviet singer-songwriter and poet Vladimir Vysotsky’s poem “Dialog in Front of the TV,” in which spouses Zina and Vanya pick on each other.
“A bear won’t ask for permission.”
In October 2014, while speaking at the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank, in Sochi, Putin responded to criticism from the West about Russia annexing Crimea. He pointed out the double standards of Europe by quoting the Latin proverb, “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for an ox,” which means that “what is permitted for gods (important people), is not permitted for cattle (everyone).” Putin mentioned multiple times that Europe treats independence referendums in Crimea and, for example, in the Republic of Kosovo (in 1991) differently. President claimed that he did not agree with this mindset. And though there is no bear in a proverb, Putin decided to introduce his own character. “Probably it is not permitted to the ox, but a bear “won’t ask for permission.” He added, “And it won’t give up its taiga.”
“Russia’s borders do not end anywhere.”
In November 2016, Putin spoke at a televised awards ceremony for geography students and asked a 9-year-old boy where Russia’s borders end. When the student answered, “At the Bering Strait, near the U.S.,” the Russian president laughed and corrected him: “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere.” Soon after Putin added that it was a joke. But according to another Russian saying, “Each joke has only part of the joke.”
“We would go to heaven, and they would simply perish.”
In October 2018, speaking at another annual meeting of Valdai Discussion Club, Putin bragged that Russia had improved its nuclear arsenal. However, he emphasized that Russia has no plans to use its weapons first. According to him, Russia would fire missiles only in response to an incoming nuclear attack. “We would be victims of aggression and would go to heaven as martyrs,” he said, and, referring to the hypothetical aggressors, added, “They will simply perish. They won’t even have time to repent.” The audience applauded and laughed. It is important to understand that Russians who support Putin tend to think that this attitude makes the West respect Russia. But others consider his insults unnecessary and make fun of them on social media.
“If we capture them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse.”
The most memorable Putin insult happened back in 1999, when he was a prime minister. Speaking on TV at the beginning of Second Chechen War, which Russian authorities viewed as a counter-terrorist operation, he declared that authorities would pursue terrorists everywhere: “If they are in the airport, we will pursue them in the airport. And if we capture them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse.” In 2011 he said that he regretted that language. At the same time, Putin mentioned that he heard that at least one taxi driver back then thought that the things he told were right. (Russian taxi drivers pretend to be political experts during the rides.)
Given that nothing really changed in Putin`s language since 1999, it seems that despite the apology, the Russian president continues to think that brutal expressions are the right thing.