Art of the Headline: Kommersant’s wordplay masters

By Aaron Schwartzbaum 

You may have noticed that here at Bear Market Brief, we’re quite enthusiastic about wordplay and puns in our article titles and newsletter subject lines. In the United States, where we’re based, that sort of style is common to tabloids, but in Russia, sarcasm and biting wit can be found on top of and within articles of the country’s most serious publications. Among those publications, Kommersant without a doubt has the best wordplay and overall headline game. Even the newspaper’s description of itself is dripping with irony: it was founded in 1908 and just so happened to “cease publication between 1918-1992”. The publication’s logo, a hard sign (ъ) harkens back to that era. We’ve selected 10 of Kommersant‘s finest headlines and presented them in translation with their context.

10. Моссовет велел мясу дешеветь. Мясо не хочет

TRANSLATION: Moscow council demands meat get cheaper. Meat does not want to

Russians have long turned to humor, often self-deprecating, in hard times. This headline is no exception: it comes from the early 90s, as Russia was battered by economic chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly rampant price growth.

Russians wait on a food line in the early 90s


9. Я из лесу вышел, был сильный Ахмат

TRANSLATION: I exited the forest, Ahkmat was strong

Thеre’s quite a bit of context behind this headline. First, the reference: a poem by Nekrasov, part of which reads “I exited the forest, the frost was strong”. Second, the historical context: the article was written in the midst of an insurgency following the Second Chechen War. Akhmat Kadyrov (his son, Ramzan, took over the republic following Akhmat’s assassination) was a prominent rebel in the First Chechen War, but switched sides to fight for Moscow later on. The article features an interview with a number of insurgents who had laid down their arms, drawn to and/or threatened by the elder Kadryov’s growing influence. One more piece of context: as far as Chechen insurgency is concerned, “going into the forest” meant joining the insurgents.

8. Самый пчеловечный пчеловек

TRANSLATION: The most humane person

This headline is pure wordplay and we’re big fans. It came out following an asset declaration by former Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov, wherein he claimed ownership of four properties engaged in beekeeping. In Russian bees are пчелы (pcholi)…that extra ‘п’ added to the latter two words of the headline evokes them while sounding almost identical to the original meaning, used by poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to describe one Vladimir Lenin.

7. Террорист помер один

TRANSLATION: Terrorist dies alone

Here’s another one from the Chechen insurgency, concerning the 2006 killing (purportedly by Russian special forces) of Shamil Basayev. At the time, he was among Russia’s most wanted men, and deservedly so: aside helping to kick off the Second Chechen War by invading Dagestan, he also was responsible for the Moscow theater hostage crisis in which 170 died. The play on words here is that помер (pomer) is but a letter away from номер (nomer), a play on “terrorist number one”.

6. Герхард Шредер трубоустроился

TRANSLATION: Gerhard Schroeder finds work

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a big fan of Russian energy companies – or perhaps the money they pay him. Just recently, he was named chairman of Rosneft’s board of directors, much to the ire of his compatriots. In any case, this headline came after Schroeder was named the North European Gas Pipeline shareholder committee, then building the North European Pipeline and later gaining the moniker Nord Stream. In Russian трудоустроиться (trudoustroitsya) means to gain employment. Трубо (truba) means pipe.

5. Цены в мае: жуть стало лучше, жуть стало веселее

TRANSLATION: May prices: the dismay has gotten better, the dismay has gotten happier

Also from the price volatility of the 90s, this headline riffs on a famous quote by Stalin in 1935. It reads “жить стало лучше, жить стало веселее” – life has gotten better, life has gotten happier. Like we mentioned above, biting humor here.

Soviet propaganda featuring Stalin’s original phrase.


4. Они сажались за родину

TRANSLATION: They were imprisoned for the motherland

This headline was penned in July 2003, during a key moment in Putin’s early tenure: the take-down of Mikhail Khodorkvosky and his oil giant YUKOS. The article itself explored why Khodorskovky set his sights on political power, and as the case against him went on to demonstrate, why it was a clear no-no. The play on words here is with the verb сражаться (srazhatsya) – to fight. The headline sounds rather similar to “they fought for the motherland”.

3. Кровь износа

TRANSLATION: The blood of wear and tear

Measured in pure wordplay terms, this one may be the best on our list. The article concerns the faltering state of Russian infrastructure and how it was leading to serious injuries or even death. Износ (iznos) is the accounting term for depreciation in Russian, literally from the roots for ‘away from’ and ‘carrying/taking.’ In this case, the wordplay is typographical: adding a space between the из and носа spells the difference between “the blood of wear and tear” and “nosebleed”.

2. Победа единовбросов

TRANSLATION: Victory of the United Ballot Stuffers

Have you ever read a pun so bad that you thought somebody should be fired for it? Well, you read Bear Market Brief, so probably. This play on words did in fact lead to firings, though unfortunately for political reasons. It comes from the Duma election of 2011, when Putin’s (at the time) United Russia party won a commanding vote, but only through mass falsification of the results. Russians, particularly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, were not thrilled, especially as Putin has announced his рокировка (rokirovka) – castling move, wherein he would reclaim the post of president from Dmitri Medvedev. The play on words here is with единорос, slang for members of United Russia (think ‘Dems’ in America). Вброс, meanwhile, is ‘stuffing,’ in the ballot sense. Both Kommersant’s general director and chief editor were let go of by owner Alisher Usmanov over the headline. A shame, we think.

1. Полный истец

TRANSLATION: The full plaintiff

Without further ado, our top pick, a headline demonstrating both hilarious wordplay (we’ll get there in a second) and real editorial cojonesThe backstory: some six months before the publication of the headline in 2005, Kommersant ran a story on serious difficulties facing Alfa-Bank, some of which led to depositors being unable to withdraw their money. Alfa-Bank sued Kommersant over the story, and ultimately won in court. Along with US$1m in reparations, the publication was required to retract the story. Instead of merely doing so in a simple note, the headline, along with the court decision, was run alone. As in, that was the only thing printed in that day’s newspaper – just white space, aside from the ruling. The play of words is on…well, another Russian word that we aren’t going to write here, with whole phrase evoked by the headline meaning “totally f***ed”. As a pun its fantastic, and as a story too. Hence, our #1.

Yes, this actually happened.

Headlines chosen primarily from
this Kommersant collection. Our thanks to Elena Chernenko and Egor Fyodorov for their assistance in gathering headlines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s