The Straight Dope | The Straight Dope | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » The Straight Dope

The Straight Dope


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Two questions. Often Soviet authorities will brand a person as a "cosmopolite" in order to signify his or her lack of good Soviet citizenship. Why? What pejorative connotations does this word have in their minds? Second, they often seem to use "hooliganism" as a specific criminal charge like theft or assault, although the term as we use it is vague, covering a host of activities. What types of crime(s) does it cover? --Jonathan Lamal, Los Angeles

Those of us who are fastidious about these things, Jonathan, always say "cosmopolitan," "cosmopolite" being a too-literal translation of the Russian kosmopolit. Also, you seldom see "cosmopolitan" without "rootless" stuck in front of it like a cheap cigar. The significance of the term is clear to any Russian. It means the Jews, and has since the beginning of the Soviet state, and probably earlier.

Kosmopolit first entered the Russian language in the 1860s, around the time Czar Alexander II first permitted some Jews to emigrate to other parts of Russia from the Pale, the region in the western part of the empire to which they had long been restricted. Many Jews took the opportunity to move to big cities like Saint Petersburg (now Leningrad), where they apparently aroused the ire of the local goyim, who regarded them basically as roving loan sharks. Jews were also widely presumed to have extraterritorial loyalties--that is, they were thought to be Zionists, dreaming even in the 19th century of someday returning to Jerusalem.

The Soviet-produced Dictionary of the Contemporary Russian Literary Language defines kosmopolit as "a person who does not consider himself as belonging to any nationality." If that's too ambiguous, the definition of kosmopolitizm should remove any doubts: "a bourgeois reactionary ideology."

Jews have been persecuted off and on throughout Soviet history, notably by Stalin in the 30s and again during the "Doctor's Plot" in the early 50s, which involved several Jewish doctors who allegedly plotted against the dictator's life. Officially, of course, the Soviet Union does not single out ethnic groups, hence the need for code words. A University of Chicago professor with whom I chatted on this subject recalls that a friend of his who is Jewish was once arrested in the Soviet Union for speculating (in books, of all things). The authorities officially described the friend as "a thin, agile brunette," which we can be sure made the situation quite clear to all concerned.

Moving on to "hooliganism," you're right that the term is vague to us. It's vague to the Russians, too, and that's why Soviet authorities like it--if they can't nail you for anything else, there's always hooliganism. In this respect the charge is similar to our disorderly conduct, although the penalties can be far more severe. It should be noted that hooliganism refers strictly to common crime rather than political crime. One may read, as we did recently, of 30 Lithuanians being arrested for hooliganism following anti-Soviet demonstrations, but this is just an attempt to sweep things under the rug. The authorities undoubtedly feel it's better to be dealing with rowdies than revolutionaries.


Re "shake-'em-ups" [glass toys that "snow" when shaken, December 25], I have over 200 of these things, and I can authoritatively say their name is "snowdomes." I call them "snow." No flea marketer would know definitively what a shake-'em-up was. --S.G., Cabin John, Maryland

I have subjected countless people to this same question. To this day one friend insists they are called "waterballs." However, based on my extensive data, the correct term is "snowglobes." --H.G. from D.C.

They are called "water globes." --Erika M., Santa Barbara, California

Listen, until you guys get your act together, I'm sticking with "shake-'em-ups."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment