8 Olympic trends in the Russian blogosphere

12 Feb


What’s happening in the Russian blogosphere in terms of the Olympics? This post takes a look at the main themes that emerge from a text analysis that involved topic clustering, named entity recognition, and sentiment analysis of 588 posts to Russian blogs over the weekend. I put these all together to see what emerged as the most significant and interesting trends.

1. Сочи

If you don’t know Russian, you might squint at that word and say “Oh, ‘coyn'”. You obviously didn’t pay attention to the lengthy introduction to the Cyrillic alphabet that kicked off the Opening Ceremony. What is your problem with dream sequences?

“Сочи” is the word for ‘Sochi’, the city on the Black Sea that’s hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. You know that. A new proper noun to learn is Krasnodar Krai. Despite appearances, that is not the intergalactic ruler that the Cosmonauts encountered in 1961 and just haven’t told us about. It’s the name of the region that Sochi is in.


But back to Сочи. The first letter is es, which comes from the Greek letter for sigma (it’s pronounced /s/). It isn’t related to the c we have in English. The next letter is basically an /o/ though (like in English no…that’s not quite right but close enough).

Then we get che, which is that /ch/ sound at the start of cha-cha and Tchaikovsky. Finally, it’s a и (sorry, that’s the cursive/italic, it looks like ‘и’ when it’s lower-case print). That’s pronounced like ‘ee’ except sometimes it’s a shorter vowel like in English in. Listen to Russians say this vowel and the whole word here.

2. The most popular sports

Here are the sports that get the most mentions:

  • Men’s hockey
  • cross-country skiing
  • biathlon
  • curling
  • snowboarding

Notice, of course, that mentions are a bad proxy for popularity. Snowboarding is mostly mentioned because there were a lot of people reporting on the very first gold medal handed out (to American Sage Kotsenburg for snowboarding slopestyle).


3. Positive for Putin

Most mentions of Putin are explicitly positive or implicitly positive, as with reports that he was happy (or ‘satisfied’) with how the Olympics opened. Here’s a question for your sentiment analysis tool: what does it mean to excerpt parts of news articles? The text within a news article may simply report opinions. Or it may be pretty thoroughly neutral. But what people choose to excerpt—even without comment—does often indicate a particular slant. I will not comment on the slant of the bloggers in this data set who simply excerpt, but I will say that for those who do give metacomments, they are very pro-Putin.

There are some naysayers who might see the entire Olympics as Putin’s диктаторские игрища. That translates to something like ‘dictatorial merrymaking’ (Russian speakers, your suggestions are welcome!) The first word really is the same root as English dictator (from Latin). If you look at the second word, the first three letters are ‘games’, in fact ‘games’ in The Winter/Olympic Games is “игр”.

4. Spectacles and evil hamsters

One of the largest groups of blog posts are about loving the Opening Ceremonies. My favorite comment is from someone who writes:


That first word is ‘it/this/that’. The second word is something like ‘impossible’ or ‘unreal(istic)’. The third word is related to the noun for ‘magnificence’ and ‘splendor’. But in one of the all-time great machine translations, Google Translate suggests: ‘THIS IS CRAZY GORGEOUS!!!’

I’ll talk a bit more about this in the next sections, but people who don’t agree with the awesomeness of the Opening Ceremonies are derided. In one case, they are called злобное хомячье, which is basically ‘evil hamster’. Or maybe ‘vicious hamster’.

5. Negative for foreign press

There are two ways the foreign press is cited (and both of these are prominent themes), one is to recount how amazed the foreign journalists are. The other is to talk about they are evil hamsters (see #4 above).

This dovetails nicely with another prominent theme—the idea of information warfare against Russia/the Olympics (my English is a pretty direct translation of “Информационная война против Олимпиады”). That is, #SochiProblems and other kinds of critiques are seen as an orchestrated, anti-Russia attack.

You get people translating @the_cheshirekat‘s tweet “Dystopia has never looked so fabulous”. That’s «Антиутопия еще никогда не выглядела так сказочно» in Russian. But now you get to see how ‘dystopia’ is basically just slightly different Greek origins than what we use in English, the Russian term is ‘anti-utopia’. The word for ‘fabulous’ has as its root ‘fairy tale’. (The English term comes from the French fabuleux, which has its origins in ‘fables’.) Btw, this.

One of the things you may have seen going around in the English-language press is the Russian word for Schadenfreude (although there may be some different nuances). The Russian term is злорадство, ‘malicious glee’ (zloradstvo, ‘evil’+’joy’). The Russian blogs don’t actually talk about this very much.

Of the four mentions of this ‘malicious glee’, one is annoyed about it in terms of the Olympics, one traces where it comes from, one is actually talking about US Republicans gloating, and the fourth is talking about how they won’t post pictures of miserable people (in the Ukraine) because he doesn’t want to participate in zloradstvo.

One of the bloggers talking about #SochiProblems has a pretty interesting critique. They say that rather than being trivial, #SochiProblems actually show the consequences of corruption so that what seem like inconveniences are actually just the surfacing of something much darker. But this particular Russian critique of Russia wasn’t that common.

Putin’s own counter-critique is

Ложечку дегтя в бочку меда подлить есть всегда желающие

‘There are always those who want to pour a spoonful of tar into a barrel of honey.’

That first word is particularly interesting because it ends in a diminutive—so it’s more like ‘a little spoonful’, maybe even ‘a cute spoonful’, embedding an extra bit of dismissiveness. Diminutive suffixes are common in the world’s languages (think of Spanish -ito and Italian -ino). Because they are often associated with children, they can be quite affectionate or be useful in hedging a request. But they can also take on other shades. Consider going up to someone in English and asking, “How’s your little project?” about something they’ve been spending a bunch of time on.

6. Not much about the gays

There are folks who mention boycotts but they don’t always mention LGBT issues. A popular strategy when gay rights are mentioned is to point out how hypocritical Americans are since there are states with anti-gay laws here. But in general, there isn’t much focus on them. A few phrases for your phrasebook, though:

  • содомской пропаганды ‘propoganda of Sodom’
  • гей-пропаганду ‘gay propoganda’

The word гей is also a homophone for what is basically an exclamative ‘Hey!’, like “Гей, славяне!” (‘Hey, Slavs!’)

7. Medvedev lullaby

One of the most popular (but short) postings was about Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sleeping during the ceremonies. A typical headline: МЕДВЕДЕВ ВПАЛ В СПЯЧКУ, ‘Medvedev went/fell into hibernation’. As Benjamin Lukoff points out, the Prime Minister’s last name means ‘bear’ (even more fun, it’s literally ‘honey+eater’).


8. Performances

The artists performing at the Olympics are a common topic, the word “Артисты” (the Latin characters are something like ‘artisty’) includes artists, actors, entertainers.

One of the most frequent people blogged about was the Russian rock singer Zemfira, who said a song of hers was used without her consent during the Opening Ceremonies, in violation of her copyright.

The term is also used for captions of pictures of the performers at the Opening Ceremony. We’ve spoken of that some, but let’s take our hats off for the hats of Russia, whether they are the ones below or ushankas or Afghankas. We clearly all need more puppy dog ear hats as in the back row. Agreed?


Towards a conclusion

People who know English but not Russian still know a number of Russian words. But these words weren’t used very often this weekend.

The only word that you probably know that was used a lot was нет (‘nyet’, ‘no’). But there are just a handful of occurrences in this dataset for ‘babushka’, ‘gulag’ (which btw is an acronym in Russian), ‘pogrom’, ‘samovar’, and ‘perestroika’.

Broadway doesn’t make any appearances, but here’s a quote that may resonate for Russians and/or observers, whether you’re thinking of the personal or the geopolitical. From Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part Two, which was named Perestroika: “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”

Understanding language is ultimately about understanding people. If you’d like to learn more about about advanced text analytics, drop us a line.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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