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I just came across an article by Putin in The National Interest and got quite impressed by his English writing proficiency. As an undergraduate student learning English, I know how much time and effort are needed to master English to such an admirable degree, especially if you do not live in an English-speaking country. What's particularly amazing is that Putin started learning English around 2000, when he was about 50 years old, and has since been learning English while holding a full-time Russian-speaking job. Amazed, I carefully checked whether the article mentions any co-author, contributor, translator, or an original Russian text. It doesn't.

But before I start telling my friends and fellow students about this truly inspiring example, I'd like to ask here whether I'm not being too naive. Sure, I find it unthinkable that the president of a developed country will usurp the authorship of an article written by someone else or fail to acknowledge a translator. And I'm aware that there have already been a few talented writers among Russian leaders, with Lenin, Khruschev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev having written books as solo authors. But the skeptic in me is whispering that it's a bit of a stretch to believe that Putin could achieve excellence of a whole new level, emerging as a writer in a foreign language he learned while serving as Russia's president.

My question: Are there any facts, statements, or pieces of evidence that confirm or refute that Putin wrote the article on his own? I am curious, for instance, whether his spokesman or close associates said anything about that, whether magazines like The National Interest require that all authors sign an authorship statement like in research journals, and whether Putin's English is good enough to write such articles.

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    "I find it unthinkable that the president of a developed country will usurp the authorship of an article written by someone else or fail to acknowledge a translator" There's an entire industry for writing things that other people can use without crediting you. – ThisIsNoZaku Jun 21 at 17:56
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    My impression is that most of the speeches of heads of state and other high ranking officials are actually written by other people. This is most definitely standard practice, and the actual author(s) is/are rarely if ever acknowledged. – jcaron Jun 22 at 9:30
  • Comments deleted. The debate about whether or not it is appropriate for a politician to use ghostwriters is an opinion-based matter which does not belong on this website. This question is about whether or not this politician did so in this specific case. The moral judgment for that is better left to more discussion-oriented platforms. – Philipp Jun 24 at 14:19
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    National-level politicians generally do not write their own speeches, they have teams of speech-writers who do that for them (with their input and guidance, of course). You will note that these speech-writers are virtually never credited. There's no reason to believe that this doesn't apply in full effect to their written words as well. For instance, the Pulitzer prize-winning "Profiles In Courage" by John F. Kennedy is widely acknowledged to have been written by Ted Sorensen, though he has never been officially credited. This probably applies to anything written by any Head of State. – RBarryYoung Jun 24 at 15:54
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    I’m voting to close this question because it belongs on Skeptics – RedSonja Jun 29 at 5:23
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Professor Mariusz Wołos, of the Pedagogical University of Krakow, has conducted an interview with the Polish Press Agency about this very issue. He claims not only that Putin didn't write the article, but that it was written by a group of researchers, and that he would feel confident guessing the identity of one of the researchers in particular. The transcript of the interview (in Polish) is found here, but I've translated the relevant part below:

Polish Press Agency: Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to publish an article about World War II and what is his main goal?

Professor Mariusz Wołos: First of all, it should be emphasized that this is not a text written by Putin, but signed with his signature. Of course, he also takes full responsibility for its content. Most likely, the authors of this article are specialists from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and he was consulted with several historians from the Russian Academy of Sciences. It even seems to me that I know which of these researchers has made a decisive contribution to the preparation of this text. I won't mention this name because it's just a guess. It was also not President Putin who deliberately and selectively selected the documents cited in this article.

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    Certainly, this version is very close to reality. – user Jun 23 at 4:51
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    Just read it again: "it should be emphasized that this is not a text written by Putin". How does he know it? He is a psionic? He can look through walls? He was involved in it? – user2501323 Jun 23 at 6:08
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    @user2501323, just the way we know that Brezhnev didn't write his memoirs. Even without explicit testimony, him writing it 'as is' is so implausible that nobody seriously considers such possibility. Not only because of suspiciously flawless text, but simply because it's not how things are generally done at this level. – Zeus Jun 24 at 1:59
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    @user2501323 The answer clearly presents that as a "claim" though. Also, suppose you were involved in a discussion with a flat-earther--how do YOU know the earth is round? – smcs Jun 24 at 12:45
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    @user2501323 I don't think that's unfair. Still your criticism is more valid when aimed at the interviewee, less so for the answer by CDJB. "[...] of initially opposed to Russia individual" - what do you base that claim on, then? – smcs Jun 24 at 13:04
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There are a few possibilities. Here they are, in descending order of probability:

  • First, he might have asked someone else to write the article. The Russian government certainly does have advisors who can do that. The president tells them what they want to say, perhaps supplies a few notes and sketches, and the advisor writes it, then submits it to the president. This is not an usurpation of authorship; the ideas are those of the president, not (necessarily) those of the advisor.

  • Second, he might have written the text in Russian, and have an advisor to translate it. There is no real reason why the advisor shouldn't remain anonymous in this case either. They are paid do perform such jobs, after all.

  • Third, Putin might have written the whole thing in English. It wouldn't be published before being very carefully revised by advisors, who would suppress mistakes and Russianisms.

  • Or, fourth, Putin may be a very proficient English writer. After all, he can have a couple advisors to teach him and improve his English at any time, and certainly a considerable library at hand that he can read from.

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    In support of the fourth point: Putin is a former KGB officer, so having proficiency in English is not out of the realm of probability. – sharur Jun 22 at 17:41
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    He has also given speeches in english before too. – SnakeDoc Jun 22 at 19:51
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    @sharur, Putin admitted he didn't speak English before (i.e. by his KGB training); in fact, the OP provided a reference to that. There is simply no chance the text wasn't edited or polished; the question is only to what extent - but I suspect we'll never know. – Zeus Jun 23 at 0:54
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    Putin is widely described as intelligent by those who interact with him. However, this would be impossible to know - anyone involved in the process who implied he did not write it entirely himself will quickly find themselves with a falling out a window. – corsiKa Jun 23 at 5:35
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    The president tells them what they want to say, perhaps supplies a few notes and sketches, and the advisor writes it, then submits it to the president. Nearly all professional writing is done this way. Marketing writers and technical writers generate the particular content but the ideas come from higher up. Everything is done by specialists these days, doubly so once an organization gets larger than a few hundred people. – J... Jun 24 at 13:58
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Putin is a competent English speaker, yet he does not appear to be a confident speaker, it is a third language for him. His second language is German. As a KGB operative, he lived and worked in Dresden, Germany for five years.

He rarely uses English, for example he will talk to a journalist in English in a relaxed chat. But he switches to Russian for the formal interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiFAeluRtao

The article was clearly by a professional writer, but I have no way of knowing if it was translated from a Russian original, or if it was re-written/copyedited from English copy. The text is rather littered with clichés like "feel a lump rise in [one's] throat" or "sweep under the carpet" which suggests a slightly "textbook" style of writing. And, unfortunately, "failing to acknowledge a translator" is the normal standard. Translators get paid, but they don't get their name on the by-line in the newspaper. (It's different in literary translation).

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    "he speaks better English than Trump or Obama speak Russian, for example" is a bit of an odd statement considering that neither of them speak Russian at all. – JBentley Jun 22 at 13:23
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    That is exactly my point. Neither Obama nor Trump speak Russian, but Putin speaks some English, albeit slightly hesitantly and with an accent. – James K Jun 22 at 13:41
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    @JamesK How is that relevant to the question? – JiK Jun 22 at 14:36
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    Its not really, just a reminder of the context: It is normal for political leaders to speak two or three languages, it is exceptional that many British and American politicians don't. On the other hand Obama had some multilingual ability and BJ of course speaks Latin. – James K Jun 22 at 14:45
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    Video of Putin addressing the Bundestag in German (his German is very good): youtube.com/watch?v=Xc6ABpAdYV0 – Georg Patscheider Jun 23 at 8:45
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After I posted my question here, Russia's state news agency, TASS, published statements of Putin's spokesman, Peskov, about the matter in question:

Песков отметил, что Путин, заинтересовавшись этой темой, "работал с Росархивом, с разными историками, большая часть работы была проделана самим президентом". "Не то чтобы он сам сидел в архивах, но он живо знакомился со всеми архивными документами, которые ему передавали", - добавил представитель Кремля.

My translation:

Peskov mentioned that having become interested in the topic, Putin "worked with the Federal Archival Agency and various historians, and a large part of the work was done by the president himself." "He didn't really spend time in the archives, but he vividly acquainted himself with all archival documents that were brought to him," added the representative of the Kremlin.

So Putin's spokesman confirms that the article was a result of joint work that involved "various historians."

Interestingly, the news publication goes on to quote Peskov's explanation of why the English version of the article, published in The National Interest, and the Russian version, published on the Kremlin website, provide different numbers of Russian casualties in the Battle of Rzhev:

Отвечая на вопрос о причинах разных данных о потерях СССР в Ржевской битве в годы Великой Отечественной войны в англо- и русскоязычной версиях статьи главы государства, Песков пояснил, что в журнал National Interest англоязычная версия статьи была отправлена заранее, "а работа в архивах по уточнению данных о погибших продолжалась фактически до последнего часа, когда уже в издательство отравлялся русский, аутентичный текст".

My translation:

Answering a question about the reasons why the English and Russian versions of the article by the head of the state provide different numbers of the USSR's casualties in the Battle of Rzhev, fought in the Great Patriotic War, Peskov explained that the English version had been sent to The National Interest earlier (than the Russian version had been sent for publication elsewhere), "whilst the work in the archives to get more accurate data regarding casualties had continued practically till the last hour before the Russian, authentic text had been sent to a publishing house."

So Peskov says that the original text was written in Russian. And if it's true, it's hard to imagine that the president himself spent time and effort translating the Russian text into English, especially given that he isn't a professional translator.

A comment by User under my question provides a link to a video in which Putin answers in English a question by a journalist of Sky News. Here is the relevant moment in the video, and here is my transcript:

Journalist: Mr. Putin, how worried are you that the protests will affect your election victory? Are you concerned?

Putin: No, I am not concerned. I think about people, ordinary people of Russia. Of course, I see the protests, groups, and I think about it, what I can to(sic!) do with(sic!) all our citizens.

Interestingly, the Russian subtitles translate the last sentence into Russian as, "Конечно, я вижу группы протестующих и думаю о том, что я могу сделать для всех наших граждан," which means, "Of course, I see groups of protesters and think what I can do for all our citizens."

Such a level of English language proficiency is clearly not enough to write the English text of the article in question, although it should be noted that the video was shot in 2012. Putin may have improved his English language skills since then, although he was already 60 years old at that time.

Finally, I discovered that it's not really uncommon for newspapers and magazines to publish articles by politicians who don't speak the language of the article, and without acknowledging the translator. For instance, Pravda, a Russian newspaper, published an article authored by Sen. McCain and written in Russian and for Russians. The article is titled "Россияне заслуживают лучшего, чем Путин" ("Russians deserve better than Putin").

So in view of all the evidence and the answers to my question I find it extremely unlikely that Putin himself worded the English text of the article, although he may have contributed to the original Russian text, most likely by giving some general guidance, making corrections to better reflect his foreign policy agenda, and approving the final version.

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I don't know the details of how the article was produced, but there's an easy explanation: The National Interest copyeditors fixed any awkward English. You can be sure The National Interest has copyeditors (because any awkward English that actually gets published reflects badly on the magazine), and fixing awkward English is literally what they're paid for.

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    In Putin's article, I see such idiomatic expressions as "sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet." There's no Russian equivalent of "sweep under the carpet," so the true author must have thought in English rather than translated Russian thoughts into English. I also see fingerprints of a professional writer in the article - a catchy introductory part, strong topic sentences, etc. I think that no copyeditors will make such an article from a text written by an amateur writer who has only a basic knowledge of the language. – Mitsuko Jun 22 at 6:35
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    @Mitsuko, you are mistaken, there IS Russian equivalent, "замести под ковер", which means exactly the same. – user2501323 Jun 22 at 8:18
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    @user2501323 : I'm not a native Russian speaker and learn Russian as an undergraduate student, but as far as I can see in Google, "замести под ковер" is an Anglicism that started being used only recently and is often used in quotation marks, e.g., Лавров заявил о попытке ОЗХО «замести под ковер» происходящее в сирийской Думе (vz.ru/news/2019/6/10/981854.print.html). Or is this expression really natural to the Russian-speaking mind? – Mitsuko Jun 22 at 10:48
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    @Mitsuko: 1)it may be an Anglicism, but it was borrowed in elder times, and now it is just russian idiom. 2)Of course, grammatic construction is OTHER, because English language is not relative to Russian language.)) In fact, good english text SHOULD contain some idioms, or it would be consist of sentences like "London is the capital of the Great Britain", which are simple, but not very interesting to read, isn't it? If your second point would be true, than there would be no people, who speaks language other than their own - because they "are thinking on another language'. It is laughable.) – user2501323 Jun 22 at 11:26
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    @Mitsuko : English isn't my first language, but I still use "sweep under the carpet" (or "rug", actually) when writing/speaking in English. There might be some very obscure phrases I probably won't use, but if they are obscure it means that most native English speakers won't use them often either. – vsz Jun 22 at 11:47

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