The Vocabulary of Soviet-Era Nostalgia & Cold War Spy Words

Putin invades Crimea. Kermit the Frog goes to Siberia (where Tina Fey is prison warden). Journalists tweet pics of brown water flowing from faucets in Soviet-reminiscent Sochi hotel rooms. Wes Anderson enshrines that concept via " The Grand Budapest Hotel." Meanwhile Cold War history series " The Americans" is signed to a third season on FX.

Call it War on Terror fatigue, ascribe it to fashion's habit of looking back, just don't try to deny it. The Cold War is hot right now, and so are the words in this list.

(For words on this list originating from Russian, we reference Wikipedia's entry for List of English words of Russian origin.)
28 words 1,165 learners

Learn words with Flashcards and other activities

Full list of words from this list:

  1. agent
    any representative of a federal bureau
    The Cold War gave rise to a literature and movie goldmine of "secret agent" stories (and at least one song) following the exploits of government agents sent into hostile territories as spies.
  2. agitprop
    political propaganda communicated via art and literature
    Derived in the 1930s from the Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda.
  3. allegiance
    the loyalty that citizens owe to their country
    Recalling Mad Magazine's long-running "Spy Versus Spy," questions of allegiance were essential in a war when no one know whom you could trust.
  4. apparatchik
    a communist who was a member of the administrative system of a communist party
    From the word "apparat," which derives from "apparatus" (from Latin apparare to make ready) this refers to an administrator in the Soviet communist party.
  5. assassination
    murder of a public figure by surprise attack
    Who knew there would come a time when the Cold War tactic of covert assassination would seem to be a kinder, gentler means of conducting war?
  6. beluga
    valuable source of caviar and isinglass
    Vodka shots and beluga caviar on blinis. What could be better?
  7. commissar
    an official of the Communist Party who was assigned to teach party principles to a military unit
    Derived from the Latin committere for "entrust," this was first used in 1918 to mean a head of a government department in the Soviet Union (in 1946 the term was changed to Minister). Now, commissar refers in a general sense to an official of the Communist Party, especially in the former Soviet Union or present day China, responsible for political education and organization, or just someone who is strict and in charge.
  8. comrade
    a term of address for males engaged in the same movement
    Used by revolutionaries dating back to the French revolution as a form of address that doesn't include reference to status, as in "mister" or "sir."
  9. cover
    a false identity and background
    Every spy needs one: an undercover agent might be someone operating under the cover of a false identity.
  10. dacha
    Russian country house
    These country-house retreats were supposed to be eliminated in Soviet Russia, but they weren't entirely.
  11. defect
    desert in order to join the opposing cause, country, or army
    A Cold War narrative that fueled many a John le Carré thriller: an important Soviet citizen wants out of the communist regime. Will US agents help him defect?
  12. directorate
    a group of persons chosen to govern the affairs of a corporation or other large institution
    You may be able to carbon date the year of your birth by whether or not the phrase "directorate," meaning has the power to send a chill down your spine.
  13. dissent
    the act of protesting
    Writers, artists, intellectuals were often accused of dissent, or speaking out against the regime.
  14. encrypt
    convert ordinary language into code
    Secret messages written in code. The business of encryption meant life and death during the Cold War.
  15. escalation
    an increase or intensification
    The terrifying quality of the Cuban Missile Crisis came from the speed of the escalation of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
  16. glasnost
    a Soviet policy allowing freer discussion of social problems
    From Wikipedia: In late 20th century an official policy in the former Soviet Union (especially associated with Mikhail Gorbachev) emphasizing transparency, openness with regard to discussion of social problems and shortcomings.
  17. gulag
    a Russian prison camp for political prisoners
    Wikipedia: A Russian acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii, The Chief Administration (or Directorate) of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies.)
    (historical) 1) In the former Soviet Union, an administered system of corrective labor camps and prisons.
    (figurative) 2) A coercive institution, or an oppressive environment.
  18. intelligentsia
    an educated elite
    Wikipedia: 1) The part of a nation (originally in pre-revolutionary Russia) having aspirations to intellectual activity, a section of society regarded as possessing culture and political initiative; plural the members of this section of a nation or society.
    2) In the former Soviet Union, the intellectual elite.
  19. mole
    a spy who works against enemy espionage
    If you think of the animal scurrying in hidden tunnels underground, you'll have an easy enough time getting to the spy version of this word, which refers to a plant in an enemy's spy network.
  20. party
    a group that tries to run the government
    In the Soviet Union's one-party system, membership in "The Party" was all.
  21. perestroika
    an economic policy adopted in the former Soviet Union
    Wikipedia: The reform of the political and economic system of the former Soviet Union, first proposed by Leonid Brezhnev at the 26th Communist Party Congress in 1979, and later actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985.
  22. politburo
    the chief executive committee of a Communist party
    Wikipedia: The principal policymaking committee in the former Soviet Union that was founded in 1917; also known as the Presidium from 1952 to 1966.
  23. samizdat
    a system of clandestine printing and distribution of dissident or banned literature
    Call it self publishing, but that doesn't quite get to the heart of what it meant for Soviet dissidents to publish banned literature printed in secret, with deadly consequences.
  24. sputnik
    a Russian artificial satellite
    Russian for satellite, it was the name of a series of unmanned satellites launched into orbit by the Soviet Union starting in 1957. Sputnik 1 was the first man-made object to orbit the earth.
  25. surveillance
    close observation of a person or group
    Readers of George Orwell's "1984" will understand the terrifying implications of this word. And anyone living in our own time will see the kind of surveillance used during the Cold War as child's play compared to what is possible now.
  26. tension
    feelings of hostility that are not manifest
    This word served double or possibly even triple duty during the Cold War, referring both to the unexpressed hostilities between two nations, the fragile balance maintained between the two, and the feelings of stress and anxiety among those who lived through it.
  27. tzar
    a male monarch or emperor
    The Russian word for emperor, and a symbol of what the Bolsheviks and then the Communist regime replaced. Also, in the U.S., a word for a person of authority or power in a particular area, as in a "drug czar."
  28. vodka
    unaged colorless liquor originating in Russia
    The word vodka derives from the Russian word for water. Enough said.
Created on April 23, 2014 (updated April 23, 2014)

Sign up now (it’s free!)

Whether you’re a teacher or a learner, can put you or your class on the path to systematic vocabulary improvement.