No wonder so many cultural conservatives, from Pat Buchanan to the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, adore Vladimir Putin: he projects bare-chested swagger, and he is also developing a form of Russian cultural conservatism intended as a rejection of Western permissiveness. First, there was the anti-gay propaganda law. Then came the assault on N.G.O.s and on press freedoms, from the printed page to television to the Internet. Now Putin has decided to take on the Russian language—in particular, its florid and flexible lexicon of profanity, known as mat. On Monday, Putin signed legislation that has been floating around the Duma for years: as of July 1st, there will be no swearing in movies and theatrical productions or from the concert stage.
You won’t read it in your local family newspaper, but the law centers on the four pillars of mat: there is khuy (“cock”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat’ (“to fuck”), and blyad (“whore”). Sorry about that, but the English equivalents are, if anything, rather pallid and polite. And that’s just the beginning, the base ingredients for the great lexical fantasia of mat. As Victor Erofeyev describes at delicious length in his 2003 article “Dirty Words,” there are thousands of variations and elaborations on these four words, and they go back to the earliest Russian classics. (The page of variations on ebat’, part of a tremendously detailed online dictionary of Russian swearing, gives a sense of the possibilities.)
It makes one wonder what Putin and Co. will do when faced with, say, a public recitation of Lermontov’s 1834 poem “A Holiday in Peterhof”:
And so, I will not pay you
However, if you are a simple blyad
You should consider it an honor
To be acquainted with the cadet’s khuy!
Will there be a seventy-dollar fine (or more) as delineated in the new law? Pushkin, who is as close to the core of Russian identity as any artist in the nation’s history, wrote in “The Wagon of Life” (as translated by A. Z. Foreman):
At dawn we jump inside the wagon.
Happy to break our necks like glass,
We scorn life’s hedonistic languor,
And yell “Man, fuck it! Just haul ass!”
Pushkin is also famous for “Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters,” a poem that damns “Sanctimonious Censorship” and, as Erofeyev reminds us, describes a culture of women missing their sex organs: “The Tsar dispatches his heralds in search of them and after arduous ordeals they are recovered.”
According to the Moscow Times, the Institute of Russian Language at the Russian Academy of Sciences settled on the obvious four words. A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture told the Times that the new strictures will be limited to pop culture and will not apply to matters of art: “It will be up to the artistic director to decide what to do with swearing, whether to break the new law or not, we will not interfere in the process.” Will they pursue the Pushkin declaimers? The Russian Orthodox Church and conservative members of the legislature have long sought such a law; they see the common use of mat as a manifestation of pro-Western, permissive influences.
It will be a source of some fascination to see how ardently the authorities decide to prosecute the new laws, considering that, as Erofeyev writes, “the syllables blya-blya-blya and yob-yob-yob echo through the air above Russia like the bleeps of a sputnik.” It used to be that mat was mostly the province of prisoners and working-class men. It was once said that “when a woman swears in mat, Christ’s wounds open.” In the nineties and beyond, as society became more open, more liberal, mat became more and more prevalent. Now President Putin, who has been known to use a blistering phrase of mat himself in private meetings, has shown his determination to stopper public speech and turn back the clock on the vast society under his rule.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.