The rich, sweary sub-language that will protect Russia from Putin’s latest crackdown

Stop swearing and peace out. EPA/Sergei Karpukhin/Pool

The Russian State Duma has passed a law that prohibits swearing in public performances. This is just the latest in a series of punitive legislative measures aiming to curb freedom of speech and expression in Russia, and many liberal-minded Russians see it as yet another sign of the country going back to Soviet times. The past few months have seen access inside Russia to some liberal media such as grani.ru withdrawn, while others, like the TV channel Rain (Дождь), are threatened with closure.

President Putin once said that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. His recent actions in the Ukraine show he is prepared to use more than words to save whatever is possible to reconstruct the state he was born in. He has argued that education is the means of raising upright citizens in a spirit of deep patriotism, and that arts in general and literature in particular should play a pivotal role in this.

The new cultural strategy Putin is currently advocating includes strong recommendations on what in the Russian literary canon should be taught at schools, and what should be removed, or presented in a certain (state approved) way. So Tatyana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is held up as a good role model because she succeeds in overcoming her passion, while Katerina in the playwright Ostrovsky’s The Storm, who throws herself in the river to escape an unhappy marriage and oppressive domestic life, is not. Some books, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, are deemed “dangerous”, and are not to form part of the curriculum. Unified literature and history textbooks have already been commissioned and will be introduced in the next few years.

Putin sees Russia as a keeper of the traditional values that have been tainted and diluted in the West. His law banning the propagation of homosexuality is part of this view. And a series of children’s books, edited by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, a respected literary figure, has recently come under the scrutiny of Roskomnadzor, the regulatory body overseeing the mass media, for publishing a book on a family where parents are gay. Another popular series of books has been criticised for using examples from foreign fairy tales.

The ban on swearing seems to fit into this overall strategy. The first part of this law, banning swearing in the media, was passed on April 22. The second part, passed May 5, is due to come into force from July. The law was clearly passed in some haste because a number of issues are still unclear. For instance, it states that it does not affect works produced prior to May 5. But if all swearing is to be banned, does this mean that such works would simply no longer be staged or performed? It is equally unclear what exactly is going to be classified as swearing. So far the law only stipulates four key words and their derivatives. But a commission of experts is to provide further details.

Russia has an incredibly rich and versatile swear sub-language, called mat, which is based on four key stems: two denoting male and female genitalia, one denoting the act of copulation, and a word denoting a prostitute. The addition of prefixes and suffixes, as well as shifting the stress, turns these stems into a plethora of nouns, adjectives and verbs to express almost any idea, and all possible shades of meaning. One could teach the entire Russian grammar structure on these words and their derivatives.

The first written evidence of the existence of mat comes from letters dating from the 12th century. Most of the dictionaries made no mention of it, with the exception of the 3rd edition of Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language, which came out in 1903. The then editor of the dictionary, a French Slavist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, felt that every word that existed in the language should form part of the dictionary.

Mat is considered by most Russians to be an intrinsic part of Russian cultural heritage. It is used in folklore, epic verse, folk tales and especially in the Russian limerick, known as chastushka, the format of which requires snappy and succinct vocabulary. Of all the folk genres this is almost the only one that still thrives: last year Russian State TV showed a cartoon of President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev singing such couplets (with potentially offensive words substituted with more polite rhymes). Another example is the group Leningrad, whose lead singer Sergei Shnurov referred to their genre as a version of chastushki.

And of course, swear words have been used in a wealth of Russian literature, in works by Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Sorokin and Dovlatov.

Like everywhere, attitudes to swearing vary. A survey of public opinion conducted by the Levada Centre in March 2014 revealed that 51% of those aged 18 and over use mat on a regular basis, with men swearing more than women and younger people more than the older generation. The majority of the respondents opposed the use of gratuitous swearing in public places and in the media.

The reaction to the latest ban has been mixed. Ulitskaya feels that the use of swear words is acceptable when it is justified by the genre. Others think the law is hypocritical and excessive. And then there are those who argue that shrink-wrapping offensive works and painting warnings on them, as suggested by the government, will function as forbidden fruit – encouraging and spurring on interest in the underworld of mat.

What is certain is that such an apparently rudimentary law can never hope to successfully limit or cover the use of such a fluid and pervasive phenomenon. Like most cultures, swearing is absolutely embedded in the language. No statute or bill can hope to alter that.