The latest New Yorker has a long and enthusiastic article, “Dirty Words” by Victor Erofeyev, describing the ancient tradition of Russian swearing, or mat. Alas, the article isn’t online, but if you have any interest in the topic it’s well worth the $3.95 to pick up the issue. A few excerpts:
Perhaps more interesting than mat‘s etymological derivation is its psychological origin: why is Russian profanity so firmly rooted in sex? In other languages—even in other Slavic countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland—the vocabulary of obscenity is more or less evenly divided between shit culture and sex culture. All the basic elements of mat, however, relate to sexual activity, which, in Russia, is considered far dirtier than defecation….
In other words, the whole business of sex is both dirty and painful. Yet zhopa, the word for “ass,” has never been regarded as a mat term, and the rear end is of so little interest that Russian has no real equivalent for the word “asshole,” either in the physical sense or in the metaphorical… “Shit” is not too popular, either, and when American movies are dubbed the word is rendered by the Russian equivalent of “damn.”
One theory has it that before Russia became Christian obscene terms were employed by various pagan groups, including a fertility cult. When Christianity arrived, the Church declared war on mat as a manifestation of these cults, thereby turning the language of sexuality into a form of blasphemy….
Baranov, the mat scholar, believes that it has always lent language an element of conviction, facilitating the transition from word to deed. “In the Soviet period,” he says, “the status of the high lexicon was devalued—words such as ‘fatherland,’ ‘motherland,’ ‘truth.’ In the context of Soviet ideology, these words acquired a negative resonance, not only for the general population but also for Party propagandists. In this situation, obscene words began to function as markers of authenticity.” He told me an anecdote from his own past, when he was working as a warehouseman at a shoe factory: “Our production manager was a woman, and one day she called me in and gave me an assignment. And then she looked at me and said, ‘Yob tvoyu mat’ [‘Fuck your mother’]’—’Make sure it fucking gets done!’ I’d never heard her use mat before. She used it to show that she was being straight with me.”
Erofeyev goes on to discuss the eruption of mat into aboveground Russian life since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conservative reaction thereto, epitomized by draft legislation that would crack down harshly on mat, introduced by Kaadyr-ööl Bicheldei (a Tuvan who is a sponsor of other crackpot language legislation as well).
Baranov adamantly rejects Bicheldei’s claim that perestroika triggered “an outrageous decline in morals and language.” “Absolute nonsense!” he exclaimed, as we sat in a cozy Western-style café on Gogol Boulevard. “What actually happened was that Russian political language came under serious pressure from colloquial language. This is a historical fact of democratization. The study of mat is not welcomed in academic circles—it is seen as an immoral way of legitimatizing it—but scholars totally forget that mat is an oral folk tradition.”