Russia’s New Profanity Wars.

Angela Brintlinger posts at NYU Jordan Center News about the traditional prudishness of Russian high/literary culture and how it’s been eaten away since perestroika by writers like Viktor Erofeev and Eduard Limonov, and about one aspect of the alarming new “bloggers law” (thanks for the link, George!):

All that is about to end. As reported this week, Putin’s new “bloggers law”—which goes into effect on August 1—includes a section on profanity. Four “vulgar words” will no longer be permitted. The New York Times explains: “(The words, not mentioned in the law either, are crude terms for male and female genitalia, sex and a prostitute.)”[2]

Really? We’re going back to х**, п***а, е****, and б***?

In other words, they’re banning the Big Four: хуй ‘cock, prick,’ пизда ‘cunt,’ ебать ‘fuck,’ and блядь ‘whore’ (but functionally equivalent to ‘fuck’ in that it can be inserted anywhere in a sentence just to add an extra helping of profanity). This is obviously far from the worst thing in the law or in what’s going on these days in Russia, but even though having a finger cut off isn’t as bad as having your head cut off, you still don’t want to have a finger cut off. I just wish she hadn’t felt the need to add the prissy caveat “I am no fan of profanity. The great and powerful Russian language, as Turgenev had it, has made a lasting impact on world culture even without those nasty words…” Fuck that shit, lady. Profanity is an inherent part of the великий и могучий, as it is of any proper language, and there’s no need to hold it at arm’s length when you’re going to the trouble of deploring its banning.


  1. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    What pretty much amazes me is that Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel Day of the Oprichnik was able to prophesize this development, as well as many others.

  2. Does the law forbid “zhid”? I had the impression that was a much more scathing profanity than any of those others.

  3. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    The law does not provide a definition of what profanity is, leaving the definition to the discretion of the law enforcement personnel – which is, depending on your outlook on what is going on in Russia, either an indication of complete ignorance of the law makers of what laws should look like, or a deliberate omission left in order to allow prosecution of anyone who voices dissent.

  4. J. W. Brewer says

    From the NYT article, it sounds like the taboo-words development is separate from the “bloggers’ law” (which sounds more substantively alarming): “Aside from the Internet law signed Monday, the Russian leader signed a new profanity law that levies heavy fines for using four common vulgarities in the arts, including literature, movies, plays and television.” I assume the English equivalents in level of taboo-ness still cannot be safely used in broadcast tv in the U.S. (commercial broadcast radio seems if anything to have gotten more rather than less prudish in this regard since the late ’70’s, fwiw – not sure how much of that is the FCC versus other factors), and could not be used freely in mainstream literature/plays/movies in the U.S. within hat’s lifetime and probably within my own childhood as to Hollywood/Broadway.

  5. Absolutely, and the U.S. broadcast taboos are silly, but I’m not sure about their getting more rather than less prudish; in any case they apply only to certain media and do not have anywhere near the chilling effect of the Russian law. (And I apologize if I mistakenly conflated the laws.)

  6. J. W. Brewer says

    I will admit to not having made a systematic study of the issue, but e.g. the last few times I’ve heard the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” on a commercial “classic rock” station it was the bowdlerized version (“funky kicks going down in the city”) whereas the commercial “AOR” stations I heard it on in the ’70’s went with the unbowdlerized version (“funky shit going down” etc.). The bowdlerized version was produced by the label at the time because not all stations in the country had the same taboo-enforcement levels, of course, but you wouldn’t ex ante think that a New York market station’s 2014 audience would be more prudish than a Philadelphia market station’s 1978 audience, would you?

    One semi-ironic possibility is that the rise of the rate of taboo-word incidence in some genres of popular music (notably but not exclusively rap/hiphop) has made it standard operating procedure for labels to generate side-by-side “explicit” and “clean” versions of particular tracks and albums for general commercial distribution/sales, so it’s easier for a risk-averse radio station to just use the clean version, as opposed to the ’70’s when there were only a handful of major-label releases with taboo-words issues and bowdlerized versions would be produced on a very ad hoc basis, with their distribution (generally radio-promo-only) being spotty.

    If the Russian government were to manage to enforce in practice taboo-word restrictions that made public discourse in Russia approximately as prudish as U.S. public discourse was during the Kennedy administration, I would not rank that particularly high on a list of the most problematic aspects of the Putin administration.

  7. One thing that’s happened in radio is that most radio stations outside the big markets are just repeaters, so the product in general gets flattened and applies the standards of the most restrictive location. Similarly, the Texas State Board of Education prescribes textbooks for every school in the state, which makes it such a mighty monopsonist (the analogue of a monopolist on the buying side) that textbook publishers apply Texas standards to the whole country. (Since 2011, individual school districts have had the power to order their own textbooks, but few have used it as yet.) More benignly perhaps, California emissions regulations for vehicles are stricter than Federal ones, and it’s cheaper for auto manufacturers to apply the Californian ones rather than to sell two different kinds of cars in the U.S.

  8. While Russia might succeed in getting these particular hoary Slavic words banned from many public venues, it seems to me that what one might call uncouth speech is either increasing, or just as strong as it perhaps ever was and I was just in blissful ignorance. In a mixed group of people where the men would never dare to say блядь or хуй, it’s so common for them to nonetheless label someone they don’t like a педерас. I’ve observed people referring to foreign nationalities exclusively through ethnic slurs like пиндосы or хохли. There seems to be a lot of anger among the Russian population these days, which reminds me of what I encountered years ago in the rural USA, but sadly in the case of Russia is just as prevalent among the educated classes of the two big cities.

  9. I think I read some time ago that Putin is known for foul language. As I recall, even his public speech is rough and unrefined. Is this correct or am I inventing something?

    Are the four banned words well enough recognized that they need not be mentioned specifically in order to enforce the ban?

    Okay, one more question for the Russophones here. What is “Pussy Riot” in Russian and does it have a similar connotation to the English?

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    For the group’s Russian name, see

  11. J. W. Brewer: Thanks, but I cannot read Russian. The English Wikipedia article does not address the name, it’s meaning in Russian, etc.

  12. Thanks, but I cannot read Russian. The English Wikipedia article does not address the name, it’s meaning in Russian, etc.
    The name is in English, and it’s properly spelled with Latin characters (although occasionally Cyrillicized in the media)

  13. Dmitry: Thanks, does it have any sexual connotations to Russians?

  14. does it have any sexual connotations to Russians?
    not until you translate it from English (which is usually done by the band’s detractors … like “Oh horror, could you even imagine what this means in English” and a particularly damning lame translation follows, and of course it typically doesn’t include any of the Four Proscribed Words). The best known Russification of the group’s name, “бешенство матки” has been most recently infamously used by a Russian MP, Mr. Zhirinovsky, in a verbal attack on a pregnant journalist (when the MP also called on his subordinates to rape her on the spot). But it isn’t a literal translation at all, more like a pejorative reinterpretation of the name, using an Russian folk name for nymphomania (the supposed psychological condition of female hypersexuality). Hysteria would be a classic English word similarly combining the medical term for the womb with the meaning of madness.

  15. I’m for the revival of “чухонцы”. Yay to all nationality slurs!

  16. Monopsonist? Really? Surely that should mean “holder of an exclusive right to buy fish“.

  17. Three of the four words are pan-Slavic and universally tabooed. Блядь, however, is different. You’ll find блядин сын (now replaced with сукин сын) in Avvakum, suggesting it was strong language (“bastard”) but neither profane nor taboo. I don’t think it should be classed with the other three as мат. Interestingly, it’s used as an interjection much like “putain” in French and “kurwa” in Polish.

    Somehow мудак appears to be more or less acceptable, although rude, even though the word comes from the now-archaic муде, testicles or scrotum. (See, e.g., Pushkin’s “К кастрату раз пришел скрипач…” or A.K. Tolstoy’s “Бунт в Ватикане”.)

    On a side note, I’ve lately seen a performance by Warsaw’s Narodowy Theater of Sorokin’s Ice staged by Konstantin Bogomolov. It was in Polish but through the headphones, one could listen to Bogomolov reading the Russian text live. Very instructive. Couldn’t help liking the word chujstwo.

  18. It was coined by a Greek scholar (Bertrand Hallward) at the request of an economist (Joan Robinson), but notoriously economists don’t know fish from Fujifilm.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, it’s used as an interjection much like “putain” in French and “kurwa” in Polish.

    Can it be used for pleasant surprises (like finding a mind-blowing fossil), too?

    Couldn’t help liking the word chujstwo.

    Oh yes, chuj is very productive. One might almost say it begets a lot of other words.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Back to the topic: there’s a protest song that ends in завтра будет иначе, “tomorrow it’ll be enough”.

  21. Indeed Alexei, блѧдь is even found in the Old Church Slavonic corpus in the translation of a sermon of St. John Chrysostom. If блѧдь translated a Greek word tame enough to utter to whole crowd of women and children at church, it could not have been so bad.

  22. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    “Завтра будет иначе” would surely mean “tomorrow’ll be different”, not “enough”?

  23. “Can it be used for pleasant surprises (like finding a mind-blowing fossil), too?”

    I’m afraid it cannot, David, or at least I cannot think of an example. One would have to use a word from the core vocabulary, such as: Охуеть!

  24. David Marjanović says

    “Завтра будет иначе” would surely mean “tomorrow’ll be different”, not “enough”?

    …Huh. Now I wonder where I got “enough” from.

    One would have to use a word from the core vocabulary, such as: Охуеть!

    Good to know, thanks! 🙂


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