Regular readers of LH will know that I have a particular interest in Russian swearing, or mat (1, 2), and through a comment by tellurian in a thread at AskMetaFilter I was pointed to a long article by S.A. Smith called “The social meanings of swearing: workers and bad language in late imperial and early Soviet Russia” (originally in Past & Present, August 1998). For those who don’t want to work through all 20 pages (some of which are quite short), here’s the conclusion:

Mat was a key element in the shifting discourse of kul’turnost’ through which educated Russians reflected on the state of society. Though its particular connotations changed, as Russia changed its rulers—from moral degradation of the common people, to sedition, to hooliganism, to political backwardness—neither the late imperial nor the Bolshevik authorities looked on mat as politically neutral. Moreover, those who fought to overthrow the tsarist order, including the ‘conscious’ workers, viewed mat in the same negative way as the educated elites in general. Although peasants and workers might utilize mat to insult their social superiors, revolutionaries showed no inclination to vindicate it as a ‘weapon of the weak’. Towards the end of the Soviet regime, mat did acquire a politically subversive function, as obscene chastushki or anekdoty, puncturing the pretensions of the party-state, grew in popularity. One writer has recently described the use of mat in the post-Stalin era as a ‘rebellion against the semantically ruined, mendacious language of official propaganda’ and a ‘little island of freedom in the kingdom of totalitarianism’. Pointing to the explosion of anecdotes about Lenin, Radio Armenia and the Civil War hero, Chapaev, in the 1960s, V. Gershuni has argued that that decade marked the ‘triumphal march of language that had been in disgrace’ (opal’noi slovesnosti) when the (male) intelligentsia for the first time ‘armed itself’ with mat as weapon of social satire. But that is another story.

But half the fun is in the details. From page 18:

While many cogent reasons were adduced to justify Bolshevik objections to swearing—the need for young people to acquire ‘cultured speech’, the need to combat hooliganism, the unacceptability of male chauvinism, and so forth—at the deepest level much of the distaste may have sprung from a revulsion at the intimate association of mat with what Bakhtin called the ‘grotesque body’. Mat celebrated gross corporeality, the lower physical faculties, fecundity and decay, nature and excess, things that sat uneasily with Bolshevik asceticism and horror of being engulfed by nature. Eric Naiman has drawn attention to a dread of the female body that haunted Bolshevik ideology during NEP, which, he suggests, was a projection of wider fears of loss of political and ideological control. If he is correct, it is possible to see in the efforts to discourage mat a defence mechanism against the disorderly excess of popular speech, the libidinal energies of the body and the elemental forces of nature, which threatened to overwhelm the orderly, rational and controlling will of the party-state.

And from page 8, this odd Dostoevsky quote (from a newspaper article of 1873):

My intention was to prove the chastity of the Russian people, to show that even if the people use foul language when they are in a drunken state (for they swear incomparably less when they are sober), they do this not out love of bad language, not out of the pleasure of swearing, but simply out of nasty habit so that even thoughts and feelings that are quite distant from obscenity become expressed in obscene words. I further argued that to find the principal reason for this habit of foul language one must look to drunkenness. When drunk, one’s tongue moves with difficulty yet one has a powerful desire to speak, and I surmised that one resorts to short, conventional, expressive words. You may make what you will of this conjecture. But that our people is chaste, even when it is swearing, is worth pointing out.

Incidentally, anyone interested in the relations between the workers and the intellectuals who have presumed to lead them should read Jan Waclaw Machajski: A Radical Critic Of The Russian Intelligensia And Socialism (review), by Marshall S. Shatz. Machajski (1866-1926) was a Polish revolutionary who has long been forgotten (except by Leszek Kolakowski) and who never achieved much in his lifetime aside from annoying tsarists, anarchists, and Bolsheviks alike (though he managed to eke out a living as a copyeditor in Moscow for the last eight years of his life), but the theory he developed in Siberian exile in the late 1890s, known as “Makhaevism” after a Russianized form of his name, is the earliest and perhaps still the most thoroughgoing analysis of the inherent gulf between the intelligentsia (which he defined in practice as anyone with a diploma) and the working class. He had no positive goal in view (except a vague idea that workers should educate themselves so the gap could be eliminated), but his stubborn insistence that knowledge is power and that those with such power can never be trusted to wield it in anyone’s interests but their own is still bracing and retains its ability to discomfit the bien-pensant intellectual.


  1. Is Bakhtin’s “gross body” what the translator calls “the material lower body stratum”?
    I mean, “the fucking translator”.

  2. John Emerson’s comment for some reason made me think of a character in one of Tom Sharpe’s South African novels who misunderstood the phrase ‘against the fucking law’ as being a reference to the Immorality Act.

  3. Re: mat as a form of resistance, I’m reminded of a short story by Viktor Pelevin, titled “Den’ buldozerista”, where workers use the language of official propaganda for cursing and swearing.

  4. Ah yes, “Mai ego znaet”! Here‘s the story, if anyone needs a link.

  5. I think mat.. and especially tryokh etazhniy mat can sometimes be classified as wit.
    You know how sometimes at a cocktail party someone tells a one-line pun type joke that involves a play on words. Mat can serve the same purpose. Either way, I think it’s an intimate language to be used among friends that isn’t really offensive as it is expressive.

  6. I went to a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District a few weeks back – what was interesting was that the English translation of the libretto was even today fairly bowdlerised – to be fair, my Russian has got awfully rusty over the past decade since I left school, but I’m fairly sure that ‘swine’ doesn’t translate ‘svoloch’ quite properly, and Boris Timofeyivich expresses his desire to know Katerina in a rather cruder way than a genteel euphemism.

  7. After some googling, “Ya b yeyó” is translated as ‘I could get her’ – perhaps a Russian speaker could confirm my semi-educated guess that the first means what I think it does…

  8. Thanks for the link, LH — a great article. Note that, unlike mat, Armenian radio, Chapaev and Lenin jokes have always been perfectly acceptable in polite society, provided they contained no non-euphemizable (as it were) mat.
    Richard J — svoloch’ literally means trash, or that which has been dragged off (волочь–to drag) to a garbage heap. “Scum” might be an acceptable translation. “Swine,” meant as plural, makes sense too. But unlike in the past (don’t know how distant though), svoloch’ is not a collective noun anymore: it has a valid plural, svolochi so “scumbag” may be a better fit.
    “Ya b yeyo…” is an unfinished sentence with no expletives: ya is “I,” b is a particle indicating conditionality, and yeyo is just “her.” The speaker essentially says, “I would do something to her,” but omits “do something.” At most, it’s a euphemism for “I’d like to have fun with her.”

  9. Thanks for the correction – as I said, my Russian is very rusty these days to say the least…

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