THE BLOG

Putin's Bad Language

26/06/2014 09:49 | Updated 25 August 2014

President Putin's confident geopolitical swagger seems at odds with Russia's recent, petty moves to choke the life out of language.

The 1 of July 2014 sees a law come into force that bans the use of profanity in theatre, film and other cultural events. Books containing bad language - and it is still unclear as to what constitutes bad language in this context - will have to carry warnings on their covers. Offenders will face fines.

It's ironic that Putin, the man who once publicly declared that Chechen 'terrorists' should be "wiped out in their shithouse," has signed a law that ostensibly aims to clean up Russian speech.

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The 1 of July will also see the Russian State Duma consider a draft law which seeks to ban the use of foreign words from public speech. The bill, intended to purify the Russian language by "freeing it from trash," was submitted by the far-right, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is being championed by the LDP leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man who once publicly called on his aides to violently rape a pregnant journalist.

The LDP has yet to come up with a definitive list of banned words, but among those that it hopes will be eradicated are 'boutique', 'manager', 'OK' and 'wow'. Those who infringe the law will face fines; books containing the offending foreign words will be confiscated.

The most immediate objections to these absurd laws are obvious. A language that denies itself the opportunity to cross-breed with foreign words, to transform them and, in turn, be transformed by them, risks atrophy: it becomes a bad language. Likewise, scouring obscene words from our speech is like removing some of the more striking tones from a painter's palette.

Reaction outside Russia to these laws has been to laugh at their silliness, but Russians whose work is in writing or the visual arts point to something much more sinister going on behind this legislation.

I asked Andrei Nekrasov, the award-winning film maker, journalist and playwright, what he thought was motivating these laws. It is worth quoting his response in full:

"The barrage of laws passed and proposed by the Duma concerning the media and the arts may look plain ridiculous....yet they are more ominous than they seem. As Putin is doing his damnedest to replicate the Soviet Union in his foreign - 'near-abroad' - policy, his unctuous law-making outfit is spooking society with regulations reminiscent of Stalin's days. Stalin's last big campaign was against 'cosmopolitanism'. And it was of course far from being just about culture. The Gulag system and firing squads saw a surge of new victims. We are not quite there yet in Russia today, but the present nationalist hysteria is creating something eerily similar to the atmosphere of the Soviet totalitarian consensus where the regime need not worry about resistance.

"What we don't have yet is the equivalent of the anti-soviet propaganda law in Russia. People are 'named and shamed', and occasionally killed, for expressing 'anti-Russian' views, but they cannot be officially prosecuted for them. Yet, effectively, there is a panoply of laws to be chosen from, to gag criticism and free speech. 'Extremism' has been a word of choice for a long time, but since the nationalist and ultra-conservative surge of recent months, openly questioning the soviet version of the WW2, 'offending [religious] believers' feelings', 'gay propaganda' - and now using swear words in art - can all be used by the neo-Stalinists to tighten their grip on Russian society."

I also asked the prize-winning journalist, Oksana Chelysheva, what she thought of the new legislation. She dismissed the 'public morality' arguments made by those politicians who support the new obscenity law and doubted that an effective ban on foreign words was even possible:

"They are not fools - they know that this kind of ban would just act as a spur for artists to make grotesque laws the subject of parody. Why [create these bans] then? The main reason is just to have another tool to manipulate the laws for political purposes. There have been innumerable examples of activists detained in the streets on grounds of their alleged usage of 'offensive language' in public places. In some cases it has resulted in up to 15 days' administrative arrest, although very often the only people who claim to have heard the foul words are the ones who made the arrest. Now it will make their job easier."

Nekrasov's and Chelysheva's opinions are informed by experience; both have been the victims of harassment and death threats for their work exposing corruption in Putin's Russia.

The law against offensive language and the draft law outlawing foreign words add to Russia's ever-increasing legislative attack on free expression. What marks them out is not their silliness, but their perniciousness in restricting not just what you can talk about, but how you can talk about it.

Like Orwell's 'newspeak,' this new legislation creates an uncertain, anxious environment in which a loose word may - and probably will - be used against critics of the regime.