By Atharva Pandit
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Is the new ban on profanity in the Russian arts and media an earnest move to stop vulgar expressionism, or is it just another part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign of curtailing freedom of speech and expression in Russia?
About a month ago, in Moscow, and several other major Russian cities for that matter, hundreds of people turned up at organized venues and on streets. This was not to protest or lead a revolt against a government which needs it, no. They turned up so that they could enjoy their freedom of cursing and swearing for one last day; so that they could read works which carry with it a list of colorful new curses and because they wanted to enjoy films which had their heroes utter erotic expressions of disagreement against the father/mother of the person with whom the hero was disagreeing. It was fun, but it was also important, for these very books and films were coming under the Kremlin’s scanner the very next day. Putin had signed some papers, as he is found doing more and more in recent times, which curtails the freedom of expression for the people of Russia: the freedom to swear and curse freely, without any fear, anytime they wished, anywhere they wished. Well, not anymore, says Putin. If one is found cursing in the Russian streets, one is entailed to chuck out 70 Dollars, and if that ‘one’, in fact, is a bunch of people in a business, that can cut their pockets up to 1,400 Dollars (that’s some 50,000 Rubles). Plus, books which contain language which, according to Putin, is going against the tradition and culture of Russia would come with a warning pasted against its cover, and that goes for the Great Russian classics of literature, as well. Hard!
Harder still, since Russia, like India, is a land where swear words and normal language mix together to form a colorful language-cocktail of sorts. The swear words, even though highly discouraged here in India, mix well into a language- and there are interesting combinations in each of the many Indian tongues- to form a distinct cultural flavor of its own. Banning, completely curtailing swear words would be like locking the Indian language (Anurag Kashyap would most certainly go jobless). Indians have been cursing each other for a long time, and they have managed to do that in style. Like in India, one doesn’t really flinch at the utterance of a swear word in Russia, because it’s the language of the streets. Here, we have movies and dramas which flow freely with “bad words”, and after the initial fascination towards them (during our pre-teens) has passed, we don’t really find it amusing to hear a word which refers to bedding someone’s sister, although, as Siddharth Chowdhury points out in his Delhi novel, Day Scholar, it is okay to refer to someone’s daughter erotically in Bihar, but when things escalate into the sisters and mothers arena, one has to be “ready for a fight, razor blades and cycle-chains in pockets.” To each their own, but one certainly cannot deny that swear words, especially those delivered in style and authority, have their effect.
As for Russia, Russians have been swearing since a long time, and their authors have especially found solace in blue language. The Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky once dedicated a whole essay towards the use of swearing and how culturally significant it is. “I suddenly realized that all thoughts, feelings and even a whole chain of reasoning could be expressed by that one noun, which is moreover extremely short,” wrote he of the Crime and Punishment fame. He was talking about the word khuy, which now stands banned. Another Russian literary great, Alexander Pushkin, used obscene words in his poems to make them more effective and effectively more colorful. Recent hit plays in Moscow have had their share of foul language, and, as another contemporary Russian literary giant, Victor Erofeyev- himself a cursing enthusiast- notes, obscenity has been used in the aristocratic culture of Russia as a method of “diversion and plaything.” Enough proof of literary heritage of the Russian blue language, which in itself is a part of the greater Russian tongue.
It’s a common enough trick to pepper one’s sentences with some forcefully added cuss word, thus, if I am allowed the term, “enhancing” the sentence and transforming it into something else altogether. If I sound like an advocate of foul language, that’s because I am, in Russian context at least. Swearing in Russia has been inducted into their culture and you can’t stop that overnight. It’s nothing but the curtailing of freedom of speech and expression, may that speech and expression be vulgar and foul- officially banning it is nothing but authoritarian instincts taking force in a democracy. A video posted by the Radio Free Europe on their website shows many Russians agreeing on the point that a ban won’t really stop people from cursing, although some do feel that it’s a good move towards the “purification” of the language. But I don’t really subscribe to that purification notion; I just feel it’s an ethnic cleansing of Russian expression. The Russians have had crackdowns on their freedoms lately, with a ban on public smoking in 2013 (that was a positive one there), Ukrainian chocolates in July 2013, and the consideration of a ban on high heels in July 2014. Banning for the Russians is nothing new, anyway, and they know that the results can be disastrous (a ban on alcohol during the Soviet times led to a breakdown of the Soviet economy, since a large part of it functioned on alcohol taxation).
With his latest ban on profanity in media and arts, Vladimir Putin has yet again proved that he is certainly not an advocate of freedom of speech. In the words of Erofeyev, the ban is “obviously stupid”, but Putin is armed with his general set of excuses: he is trying to make Russian language, and thus the Russian culture vulgar-free and purified, and it might seem to be a valid and genuine enough reason in the mouth of any other leader, but with Putin, you know what he is up to: he is always trying to extend his authority and hold over anything he can grab, and that includes improving the culture and grip over the Russian language, itself having a diverse mix. To others, this might seem to be an honest enough appeal to the Russian citizens to stop using vulgar expressions in their language, but to me it smells of just another trick Putin is playing in his grab-the-authority-game. He enjoys that kind of stuff, as is evident from the recent cases of human rights abuse both in Russia, and outside it; and the rigging of cases where there is a possibility of Putin or his associates being indicted. This ban is just another part of Putin’s long association with manipulation of human rights in Russia, and this time the target is the Russian society, culture and the rich heritage of the country’s language which gave us countless literary gems.
Russians might relate to their own folktale of the talking fish here, wherein the fish have the power to talk, but since it’s impossible to talk inside water, the power’s of no real use. It might be said that the Russians today have become the fish trying to express themselves inside the suffocating water which is Putin’s Russia.
However naive that might seem, one has to introduce oneself by his/her name, so here goes: My name is Atharva Pandit. I study at Ruia College in Mumbai, working my way through subjects as distinct as Politics, Philosophy and English Literature. I resolve to write, if not visit (I would love to, but its beyond my budget right now, so…), about countries less fortunate than mine. There are different and interesting stories in each of those ignored lands, and I resolve to find them.