Tag Archives: free speech

Russian curses are inventive, widely-used — and banned

The Russian film "Da i Da" ("Yes and Yes") directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

The Russian film “Da i Da” (“Yes and Yes”) directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

The thing non-Russian speakers don’t really understand about Russian curses, or mat, is that we’re not just talking about your favorite one-syllable curse words here — mat is an entire language unto itself.

Take the word “desk.” Not much you can do with it in English, right? But in Russian, I can “desk” something. I can get super desky and deskify it. I can be the deskiest! Because unlike English, Russian has hundreds of suffixes and prefixes.

“As a result,” University of Chicago linguist Yar Gorbachov tells me, “you could have a whole dictionary filled up with mat words.”

There are actual dictionaries filled with mat words. Paradoxically, the hot-rodded words formed from the four obscene roots (I’ll let you guess what those are…) often turn out not to mean anything obscene at all.

“That makes your speech colorful,” Gorbachov explains. “You know, instead of using a regular word for walking, or wondering or beating up, you would use the mat analog of that.”

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


The closest analogy to mat I can come up with is freestyle rap. It’s poetic, profane and often hilarious, its degree can be ranked, just like five-alarm chili. And though the government might believe it is somehow sanitizing the language by prohibiting its public use, mat is also deeply, deeply Russian.

There is a misconception widely shared in Russia, that mat was smuggled into the language by the Mongols and others who occupied Russia in the 13th century. Gorbachov insists that just isn’t true. “There is nothing Turkic or Mongolic about those roots. They’re perfectly Slavic and the whole phenomenon has nothing to do with Mongol occupation. The Russians have used mat words before and after Mongol occupation,” he adds. “And we have references in medieval literature and in private letters to mat.”

Not only is mat just as Russian as borscht or Putin, it is also the lingua franca of certain subcultures. The patois of criminals, sure, but also artists, musicians, intellectuals — your typical alienated and disenfranchised types. These are the groups featured in the film Da i Da (Yes and Yes), one of the first cultural casualties of the new obscenity ban.

Da i Da was directed by Valeria Gai Germanika, a young, edgy filmmaker who has also become a mainstream success, helming popular TV dramas and even serving as the head of MTV Russia. In other words, my Russian mom and I are both fans.

"Da i Da" director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

“Da i Da” director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

In June, Germanika won “best director” at the Moscow International Film Festival for Da i Da, which she describes as a story of complicated love. But three days after it debuted, the film was yanked from theaters when the ban on mat went into effect.

Germanika explained at a press conference that Da i Da ended up packed with swear words, simply because she allowed the actors to improvise their dialog. Misha Antipov, one of the actors in the film, agrees that Da i Da is simply holding up a mirror to what some may perceive as uncomfortable truths. The film is really honest and true to life, he tells me; there are a ton of people in Russia who speak just like this.

Misha explains that when the film was yanked, people were really upset, offering to sit on the floors during its few packed screenings. They said, “Can’t you just beep out the mat when people are talking?” But there’s so much mat in the film, he tells me, you may as well just reduce the dialog to “blah, blah, blah.”

Misha thinks the ban on mat will prompt the return of the Soviet dual persona. In the Soviet times, he explains, people had their official poker face, turned toward the government and their public duties, but in private, it was “anything goes.” The thing is that now, when you force the outsiders out — they don’t just go inside, they go online.

Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets, a travel memoir that describes his attempt to “go native” in Russia, in part by trying to learn mat, began noticing an uptick in mat — concealed behind dashes and asterisks — in online posts soon after the law was passed.

“You know the effect of the ban essentially sort of puts it on everyone’s mind,” he tells me. “Everyone starts thinking about it. And in a way sort of serves to normalize the idea.”

If the Internet is acting as a pressure valve for Russian speakers jonesing for a mat fix, that may explain the popularity of a new song you won’t find on the Russian version of YouTube, or mentioned on Russian Wikipedia, but it’s all over the Internet in the West. The song contains only two words. One is “Putin.” One is … not appropriate for a family friendly setting. Let’s call it “Putin Sucks.” This amateur sing-along featuring a group of middle-aged Russians has more than 400,000 plays.

Putin Sucks hasn’t just gone viral, it’s gone interstellar. Some people recently adopted a star under the song’s name. So much for banning mat.

While lovers of niche art films don’t often get their way in Putin’s Russia, in this case it looks like the legislature might just blink — or at least squint. A new amendment has been proposed that wouldn’t repeal the ban on mat, but would at least allow films like Germanika’s to play at national film festivals without censorship.

Meanwhile, Germanika has declared she won’t be beeping out the swears in her film so it can play in Russian theaters. Instead she’s just going to just sell Da i Da on the Internet, so that anyone who wants can see it. And more importantly — can hear it.


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Speaking Freely in the New Burma


This summer, Aung San Suu Kyi will be stepping out onto an international stage. She will finally be picking up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and speaking her mind  in various European capitals.  It will be a far cry from the 15 years she spent under house arrest, unable to participate in elections and speak to her Burmese compatriots.

Suu Kyi, now a member of the Burmese parliament, recently completed her first trip out of Myanmar in 24 years. In a speech in Thailand, she praised President Thein Sein’s efforts to bring democracy to the country. But she didn’t shy away from criticizing more entrenched forces that are less open to change, in particular the military which she called a “force to be reckoned with.”

Next, Suu Kyi heads to Paris, Oslo, London and elsewhere for a series of high profile appearances. Her words will be closely analyzed back home– by those who love her and those who fear her.

It’s clear that the government of Myanmar is giving Suu Kyi freedoms that it previously denied her: to travel, to vote, to speak. More than that, the government’s actions appear to have given her belief that these new freedoms are permanent. That belief is almost as significant as the freedoms themselves.

Still, it’s early days, and not everyone can afford to be confident as Suu Kyi. “Most of the people still think that politics is dangerous,” said Kaung Myint Htut, chairman of the Myanmar National Congress Party. He’s has trouble getting his people to support him publicly.

Press censorship has been relaxed. But it has not disappeared. About 75 percent of stories are published uncensored, said Saya Mg Wuntha, founding editor of a journal, People’s Age. “But it’s very difficult to write about corruption…and about the military,” he said.

Some are more fearful. Aung Zaw is a political dissident who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, where he is the editor in chief of The Irrawaddy newspaper. He won’t return to Burma until he is guaranteed the “freedom to criticize and write without fear.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • Young Burmese are flocking to language schools to learn English. More on that story here.
  • Burmese punk ban Side Effect and their free speech challenges. More on that story here. And while we’re on the subject of punk, here’s a conversion between Marco Werman and me on the Sex Pistols and British royalty.

Finally, if you’ve been wondering why this is the first podcast in more than a month, here’s what I’ve been up to. Thanks for your patience.


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