Tag Archives: Putin

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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How to amass a collection of world leaders’ autographs, from Mandela to Castro

Some of the top names from the autograph collection of Randy Kaplan. He launched his collection in 1996, with the autograph of Bill Clinton, and has gathered 130 autographed baseballs to date.  (Photo: Alina Simone)

Some of the top names from the autograph collection of Randy Kaplan. He launched his collection in 1996, with the autograph of Bill Clinton, and has gathered 130 autographed baseballs to date. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from writer Alina Simone.

I’m always on the look out for attention-grabbing stats, so when I heard the most valuable autograph of a living person in the world belonged to Fidel Castro, I thought — there’s a cool business story.

But as soon as I started talking to this elite group of collectors — the autograph hunters who vie for the attention of the world’s most famous, elusive and often, notorious leaders — I realized this piece wasn’t going to be about numbers: it was about people. In the words of autograph hunter Randy Kaplan, “You have to be cut from a special mold to be a collector that’s successful in getting in-person autographs like this.”

Kaplan has been collecting the signatures of world leaders on baseballs since 1996. He was the one who introduced me to the idea of autographing-as-blood-sport.

Kaplan schmoozed Hamid Karzai’s security detail for his autograph and smooth-talked his way into then-president of Nigeria General Olusegun Obasanjo’s hotel room. He even mastered phonetic Russian well enough to convince Gorbachev’s bodyguards the baseball in his hand wasn’t a bomb.

A few of Randy Kaplan's signed baseballs and photos (Photo: Alina Simone)

A few of Randy Kaplan’s signed baseballs and photos (Photo: Alina Simone)

“You either have it, or you don’t,” Kaplan told me. “You have to plan everything three steps ahead. You have to do all your research. You have find out who their defense secretary is, anyone who’s going to be with them. Most importantly, as a collector, you have to be prepared for the unprepared; I never go anywhere without at least a dozen baseballs on me, at all times. “

By now I’m feeling like autograph hunting requires as much specialized gear as regular hunting, like a 12 pocket flak-jacket to hold the baseballs. But according to Kaplan, your memory has to be even stronger than your back.

Randy Kaplan with his collection of autographed baseballs“My son and I were in the city during UN week, and I noticed some state department cars outside of a Turkish restaurant on 2nd Avenue on the Upper East Side,” he recalls. “So naturally we went over there together, and sure enough, who’s walking out but the president of Kosovo — could not believe it! — Atifete Jahjaga.”

I can understand walking into a falafel joint and spotting Obama, or even Russian President Vladimir Putin — but the president of Kosovo?

Not every president walking out of a Turkish restaurant gives Kaplan his autograph, though. That rejection, he admitted in an email, can trigger a mini-depression. But as much as he wants to get those autographs, he’s not indiscriminate about whose autograph he seeks.

“There are people I would not want to have as a part of my collection,” Kaplan says. “Anybody who’s a mass-murderer, somebody who’s indicted on crimes-against-humanity — I try to avoid those people. The lust is still there to try and get them, but there’s also a barrier up saying ‘No, I don’t want them in my collection.’ I want it to be people that I’m proud of.”

Fidel Castro’s signature would make Kaplan proud, he says. Getting El Comandante’s autograph on a ball is a kind of holy grail for Kaplan. He’s been trying to get it for years, without success.

If only Kaplan had grown up in a Communist country, he’d have a lot more luck. Hungarian collector Zoltan Marian had a foreign ministry official get a signed photograph from Castro back in 1972, when Castro visited Budapest for the first and only time.

With the help of foreign ministry officials, Zoltan Marian managed to get a signed photo of Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s only visit to Hungary, in 1972. Castro is the world’s most sought-after autograph, among living people, with each copy valued at approximately $5,800 by Paul Fraser Collectibles. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

With the help of foreign ministry officials, Zoltan Marian managed to get a signed photo of Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s only visit to Hungary, in 1972. Castro is the world’s most sought-after autograph, among living people, with each copy valued at approximately $5,800 by Paul Fraser Collectibles. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

“Yes, I am proud of Fidel Castro because I know he is very, very difficult,” Marian says. “Since 1972, I tried to write him once again, but I only received a copy of a fax.”

Because Zoltan is agnostic when it comes to a leader’s politics, his collection of more than 1300 signed photos includes some truly chilling names: Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Saddam Hussein. But the standouts are autographs so rare dealers have trouble even putting a price on them: the dynastic leaders of North Korea.

With help from his own Communist government, Zoltan managed to get Kim Il Sung’s signed photo. But for years he had no such luck with Kim’s son. Finally Zoltan sent Kim Jong Il a copy of the very same photo Kim the elder had signed years before, hoping that might convince him to send Zoltan his autograph. Instead two guys from the North Korean embassy showed up at his door. Somehow, over the course of a very tense tea, Zoltan managed to win them over.

“I had to wait for a long time,” Zoltan says. “About for a year or more, but finally I received a signed photo of the Dear Leader.”

Zoltan’s collection includes autographs of many such Cold War all-stars — signatures that Western collectors have a lot of trouble getting (unless they buy them on eBay).

But autograph hunting from a Communist Country wasn’t always easier. “Sometimes I was invited to the police station and they told me: Do not write those letters to these, these and that person,” Zoltan explains.

Back in the ’70s, the Hungarian police even warned Zoltan to stop writing to Alexander Dubček, the former Communist leader of neighboring Czechoslovakia. Dubček was responsible for the Prague Spring, but was under house arrest.

Zoltan kept writing anyway. He didn’t care. What he did was address his letter to Dubček’s wife, under her maiden name. Eventually, he got his man.

Former Czech leader Alexander Dubček was under house arrest when Zoltan started seeking his autograph in the early 1970s.  The Kremlin blamed Dubček for instigating the Prague Spring. All letters addressed to him went to a Czechoslovak Police official, who told the Hungarian police about Zoltan. Zoltan was warned to “stop writing those letters to Dubček,” but he remained undeterred. A Hungarian TV reporter advised him to address the envelope not to Dubček, but rather to his wife, Anna, under her maiden name. Dubček signed two photos for Zoltan, using his wife’s maiden name as the sender. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)

Former Czech leader Alexander Dubček was under house arrest when Zoltan started seeking his autograph in the early 1970s. The Kremlin blamed Dubček for instigating the Prague Spring. All letters addressed to him went to a Czechoslovak Police official, who told the Hungarian police about Zoltan. Zoltan was warned to “stop writing those letters to Dubček,” but he remained undeterred. A Hungarian TV reporter advised him to address the envelope not to Dubček, but rather to his wife, Anna, under her maiden name. Dubček signed two photos for Zoltan, using his wife’s maiden name as the sender. (Photo courtesy of Zoltan Marian)


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Global leaders speak English, occasionally

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

In the podcast I set Marco a quiz. I play him five current heads of state speaking English. He identified two of them. Go on, you know you can do better…answers at the bottom of the post.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Aaron Schachter.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke at the UN General Assembly last week, he started with this: “At the dawn of the 21st century, we had every reason to be optimistic about the future…” And then he stumbled. But it didn’t matter. He had made his point already.

Just by speaking in English, Gul conveyed his support for the US, says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“When choosing whether to speak in a foreign language … you have to balance symbolism, on the one hand, and the need to be understood on the other,” Singh says. “Speaking to a foreign audience in their own language can be a very powerful gesture of outreach and respect, even if frankly the phrase that you use or the attempt to speak the language is not particularly fluent.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke English every chance he got, with a heavy accent, and pretty basic vocabularly — certainly more basic than when he spoke Hebrew. Many Israeli officials — and Israeli citizens — see speaking English as a sign of their importance on the world stage and their friendship with the US.

But English can send the wrong message for some leaders, and separate them from their people. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks English, but rarely speaks it in public. And never in a diplomatic setting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a charity fundraiser.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” in English at a charity fundraiser.

Phillip Seib, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says sometimes diplomats refuse to speak English out of national pride.

“They have their own language,” Seib says. “Why should they speak someone else’s language? Particularly in developing countries, this is a way to assert themselves. And they just don’t see any reason to conform to others’ linguistic abilities.”

And there can be risk in speaking English. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spent several years earning his Ph.D. in Scotland. And you’d think that if he can understand and speak that English, he could easily speak English to an American TV audience or at the UN.

But when the issues are so nuanced, and the relationship so fragile, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni, Iranian leaders like Rouhani want to play it safe. So they use their native langugage, “just because it is the one in which they’re most forcefully articulate, polished and can have the most sophisticated statements and arguments.”

And there’s an added benefit from using an interpreter. The time waiting for interpretation gives you a few extra seconds to think. And if you’re seen as saying something controversial, you can just blame it on a bad interpretation.


Answers to the quiz on foreign leaders speaking English:

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Manmohan Singh
3. Angela Merkel
4. François Hollande
5. Rafael Correa


Listen above or on iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .

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podcast #2: putinology and don’t exaggerate on your resume

In this week’s podcast, the focus is on the Russian language.  There are those names of leaders: Putin, Stalin, Medvedev. They all mean – or at least connote – concrete things to Russians. (A lot of non-Russians, btw, have great trouble pronouncing Medvedev. ) Then we enter the linguistic world of outgoing president Vladimir Putin. The man likes to juice up his rhetoric with a mix of 19th century Russian poetry and hardcore street talk.  We end with the confessions of a hopelessly unqualified Israeli government speechwriter whose exaggerated claim of fluency in French is tested at the highest diplomatic levels.  Listen to the cast in iTunes or  here.

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