Dear Putin, Go the [Expletive] to Sleep

(Courtesy of Akashic Books)
(Akashic Books)

Oh, [expletive]! Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law Monday banning naughty words in the arts.

No [expletive]. Books and CDs that contain swearing must be clearly labeled to protect the Russian people’s virgin ears. The law goes into effect July 1. Offend the government’s delicate sensibilities, and you’re [expletiv'd].

Melissa Mohr, who recently published “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” is already cursing this new law. Like other observers, she sees more than just concern for good taste in the president’s actions. “In swearing, as in so many things, Putin is trying to turn back the clock,” she says. “Banning swearwords harks back to the glory days of the USSR, and at the same time deprives his opponents of an effective means of criticism — nothing communicates strong opposition like a well-placed [expletive].”

“Russian has an extremely expressive vocabulary of swearing, called mat,” she says. “Although 19th-century authors such as Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov occasionally used it in their works, after the Revolution, swearing was thought to be antisocialist. In harmonious Communist societies, there would be no conflict, and thus no need for swearwords. This didn’t work out, obviously, so mat was strictly censored and almost never appeared in public discourse. As a result, these words are still powerfully taboo for many Russian speakers, who refuse to use ebat (the f-word) or pizda (the c-word) in circumstances where Americans would let the [expletives] fly.”

The comic novelist Gary Shteyngart, who came to America from St. Petersburg when he was 7, said, “My first reaction was, ‘What the [expletive]?’ This blyad Putin won’t allow me to use the words khui and pizda in my work? How does one make literature or film without those words? Poshol na-khui, blyad (May he go to the [male sexual organ]).”

Who better to understand the wide audience for a good curse word than Adam Mansbach, who has sold millions of copies of his profane children’s book, “Go the [Expletive] to Sleep.” He calls Putin’s new law “the 243rd scariest thing he’s done of late.”

“Any attempt to limit an artist’s palette is misguided, and ultimately doomed to fail,” Mansbach says. “Whatever values or ideas Putin hopes to suppress aren’t embedded in these words; you can’t kill them by killing the words. And history — especially Russian history! — has shown us that literature and music will always find ways to work around censorship.”

There is no Russian translation of “Go the [Expletive] to Sleep.” But there should be.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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