Russian opposition gets the last word


Russian police escort lawmaker Ilya Ponomarev out of Bolotnaya square as they try to clear a square from protesters. “Bolotnaya” was “word of the year” in the annual project put together by Mikhail Epstein, a professor at Emory University. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
January 8, 2013

It was a lively year for Russian, thanks to protest and street action. And even as the prospect of change faded over the past six months, the language of 2012 exhibited a little less snark — which urban Russians are very good at — and a little more sincerity.

“Never before have there been so many new words and such a dynamic,” said Mikhail Epstein, who since 2007 has organized an annual project to pick the word, phrase and expression of the year. “While politically the opposition was defeated, linguistically it won.”

Epstein puts together a panel of linguists and has them vote on all sorts of new usages and old words that have taken on new meaning.

Some of the entries?

“Avtozak” — which means police wagon, as in the vehicle from which cellphone-wielding detainees tweeted with abandon in 2012.

Russia's president cracks down on dissent.

“Okkupai” — as in the round-the-clock gatherings that formed last spring around the statue of the poet Abai Kunanbayev, which became known as “okkupai abai.”

“Pank-moleben” — which means punk prayer, as in the words offered up by a certain feminist rock group in Christ the Savior Cathedral (and for which two of them are in prison.)

“Pussiraiot” — as in the name of that feminist rock group.

“Religarchia” — as in the confluence of the oligarchy and the highest levels of the church hierarchy.

And the word of the year: “Bolotnaya,” which means, well, swamp.

In years past, the swamp, in the Russian political context, referred to the mob of undistinguished members of parliament who ensured that good legislation vanished from sight, never to be seen again. It was definitely a loaded and sarcastic term.

But it’s also the name of the square where the most significant political protests occurred last year, and now the “Bolotnaya case” refers to the prosecution of demonstrators who were set upon by police there on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration in May. The contradiction between the literal meaning of the word and its new political implication charges it with unexpected energy, Epstein said, in an interview over tea and coffee at a bookstore cafe across from the Lenin Library.

Epstein, 62, born in the Soviet Union, is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a visiting scholar at Durham University in England. He has just finished a 10-year project, writing a book called “The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto,” but every year he makes time for a little language list-making. (Most of the other panelists work in Russia.)

The entries, he said, emerge from discussions carried out over the year on Facebook. That 2012 was so rich, he said, “suggests the energy of the opposition thinking is much stronger and brighter and more vigorous than that of the authorities. This linguistic victory may be telling us something about the future.”

The panelists’ expression of the year? “White circle,” or any of several variations, referring to the white ribbons the protesters wore.

Olga Severskaya, a language expert who was not on the panel this year, noted recently on a program on the radio station Ekho Moskvy that the phrase “white city” has taken on a whole new meaning. Traditionally, it refers to the old center of Moscow, defined by the Boulevard Ring, where white walls once stood. But now it stands for protest.

Severskaya’s favorite coinage was “alpha crane,” a dig at Putin for staging an event at which he flew an ultralight aircraft ostensibly to guide young Siberian cranes on their migration. And, okay, that’s got some snark to it.

The phrase of the year was: “Mother of God, cast Putin out!” That’s the punk prayer that got the Pussy Riot band in trouble. In fact, Epstein’s panel included another category for 2012, which he called “anti-language” — that is, language designed to distort meaning. The winner was: “offending the feelings of believers.” That’s what Pussy Riot supposedly did, according to prosecutors.

A different survey by the Web site Public.ru, of new usages in the media, put Pussy Riot first and “punk prayer” second. And it found all sorts of new words that have been spun off the originals, in a practice that Russian speakers are especially adept at: “puski,” “pussisteriya,” “pussiraytgeyt,” “pussirioty,” “pussinisty.”

Andrey Arkhangelsky, a journalist who writes in Novaya Gazeta, noted another old borrowing from English that has taken on a new emphasis. The Soviets called a demonstration — one that was ordered from on high — a “meeting.” The word came to suggest phony excitement, genuine boredom and inescapable compulsion, he wrote.

But in 2012, a “meeting” became a place where people who were angry at the system could get together, discover others with the same belief and plot their next action. It grew closer to English again. The opposition, wrote Arkhangelsky, had managed to “occupy the language.”

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