You heard it first.
A new mood of disgust and anger was brewing in Russia, and the clues were in the language.
Sardonic and satirical catchwords and phrases slipped into blog posts, then everyday conversations, then radio chatter — until they found expression in the street protests that have abruptly broken Russia’s long spell of apathy. A newly coined vocabulary led the way, and its most trenchant examples are to be honored this week by a distinguished panel that chooses the Russian word, phrase and expression of the year.
But if there’s a single word that stands out day after day as people denounce, lambaste and lampoon the Russian authorities, it’s an old one that over time has taken on a new meaning. The word is dostali, and it means “fed up.”
There was a time when Russians wouldn’t get fed up, no matter what the Fates threw at them. The Fates, in fact, were the problem: They tended to discourage the idea that there was much anyone could do about anything.
Twenty years ago, as Russians watched the Soviet Union crumble around them and their world plunge into poverty and disorder, the interjection that leapt into seemingly every conversation was “What a nightmare!” Anyone complaining about a murder or a haircut or a traffic cop or rampant thievery would hear a sympathetic “koshmar!” from those around him. But what are you going to do about it?
More recently the faddish response was voobshche, a word that literally means “in general” but took on a sense akin to the English “You gotta be kidding me!”
But now Russians are fed up. From passively standing by while a nightmare enveloped them, they moved into a state of incredulity. Now, faced with mushrooming corruption, arrogance and stupidity, they say, “Enough. We’re fed up.” And when people are fed up, the implication is that they’re not going to take it anymore.
“This characterizes the time and epoch in Russia,” says Olga Severskaya, a professor and host of a radio show on the Russian language.
“It shows you’ve reached your limit,” she says. “You’re irritated by everything, and you haven’t been able to do anything about it. Of course, we wish this person would do something. But whether you act or not depends on you.”
The thousands who protested Saturday against what they believe were fixed elections, and against the regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are dostali. They say they are going to be out again this weekend, and the weekend after that. They vow that they’re not going to take it anymore. Putin is betting they do.
In Soviet times, dostali meant getting something that was hard to obtain. Now it has been flipped around and literally means that something or someone you don’t like has gotten to you.
The current sense began to appear over the past decade, a time of plenty and creeping authoritarianism that Russians were seemingly willing to tolerate. For the past year, however, the word has been ubiquitous, cropping up even in ads. It was, in hindsight, a harbinger of the disgust that has suddenly gone very public.
Because of its age, it didn’t make the word of the year list. Instead, a panel of about two dozen judges, assembled by the Center for Creative Development of the Russian Language, attached to St. Petersburg State University, anointed a word that is the name of one of Russia’s most famous blogs: RosPil.
RosPil is a pun of the word for “sawed,” because Russian bureaucrats are said to saw off a piece of every contract for themselves. The name was coined by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who is currently doing 15 days in jail for his role in a protest last week.
Navalny has a knack at catchwords. He also coined the expression of the year, as selected by the same jury: “the party of crooks and thieves.” It refers to the ruling United Russia party, founded by Putin.
Mikhail Epstein, a Russian professor at Emory University in Atlanta, organized the judging. The panelists included philologists, writers and cultural scholars, including Severskaya. Although the politically charged results are to be formally published Saturday, Epstein said the selections were actually made in November, before the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. (There’s also a phrase of the year: “Our madhouse votes for Putin.”)
“It was already in the consciousness of the people,” he said in a phone interview from England. The lexical list anticipated the earthquake that was about to strike.
“The linguistic initiative is being taken away from the authorities,” he said. This is the first time that has happened since the era of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev — and then it was only intellectuals talking around their kitchen tables. “Whenever there is a strong propagandistic pressure on the language” from above, Epstein said, Russians will turn it into parody. The difference this time is that few shrink from voicing that parody in public.
And now — maybe — they’re prepared to act on it.
Some of the other contenders this time around for word of the year, now in its fifth annual installment, were tvitter (Twitter), feisbuk (Facebook) and vikiliks (WikiLeaks). To tweet has been Russified to tvitnut (pronounced TVEET-noot). Is it linguistic piracy? “The Russian language prefers to steal rather than invent its own — and then assimilate it,” Epstein said. “I don’t like this, but I have to acknowledge that this is the case.”
If the judges had met this month instead of last, there would have been other strong possibilities on the lists, Epstein said. Among them would be karusel, which refers to the system of carousel voting that saw busloads of young United Russia supporters reportedly going from polling station to polling station, casting ballots at each. That’s the kind of thing that has now inspired another candidate for the list: belaya lentochka, or white ribbon. It’s the newly adopted emblem of Russian protest.