There are few countries where the art of swearing is more revered than in Russia, which enjoys a tapestry of profanity called “mat.” This street slang contains many words, but almost all of it revolves around sexuality.
“Unlike the indecent terminology of most other languages, mat is multilevelled, multifunctional, and extensively articulated,” Russian author Victor Erofeyev wrote in a 2003 New Yorker paean to Russian swearing. “It is, in a way, more a philosophy of life than a subset of language.” (For proof, look no further than this dictionary of Russian swearing. It’s as irreverent as it is versatile. Example: “I want to play games, not watch your f—ing movies.”)
One man, however, is not feeling philosophical. Russian President Vladimir Putin hates swearing like he hates Pussy Riot.
In April of last year, Putin signed a law that imposed a fine on media and commercial activities that use foul language. If an individual made a swear word-emblazoned T-shirt, for example, it could cost him or her as much as 3,000 rubles — about $85, RT reported. For a legal entity, fines could soar above $500.
The legislation caused great confusion. It didn’t specify which words were verboten and was as precise as the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of obscenity. Putin, evidently, knew it when he saw it.
Then in December, the Institute of Russian Language at the Russian Academy of Sciences released a list of four words it deemed profane. The four words, David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker , represent the fulcrum of mat: khuy (“c–k”), ebat (“to f—“), blyad (“whore”) and pizda (“c–t”).
This week, Putin took his crusade one step further, signing another bill that prohibits swearing in public performances, including cinema and theater. But that law didn’t specify which words are off limits, either.
How on Earth could Russia keep tabs on four words across its entire cultural universe?
According to the BBC, Swearbot is a computer program that will go live before the end of this year and root out online obscenity. The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the program is in its final stages and will begin with texts, then perhaps scrutinize Russian audio and video. Its implementation will lighten the load on Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor, where employees keep tabs on 5,000 Web sites. And given advanced Internet policing mechanisms in other nations — notably China — it’s not inconceivable that Swearbot will succeed.
Some commenters bemoan the impending crackdown. “If they ban swearing in Russia, all technical progress will grind to a halt,” said one quoted by the BBC. “Warehouses will close and the army will lose its combat readiness. For our Motherland, it will be the end.”
The Ministry of Culture is defending its new legislation. “The law is not aggressive; its only aim is to regulate this sphere, so that swearing will have its purpose,” a ministry spokesperson told the Moscow Times. “It will be up to the artistic director to decide what to do with swearing, whether to break the new law or not, we will not interfere in the process.”
Who knows? Swearbot may be monitoring this article right now.
For more on this see “Dear Putin, Go the [Expletive] to Sleep” by The Washington Post’s Ron Charles.