CIA officially denies that it is trying to erase a letter from the Russian alphabet

The Wall Street Journal has a long, charming article on the ups and downs of a Russian letter that is fading from the vernacular. The Cyrillic-alphabet letter, ë, is pronounced "yo." Apparently, people are starting to drop the dots, even though the resulting e is pronounced "ye" in Russia. The distinction does matter: it's why Russians know their former leader as Nikita Khrushchov rather than Khrushchev, as he is commonly called by the rest of the world.

The letter's slow decline is apparently provoking a movement to save it, according to the Journal's story. That means a "cultlike following that has honored [the letter] with monuments in two provincial towns, written books about its use and computer programs to make sure the dots are never left out." But the preservation campaign's leading figure, an 80-year-old former engineer named Viktor Chumakov, believes quite firmly that ë is falling out of usage as a result of secret efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency.

[Chumakov] has penned complaints to newspaper editors and label writers, pestered the Kremlin to change the sign to a presidential office and taken a marker pen to a supermarket sign. With a broad grin, he leafs through a book crammed with packaging and labels for nuts, fish, beer and other foodstuffs that he says were altered after he wrote to the companies.

But it is the academics from the Russian Language Institute that he sees as his greatest opponents.

The state-run institute says the dots, known to linguists as a diacritic, are optional and need only be used in proper names or where a word's meaning would otherwise be unclear.

Mr. Chumakov sees a more sinister motivation. He alleges the institute is at the heart of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency to weaken Russia.

"In any country, the alphabet is an instrument to bring order," he says, carefully brushing a loose wisp of white hair behind his ear. "If it isn't respected, everything falls to pieces."

The deputy director of the Russian Language Institute said she was "well aware" of Chumakov's charges, comparing his campaign to stamp-collecting.

Here's the important part: a CIA spokesperson formally denied the charge that the U.S. spy agency is behind the letter's gradual fade from popular usage. "There is absolutely no truth to this allegation," the spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. "The Agency supports the practice of good grammar and pronunciation in any language."

Chumakov, for whatever it's worth, also blames the letter's decline on the death of Josef Stalin, whose government apparently promoted ë. And the Journal points out that the letter "has a mischievous side, bringing to mind a Russian swear word meaning 'copulate,' some forms of which start with ë."

Sounds like an Agency operation to me.

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Max Fisher · December 17, 2012

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