The unique power of Russia's underground language
The unique power of Russia's underground language
"In the Russian State Duma building, at the center of Moscow, I showed my visitor's pass to a set of sullen guards, shot up to the fourteenth floor on an express elevator, and opened the door to a waiting room, where I discovered an Asian woman speaking on the phone in a language that sounded like Chinese. "Kaadyr-ool Alekseyevich is expecting you," she chirped, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand.
Kaadyr-ool Alekseyevich Bicheldei, the State Duma deputy from the republic of Tuva, in the mountains of southern Siberia, had recently become famous throughout the country as the primary author of draft legislation designed to make Russian the only official state language. "In strengthening the Russian language, we strengthen the Russian state," Bicheldei told me. Although the bill was supported by his fellow-members of the pro-government Unity faction, it had sparked a furious debate for reasons other than its obvious political coloration: it also contained a declaration of war on mat, Russia's bawdy national argot.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, mat was largely a language of the street. But in the nineteen-eighties, during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms, it began to move aboveground, infiltrating the mass media, literature, movies, and eventually the Internet, finding its way onto videocassettes, into pop songs, and even opera. Russia today is experiencing the age of the liberation of mat, and its lilt is often heard in public spaces, including the Duma itself. At first glance, Russia may seem simply to be echoing the experience of the West, with a delay of twenty or thirty years. Arguments for and against "unprintable" language are nothing new to Western culture, and, from a formal point of view, you could say that mat is no different from the lexicon of English-language idioms that employ various forms of the word "fuck" (which has, in fact, been imported and is widely used by Moscow adolescents). But, unlike the indecent terminology of most other languages, mat is multilevelled, multifunctional, and extensively articulated; it is, in a way, more a philosophy of life than a subset of language. And, according to Anatoly Baranov, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of the Russian Language, it has been "subject to far more powerful social prohibition" than any profane vocabulary in the West.
In 1873, Dostoyevsky claimed, in the first volume of "A Writer's Diary," that a Russian could express the entire range of his feelings with a single word. He didn't actually name the word, which was not deemed printable at the time. But the word appears today in graffiti on millions of Russian fences, on the doors of public toilets, and on school walls; it is carved into tree trunks and scratched into ancient monuments everywhere that Russians have travelled. The word in question, khuy, a term for the male sexual organ, is one of the four cornerstones of mat-along with the nouns pizda ("cunt") and blyad' ("whore" or "bitch") and the verb ebat' ("to fuck"). The term mat itself derives from the Russian word for "mother," a component of the key phrase yob tvoyu mat' ("fuck your mother"), which until recent times was taken so literally that the bloody brawls it incited often ended in murder, especially if they started in Russian prisons. Appropriately, mat was, for many years, the Gulag of Russian linguistics-a vast and complicated network that all Russians knew about but no one publicly acknowledged. Excluded from dictionaries, it was an oral lexicon comprising thousands of phrases, exclamations, interjections, and idiomatic expressions, all enveloped in a nimbus of transparent synonyms and coded euphemisms.
Some Russians are convinced that their obscene vocabulary had its origins in the Asian languages that "polluted" Russian during the period of Mongol occupation, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Most scholars, however, dismiss this as fantasy - a desire to disassociate Russian society from the crudeness of mat. Perhaps more interesting than mat's etymological derivation is its psychological origin: why is Russian profanity so firmly rooted in sex? In other languages - even in other Slavic countries, such as the Czech Republic or Poland - the vocabulary of obscenity is more or less evenly divided between shit culture and sex culture. All the basic elements of mat, however, relate to sexual activity, which, in Russia, is considered far dirtier than defecation.
With the exception of a brief period that began in the early nineteen-hundreds - in the "silver age" of art - and ended under Stalin in the thirties, there has been such a taboo on sexual activity in Russia that there are virtually no acceptable Russian words with which to speak about one's sex life. The official words used to describe the genitalia and physical love are either euphemistic or borrowed from clinical Latin. (In English, the word "fuck" is simply a rude way of referring to the sexual act; in Russian, the act itself is indecent.) Mat developed over the years as a revolt against this social obliteration of the body - a parallel underground dialect, informed almost entirely by sex. A kind of cultural schizophrenia resulted: as the authorities shunned even the slightest hint of mat (Gogol, for instance, was obliged to omit the disdainful exclamation "Nozdrya!"-literally, "Nostril!"-from his novel "Dead Souls" because of its distant echo of the word pizda), mat became the matrix of the Russian unconscious, both feared and imagined everywhere. Catherine the Great even issued a special decree forbidding any use of the word blyad'. And in Soviet times swearing in public could earn you fifteen days in jail.
Scholars believe that the word khuy is connected with the Slavonic word khvoya - in modern Russian, "pine needle" - that is, something that pricks. Ebat' comes from bit', meaning to beat or strike, and signifies beating with a pointed object - and in a part of the anatomy that is fundamentally unclean, since the word pizda is believed to come from the verb pisat' ("to piss"). In other words, the whole business of sex is both dirty and painful. Yet zhopa, the word for "ass," has never been regarded as a mat term, and the rear end is of so little interest that Russian has no real equivalent for the word "asshole," either in the physical sense or in the metaphorical (the Russian phrase signifying "a hole in the backside" is far too cumbersome for expressive purposes). "Shit" is not popular, either, and when American movies are dubbed the word is rendered by the Russian equivalent of "damn."
One theory has it that before Russia became Christian obscene terms were employed by various pagan groups, including a fertility cult. When Christianity arrived, the Church declared war on mat as a manifestation of these cults, thereby turning the language of sexuality into a form of blasphemy. To this day, mat has retained certain elements of shamanism. Scholars believe that the most basic Russian oath, yob tvoyu mat', is a fragment of an old Slavic formula, pyos yob tvoyu mat' ("a dog fucked your mother"), which indicated the defilement of the mother by an unclean animal - an incarnation of the devil. (The individual addressed was thus assumed to have been sired by a dog-what Americans might call a "son of a bitch.") The dog has long since disappeared from the phrase and it has lost its literal meaning, but it retains an archaic aura of extreme transgression. Another basic phrase, poshol ty na khuy ("go fuck yourself," or, literally, "go sit on a prick"), is an adaptation of the religious curse poshol ty k chortu ("go to the devil"). Its use in relation to a man carries an implied shameful allusion to homosexual rape. The imprecation poshol v pizdu (literally, "go into the cunt") is a dismissal of a different order - a wish for someone's death.
Although it retains its sense of blasphemy, mat, in its original form, was also a language of peasant revelry and the liberation of the flesh. In traditional folk culture, women sang obscene ditties as a challenge to their husbands or an invitation to their suitors. Pushkin's bawdy early poem "Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters" describes a culture that has lost the cunt, or, rather, forty cunts: the Tsar dispatches his heralds in search of them and after arduous ordeals they are recovered. This relationship between mat and the working classes persists. A Soviet-era joke goes like this: Everything is in order at the factory and the Party inspection commission is pleased. The inspectors have just one comment: too much mat is being used on the factory floor. The management takes note, and mat is banned in the factory. By the next inspection, the factory is falling far short of its quotas. Why? Because the workers had used obscene terms for all the mechanical equipment, and without mat they are no longer able to communicate.
Though a chic version of mat has always existed among the upper classes - first the liberal nobility and later the intelligentsia - the unfashionable mat of the lower classes is far more common. Schoolteachers across Russia wage a constant struggle against abusive parents who use mat with their children, and Anatoly Baranov told me that when he recently took some foreign colleagues to visit Suzdal, a town northeast of Moscow that is famous for its medieval churches, he was astounded by the language of the teen-agers. "In the speech of the intelligentsia, mat is an idiom that stands out against the acceptable backdrop, but there everything is the other way around," he said. There is something essential in this: If an ordinary Russian hits his finger with a hammer, he doesn't say, "Ouch, that really hurts!" He yells, "Fuck your mother!" and feels far better for it. He has rid himself of a substantial load of negativity. "Teen-agers," Baranov continued, "use mat as the backdrop itself, because it is a reflection of their reality, a reflection of how bad they feel. It's a discharge of psychological energy. Then, as with drugs, you have to use the words more and more often to produce the desired effect."
The Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction novel "Solaris," which has twice been made into a film-a Soviet version, by Andrei Tarkovsky, and a more recent American one, by Steven Soderbergh-describes a planet that is a giant brain, capable of generating visions and hallucinations in anyone who approaches it. When I think of mat, I think of the monstrous energy field of that planet. Mat is a protean language in which archaic strata mix with modernity. It has a unique ability to break free of its erotic context and to characterize universal human feelings and conditions, to express admiration and contempt, ecstasy and catastrophe. Its words complement and amplify one another. Depending on the intonation, yob tvoyu mat' can mean anything from "I don't believe it!" to "Fuck off." The phrase polny pizdets ("the absolute end") can mean "Everything's fucked" or "I'm fucked up" and every permutation in between. The meaning of the Russian verb "to fall" (upast') can be conveyed by three mat forms - yobnut'sya (from yob), pizdanut'sya (from pizda), and khuyaknut'sya (from khuy) - and the Russian ear will catch the subtle distinctions between these different ways of falling.
The world of mat is virtually inaccessible to foreigners studying Russian. It is too situational and semantically capricious, too dependent on ludic intonational subtleties. Mat is linguistic theatre, verbal performance art. It exploits the Russian language's flexible range of suffixes and prefixes, and toys with phonetically similar words from the standard lexicon in order to generate anthropomorphic images. It paints a grandiose portrait of isolation with the word pizdepropashchinsk (combining pizda with the verb meaning "to disappear" or "get lost"); it chastises senseless drivel with the word khuetenie, and portrays global absurdity as khuynya (both derived from khuy). The term for doing nothing is the picturesque khuem grushi okolachivat' - "knocking pears out of a tree with one's dick." At times, the characters of mat's urban folklore can take on the appearance of mythical monsters, such as Yebena mat' and V-rot-yebis' (literally, "Fucked mother" and "Fuck-yourself-in-the-mouth"). Faced with these terms, translation admits defeat. One chastushka - a verse akin to the limerick-goes like this:
A man stands on the bridge there, look.
Mat expresses aggression, but in a country that has suffered from a chronic lack of freedom it also plays the role of a language of dissidence, of protest against official ideology, both political and religious. The syllables blya-blya-blya and yob-yob-yob echo through the air above Russia like the bleeps of a sputnik. Decode these sounds and you have a general distress signal, the SOS of national catastrophe. However, as my housekeeper, Valya, who goes to the Orthodox church on Sundays, said when I told her I was writing on the subject, "There's mat and there's mat."
In recent years, mat has acquired some warmer tones-words like nev'yebenno (used to describe something impressive, or "unfuckable") and okhuitel'no ("cool," with khuy as its root), which express delight and admiration. Mat is both cynical and supportive of life: to use mat is to be accepted, to be victorious. Soviet soldiers shouted out mat phrases as they attacked the Nazis; Russian hockey players use them to defeat the Canadians. Even Peter the Great was a master of mat: while decapitating rebellious Kremlin guards, he let out an immense stream of mat, a legendary tapestry of seventy-four words woven together by the force of his wrath.
Baranov, the mat scholar, believes that it has always lent language an element of conviction, facilitating the transition from word to deed. "In the Soviet period," he says, "the status of the high lexicon was devalued - words such as 'fatherland,' 'motherland,' 'truth.' In the context of Soviet ideology, these words acquired a negative resonance, not only for the general population but also for Party propagandists. In this situation, obscene words began to function as markers of authenticity." He told me an anecdote from his own past, when he was working as a warehouseman at a shoe factory: "Our production manager was a woman, and one day she called me in and gave me an assignment. And then she looked at me and said, 'Yob tvoyu mat' ' - 'Make sure it fucking gets done!' I'd never heard her use mat before. She used it to show that she was being straight with me."
Under an early version of the bill considered by the Duma, the public deployment of mat would have entailed penalties up to and including a jail sentence-a provision that particularly incensed the liberal press. (Bicheldei, the author of the anti-mat legislation, claims that this clause was intended simply to attract attention to the bill.) After being passed overwhelmingly by the Duma, the law was rejected earlier this year by the upper house of parliament, but Bicheldei is determined to try again.
When I met Bicheldei, a charming but rather prim doctor of philological sciences, he told me about his first encounter with mat. "They swear in Russian mat in Tuva, too," he said of his home region, where the primary language is Turkic and Mongol-influenced. "When I was eleven, Russian linesmen came to my village to repair the electricity supply. A little while later, my Russian teacher asked me in class if I'd done my homework. I told her, 'Ni khuya' - 'Not a fucking thing.' She didn't say anything then, but after class she came up to me and took me by the arm. 'Don't say that anymore. Those are bad words,' she said. And I felt ashamed."
Clearly, Bicheldei is still ashamed. Switching to the wooden syntax of a Soviet bureaucrat, he explained that the current "degradation of the language" was due to a lapse in moral vigilance on the part of our leaders, and "the loss of a number of value-laden ideological parameters to which the state had adhered for seventy to eighty years."
The rulers of Russia have always taken an interest in language - and in controlling it. When Lenin came to power, he continued a tsarist push to simplify Russian spelling, often to such a degree that it lost its connection with etymology. One of Stalin's last theoretical works was an essay on linguistics from a Marxist perspective. Khrushchev went even further than Lenin and supported a proposal to require that words be written just as they sound, but it was overturned. But the most radical changes in the Russian language came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A whole new vocabulary was needed to reflect the emerging bandit-capitalist reality; and on the vacant lot of Soviet newspeak neologisms culled from the jargon of prison life and drug culture sprouted like bamboo. Those words transformed Russian into a language of desire, irony, coercion, and pragmatism. At the same time, they began to appear in the pages of Russian novels. Solzhenitsyn had pioneered this trend in the early sixties, in his novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," by representing, through the use of lightly camouflaged mat, the slang of the Gulag. Post-perestroika publications of the Russian classics were also a genuine sensation. The average reader was amazed to discover that Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, and Chekhov had all used mat, in their poetry or in their private letters, and that mat existed in an entire stratum of folklore - songs, ditties, proverbs, jokes, erotic folktales - the publication of which had been prohibited under both the tsarist and the Soviet regimes. Not everyone was ready for these discoveries. When the manuscript of my novel "Russian Beauty," which included several instances of mat, was sent to a printing press in the provincial city of Vladimir in 1990, the workers refused to set it in type; a delegation of six came to Moscow to negotiate with me, and we argued for hours before I was able to change their minds.
Baranov adamantly rejects Bicheldei's claim that perestroika triggered "an outrageous decline in morals and language." "Absolute nonsense!" he exclaimed, as we sat in a cozy Western-style cafe on Gogol Boulevard. "What actually happened was that Russian political language came under serious pressure from colloquial language. This is a historical fact of democratization. The study of mat is not welcomed in academic circles - it is seen as an immoral way of legitimatizing it - but scholars totally forget that mat is an oral folk tradition."
Russia today is divided over the future of mat. There are the "prohibitionists"- B icheldei's supporters, the Orthodox Church, a significant section of the older generation, schoolteachers, the traditional intelligentsia, and large numbers of provincial Russian women. These people take the view that mat is purely pornographic, and some of them are prepared to destroy books that contain it. The "permissionists" are far fewer in number, but they have money. They include the pro-Western, progressive elements, who are opposed to all forms of official prohibition, and the political and cultural liberals, who have the ear of a certain segment of urban youth - students and young professionals. In recent decades, thanks to the permissionists, dictionaries of mat have appeared, first in the West and now in Russia.
These two groups, however, are not the whole story. There is also a substantial portion of the population that simply speaks mat spontaneously and without conscious reflection: vagrants, criminals, hooligans, the lumpenproletariat, large numbers of peasants and soldiers (and some of their officers), young people who have no idea what to do with their lives, alcoholics, and drug addicts. For them, mat is not an object of analysis; it is a natural linguistic environment. They can no more survive without mat than they could without oxygen.
The prospects for the campaign against mat are unclear. First of all, the country has no official listing of prohibited words and expressions. Before these words can be outlawed, their existence must be formally acknowledged. But once they have been acknowledged they will cease to be even nominally underground. Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the liberal Union of Right-Wing Forces, called the idea of an anti-obscene-language law "Soviet lunacy." Even the most popular of the Communists, Vasiliy Ivanovich Shandybin, who claims to speak on behalf of all those who have suffered during the conversion to capitalism, was not willing to condemn mat unconditionally when I spoke with him.
Bicheldei was convinced that his law would be supported by the nationalist followers of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a deputy chairman of the State Duma, who is sometimes referred to in Moscow as a "postmodern fascist," so I decided to find out if he was right. When I got to his office, Zhirinovsky, in a pink shirt and a bright tie, was surrounded by photographers and TV cameras. He responded to my questions about mat with an impassioned speech: "This is our living language! Who has decided that mat is just bad words and deviant vocabulary? They're rejecting the language of the people. Obviously, part of the vocabulary of mat was created in the prisons, but then haven't we driven the entire population through the prisons? This language has become the norm!"
"So Russians should be proud of these words?" I asked.
"Russian is the most expressive language in the world! But we have a hatred of our own tongue. We reject the wealth of the language, and this has led to a rejection of Russian wealth in general. We need to rehabilitate mat."
Zhirinovsky himself was recently investigated by the Duma for using mat in a private conversation about American policy in Iraq, which found its way onto a videotape. "Imagine," he told me with an offended expression, "a hundred and eighty deputies supported a proposal to remove me from my post." But Zhirinovsky remained in place, and mat is alive and well in the structures of power. Even President Vladimir Putin, whose wife, Lyudmila, is a philologist, uses mat. For him, it is an authoritarian language. A parliamentarian I know told me that, at a meeting in the Kremlin, Putin had dismissed the arguments of the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov by declaring, "We don't fucking need a military base in Cuba!" The obscenity - na khuy - was a show of power. In the presence of the President, Zyuganov would never have dared to use mat; therefore his was the weaker argument.
Mat, it seems, has prevailed. The question now is whether it has grown so used to life underground that its victory will result in entropy or decay. Baranov argues that prohibiting mat would allow it to maintain its current level of intensity; permitting it would, by definition, deprive it of the power of its taboo. "If mat becomes ordinary vocabulary, it will lose its expressive and figurative functions," he said. "We'll lose a distinctive phenomenon of the Russian language and instead we'll get the kind of ordinary swear words that exist in the European languages."
Already, mat has ceased to be, as it traditionally was, the property of men, a staple of male drinking sessions, bathhouses, and sports clubs. An old Russian saying has it, "When a woman swears in mat, Christ's wounds open," but in the mid-nineties, as mat became more and more accepted, teen-age girls began dropping it into their daily discourse. From the filthy language of alcoholics and prostitutes, mat evolved into a fashionable linguistic accessory. And, in certain circles, it is even ceasing to be obscene. For the youth of Moscow and other big cities, it is often merely an instrument that enables them to discuss openly the matters of gender and sexual activity. They use it not to chastise or to punish or to shock; they use it because it's useful. A prick is a prick. A cunt is a cunt. And Russia will have to come to terms with this. Mat is the language of the body repossessed; it could soon be the language of passion. The new generation may yet transform a love of mat into a mat of love.
(Translated, from the Russian, by Andrew Bromfield.)
The New Yorker
October 12, 2003
Russian slang dictionary