No swearing

May 9, 2014

Will The Master and Margarita be banned from schools soon?

A few days ago, the Russian State Duma has passed a law that prohibits swearing in public performances. This is just the latest in a series of punitive legislative measures aiming to curb freedom of speech and expression in Russia, and many liberal-minded Russians see it as yet another sign of the country going back to Soviet times. The past few months have seen access inside Russia to some liberal media such as withdrawn, while others, like the TV channel Rain - Дождь -, are threatened with closure.

President Putin once said that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. His recent actions in the Ukraine show he is prepared to use more than words to save whatever is possible to reconstruct the state he was born in. He has argued that education is the means of raising upright citizens in a spirit of deep patriotism, and that art in general and literature in particular should play a pivotal role in this.

The new cultural strategy Putin is currently advocating includes strong recommendations on what in the Russian literary canon should be taught at schools, and what should be removed, or presented in a certain, state approved way. So Tatyana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is held up as a good role model because she succeeds in overcoming her passion. Some books, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, are deemed dangerous, and are not to form part of the curriculum. The first steps have been made: unified literature and history textbooks have already been commissioned and will be introduced in the next few years.

Putin sees Russia as a keeper of the traditional values that have been tainted and diluted in the West. His law banning the propagation of homosexuality, for instance, is part of this view. And a series of children’s books, edited by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, a respected literary figure, has recently come under the scrutiny of Roskomnadzor, the regulatory body overseeing the mass media, for publishing a book on a family where parents are gay. Another popular series of books has been criticised for using examples from foreign fairy tales.

The ban on swearing, passed May 5, 2014, is due to come into force from July. The law was clearly passed in some haste because a number of issues are still unclear. For instance, it states that it does not affect works produced prior to May 5. But if all swearing is to be banned, does this mean that such works would simply no longer be staged or performed? It is equally unclear what exactly is going to be classified as swearing. So far the law only stipulates four key words and their derivatives. But a commission of experts is to provide further details.

As in all languages, swear words and obscene language have been used in a wealth of Russian literature, in works by Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Sorokin, Dovlatov and many others.

What is certain is that such an apparently rudimentary law can never hope to successfully limit or cover the use of such a fluid and pervasive phenomenon. Like most cultures, swearing is absolutely embedded in the Russian language. No statute or bill can hope to alter that. By the way, I hear that people around me are wondering whether the new law will also apply for Vladimir Putin. Because, in TV appearances, he does not hesitate to use rather rough prison jargon himself.

Click here to read more examples of how Russia is returning to the Soviet era

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