‘We’re tormented with Americanisms,’ the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. ‘We need to liberate our language from foreign words.’ He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. ‘There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,’ Zhirinovsky says. ‘Why say boutique when we have lavka?’ (Lavka is usually translated into English as something like ‘stall’.)
Zhirinovsky singled out for criticism the cable channel TV Dozhd (‘Rain TV’), which broadcasts lifestyle programmes with English titles and gives airtime to opposition leaders banned from media loyal to the Kremlin. ‘They’ll soon go over to English entirely,’ Zhirinovsky said. In December, Evgeny Fyodorov, a Duma deputy in Putin’s United Russia Party, offered the influx of foreign words as evidence that Russia is controlled by US agents: ‘President and mayor are not Russian words, they are words that came with the occupying forces’ of the US after 1991.
Many anti-Putin protesters have defined themselves as members of the creative (kreativnij) class. The term was introduced in 2002 by the American economist and sociologist Richard Florida to define the new professional class in post-industrial US cities. Russian state media have been quick to seize on the term, shortening it to kre-akli, which sounds like kryakat, ‘to quack’. From ‘creatives’ to ‘quackers’.
During the Pussy Riot trial, the band’s English name was translated in various ways, from ‘rebellious pussy cats’ to ‘enraged cunts’. ‘Could you translate the name into Russian?’ Putin asked in an interview with Russia Today in September 2012, ‘or are you embarrassed for ethical reasons?’
Zhirinovsky’s scheme to ban foreign words breaks with the more subtle Kremlin tradition of taking Western words and redefining them. Both Putin and Stalin have been described as ‘effective managers’. Now Zhirinovsky wants to ban manager and replace it with the pre-communist word prikazschik, which means ‘steward’, ‘bailiff’ or ‘shop assistant’. But perhaps the most effective manipulator of foreign words has been Zhirinovsky himself: his ‘liberal democratic’ party is neither.