Liberate the Language!

Peter Pomerantsev

‘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.


  • 30 January 2013 at 9:50am
    Simon Wood says:
    Britain's advertising service providers use the self-satirical word 'crative' for 'creative', highlighting the adolescent, in fact infantile, preciousness of many of their over-leveraged (mollycoddled, feared and overfed) sprinklers of magic dust on breakfast cereals, et cetera.

    It is rightly an insult to be called a creative. Dry old Orwell would not have liked its associations of bogusness, godlike but delusional powers, narcissism, manipulativeness, sentimentality and spin.

    It is striking that his portrait of a struggling advertising copywriter, Gordon Comstock, in 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying', aptly played by Richard E. Grant in the 1999 film, is incisively creative, meaning accurately evocative of the crative's Sebastian-like sense of martyrdom. Orwell would not allow it's reprinting during his lifetime, strange fellow.

    When successful advertising copywriters retire to live in Norfolk or France, often 'dividing their time' between both, they often attempt poetry (like Comstock) or fiction, but can never escape product placement ('He drove the manly Land Drover down the lane') or silvery sales phrases ('timeless Provence'). Fattened like force-fed geese on their own puff, with tearful frustration they attempt the transcendent originality that is the true tone of creativity.

    Russian literature has never regained its fizz since the days of serfdom and private estates. But those days are back. The whole world loves Pussy Riot, without even hearing a note.

    • 30 January 2013 at 10:17am
      Guernican says: @ Simon Wood
      Much as I love Simon's vim, he could certainly do with a good sub-editor. I'm also not sure I understand his final point: is he using Pussy Riot as an example of a new flowering of Russian creativity? Equating those victimised girls to Solzhenitsyn? Do tell... I've certainly never heard a note.

      An interesting distinction between language as weapon (or, perhaps, tool of oppression, if that doesn't sound too dramatic... it does, doesn't it?) and language as something to be preserved and kept sacrosanct, methinks. One thinks of those gentlemen at l'Academie Francaise, vainly trying to protect their mother tongue from the insidious influence of popular culture. It's all very well to champion precision and protect tradition, but when the majority of the country are ignoring you, you start to look a little, well, Cnutish, if you'll excuse the word. It's not a typo.

      The English have no reason to be complacent either. The vast majority of English conversations that occur today are conducted between people for whom English is a second, or third language. Communication is an evolution, surely. It's what its speakers make it.

    • 30 January 2013 at 11:07am
      Simon Wood says: @ Guernican
      My point is Peter's point.

      'They say what they do not practise,' as the Quran says about creatives who lead people astray.


      'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

      The subject is too big for concision. Nice post from Peter, though, going forward.

    • 29 April 2013 at 10:10am
      johnrushingvt says: @ Simon Wood
      not a Peter Mayle fan, eh?

      like you, though, i refer often to Aspidistra, one of my favorite novels. i much prefer that, as well as Orwell's inspirational non-fiction, to the two works that made him perpetually world famous. I think the most impressive aspect of those last two books is how ill the man was while writing them. Shocking, really.

  • 30 January 2013 at 7:29pm
    Graham Wade says:
    Simon Wood's analysis of the advertisers is brilliant. There is far too little criticism of these complacent overpaid gentlemen who day by day poison, pervert, and corrupt every human value. Once upon a time they promised not to break into films or plays with their garbage. Nowadays all TV screened films apart from those on the BBC are riddled with lengthy advertising breaks which destroy the artistic flow and rhythm of drama. They advertise toilet products by playing Mozart and infantilise the population with inane repetition of total insincerities. Their influence is deeply pervasive, as they would like it to be, and culturally there is now no way back. They dominate the scene and have the power. If only my old teacher Raymond Williams could be alive now to flay them with his subtle but deadly irony...But in the face of advertising most critics now roll over and play dead...They have nothing to say and if they did they would not dare say it....Graham Wade

    • 31 January 2013 at 4:44pm
      Simon Wood says: @ Graham Wade
      Peter's post and point is good and plain without being dull about a Russian politician wishing to enforce domestic, workerist nomenclature in place of imported psycho-marketing babble like 'performance'. That dodgy misnomer should be banned everywhere, as it happens.

      We are lucky to have an imaginative advertising industry. Raymond Williams would have liked a lot of it. Google 'Kronenberg Lenny Motorhead Ace of Spades' it's brilliant.

      Peter's news from the front of Russian state media calling 'creatives' 'quackers' is genuinely interesting, in fact it opens a Pandora's cornucopia of fascination, let only honest old 'meaning'.

    • 1 February 2013 at 8:54am
      Simon Wood says: @ Simon Wood
      Here's Ace of Spades, hard to find now, almost samizdat. What would they give in Russia for a culture like ours...

  • 1 February 2013 at 4:43pm
    loxhore says:
    Cf Keith Gessen on Alexei Plutser-Sarno and his dictionary of Russian swearwords

Read more