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Russia: Politicians Spark Uncivil Debate On Public Decency

  • Gregory Feifer

Civility in Russian public discourse has in recent weeks become the subject of a debate that is itself breaking new ground for its lack of civility. Two legislators exchanged insults and punches days after parliament passed legislation banning officials from using indecent words.

Moscow, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian State Duma can be a rough place, not only in terms of morale but also for personal safety. Deputies often launch withering personal attacks against one another. They also sometimes come to blows.

On 7 February, when independent deputy Aleksandr Fedulov criticized the State Duma's Ethics Commission, he had to fend off a physical attack from Communist Party Deputy Vassilii Shandybin, a formidable-looking opponent with his bald pate, bushy black eyebrows, and populist swagger.

Fedulov said the commission had failed to carefully weigh statements made by the Communist Party, and he denounced Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov. Fedulov was censured by Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, who then tried to break up Fedulov's ensuing scuffle with Shandybin.

Fedulov accused Zyuganov of being Russia's "political prostitute number one."

"I'm giving you a warning, Aleksandr Mikhailovich [Fedulov]," Seleznev cautioned.

Fedulov went on, "I propose that the Ethics Commission end the practice of political prostitution in the Duma."

Seleznev countered: "I propose that deputies vote for barring Deputy Fedulov from commenting during today's session."

At this point, Shandybin rushed toward Fedulov, and a scuffle broke out. "Vassilii Ivanovich [Shandybin], Vassilii Ivanovich, you'll crush him. Don't touch him," Seleznev pleaded.

The scuffle occurred after the Duma had passed a bill barring officials from swearing and using insulting words, as well as slang and vulgar language. The bill applies to language in state bodies, official correspondence, the media, and advertising. It must still pass through the upper house, the Federation Council, before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Such regulations will be tough to enforce, however, in a country where Putin himself rose to popularity using vulgar slang, such as his 1999 promise to "wipe out" Chechen rebels "in the outhouse." Putin also caused ripples in the West last year when he told a French reporter who had asked about civilian casualties in the Chechen war to come to Russia for a circumcision, where the operation would be done "so that nothing grows back."

Some Russian politicians have made careers out of issuing insults, perhaps most famously the head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovskii. Russian television recently showed video footage of a drunk-looking Zhirinovskii cursing U.S. President George W. Bush. He used the informal Russian form of address while warning Bush not to launch a war against Iraq. "All the world's Arabs, all the world's Muslims, all Eastern Europe, [and] Moscow are against you!" Zhirinovskii cried. "Moscow doesn't want this war, and our president told you clearly in Russian: 'Don't dare attack Baghdad!' It's better to attack [expletive] Tbilisi together...George, you're a cowboy. You stop [expletive]. You end it. Put your cartridges away in storage and forget about your daddy."

Fellow LDPR member Aleksei Mitrofanov, another Russian politician well-known for his outspokenness, defended Zhirinovskii on NTV's "Svoboda slova" talk show on 7 February, saying the video was recorded last September and was not meant for public consumption. Mitrofanov then proceeded to launch into his own colorful attack against the West.

Ironically, the program was dedicated to a discussion on indecency in public discussions in Russia.

In addition to the Duma scuffle and Zhirinovskii's rant, the show also featured a video of a pop song by the Russian girl group Tatu, which has shot to the top of the British charts and to No. 5 in the United States. In the video, the group's two members -- 18-year-old Yuliya Volkova and Lena Katina, who is 17 -- portray themselves as lesbians and dress in schoolgirl clothes.

The group has been criticized in Britain for promoting pedophilia.

A number of participants on the talk show said the British response is a form of political correctness and originates from fears that Russia is usurping Western groups on the pop charts.

Among proponents of that view is Vassilii Yakemenko, head of the self-described pro-Putin youth group Walking Together. The organization has in the past accused some of Russia's best-known writers of disseminating pornography. And in what prominent members of the country's intelligentsia have said smacks of Soviet-style censorship, the group has staged rallies in which they deface books and have organized drives to collect the offending books and return them to their authors.

LDPR member Mitrofanov said on the show that the fact that Russians are interested in Tatu's spot on the top of the British charts shows they fail to value their country's own worth. "We should turn away from that and say, 'We're the best.' Why are Zhirinovskii's videotapes grand? Because we're the best. We'll strike a blow, and Tbilisi will disappear, and Australia will disappear, and everyone will disappear. Do you understand? We're better than England. We're better than America. Better than France. And they can all go to hell! And we're better objectively because we have nuclear arms. We have 17 million [square kilometers] of territory. We have great, unrivaled resources. We have such women. Everything of ours is better!" Mitrofanov said.

Tatu member Katina, for her part, said listeners should be able to listen to Tatu's music and make their own decisions. "I think, in fact, everything depends only on each person. Speaking about whether we're breaking bounds ourselves, that's only our own personal affair. Whether we're making others cross acceptable bounds, again, that's their own affair. Let's use simple language. Everyone has a head on his shoulders. If someone wants to follow us, wants to feel like following us, he does it. Someone who doesn't want to do it, someone who isn't ready or isn't prepared to do it, won't follow us," Katina said.

Law or no law on decency, the recent outbursts by some Russian politicians seem to indicate they would support a similarly laissez-faire attitude toward their own colorful performances.