Vladimir Zhirinovsky has posed in his underwear, thrown punches in the Duma, and called on Russians to shoot birds to prevent the spread of avian flu.
But inside the body of a clown lies the heart of a linguist.
Zhirinovsky, the head of the nationalist LDPR party, is calling for new legislation that would punish writers, reporters, and scholars for using foreign words in instances where suitable Russian alternatives exist.
Speaking on January 22 to journalists, the flamboyant lawmaker said it was time to free the Russian language from "garbage and foreign words" -- particularly Americanisms, which he described as "torturing us."
The fight to restore Russian to a state of linguistic purity has occupied lawmakers ever since foreigners first arrived on their shores wearing "dzhinsy" and raring to talk "biznes."
In fact, many of the words on Zhirinovsky's blacklist are distinctly commercial in nature.
Speaking to Kommersant FM radio -- which, Zhirinovsky noted, would do well to change their Gallic moniker to Torgovets FM posthaste -- the lawmaker signaled his desire to condemn terms like "diler," "treider," "menedzher," and "seil" to the guillotine. (Which, incidentally, is "gilyotina.")
He also took aim at words that have long been a mainstay of the Russian language, like the German-based "parikmakher," or hairdresser.
Zhirinovsky offered "strizhach," based on the Russian word for haircut, as a preferable alternative, despite the fact that it currently does not exist in Russian dictionaries. Otherwise, he lamented, "the Germans will say we don't have our own words."
Damn The French
He next turned his wrath against the French, who have long peppered the language of eating with their own damnable phrases. "'Restoran,' 'kafe,' bar," he said, had no place in the local vocabulary when there are perfectly good Russian alternatives like "zakusochnaya" -- a term based on the Russian word for snack. "That's a good Russian word. 'Zakusochnaya' -- you run in, you have a snack."
Zhirinovsky then set his sights on condoms, already a touchy subject in an era of shrinking Russian birthrates. The longstanding term, prezervativ, must not be preserved. Instead, he proposed the archaic "predokhranitel" -- literally, a fuse or protective device. "All the packages have the word 'prezervativ' on them," he said disparagingly. "The kids don't even understand what that is."
(A prerevolutionary advertisement
for condoms refers to them as "rezinoviye predokhraniteli," or rubber protective devices. The devices themselves, it should be noted, are from the United States and France.)
Russia is not the first country to seek to purge its language of foreign intruders. Zhirinovsky himself noted admiringly that Turkey 60 years ago launched a drive to sweep its tongue free of Persian, Arabic, and French influences.
Zhirinovsky claims to have deployed a team of Russian linguists in fleshing out the legislation he hopes to eventually submit to the Duma. In the meantime, he wagged a menacing finger at the gathered journalists, who he said represented the worst offenders.
He pointed with particular disdain at the youth-focused Dozhd TV, which bills itself as an "optimistic channel" and includes English-language program names like "Hard Day's Night." "Soon that channel is going to switch over to English entirely," Zhirinovsky complained.
Any legislation to be introduced, the lawmaker added, will come complete with a stiff set of penalties ranging from fines and censorship to outright dismissals.
Still, Zhirinovsky claimed, he was prepared to make exceptions in instances where the rich Russian tongue has inexplicably offered no better alternative for how to describe, for example, rubber boots. "We're not saying that we have to change the word 'galoshi,'" he said.