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Swearing Ban Leaves Many Russians Speechless

Yo! How To Swear When The Kremlin Says You Can't
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WATCH: One of the most notorious Russian epithets involves an unpleasant sentiment involving someone's mother -- a phrase that utilizes one of the most pungent sounds in the Russian language, "yo." Over the years, Russian speakers have invented literally hundreds of G-rated ways to convey the sound without the sentiment. RFE/RL staffers share some of the best-known variations on the theme. Even your mother will approve. (Note: Not all translations will necessarily make sense.)

In the past year, Russia has banned everything from public smoking and Ukrainian chocolate to synthetic lingerie and alcohol in sports stadiums.

But as Russians watched their right to vice steadily dismantled, for some the worst was yet to come: a sweeping ban on swearing that took effect July 1.

The legislation, signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, comes amid a Kremlin drive to promote traditional values and protect the "purity" of the Russian language.

The law prohibits the use of foul language in theater and film performances, and it requires books and music featuring profanity to be sealed and carry special warnings.

Violators can be punished with fines of up to $70 for private individuals and $1,400 for businesses.

The law fails to specify what officially constitutes swearwords, known in Russian as "mat." While most Russian profanities spring from four key words -- which for propriety’s sake could be described as the f-, c-, d- and w-words -- their variations are so colorful and profuse as to be virtually limitless.

Officials say violations will be vetted on a case-by-case basis by a panel of experts.

The vagueness of the law suggests it could be used -- much as the gay "propaganda" ban before it -- to broadly stifle debate in a country that has seen a systematic attack on free-speech rights.

More immediately, the ban has horrified natives who say profanities are an essential element of the rich Russian language and deserve their well-chosen moments in the spotlight.

Entire dictionaries are devoted to exploring Russian swearwords, and cultural legends like Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov occasionally dabbled in “mat” to add extra feeling to their writing.

Virtuosos At Swearing

The writer Viktor Yerofeyev once noted, with clear affection, that cursing is so routine for many Russians that "the syllables blya-blya-blya and yob-yob-yob echo through the air above Russia like the bleeps of a sputnik.”

Nikita Mikhalkov, whose "Burnt by the Sun" movies all contain “mat,” this week went so far as to praise Russian obscenities as "one of the greatest inventions of the Russian people."

Playwright Dmitry Ryabov compared swearwords to a potent but necessary tool. "Like any dangerous thing, you need to know how to use them," he said. "It's like a scalpel. In the hands of a surgeon, it can save a life. In the hands of a fool, it can be deadly."

WATCH: RFE/RL asked Moscow residents if they thought the new antiprofanity regulations would make ordinary Russians curse less.

Vox Pop: Will Swearing Ban Make Russians Curse Less?
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Russians in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Krasnodar, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk spent June 30 -- the last day before the law took effect -- with public readings and film screenings in which obscenities were publicly uttered with impunity.

Folklorist Tatyana Sukhanova, a researcher at Moscow's State Institute of Art Studies, says Russian profanities justify their existence simply by virtue of the fact that they've existed for hundreds of years. "They're obviously useful for something," she says.

Still, she urges restraint. "As an element of our culture, we need to treat swearing with respect, and not use it needlessly," Sukhanova says. "I knew two people who were absolute virtuosos when it came to swearing. But there were only two of them. For the rest of us, it doesn't work."

Lilya Palveleva contributed to this report from Moscow

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