Corpus Planning in Russia...

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 3 17:45:06 UTC 2002

New York Times,

June 3, 2002

He Celebrates That Word, but He'd Stamp It Out


    ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, May 27 Gogol wrote some of his greatest works
    here. Pushkin lived here, and Dostoyevski set many of his works in
this, his birthplace. St. Petersburg is Russia's literary capital and
regards itself as the keeper of Russian culture and language. That helps
explain why Vatanyar S. Yagya began a crusade this month to outlaw dirty
words in St. Petersburg on television, in newspapers, even on the streets.
"All this cursing was known in Tolstoy's time," Mr. Yagya said in an
interview today. "But you won't find any of these words in his books."

Then again, Tolstoy never had access to The Big Dictionary of Obscenity,
Volume 1. Modern St. Petersburg does, and it has led to an uncommon public
debate among Petersburgers over what people should be free to say, and
why. The Big Dictionary of Obscenity began trickling into bookstores here
this spring. Its author is Aleksei Plutser-Sarno, a Moscow scholar. It was
printed by the Limbus Press, a St. Petersburg publisher with a free spirit
and a penchant for books with shocking language.

Volume 1 is an exhaustive, jaw-dropping and thoroughly academic study of
one of the three most pungent words in the Russian language. It is 390
pages long.  Mr. Pultser-Sarno has been working on it for 24 years. The
one-word subtitle of Volume 1 cannot be repeated here. Not even in

"As you have probably guessed," Mr. Pultser-Sarno stated, adding a couple
of unprintable words, in an interview which, at his insistence, was
conducted by e-mail, he is "financing my project myself." Then, adding a
couple of more unprintable words, he said: "Western foundations never give
money for realistic scientific projects."

Those remarks alone would be more than enough to get Mr. Pultser-Sarno in
trouble with Mr. Yagya. An international affairs professor at St.
Petersburg State University and a City Council member since 1990, Mr.
Yagya said he would soon file language-purity legislation to outlaw both
public cursing and untranslated foreign words in advertising.
Transgressors would face fines, he said, or worse.

Mr. Yagya said he is no prude and that he recognizes that foul language is
part of the Russian lexicon. But as a scholar, he said, he became
increasingly distressed by students' reliance on five or so words to say
what more cultured people express in entire paragraphs. If cursing can not
be obliterated, he said, a public ban will at least force citizens to turn
to Russian's trove of expressions to make their points and help keep the
language rich.

This makes some sense especially in Russia, a society that sometimes seems
to crave limits until one flips through The Big Dictionary of Obscenity,
Volume 1. Volume 1 blurs the line between foulness and literature. Indeed,
after one thumbs through it, other languages' curses seem lifted from
kindergarten readers. What English-language curses invoke the majesty of
birch trees? Or employ metaphors of ax handles, wagon tongues and the
bayonets of German invaders? How many languages employ an obscene word the
subject of Volume 1 as a favored metaphor for the ceaselessness of war?

"War is hell" does not count. Hades does not even rate in muscular Russian
cursing. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which cursing is
integrated into Russian culture, often in ways a foreigner would to
struggle to catch. Consider Tolstoy, who was an artillery officer during
Russia's mid-1800's war in Crimea. Shocked by his troops' language, Mr.
Pultser-Sarno said, he reproved them: "Aren't you ahsamed of that? Why
don't you better say `yedonder pup' or yerfider you?' "

His suggestion of substituting nonsense words left a lasting, if mistaken,
impression. "Once we had a count at our battery Leo Tolstoy was his name,"
the soldiers later said. "He was a real master in cursing. Sometimes he
would curse so ornately that it was impossible to repeat it after him!"
Viktor Mazin, a St. Petersburg psychoanalyst, held a conference this month
on Russian obscenity or, as Russians call it, "mot."

"To me, it comes from Soviet times," he said. "It was a reaction to state
policy. You couldn't prohibit it, the way you could prohibit
Solzhenitsyn." In fact, obscenity blossomed in the 1980's and 90's, after
Gorbachev loosened press controls and obscure, obscene authors found
audiences. But there is a palpable backlash in Russia these days to the
excesses of that period, when unrestricted freedom became anarchy.

Mr. Yagya says Mr. Pultser-Sarno's book might escape his obscenity ban,
being an academic work. But in general, he has little doubt of the need
for curbs.  "I know the opinion of the Russian language and Russian
literature teachers," he said.  "The attitude toward this law, meaning the
banning of cursing and taking measures to those who violate the law, their
attitude is very positive." Sergei I. Korovin, an editor at Limbus Press
who helped compile Mr.  Pultser-Sarno's lexicon, is not so sure. He tells
of appearing at a recent conference of teachers and librarians, every bit
as stereotypically prim here as in the American Bible Belt.

"They were concerned by the fact that obscene language is used more and
more in literature," he said. "They told the story of a girl who bought
such a book and had a nervous breakdown. She had erotic dreams afterward."
So Mr. Korovin showed them The Big Dictionary, Volume 1. "The librarians
and teachers attacked it," he said. "Then finally, they took the book. And
they never gave it back to me."

          Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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