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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Book of Curses Sparks Controversy

The release earlier this year of the black hardback "Russky Mat," or Russian profanity, has ignited a war on words.


On the one side, the State Duma's committee on culture has publicly denounced the dictionary and proposed legislation banning profanity in print. "We are very upset that that kind of garbage is sold on the streets," says committee adviser Dmitry Trofimovich. "It does nothing but pollute, and people who don't have the sense or education to know any better buy it."


On the other side, the author of the dictionary, Tatyana Akhmetova, argues: "These words are used not only by uneducated people, but also by those in high culture, those who no one doubts, such as Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Sholokhov and Vasily Shykshkin." In written responses to questions, the 52-year-old linguist explains, "If they exist, we should study them and not close our eyes as if they never were."


For the moment, Russian readers appear eager to "study" profane words. The dictionary has almost sold out its first 16,000 copies and is slated for a second printing within six months. The dictionary is only the first in a nine-part series called "The Mouths of the People." Moscow publisher Kolokol-Golos has already come out with a second book on profane poetry, and a third and fourth book on forbidden folk tales and ditties, respectively, should hit the stands in August. The publisher plans a fifth book, "Erotic Cooking."


Akhmetova started studying curse words as a language student at Moscow State University and since then has published about 300 articles, essays and books on linguistics. She collected her material through long vodka drinking sessions with slang-smart provincial folk and by chatting with foul-mouthed youths on the street.


Akhmetova quickly earned a reputation as a woman with a wicked tongue. Occasionally she would walk up to cursing construction workers and correct the grammar of their profanity.


If the culture committee gets its wishes, however, these workers could be fined, rather than simply scolded, for their foul mouths. Trofimov says profanity should be outlawed from public speech as well as print. The 209th article of the Soviet Union's criminal code outlawed "hooliganism," which included public use of indecent language. The proposed legislation outlawing pornography and profanity in print passed first reading in the Duma in the spring and is slated to be voted on again in the fall.


"This kind of book should not be accessible to the public, only to a limited pool of language specialists and experts, such as those who work in prisons and other places where swear words are used regularly," says Trofimov.


According to Kolokol's manager, Gennady Mishin, women purchasing the books as gifts for their husbands or boyfriends comprise a large part of his clientele. The books are sold at stands on the side of the road, at the Olympic Sports Complex weekly book fair and at the publisher's own small kiosk on Ulitsa Pyatnitskaya. Bookstores are not carrying it, Mishin says, because "they're too nervous."


"These books are absolutely important. They are folk tradition," says a gray-haired bookseller behind his table on the Novy Arbat. "These are words people use in their daily lives. That makes them part of folk heritage, doesn't it?"


But common usage doesn't mean people have to like profanity. Even Akhmetova, who devotes her life to the study of foul expression, says she cringes when she hears people swear, especially when the speakers are members of her own family. She remembers when her 4-year-old granddaughter said a no-no while walking through their apartment building courtyard one day.


"I could only think one thing. My beloved granddaughter is swearing! Horror! How can I protect her from these vulgar words?"


For the time being, Akhmetova can only hope such words are spoken correctly.