Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reintroducing Russians to a Fallen Letter

MTChumakov has made restoring the letter ? to greatness his personal cause.
It's essential for swearing, surfing and naming one of Moscow's best-known restaurant chains, but try and find the letter ? in a newspaper, book or even a dictionary and you may be awhile.

Viktor Chumakov, a retired engineer who now spends his days championing ?, wants to change all that. His cause -- which has the support of the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- could make life easier for thousands of expatriates struggling to learn the rudiments of Russian. It even has political overtones.

"Eleven years ago, I noticed the letter was being discriminated against," Chumakov said recently from his apartment in northern Moscow, which includes a mini-exhibit of the letter in all its glory.

Since then, Chumakov has become the language's leading yofikator, a word he coined himself that refers to one who fights for the rights of the seventh letter in the Russian alphabet.

Most newspapers and books do not print the letter ?, given that most Russians can recognize when an e, or "ye," is really a ?.

Chumakov says he was first made aware of the plight of ? after he wrote a history of Russia and discovered that type-setters were reluctant to swap e for ? even when it came to important figures like Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchyov and Mikhail Gorbachyov.

Now he's more determined than ever to put the two dots back in yolki palki and yo moyo, common substitutes for curses. (Yolki Palki is also the name of a widespread Moscow eatery.) He has published several books on the issue and lobbies newspapers to use the letter.

Chumakov says it was cost-savings that prompted printers to drop ?, which required an extra character. For many years, Stalin dictated that all e's be dutifully dotted. But after his 1953 death, ? faded from public view.

"It was really was more expensive," Chumakov said. "But thanks to Bill Gates and Word, a push of the button is all that is needed. ... Once computers arrived, it became a crime not to print ?."

Compounding problems for ? is the all-important fact that not many words begin with it. Indeed, many Russian dictionaries don't even include a ? section. The Oxford University Press Russian-English dictionary lists just 10 words beginning with ?. Two of those are curses that would make a policeman blush, while another, yorsh, is a kind of fish that also refers to a drink including vodka and beer.

The letter ?'s unwholesome reputation stems from the fact that it appears frequently when conjugating Russian's most beloved "four-letter" word. Viktor Yerofeyev once called the verb one of the four cornerstones of mat, the multileveled, intricate language within a language that constitutes swearing in Russian.

One newspaper in Ulyanovsk -- where Nikolai Karamzin is said to have invented the letter in 1797 as a substitute for two letters in the old Russian alphabet -- once ran a competition to see who could name the most non-profane words beginning with the letter. The winner came up with eight words.

Still, ? has a special power of its own, Chumakov said. "It's expressive," he said. "I don't know why, but ? produces a kind of splash of emotions."

Chumakov has had some success lobbying papers. Literaturnaya Gazeta now uses the two dots, or diacritic. So does the weekly Argumenty i Fakty. "There's been a change, and now millions of people are used to seeing ? correctly," he said.

And earlier this month, Ulyanovsk Governor Sergei Morozov ordered that all official documents in the region must include ?. Speechwriters in charge of President Vladimir Putin's New Year's Eve address made sure to dot all their e's after Chumakov contacted them.

The ? exhibit Chumakov has in his apartment includes a bottle of the Soviet beer Zhigulyovskoye and photo albums with pictures of signs and posters that now include ?. Visitors have come from far and wide to see the exhibit. "One time, I came home and found a nun and some guy playing the guitar," said Chumakov's wife, Yekaterina.

The appeal of ? appears to be spreading. Ulyanovsk and Perm have erected monuments to the letter.

Leonid Krysin, the deputy head of the Institute of Russian Language, was critical of Chumakov's quest to return ? to its former greatness. "All Russians know where the letter is and where it shouldn't be," Krysin said.

There are, however, certain cases where the ? can catch Russians by surprise. One example is the Russian word for surfing: syorfing.

Indeed, the institute's guidelines say ? should be used in the case of people and places, and when there might be confusion whether the letter in question is a e or a ?.

Still, the powers that begun taking a liking to C.

State Duma Deputy Viktor Semyonov noted that he only changed his name to Semyonov earlier this month, after a constituent mentioned that he had been unable to collect his inheritance because of a missing ? in his surname.