The thing non-Russian speakers don’t really understand about Russian curses, or mat, is that we’re not just talking about your favorite one-syllable curse words here — mat is an entire language unto itself.
Take the word “desk.” Not much you can do with it in English, right? But in Russian, I can “desk” something. I can get super desky and deskify it. I can be the deskiest! Because unlike English, Russian has hundreds of suffixes and prefixes.
“As a result,” University of Chicago linguist Yar Gorbachov tells me, “you could have a whole dictionary filled up with mat words.”
There are actual dictionaries filled with mat words. Paradoxically, the hot-rodded words formed from the four obscene roots (I’ll let you guess what those are…) often turn out not to mean anything obscene at all.
“That makes your speech colorful,” Gorbachov explains. “You know, instead of using a regular word for walking, or wondering or beating up, you would use the mat analog of that.”
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The closest analogy to mat I can come up with is freestyle rap. It’s poetic, profane and often hilarious, its degree can be ranked, just like five-alarm chili. And though the government might believe it is somehow sanitizing the language by prohibiting its public use, mat is also deeply, deeply Russian.
There is a misconception widely shared in Russia, that mat was smuggled into the language by the Mongols and others who occupied Russia in the 13th century. Gorbachov insists that just isn’t true. “There is nothing Turkic or Mongolic about those roots. They’re perfectly Slavic and the whole phenomenon has nothing to do with Mongol occupation. The Russians have used mat words before and after Mongol occupation,” he adds. “And we have references in medieval literature and in private letters to mat.”
Not only is mat just as Russian as borscht or Putin, it is also the lingua franca of certain subcultures. The patois of criminals, sure, but also artists, musicians, intellectuals — your typical alienated and disenfranchised types. These are the groups featured in the film Da i Da (Yes and Yes), one of the first cultural casualties of the new obscenity ban.
Da i Da was directed by Valeria Gai Germanika, a young, edgy filmmaker who has also become a mainstream success, helming popular TV dramas and even serving as the head of MTV Russia. In other words, my Russian mom and I are both fans.
In June, Germanika won “best director” at the Moscow International Film Festival for Da i Da, which she describes as a story of complicated love. But three days after it debuted, the film was yanked from theaters when the ban on mat went into effect.
Germanika explained at a press conference that Da i Da ended up packed with swear words, simply because she allowed the actors to improvise their dialog. Misha Antipov, one of the actors in the film, agrees that Da i Da is simply holding up a mirror to what some may perceive as uncomfortable truths. The film is really honest and true to life, he tells me; there are a ton of people in Russia who speak just like this.
Misha explains that when the film was yanked, people were really upset, offering to sit on the floors during its few packed screenings. They said, “Can’t you just beep out the mat when people are talking?” But there’s so much mat in the film, he tells me, you may as well just reduce the dialog to “blah, blah, blah.”
Misha thinks the ban on mat will prompt the return of the Soviet dual persona. In the Soviet times, he explains, people had their official poker face, turned toward the government and their public duties, but in private, it was “anything goes.” The thing is that now, when you force the outsiders out — they don’t just go inside, they go online.
Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets, a travel memoir that describes his attempt to “go native” in Russia, in part by trying to learn mat, began noticing an uptick in mat — concealed behind dashes and asterisks — in online posts soon after the law was passed.
“You know the effect of the ban essentially sort of puts it on everyone’s mind,” he tells me. “Everyone starts thinking about it. And in a way sort of serves to normalize the idea.”
If the Internet is acting as a pressure valve for Russian speakers jonesing for a mat fix, that may explain the popularity of a new song you won’t find on the Russian version of YouTube, or mentioned on Russian Wikipedia, but it's all over the Internet in the West. The song contains only two words. One is “Putin.” One is ... not appropriate for a family friendly setting. Let’s call it “Putin Sucks.” This amateur sing-along featuring a group of middle-aged Russians has more than 400,000 plays.
Putin Sucks hasn’t just gone viral, it’s gone interstellar. Some people recently adopted a star under the song’s name. So much for banning mat.
While lovers of niche art films don't often get their way in Putin's Russia, in this case it looks like the legislature might just blink — or at least squint. A new amendment has been proposed that wouldn't repeal the ban on mat, but would at least allow films like Germanika's to play at national film festivals without censorship.
Meanwhile, Germanika has declared she won’t be beeping out the swears in her film so it can play in Russian theaters. Instead she’s just going to just sell Da i Da on the Internet, so that anyone who wants can see it. And more importantly — can hear it.