The five forbidden Russian words on stage and screen

Levaithan Non Stop Productions crop.jpg

It is now official: on stage and screen you cannot say: блядь [blyad - slut], хуй [khui - cock], пизда [pizda - cunt], ебать [yebat - fuck], and мудак [mudak - dickhead].

Marina Mikhneva
26 August 2014

Artistic freedom in Russia has always been a barometer of politics, and never more so than today: there is the banning of swearing in the theatre and the cinema; the introduction of fines for showing a film without a distribution certificate; the tightening of the rules governing the issuing of these certificates for festivals and cinema clubs; the battle between moderate conservatism and excessive isolationism in the higher echelons of government; the return of the Soviet-style ideological model against a background of curtailing cultural modernisation; these are all features of current Russian cultural politics as a whole, and specifically in the area of the performing arts and cinema, where they are most noticeable and distinct. The more critically-minded part of Russian society links these developments with the name of the current minister, Vladimir Medinsky


During the current parliamentary year, the Duma has passed several laws, which have been christened 'Prohibition' – among them the ban on smoking in public places, the introduction of criminal charges for denying Russia's territorial integrity, the ban on obscene language in the media, on stage, and on the screen. The most high profile case of the latter was Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan. Zvyagintsev is one of the few internationally recognised Russian film directors; and Leviathan received the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, but Zvyagintsev had to submit to the film being dubbed, for showing in Russia, to comply with anti-swearing regulations. The law is loosely formulated, so can be interpreted in any way, but it guarantees that the presence of one swearword will result in the distribution certificate being withheld. 


Andrei Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’ fell foul of the censorship laws. (c) Non-Stop Production

Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan was subsequently dubbed to comply with anti-swearing regulations.

Other films have also had to be put through the 'pre-distribution' process, for instance, the film Yes and yes made by the noteworthy Russian director Valeriya Gai Germanika, which won her an award at the Moscow International Film Festival. Interestingly, in neither of the aforementioned cases were the officials responsible for monitoring compliance with the law, at all impressed by the prizes. Indeed, the very existence of the festivals was considered questionable – the new laws do not allow any official showing of films, which have not been granted a distribution certificate. Exception is made for foreign films, although only if they are being shown at festivals with international status. 

Kirill Razlogov, Programme Director of The Moscow International Film Festival, along with his colleague from the main Russian film festival 'Kinotavr,' Sitora Aliyeva, and indeed everyone connected with the festival movement in Moscow, have described this ban as 'a mortal blow' for festivals. Films often come to festivals straight from the post-production studios so the directors or the festival organisers have naturally had little time to apply for a distribution certificate. In July, the Ministry of Culture was made aware of the professional community's reaction to the new law; they realised that they had gone too far and promised to relax the conditions somewhat, but even if Medinsky were to be a lobbying genius, he would still not manage to do anything before the autumn, when the next Duma session opens.


Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky meets with President Vladimir Putin. CC Kremlin.ru

Medinsky's new cinema policy rephrases Chairman Mao – 'All the flowers may blossom, but we shall only water those we like.'

The film industry does not, however, consider him a genius, and indeed they have few grounds for so doing. It was, after all, the Minister himself who was the author of the new cinema policy, formulated two years ago with his rephrasing of a saying by Chairman Mao – 'All the flowers may blossom, but we shall only water those we like.' One way of executing the Minister's watering policy was to make the Cinema Fund accountable to the Ministry of Culture. Previously completely independent, the Fund gave grants to filmmakers irrespective of their political affiliation or the content of their films. Minister Medinsky, however, himself identified twelve priority themes for films wishing to receive state support, including, 'the history of the victories of the Russian people;' 'heroes of labour,' and so on… His subjugation of the Cinema Fund was opposed by its former director, Sergei Tolstikov, who had defended the organisation's previously transparent and ideology-free work: 'You have already done away with private investment in the cinema,' he said, 'and the state is now the only remaining large player in the film market.' It need hardly be added that Tolstikov was soon dismissed from his post. 


The situation in the theatre is not much better. Before the law was passed, important Moscow theatres, such as the Meyerhold Centre and the Playwright and Director Centre had already purged their repertoire of all plays with obscene language. The private Theatre.doc, however, asserted that it would not censor its texts in any way. This is probably connected with the theatre's governing creative principle as the vanguard of documentary theatre in Russia. Many of its productions are based on in-depth interviews, filming and observation; and for documentary theatre, speech in its original form is as essential an element of character depiction as any other. Anyway, as the directors of Theatre.doc point out, editing of this kind infringes the inalienable right of the playwright to his own text.

The most interesting solution to the problem came from Ivan Vyrypayev, whose play The Drunks was put on at the Meyerhold Centre. At rehearsals in the Moscow Art Theatre, it was initially full of swearwords; after the editing process it was still as full of side-splitting innuendoes, pauses and gestures, only now they made it perfectly clear which of the banned swearwords had originally been present at that place in the script. The five forbidden words are: блядь [blyad - slut], хуй [khui - cock], пизда [pizda - cunt], ебать [yebat - fuck], and мудак [mudak - dickhead].


Ivan Vyrypayev, whose 2012 play 'Drunks' featured extensive use of 'non-standard lexicon.' (c) RIA Novosti/Yekaterina Chesnokova

Books and other forms of communication have had an easier time. But if they have censored words in them they have to be sold in opaque covers with appropriate markings.

Framework for a Cultural Policy

Another important ‘cultural’ event was the presentation of the 'Framework for a Cultural Policy.' This was a manifesto intended as the basis of a strategy for developing culture both as an industry and as part of the life of society. Its official status meant that it was less discussed than the innovations in cinema policy, but it was no less revealing for all that.

'Russia is not Europe or Asia – it is unique.'

The Cultural Policy document originated in the Presidential Administration, where it was developed by a group under the direction of Vladimir Tolstoy, the president's cultural adviser, and Medinsky's closest rival in the potential struggle for the ministerial post. The document, when leaked to the media, was seen as being dominated by a spirit of moderate conservatism. The Ministry of Culture, into whose remit it fell, was asked to express its opinion on the final version of the document; and its commentary produced a furore in the cultural community, not unlike a bomb exploding. 'Russia is not Europe or Asia – it follows its own path,' was a phrase taken from the document, which phrase the Ministry of Culture itself sent out for publication in several of the biggest Russian media outlets; and this phrase was discussed more extensively than the 'ban on festivals.' The Framework for a Cultural Policy is alarmist and isolationist in spirit: its prevailing idea posits the belief that the influence of 'alien values' on the hermetically sealed world of the Russian national character should be limited. Anyone intending to fly in the face of this idea should be punished. 

Educated, liberal-minded Russians were appalled: it would seem that 'their' ministry was harbouring not just Putinist officials, but dangerous obscurantists. Social media was full of comments attacking the document, which suited Tolstoy's moderate conservatives very well – their colleagues and opponents from the Ministry of Culture could be cast as bogeymen, and their project, which ended up on the presidential desk, thus appeared in a much better light. Interestingly enough, it subsequently emerged that the author of the ministry’s comments had been Medinsky's own first deputy, Vladimir Aristarkhov. 


One of the fiercest critics of the project was Marat Gelman, gallery owner, arts manager, and influential commentator. In an interview for Ukrainian Forbes he pointed out that the state, whether Presidential Cultural Adviser Tolstoy or the Ministry of Culture, was engaging in 'artistic policy,' rather than cultural policy; it was deciding who should receive money, and who not, rather than improving conditions for projects, which are acceptable to the State (and worthy, from its point of view ,of receiving additional support), or conflict with the approved trends and heroic style. This is exactly what Gelman did in Perm up until 2013: his intensive festival work; the creation of new museums; targeted support for local artists, actors and public art installations in urban spaces, brought about a 'cultural revolution' in the city. It was this term (without any quotation marks) that the Russian media used to describe his project, which started in 2009 at the suggestion of the former regional governor Oleg Chirkunov; and was aimed at updating and upgrading city life in Perm. 'By 2013,' boasted Gelman, 'migration from the region had been reduced to zero, though when we started 80,000 people left Perm every year.'

Gelman formulated his criticism of the government – the Ministry of Culture and the Presidential Administration – as a concept, which he presented on the LiveJournal blogging platform. He arrived at one interesting conclusion: the interests of the 'state' and the 'city' in cultural policy diverge very considerably. According to Gelman, the city is the artist's natural ally, ready to help him achieve fame in exchange for his help in meeting the city's cultural needs. The federal government meanwhile is allotted the function of 'assisting' cities in their cultural activities to ensure that there should be variety; it has to promote laws that permit municipal cultural work to continue without interruption.

'Culture Minister of the Russian capital'

The interests of the 'state' and the 'city' in cultural policy diverge very considerably

These precepts – published, interestingly, before the Cultural Policy document appeared – were put into action by Sergei Kapkov, the head of the Moscow city cultural department, sometimes known as the 'Culture Minister of the Russian capital.' A member of the pro-Putin party 'United Russia,' he began his rapid ascent up the career ladder as the head of Gorky Park, the main Moscow park. His experience in re-programming that urban public space was successful – from a hellhole of drink, fighting and banal entertainment it became one of the Moscow creative class's favourite places, where every variety of urban culture could literally find a place – rollerskaters, ballroom dancers, lovers of table-top games, and contemporary artists. Kapkov rose rapidly to be in charge of improvements at city level – he shook up residential buildings and cultural centres that he had inherited from the Soviet Union; he started supporting new ways of managing museums, made targeted appointments in city theatres and, of course, changed the city parks such that they were unrecognisable. One of the most important aspects of his work was the interaction with local communities and initiative groups, as well as a detailed study of European capitals' experience in modernising their cities with the help of culture.

Kapkov became the most popular politician in the city, even among the opposition-minded representatives of the creative class. As a member of the ruling party, he was yet in effect contrasting the European modern approach with the centralised policies of the Russian government, which policies were still very Soviet. His effective policies have made Kapkov the object of Kremlin envy.


Sergei Kapkov has transformed Moscow's Gorky Park into a fashionable urban attraction. CC Akras

The federal Ministry of Culture has done nothing similar at its own level, and, judging by the documents described above and the current scope of its cultural policy strategy, is not intending to do anything either. 

But, as they say in Russia, nothing good goes on for too long. Talk about the possibility of sacking Sergei Kapkov regularly surfaces in the cultural community, and is just as regularly dismissed. Russian politics currently are not bothered about culture – Vladimir Putin has to talk to people who are more important than Vladimir Tolstoy or Vladimir Medinsky; sanctions and confrontations with the West mean that the Presidential Administration has more important concerns than local officials.

Russia is increasingly cutting itself off from Europe.

Yet, so engrossed are they in everyday life that neither the government nor the people seem to have noticed that crucial words and expressions from the Cultural Policy manifesto are starting to become reality. Russia is increasingly cutting itself off from Europe, and, as a result, is emphasising (indeed, turning in on) its own identity and heroic past. Events in Crimea and East Ukraine make the gimmicks of the Moscow cultural department look increasingly like a model playground for hippies tripping in the wasteland of our unmodernised country, faced with the potential threat of war with our brothers and neighbours. When asked to comment on the Cultural Policy manifesto, representatives of even opposing cultural positions, independently made the point that, in Russia, the state of politics is determined by the state of culture. it makes one want to say a rude word.

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