Word cops in land of Putin and Pushkin

Russian radio stations play the top khits and keep a khotline for listener requests. Housewives shop at the new mall or supermarket. They buy clothing items like shoesi and jeansi, foods products such as yogurt, potato chipsi, and maybe some drinksi.

If language is the gateway to a nation's soul, Russia's door has been ajar since the Soviet Union's collapse. The world has poured in, bringing a cacophony of English business lingo, advertising ditties, computerese, and Hollywood slang to the mother tongue of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. But there is hope that the Russian language - and the country's inherent values - can be saved.

"We cannot speak of having united national goals ... if we don't get our language in order," says Yury Vorotnikov.

He is one of the 45 experts tapped to form the Council for Russian Language, created last month by acting President Vladimir Putin. Their task is to stiffen the national backbone and build pride by purging what Mr. Vorotnikov calls, "distortions, neologisms and a whole stream of stupid borrowings."

Rubles are the only legal tender, but wise people keep their savings in buksi. Politicians take up speaking engagements to appeal to their elektorat. Never mind how the new generation of MTV-watching, computer-savvy teenagers expresses itself.

"Changing realities have brought many new words into the language," says Valentin Rasputin, a novelist and deputy chair of the new council. "Often there are perfectly good Russian analogues for these words, but they are pushed out by the foreign ones"

In ordaining the new Council, Mr. Putin himself became entangled in unfortunate words. He said its mission would be to zachistit, or cleanse, the Russian language. The same word is used for the security sweeps by Russian forces to root out suspected rebels in occupied Chechen villages. "That was just the standard slang of a military man," explains Mr. Vorotnikov. "He just meant we will defend our language." But he complains that even the presidential decree establishing the body says its work uses the angliscism prolongirovat rather than the perfectly good Russian verb prodlit to describe the Council's projected five-year brief.

Soviet bureaucracy added ponderous, ideologically charged but by now habitual modes of expression. "Communist language had its own style, grammar and vocabulary whose purpose was to conceal reality," says Vorotnikov. "We should certainly get rid of that."

Chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matveyenko, the Council is charged with developing an action program that targets the sources of linguistic corruption and proposes long-term solutions. It's first meeting is slated for mid-March. "Obviously you can't provide every speaker with a private language teacher and textbook," Ms. Matveyenko said in an interview with the Kultura weekly. "But we can create a social atmosphere of intolerance toward those who distort and contaminate the language.

Given the anti-journalist bias displayed by the Putin administration, her chief culprit isn't surprising: "The place to start is with the mass media," she said.

The Council will also give recommendations on how Moscow can reach out to the 25 million ethnic-Russians in now independent post-Soviet republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

"The Russian language is being pushed out in the CIS countries, Russian schools are closed, media is shut down," says Mr. Vorotnikov. "We cannot leave our fellow Russians alone and helpless, to be discriminated against like that."

Council members insist that it will be merely an advisory body. But many look wistfully to France, where a special committee issues an annual list of banned expressions and vets every new word carefully before it is admitted to the dictionary.

Ms. Matveyenko says "ridicule and "irony" should be employed against those who abuse linguistic standards, but others suggest punishments and fines.

Critics point out that Russian has traditionally been enriched by borrowing from other languages, like Old Church Slavonic - still used by the Orthodox clergy. Medieval German merchants brought a whole vocabulary for trade and commerce. The Russian aristocracy later adopted French as its main language. Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," contains whole passages written in French.

But, says Mr. Rasputin, "In the past it was only the upper classes who used foreign terms. Now it's completely different. Because of the mass media, the whole body of the language is under threat."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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