poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

April 27, 2010

You say To-MAY-to, I say To-MAT-to. Or, Censored in Russia!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S. — poemless @ 6:00 PM

A case study in the irreconcilable aspects of American and Russian culture. National ideologies, cultural sensitivities, urban legends, or just another way we annoy each other for kicks?

There are aspects of Russian culture which leave me a bit baffled. There are aspects of American culture which also have me baffled. Generally speaking, people baffle me. My general philosophy is thus: I celebrate cultural diversity as a weapon against existential monotony and intellectual inertia; I claim the right to opt in/out of social norms as I see fit and extend this right to everyone else; I harbor a deep suspicion that said norms are the pretty packaging of tribalism, identity, largely constructs which, like a good home, keep us feeling secure so long when we remain locked inside them, provide some peace of mind and a decent road map should we venture outside, yet are hardly immutable or impervious to outside forces. Like, to wolves, for example.

Still, sometimes the I feel like I’m living in bizarro world when trying to navigate the respective moral landscapes of Russia and America. Despite being at times diametrically opposed (though rarely in the cases most often assumed), neither seems very intutive or logical to me. Which is weird, since one prides its culture on the former, and one on the latter.

Example I. Mat.

Recently, a post of mine was republished on Inoforum.

Being an indignant American, I could only bring myself to care about the fact that the F word had been edited out, resulting in the following exchange:

Me: …if you want to post my stuff elsewhere, it is ok, but ONLY so long as you do not censor it.

E–: …as you know, “mat” is not allowed in a civilized/cultured Russian society… A lot of Russian girls dislike mat extremely… Mat is not allowed among kids. Most of us are not kids, but it can’t be ruled out that kids are taking interest of our resource… I said that usually mat is not allowed among adults, however it is also not banned, but requires a justification — mat is good to use only in an adequate situation.

Me: I refuse to let society decide which words are “good” and which words are “bad.”

E–: Poemless, the problem is not that the society imposes what is good/bad on women. The problem is that mat hurts some girls. They just feel negative about it.

Maybe you are thinking that because I’m not up in arms about the policies of one Russian premier, I have some kind of double standard about what is ok for Russians and what is ok for me. Oh, no. I will happily let Putin run my country (may not be a joy ride, but could not possibly be worse than my current choices. Oh who am I kidding – the man is total joy ride.) Likewise, I think that if a devushka wants to say or write “mat” – let ‘er! And fuck anyone who says otherwise! (so… this won’t be getting reposted…)

Who is Russia to dictate to me what is civilized society, anyway? Just because they drink tea and watch ballet they’re the pinnacle of civilization? I’ve been to Moscow – you can’t fool me. Besides, who said I was trying to be civil? Also, what is this nonsense about girls being “hurt” by vulgar language?

I step back. Are there some irrational things that “hurt” me? Yes. Do I know any Russian women who go around swearing like sailors? No… Still, I don’t use such language in any kind of professional or formal setting, and mostly employ it only in creative writing. And when something’s happened that requires me to call maintenance. Or I’ve been put on hold by someone in India. Ok, I swear. Who cares? Some woman in Russia? Really? I start a blog and Russian porn spammers are now an unavoidable part of life, but I can’t write “fuck?” Even if I accept that it were more offensive to the average Russian, even if I were to accept that writing f in Russia were punishable by death, I should compromise my values (you’ll have to pry my freedom of speech out of my cold dead hand!) in deference to your quaint sensibilities? Madness!

Cultural chauvinism? I don’t think so. I’m not interested in dictating to the rest of the world what is or is not offensive. I’m just reserving the right to say “fuck” even if it offends people. Because if the rest of the world can’t handle that, we’re in trouble.

P.S. Natalia Antonova has moved to Moscow. She’s also unafraid of colorful language. So, if the tulips are weeping in Moscow, you’ll know why…

Example II. Kompromat.

So, having been informed that it’s not ok for me to say “fuck,” which, in my culture is considered a lesser offense than, oh, sceewing a prostitute with your two best friends and having a home movie of it posted on the Internet, you can imagine my confusion when said video provokes more silly jokes than moral indignation. Not surprise. Not frustration. I happen to share their ambivalence. In my country, this kind of thing would bring the Puritans right out of the woodwork, be pointed to as the root cause of recent natural disasters. (Which is about as nuts as anyone being hurt by a curse word.) But confused. Because I can’t curse. Given the arbitrariness of national sensitivities (I recently heard a new item about African immigrants being offended that Americans allowed their pets to share their bed) how can I possibly consistently respect any of them? Let alone all of them… That is, if I hypothetically wanted to? Anyway, back to Katyagate.

A Good Treaty (and friends) gives a summary of the reactions the scandal has provoked in Russia. Note the absence of volcano scapegoating.

A. This just proves the people who made the tape know nothing about Russian society, which is is less offended than bemused by the whole thing. The perpetrators are out of touch and the security apparatus is out of control.

B. This just proves the people who made the tape know exactly what they are doing, which is not to stamp the liberal opposition with scarlet letters, but make them appear less serious. Instead of evoking political disenchantment, now these figures will evoke pathetic images in the public psyche.

(C). This just proves Nashi’s looking for a way to justify its existence.

And then there is my reaction, (D) Why do I care? Before now the only reason I had to care about sex scandals was that they might expose the moral hypocrisy of their all-star line ups. Take that out of the equation and all I can think is … more p)rn on the Internet. Reaction (E) this just proves all cultures are sex-obsessed. And lastly, reaction (F) “God, I hope no one ever makes a sex tape of me. I’ve always wanted to sleep with Edichka, but now I am not so sure…”

Note how my own cultural sensibilities prevented me from using the f word in the context of that last sentence. Fortunately, mystical intervention has designated this “Reaction F” making it literarily unnecessary to do so.

What is the moral of this story, dear readers?

I guess that depends on who you ask. If you are asking me, it is that the cultural “norms” of countries and nationalities are no less arbitrated by convenience than are my own individual sensitivities.

But if you ask America, they’ll tell you it’s evidence of how censorship-mad Russia is, no freedom of speech there at all. And Russia will probably tell you it illustrates America’s quest for cultural hegemony and sick, demented relationship with sex.

Ignore them.
Decide for yourself.


  1. Simply, mat is not allowed at Inoforum; it’s an universal policy, aimed to make that place comfortable for Russian readers, of any gender and age. It was my mistake to propose that your blog post for translating. I could have understood it would likely cause problems. My apologies.

    However, our only mission is to translate interesting stuff. From my side, I promise more scrutine investigation of your blog posts in future, to evade such mutually uncomfortable issues.

    Best regards,

    Comment by Evgeny — April 28, 2010 @ 5:47 AM | Reply

  2. OMG not everyone at once!

    I guess my readership is too highbrow for this type of thing…

    Comment by poemless — April 28, 2010 @ 4:39 PM | Reply

    • …or are all young russian girls offended by the language used.

      Comment by blitzen — May 5, 2010 @ 4:32 AM | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: