Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 3

By Leonid Finkelstein

When Russian President Vladimir Putin uttered his now famous threat to the Chechen terrorists, promising to “soak them in the john” [mochit’ ikh v sortire], public reaction was varied. Some were delighted, some were indignant, others shrugged an indifferent shoulder. Yet as far as I am aware, no one asked for an explanation of the phrase, even though it is nonsense from the point of view of standard Russian. Everybody understood it–and understood it in exactly the way Putin meant it. He was not using the word “soak” in the sense of “immerse in water,” or “moisten,” or “douse with liquid.” He was using underworld slang, in which “to soak” [mochit’] means “to kill.”

Criminal and prison slang has existed in Russia (as indeed in other countries) for a very long time. I first heard it when I was imprisoned under Stalin. At the time there were many words I did not know. I didn’t even know that this language was known by the woman’s name “Fenya.” It transpires that the name dates back to the nineteenth century, when thieves, bandits and convicts came up with the idea of inserting the syllables “fe” and “nya” between alternate syllables of every word, so that the uninitiated would be unable to understand them. Thus, “tyur’ma” (prison) would be pronounced “tyur’-fe-ma-nya,” while “sapogi” (boots) became “sa-fe-po-nya-gi-fe.” Sometimes other sounds would be inserted–such as the “shi” and “tsy” of Siberian brigands–but only Fenya has survived to the present day. The trick of inserting extra sounds between syllables is long forgotten, and now Fenya is simply the name for prison slang, in which the meanings of words are changed. Thus “letter” is “ksiva,” “parcel” is “kesher,” someone from outside the criminal world is a “fraer” (fellow/chap), the victim of a scam or robbery is a “lokh” (dolt/bumpkin), to feign sickness or madness is “kosit'” (to squint), and “mochit’,” as we have seen, means to kill.

But how can the president of Russia–a man who has been to university and has never served time in prison–confidently switch to Fenya in the knowledge that everyone will understand him? The reason, alas, is that prison and labor camp slang has long since broken through the walls, bars and barbed-wire fences and is increasingly polluting the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Before Fenya began to spread beyond the criminal world, it was used only by the criminals themselves, of whom there were not that many in Russia. They were a relatively closed group, and after their arrest they served out their sentences in prison, under lock and key and behind bars, and had practically no contact with the rest of Russian society. Occasionally, the literati–such as Dostoyevsky–might include a word or two of thieves’ and robbers’ slang in their writings to lend a certain piquancy to the dialog. But it did not occur to anyone to use such words in normal conversation, let alone in prose.

The situation changed dramatically in 1917, with the arrival to power of the communists. The newly formed Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counterrevolutionary Activities, Sabotage and Speculation (the Cheka) was granted the right to arrest and shoot people, and it made broad use of this right. The death penalty, euphemistically termed the “highest form of social protection,” immediately spawned a new word in Fenya: “vyshka” (from “vysshyaya”–“highest”). The prisons were soon full, and Lenin ordered the creation of forced labor camps. The inmates of these camps were not all criminals by any means. Most of the new convicts were guilty only of having a particular social background (“burzhui,” from “bourgeois”), or a certain position in society (for example the professorate or intelligentsia), or they had simply had the nerve to show disrespect to the new authorities. Rubbing shoulders with the Fenya-speaking thieves, they were forced to assimilate the meanings of the slang words. But even then Fenya remained the language of the prisons and camps. When they were freed, the “fraery” (or “fraera” in Fenya–an irregular plural stressed on the last syllable) were ashamed to use the foul words and quickly forgot them.

Yet the number of prisons and camps was constantly growing, and the prison population soon numbered millions. And then in the mid 1930s, mass terror raged. Total numbers for the prison and camp population have yet to be ascertained, but the most scrupulous calculations arrive at a figure of 10 million at any given time. This means that overall, in the seventy years from 1917-1987, about one in every six citizens served time in prison. Thus the language of criminals became comprehensible to almost the entire population.

In theory, this should be nothing to worry about: After all, England has its rhyming slang, and France has its argot. But there is one reason why Fenya’s infiltration into the main body of the Russian language causes terrible damage. The point is that this prison “language” describes not merely the criminals’ “specialties”–swindling victims, investigators or wardens–but also everyday life in the prisons and camps: Food, drink, sleep, drug-taking, women, homosexuality, attitudes to noncriminals. Moreover, criminal activities and recidivist criminals–the so-called “thieves in law” [vory v zakone], the master criminals–are described with positive words of praise. Instead of “to steal” [ukrast’], the proudly ironic “to buy” [kupit’] is used; to rob is to “mug” [vziat’ na gop-stop]; an old con who carries weight in his circle is known respectfully as “the chief” [pakhan]. There is a whole range of words to describe thieves and stealing. For example, a pick-pocket is a “shchipach” (from shchipat’–to pinch); a burglar who specializes in apartment robberies is a “skokar’;” a thief who works the railway stations and trains is a “maidanshchik;” one who robs goods wagons is a “krasnushnik.” A pickpocket’s assistants also have names: The one who covers for the thief and maneuvers the victim into a suitable position to be robbed is called a “tyrshchik;” he often holds a large file or briefcase to shield the scene of the crime, known as a “fortytser.” The stolen goods are immediately passed to another assistant: He receives the package, which is called the “propul'”–and is himself often referred to by the same word. A razor blade–the pick-pocket’s most important tool, used to cut open pockets and bags–is called a “pis’mo” (“letter”)–while, as we know, “letter” in Fenya is “ksiva.” And so on.

Meanwhile, there are also a great many words to describe food, drink, sleep and all other human functions. Good food, for example, is jokingly called “o-bacteria” [batsilly na o], because the Russian words for butter [maslo], meat [myaso] and milk [moloko] all end in “o.” Coarse, often mocking words are used to describe anything to do with women, crime victims or basically anything that has nothing to do with thieves. Any woman (except the mother of a thief, who traditionally commands hypocritical respect) is called a “dvustvolka” (double-barreled) or “shalava” (whore). I have already mentioned the words “lokh” (innocent victim) and “fraer” (noncriminal). A petty thief running errands for the master criminals in prison is called a “shesterka” (a six; that is, the lowest denomination card in the pack), or “shnyr” (busybody). A policeman is “musor” (trash) or “gad” (reptile).

This entire “antilanguage” was created from the point of view of the criminal, the renegade, the enemy of the rest of society, which supposedly fails to understand the poor thief and is concerned only to catch him and lock him up. There can therefore be no pity for the lokh or “fraer.” Outside prison, these people are merely targets for another crime: They can be–indeed they should be–robbed, mugged, beaten up [otmetelit’] or even killed [zamochit’]. In the camp the “fraer” is the lowest form of life; they can–indeed should–have half the food they get sent from home confiscated [polovinit’–to halve]; they should be made to work and to serve the master criminals, who refuse on principle to do any work at all in prison (following the axiom “don’t soil your hands on a dirty barrow” [gryaznoi tachkoi ruk ne pachkai]). If the camp authorities force a master criminal to go out to work, he still won’t lift a finger when he’s there, and if the worst comes to the worst and the supervisor forces him to pick up a spade, he deliberately cuts himself until he bleeds [mandyachit’sya] or takes some poison so he gets sent to the sick-bay or even taken to hospital (there are camp hospitals in every region, or in the middle of large camps; the Moscow prison hospital is in Butyrka prison). So for a thief, Fenya is one way of setting himself against society.

Most of those who picked up Fenya in prison or labor camp do not share the warped mentality of the criminals. This applies all the more to those who have never been behind bars and have heard Fenya only from others. They adopt words and phrases which they find amusing and incorporate them into their own vocabulary. Children quickly pick up these words from adults–words that won’t be found in any dictionary or textbook, or whose meanings have been twisted by Fenya. Yet together with the slang, people unwittingly absorb the poison of the criminal worldview. They are no longer repelled by muggers and bandits, but begin subconsciously to identify with them, and develop a contemptuous attitude towards those who protect them from the bandits, or towards women for example. I am talking here about the “masses,” in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s definition, not the intelligentsia, who are capable of perceiving the danger of Fenya. But the “masses” make up an overall majority of the population in any country.

What is the result of all this? Recently, in just one issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta–a literary publication which, one would have thought, was supposed to use a purer language than all the others–I found a plethora of Fenya words: “lokh,” “pakhan,” “bodat'” (“to butt,” which in Fenya means “to sell”), “sidor” (bag) and even “kinut'” (“to throw,” which swindlers use to mean “to trick”). No one pays any attention to this, mainly because crime is truly endemic in Russia today and everybody knows about thieves and swindlers. And there is more to it than that. Someone who avoids Fenya and uses normal language is seen by the broad masses as sanctimonious or prudish. Take, for example, Yegor Gaidar–a respected political figure who was acting prime minister under Yeltsin. He naturally uses the language of an educated man. The comment was recently made in reference to him that anyone who uses the word “otnyud'” (by no means) could not be president of Russia: For that, one must use words like “mochit’.” Alas, there is more than a grain of truth in that joke.

Fenya is rife in the current Russian parliament, the State Duma. It is used deliberately and emphatically by members of the communist party and other parties supposedly speaking on behalf of and in the name of the people. Deputies from these parties form a majority in the Duma. Some of them, of course, know perfectly well how to speak properly but want to appear “close to the people” and see Fenya as a way of creating this impression. However, other “populists” are not play-acting: They have been infected with Fenya since childhood, and are not even aware that they are using it.

Language is a complex, dynamic organism. New words and phrases are forever appearing and other words disappearing. This process is particularly exaggerated for the Russian language, which was created in its current form only a little over two hundred years ago. Russian has an overwhelming number of direct loans from French, German, English, Italian, Tatar, Greek, Finnish and other languages. Russian embraced them all and subjected them to the grammatical rules it inherited from Old Church Slavonic. In the twentieth century, with the invasion of science and technology from abroad, Russian was enriched with terms which do not always conform to the complex old grammar. It would be inconceivable to decline such a word as “softver” (software) but, if one were to replace it with a descriptive term, one would end up with “mathematical program support.” So we have to shrug our shoulders and somehow bend “softver” to fit. It is true that indeclinable words existed before this (for example the French “pal’to” (coat) or the Italian “sal’do” ([bookkeeping] balance) but in the last decade computers and information technology in general have unleashed a veritable lexical avalanche on the Russian language.

One cannot say that foreign words spoil Russian. On the contrary, they enrich it. Thanks to its synthetic nature, Russian has a huge number of rhymes which are impossible in other languages; it has an astonishing flexibility and variety. It is no wonder that translations of Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere or Boccaccio sound so good in Russian. More recently, writers such as Joyce and Beckett have been translated quite successfully. Fenya, by contrast, does not enrich the language. It merely lends it a nasty, criminal, prison flavor. While new word formations gradually find their way into the dictionaries, there is naturally no place for Fenya there. However, canny publishers produce “dictionaries of nonstandard vocabulary,” which contain Fenya alongside the foulest of language. Incidentally, the nastiest of these lexical “constructions,” steeped in hatred and debasing human dignity, also emerged from the prisons and camps.

Is it possible that a language which has produced, in the last 200 years, some astonishing literary masterpieces, can shake off this dirt? It is difficult to say with any certainty, for language is practically ungovernable, and evolves in its own way. Yet surely it must be possible: If Russia becomes a normal, open country; if it refrains from shutting itself behind another iron curtain; if it can deal with the orgy of crime; if it does not allow another dictatorship; if the country is run by people who do not use Fenya; if, if, if… then perhaps the descendants of today’s Russians will forget the accursed words which now are spreading through the language like a deadly cancer in healthy tissue.

Leonid Finkelstein is a writer and broadcaster. While still a student in Stalin’s Russia, he served five and a half years in prison and labor camps on a trumped-up charge. Released and pronounced not guilty after the death of Stalin, he became a science writer and then a Moscow magazine editor. He left the USSR in 1966 and worked as director of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty. He now lives in London and works freelance for the BBC.