Russia Is Trying to Stamp Out Swearing. Ha.

Russians like to boast that their language has better profanities than any other. But that doesn't mean that their fellow citizens always want to hear them. As if it weren't enough that President Dmitry Medvedev has launched a drive to cut back on his countrymen’s drinking, local authorities are now trying to curb foul speech too. In targeted regions, those who swear—and a national survey says that half the population admits to doing so—now face fines, lectures, and a dose of public humiliation.

The campaign against cursing is being waged in different ways. But most begin with reeducation about which expressions are acceptable in polite company. In the city of Barnaul, for example, workers at one cold-storage facility got dictionaries listing obscene words with their more polite equivalents. Workers are now encouraged to memorize exclamations such as "Excuse me, you're annoying me," "Please don't distract me," "I'm stunned," and "Wow." In Rostov-on-Don, Perm, and Penza, groups go around to kindergartens, schools, universities, and offices to explain why it's bad to swear. In the Altai territory, police have been enlisted to impose fines of 1,000 rubles (about U.S.$33) for uttering profanities in public. (These fines can help swell city coffers: in Belgorod province, where the anti-swearing campaign is already five years old, residents handed over 5 million rubles—$165,000—in 2008.) And in the village of Achair, in Omsk province, a combination of techniques have been employed to clean the public air. "Some people just need to be held up to shame, some need explanations, and others need to be punished with rubles," explains village head Sofya Arefyeva.

Arefyeva launched her war on bad language earlier this year, after she tired of hearing villagers mouthing off in her office. Recently, she recalls, there was an especially outrageous incident where the first words out of a 2-year-old's mouth were not "Mama" or "Papa," but a command—unsuitable for reprinting here—about where his doctor should go. Arefyeva has now blanketed public buildings and local stores with slogans composed by local luminaries along the lines of "You'll be fine if you don't cross the line" and "In life, if you want to get anywhere, you'll do better not to swear." A school librarian went a step further, by removing all books with profane language from the shelves. That meant the end of literary works by writers like Sergei Dovlatov, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin. The librarian even proposed burning books by the dissident novelist Eduard Limonov. Local poet Raisa Tkachenko thinks that was too extreme, but nonetheless agrees in essence with the campaign. "When [the poet] Pushkin swore, there was probably a certain charm and piquancy about it," she says. "But when our collective farmers swear, it comes out as nothing but indecent."

Is the campaign working? Put it this way: local farmer Vladimir Kuznetsov now looks around him carefully for hidden observers before issuing any expletives. But that doesn't mean he's mended his ways. "Cusswords are bad," he says. Twice. A brief pause: "Well, f--k them." Kuznetsov says he's not being ironic—his language is his way of letting off steam about his two farmhands being drunk before breakfast at the height of harvest time. But even though the 45-year-old Kuznetsov supports the idea of family-friendly language, he says that until recently he had no idea that some of his favorite expressions should not be used in company. "They should put out a brochure or something with an explanation of what are cusswords and what aren't," he says. Kuznetsov, a prosperous farmer and a devoted father of three, also resents being lectured like a child by village head Arefyeva. "My answer is, no one has died yet from cusswords."

Others are equally unrepentant. When a Russky NEWSWEEK team visited the village recently, the most notorious swearer in the village—a woman named Taska Cherkashina—had no hesitation telling them that there was "some real s--t going on here." Her biggest complaint: calls from proselytizing Jehovah's Witnesses. "First I'm polite to them, like 'F--k off.' They go on about their thing, then I start yelling, 'I've f--king had it up to here with your f---king bulls--t.' They don't show up here anymore."

So far no one, not even Cherkashina, has been jailed for swearing in Achair. Indeed, even though the law effectively equates foul language with disorderly conduct and allows for a fine of 500 to 1,000 rubles [$16.50 to $33] or 15 days in jail, local police inspector Aleksei Petrov imposes penalties only as a last resort. "If they don't understand when they're asked nicely, let them pay a fine," he says. Still, Petrov is finding that things don't always work according to plan. After telling residents to report foul language rather than respond in kind, he is finding that villagers are beefing up their complaints against others by accusing them not just of bad behavior but of bad pronouncements too. In one case, a young man admitted to stabbing a neighbor during a brawl—but claimed he was provoked because the neighbor was "antisocial" about his mother. "And we wanted," the policeman says with a sigh, "to make things better."