The Lord’s refuse

Christopher Caldwell’s speech at Hillsdale College, How to Think About Vladimir Putin, suggests an angle and a point of view symptomatic of a certain strain of thought on the American right. I believe it rests on error. No matter what perspective the observer chooses, mistaking myths and half-truths for verifiable facts will distort his view and cloud his judgement.

…there were the young women who called themselves Pussy Riot, performance artists who were jailed for violating Russia’s blasphemy laws when they disrupted a religious service with obscene chants about God (translations were almost never shown on Western television); Putin also released them prior to the Olympics.

The most important misstatement here is that Pussy Riot disrupted a religious service: they did not. One has to have a rather vague idea of the case to believe that such disruption actually occurred. From the testimony of the few people who were present in the cathedral when the ladies rushed in to shoot their musical video, it was clear that no service was going on and the church was almost empty.

The three Pussy Riot members who got caught were convicted of “hooliganism” aggravated by insulting a religious or social group. This may be a distinction with little difference but the crime of “blasphemy” does not appear in Russia’s statutes.

Finally, Pussy Riot’s “chants” were not “about God.” The song partially filmed in the cathedral was a prayer, if a paradoxical kind, a supplication in forceful language. It was undoubtedly anti-clerical, since it accuses the Moscow patriarch of believing in Putin rather than in God and the church of being wedded to the KGB. (Searching for “Pussy Riot” and “text” or “lyrics” will turn up some worthwhile attempts at translation, such as this, this and this.)  Was its language obscene? To begin with, Russian, like other Slavic languages, has an unquestionably taboo stratum known as mat. Pussy Riot steered clear of that vocabulary.

However, the text of the song does include two words not recommended for use in polite society. One is “bitch,” possibly addressed to the patriarch, possibly an emotion-charged filler. And then there’s “the Lord’s shit,” where ‘s stands for the possessive case, not for is. It’s an imprecise translation – the Russian original isn’t that clear-cut. What in the world does it mean, sran’ Gospodnya?

An urban legend claims that the term (back-translated as “the Lord’s shit”) was invented by Russian voice-over translators (such as the inimitable Leonid Volodarsky) to render “holy shit!” – so it was originally a mild expletive.

At any rate, it’s most likely a neologism. It’s the name of an album by a Russian punk band recorded as early as 1991. This photograph from a modern art exhibition suggests a literal meaning, the creator’s excrement. However this 1996 song by Aquarium offers a more figurative take – the text goes like this (it turns out I translated two stanzas in 2006):

Noble lords have made friends with the Lord’s shit-folk.

Second, sran’ Gospodnya doesn’t sound like a neologism. It has a Slavonic ring: sran’ stems from ancient Slavic vocabulary and Gospodnya comes from Old Church Slavonic (OCS), incorporated into modern Russian like some other OCS words. Their combination sounds similar to strast’ Gospodnya, the Lord’s passion (singular). The latter was sometimes used in colloquial speech as a reaction to a tale of unusual intensity. Also note that the old Russian word for shit and its derivatives were not considered particularly rude until the 18th century.

All in all, it might have been a mere expletive, or a pejorative for clerics unworthy of their calling, or an allusion to some unidentified damnés de la terre. It was not an obscene remark about God.

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