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Word cops in land of Putin and Pushkin

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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.


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