Out of Russia: Sign of the times writ large in neon

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Moscow - For English-speaking travellers, arriving in Russia used to be as strange as landing on the Moon. Even if they had taken the trouble to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, this was small help towards self-orientation, for the Russian language, unlike French or German, has few words in common with English. Ordinary Russians rarely spoke English in the days when the West was a potential enemy and visitors were very much dependent on what their official interpreters chose to tell them.

Russia is still of course baffling, maddening and fascinating for foreigners and always will be as long as it remains Russia. But Moscow looks more familiar these days as the slogans of the Communist Party have been replaced by Western advertising. The visitor feels he could give his guide the slip and get away with it. There are plenty of young people on the street who are only too happy to give lengthy directions in broken but improving English.

Now, paradoxically, it is the older generation of monolingual Russians who often feel they have landed on the Moon, and one can understand why. Walk down Tverskaya Street, which used to be called Gorky Street, and you will see huge neon signs advertising Gold Star electronic products from South Korea and billboards with advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes and Snickers. A popular book shop has been turned into a car showroom called Trinity Motors, with Chevrolets and Cadillacs, which only a Mafia godfather could afford, Lower down the street are branches of McDonald's, Pizza Hut and the French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher.

The advertising is mostly in English, sometimes without any translation, and there are even those infuriating adverts which are incomprehensible to speakers of any language until a follow-up billboard is erected some weeks later and you work out what the mystery is.

Poor, scruffily-dressed, ill-fed Russians standing in shiny new bus shelters decorated with glossy but to them meaningless ads can be forgiven for thinking that the attitude of Western companies is: 'Why should we bother to explain - you can't afford to buy our products anyway.' The ads are, of course, wonderful ammunition for the Communist hardliners.

But now the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has put his foot down with a decree saying that from 1 April, all foreign- language ads must have an accompanying Russian translation. 'We are a Russian state and we have a Russian law establishing Russian as the national language,' said his spokeswoman, Galina Sugak. If the City Council approves the decree, a team of inspectors will be sent out with the power to fine offending advertisers.

It remains to be seen whether the decree will actually be enforced amid today's political and economic chaos. If Western advertisers were to become better communicators, they would have to redesign completely many of their ads for the Russian market, as an English play on words, for example, is likely to be untranslatable in a literal way.

But the problem is not confined to Western companies. Many Russian businessmen themselves prefer to advertise in English or give their shops English names, because they perceive that this suggests wealth and glamour. Sometimes if they have not had a native English-speaker to advise them, the result can be extremely funny. For example, there is a food store in central Moscow called Big Bum. Perhaps the owners meant Big Ben. Each time I pass the store, I have to muster all my self-control not to go in and ask for an outsize pair of trousers.

Everywhere you look, English is invading Russian far more aggressively than the Russian infiltration of vodka, troika, glasnost and perestroika into our language. This is partly because in certain fields, especially economics, Russian lacks expressions, because for so long it lacked the objects and practices themselves. Thus on the new Moscow stock exchange, the yuppies describe themselves as 'brokeri', use 'kompyuteri' and aspire to jobs in 'menedzhment'.

But often the Anglicisms are unnecessary. Leather-jacketed spivs buying and selling consumer goods like to call themselves 'biznesmeni' (or if they are female, 'biznesvumeni') but they could equally well say torgovtsi (traders). Even the government is at it, calling itself the 'kabinyet' instead of the pravitelstvo, presumably because it thinks the Western word sounds more democratic.

Western television and rock music play their part in undermining the local language. And Russia's rich vocabulary of swear words is not good enough for youth gangs, who now prefer to spray-paint subways with graffiti in English.

The Trud trade union daily captured the linguistic invasion well in a cartoon of a parrot showing off his English vocabulary and his frustrated owner saying: 'What's wrong with 'Pretty Polly' in Russian?' But turning back the tide will be no easy matter for Russian-language purists. If they doubt that, they should ask the French Academy.