The Russian war on words

In American, the word crisis is associated with everything from obesity to the computer games, but in Russia using ‘crisis' and ‘economy' in the same sentence is a cause for government concern

The Russian stock markets have been hemorrhaging value for weeks, Russian industries are gearing up for large-scale layoffs and many Russians have rushed to convert their ruble savings into dollars.

Any way you look at it, it's a crisis, and that's exactly the word the chief editor of a Yekaterinburg Web site used to describe her country's economic plight.

But for a Russian government nervous about how Russians will react as hard times worsen, it's a volatile word-too volatile for publication.

Telling the truth in Russia has always been a difficult issue, as the saying goes, "It's historical."  The Russian government wants the Russian media to follow a particular line: 

The script that authorities want the news media to stick to is the message that the Kremlin has been hammering home to Russians almost daily: The U.S. is wholly to blame for Russia's economic plight, and Russian leaders have taken the right steps to contain the crisis.

But the fact of the matter is Russia's financial woes began back in August, before the ‘world credit crunch.'

Russia's incursion into Georgia last month has accelerated a financial downturn, creating a credit crisis that could impact Moscow's increasingly muscular foreign policy.

The downturn began several months before the Aug. 8 escalation in the Caucasus and has as much to do with global trends and other political and economic developments as it does with Russia's actions in Georgia, specialists here say.

The war with Georgia precipitated massive financial damage on the Russian economy by killing investment:

Investors have pulled funds out of Russia at the fastest rate since the country's 1998 debt crisis, in the wake of the conflict with Georgia, official figures have shown.

Official figures from the Central Bank of Russia showed yesterday that the country's foreign exchange reserves fell by $16.4bn in the week to August 15.

It is the biggest fall since comparable figures began in 1998, though it is thought to be smaller than the withdrawals made by foreign investors in the wake of the Rouble crisis earlier in the late 1990s.

The drop also reflects the cash injected by the central bank to help stabilise the rouble last week as it plummeted against other currencies.

Word games can't reverse the economic disaster caused by the Russian-Georgian War but all the same, authorities are moving against news outlets not following the government's script.  Of course, state-controlled television networks have already complied, but "authorities have begun scouring Web sites and newspapers for evidence of content that they believe could incite panic in a nation already on edge about its economic plight." 

They're acting on orders from Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who in November issued a directive to all prosecutors to scrutinize media coverage of Russia's economic troubles, focusing especially on what is said and written about the country's banks.

Media outlets have begun feeling the heat.

They are being instructed on word usage and "prosecutors gave [...] a list of preferred terms to use when writing about Russia's economic woes. Layoffs should be called ‘structural transformation.' When Russians rush to buy dollars, ‘they want us to call this 'optimization of one's currency basket.' " 

"This is all very Soviet," said Aksana Panova, who is a web site's editor for, and was also summoned by the regional prosecutor.  "They are like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand. But we won't use these euphemisms. We want our audience to know the truth."

But as the economy continues falter, truth, apparently, is a commodity the Russian government doesn't believe it can afford.