The trouble with Яussiaи The West's reprehensible misuse of Cyrillic continues
Sadly, the world is full of abuse. Sometimes the injustices are compounded, like in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where you can’t even pet the wild puppies because they’re radioactive. Other forms of abuse are less tragic than neglected doggies, but are nonetheless an irritant and a reason to feel ashamed of humankind. Yes, we’re talking about faux Cyrillic.
Faux Cyrillic, or Cyrillic abuse, is a kind of mimicry typeface that uses Cyrillic letters in Latin text to evoke Russia or the USSR. You’ll find this Western trope on book covers, movie posters, comic books, and video games dating back decades.
Though the practice is old, journalist Oliver Bullough may have uncovered one of the most egregious cases ever, tweeting on September 21 the latest cover of a journal released by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank. The cover advertises an editorial titled, “New Economic Policy: Vision Required,” spelled out in faux Cyrillic. When read correctly, the headline says, “Iesh Esoiomis Rolisch: Visioi Required.”
Bullough’s discovery is already being challenged, however. RFE/RL reporter Christopher Miller pointed out that the promotional poster for American journalist Terrell Starr’s upcoming presentation at Howard University also features some particularly serious Cyrillic abuse, reading, “Bunche Senteya Lestiyae Zeyaiez: Yauzzia 101. To Nave Moyae, Uoi Need to Ryaoduse Moyae. To Ryaoduse Moyae, Uoi Need to Know Moyae.”
It’s worth pointing out that not all American journalists opt to butcher Russia’s alphabet (though New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush famously criticized Moscow’s "Cyrillic autocracy"). In February 2017, The New Yorker shocked the world by releasing a cover that correctly transliterated the magazine’s name into Russian, properly applying the autocratic alphabet used by Vladimir Putin. The stunt even won the admiration of Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev, perhaps the Internet’s angriest critic of faux Cyrillic.
Kovalev and other alphabet purists are up against a lot, however. Over the years, Western pop culture has produced some iconic Cyrillic abuse. Who can forget the movie poster for “Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” where Borat was written in Cyrillic as “Bordt”? And what about right-wing pundit Glenn Beck’s book “Arguing With Idiots,” spelled “Ayaguing With Idiots”? When Atari ported “Tetris” to the Nintendo Entertainment System, it spelled the game’s name “Tetyais” on the cover box. Twenty-three years before that, Norman Jewison directed “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” and the film poster read, “The Yaussiais Are Coming, the Yaussiais Are Coming.”
If you ever played the 1996 mecha first-person shooter “Krazy Ivan,” you’ll perhaps remember the cover box art, which spelled the game’s name as “Kgazch Ivai.” If you think that’s an affront to Russians, you’ve clearly never seen the game’s cut scenes, which feature some spectacular Russian stereotypes. Because this is 2017, you can actually watch a full playthrough video of “Krazy Ivan” on YouTube. It’s almost 70 minutes long.
If you or anyone you love has witnessed the abuse of a Cyrillic alphabet, please know that you’re not alone, and you belong to a rich community of offended and informed people who actually know how to read.