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Curse like a Russian: the Instagram account providing escapades in profanity

Curse like a Russian: the Instagram account providing escapades in profanity

16 February 2022

In our first encounters with a foreign language, many of us express a particular interest in its foul-mouthed words.

Russian-language swearing, or mat, largely consists of a few choice curse words. But, through association with other nouns, each of these words can be endlessly moulded into a lavish parade of idioms, phrases, euphemisms, and sayings. While Russia’s vocabulary-challenged online gamers, among others, have ensured that whole continents can now murmur the most basic “syka blyat”, there are still whole realms of Russian cursing just waiting to be explored.

Friends Elmira Kuznetsova and Jess Pollard, the Vancouver-based creators of Instagram account @curselikearussian, are at the vanguard of that brave new adventure. Their illustrated dispatches from the Wild West of Russian mat’ have not only grown a loyal following, but have spawned zines, stickers, and online events.

“We started this joint project in October 2020 during lockdown. Jess was learning Russian at the time, and one night when we were chatting about language, I went online and read some Russian curses for her,” says Kuznetsova, who works as a journalist, copywriter and piano teacher. “There was this phrase, ‘I spun it on my dick,’ that you can use to express your indifference to certain problems. Jess was laughing so hard and started drawing sketches of objects being spun on male genitalia. She had published comics before and came up with the idea of making a series of publications and releasing them as a zine.”

Originally, the account was intended to promote the zine. Today, it is a juggernaut in its own right, racking up more than 93,000 followers after being shared by Canada’s Russian community and being featured on Russia Beyond. The zine meanwhile, has expanded into three books. “It still feels pretty crazy,” says Kuznetsova.

The account also stands out for its distinctive art style. Curse Like a Russian’s image was crafted by Pollard, a full-time storyboard artist who studied branding and advertising despite being “vehemently against corporate advertising principles”. (“One of our promo images is literally me in pyjamas throwing the [Curse Like a Russian] book into the garbage,” she says.)

“The style in Curse Like a Russian is not actually how I ‘naturally’ draw, but is the product of careful decisions,” she says. “I figured a consistent, clear visual style (the black and white colour palette, the font choice, the heavy line weight of the art, and simple, icon-like designs) would be effective both for a comic and for Instagram. I took inspiration from other projects as well: the design choices behind the hilariously offensive game “Cards Against Humanity” were absolutely on my mind, probably both because of its iconically simple style and rude-ass language.”

In the future, the pair hope to take a trip to Russia to do some on-the-ground research. They’ve also discussed making a board game, a video game, and a show. But they certainly aren’t concerned about running out of inspiration.

“If we’re talking about the inspiration for this account, my primary goal is definitely to make people laugh,” says Kuznetsova. “Are we going to run out of curses? I don’t think so. Alexey Plutser-Sarno went on this ethnographic mission and tried documenting all the curses ever uttered by a Russian. I believe he’s published three thick volumes so far. Of course, some are more common than the others, but our only criteria for picking curses is hilarity. Social media, chats with friends, Russian poetry and music are all great sources of some brilliant curses.”

Pollard agrees. “Mat is so deep and rich,” she says. “We have tons of ideas for different directions that this project could take.”

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