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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 22:20 GMT 23:20 UK
Russia's respect for yo

By Steve Rosenberg in Moscow

If there is one thing that Russians love to do, it is build statues.

They build them to princes and poets, writers and revolutionaries - in fact to anyone who has made almost any contribution to this country's rich and often turbulent history.

It was Lenin, of course, who cornered the market in statues - in Soviet times there used to be whole factories pumping them out.

Even today, his cast-iron image dominates most town centres in Russia.

Home invention

As you would expect that includes Ulyanovsk, Lenin's home town, where there are three of them.

Now, officials in Ulyanovsk say they are planning a brand new statue which, they believe, will be the most original ever built in Russia.

Lenin statue Moscow
Lenin is being replaced in Russia as the subject of statue-makers
It will not be dedicated to Lenin, though. Nor any other human being.

Instead, this will be a statue to a letter of the Russian alphabet. The letter "yo" to be exact.

You might wonder how a simple letter came to earn such a mark of respct.

After all, it does not look particularly special - nothing more than an e with two dots on the top.

But in Ulyanovsk they are very proud of their "yo". It was created by one of the town's finest sons - the writer Nikolai Karamzin - 200 years ago.

The story goes that Karamzin got fed up of writing two separate letters - an i and an o - every time he wanted a "yo".

So in a stroke of genius with a flash of his quill he created a single character and the rest - as they say - is linguistic history.

Russian feelings

What Karazmin may not have suspected is just how popular his invention would become.

Russians quickly took the "yo" to their hearts - for this is a letter which - like no other in their language - expresses what Russians are really feeling.

It's unfortunate that so many bad words begin with yo. But this letter tells us so much about Russian culture

Sergei Petrov
Just open any dictionary of Russian slang - and you will find that the nation's most colourful swear words all begin with the letter "yo". Even the cleaner versions.

Drop something heavy on your toe and you may be forced to cry out "Yo my yo!" - goodness me.

Then there is yokolomenee, yolki palki - the list of "yo" exclamations is as long as the Russian steppe.

Cleaner image

The man behind the statue is Ulyanovsk's local philosopher, Sergei Petrov.

He has organised a competition to select the most imaginative design. Sergei hopes the statue will help clean up the letter "yo"'s soiled image.

"It's unfortunate," Sergei told me, "that so many bad words begin with yo. But this letter tells us so much about Russian culture."

Sergei, though, would be wrong to think that his town has a monopoly on strange statues.

Seven hundred kilometres north-west of Ulyanovsk, in the town of Uglich, work is under way to build Russia's first ever vodka statue.

There can be no greater celebration of Russian culture than that. It is enough to make Lenin turn in his mausoleum.

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