The language of Russia’s war against Ukraine

When the Ukrainian Defense Forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur posing as a Ukrainian, they usually ask him to say the Ukrainian word for a type of local bread: palyanitsya. Almost invariably, the suspect betrays his nationality and politics by pronouncing it with a different ending: palyanitsa. Similarly, during World War II, the Dutch resistance asked German spies to say the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the first syllable is pronounced skheh; in German it is she. It’s an age-old practice: An account of the first pronunciation test to identify enemies, known as the shibboleth, is mentioned in the Bible.

Following in the footsteps of national liberation struggles throughout history, Ukrainians and Dutch turned their native languages ​​into forms of resistance to the aggressors who had made their own languages ​​vehicles of oppression. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had transformed the language of “poets and thinkers”, as the Germans called themselves, into the language of “judges and executioners”, as the critics retorted. of the Nazis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin should take credit for weaponizing the Russian language over the past 20 years. But he was not the first. Russia has a centuries-old history of suppressing non-Russian languages ​​and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. In the 19th century, strict restrictions were imposed on the languages ​​whose speakers were perceived by the tsars as the greatest threats: Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, for example, was banned twice – in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a patchwork much less centralized of ethnic groups – until 1919.

When the Ukrainian Defense Forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur posing as a Ukrainian, they usually ask him to say the Ukrainian word for a type of local bread: palyanitsya. Almost invariably, the suspect betrays his nationality and politics by pronouncing it with a different ending: palyanitsa. Similarly, during World War II, the Dutch resistance asked German spies to say the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the first syllable is pronounced skheh; in German it is she. It’s an age-old practice: An account of the first pronunciation test to identify enemies, known as the shibboleth, is mentioned in the Bible.

Following in the footsteps of national liberation struggles throughout history, Ukrainians and Dutch turned their native languages ​​into forms of resistance to the aggressors who had made their own languages ​​vehicles of oppression. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had transformed the language of “poets and thinkers”, as the Germans called themselves, into the language of “judges and executioners”, as the critics retorted. of the Nazis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin should take credit for weaponizing the Russian language over the past 20 years. But he was not the first. Russia has a centuries-old history of suppressing non-Russian languages ​​and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. In the 19th century, strict restrictions were imposed on the languages ​​whose speakers were perceived by the tsars as the greatest threats: Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, for example, was banned twice – in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a patchwork much less centralized of ethnic groups – until 1919.

The Soviets did not ban non-Russian languages. Instead, they ousted them from most professions and cities, discouraged their use in the public and schools, and implied that Russian was the only language that mattered, especially if one wanted to promote one’s education and career. Ukrainian and Lithuanian dissidents were among the biggest opponents of these Russification policies, paying a heavy price for their patriotism by also forming the largest contingents of Soviet political prisoners.

Putin relied on this inglorious tradition. He first dismantled Russia’s nascent democratic institutions, replacing them with an authoritarian system that looks far too much like the regimes of Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Then he associated this new Putinian Russia with the Russian language and culture. This not only denigrated Russia’s magnificent contributions to world culture, but, more importantly, it also signaled to non-Russians in general and Ukrainians in particular that their insistence on reviving their languages ​​would be considered by the Kremlin. as an act of aggression against Russia.

From there, it was only a short step for the Ukrainian government – ​​led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and speaks Russian – to be made up of fascists and neo-Nazis engaged in “genocide”, like the claims the Kremlin, against ethnic minorities. Russians and Russian speakers from eastern Ukraine. The accusation is both absurd and obscene, as it suggests that Ukraine’s language policy amounts to the Holocaust. In Putin’s unhinged mind, the very assertion of a non-Russian identity is a mortal threat to Russia, the Russian state and, of course, to him.

When Putin then insists that Ukraine be “denazified”, he does not have in mind the neutralization of the extreme right handful that exists in Ukraine, as is the case in all countries. Instead, its target is anyone in Ukraine who speaks Ukrainian, admires the distinctiveness of Ukrainian culture, or otherwise asserts a non-Russian identity. Their very existence is both a linguistic and a political threat that must be eliminated, if necessary, by bombing cities, killing thousands of civilians and forcing millions to flee. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s actions have only transformed previously indifferent Ukrainians, including Russian speakers, into ardent patriots ready to fight for their country.

Ukrainians are fighting back, not just with weapons and pronunciation tests. They also retaliate with language. Some Russian speakers in Ukraine have said they will switch to Ukrainian, as they now see Russian as the language of the aggressor and oppressor. Diaspora Ukrainians insist that those who write about the war transliterate the country’s capital from Ukrainian as Kiev, not Russian as Kiev. Similarly, the Dnepr River is now the Dnipro, Odessa is Odessa, and Kharkov is Kharkiv.

Ukrainians also followed the practice of some minorities in the United States who appropriated the slurs used against them to neutralize their offensiveness. Ukrainians now call Molotov cocktails “Bandera smoothies,” after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader demonized by the Soviets and Putin for his followers’ passionate resistance to Soviet rule in the decade after World War II, but adored by many Ukrainians for precisely the same reason. “Banderite” has become the Russian government‘s favorite insult against any Ukrainian with pro-independence leanings. The association with Bandera – who cooperated with Nazi Germany’s military and counter-intelligence services in hopes of liberating Ukraine from the Soviets, but ended up in a German concentration camp for insisting on independence of Nazi-occupied Ukraine – also fuels Putin’s deranged view that today’s supporters of the Ukrainian state need to be “denazified”.

Bandera’s insult has not stopped unsuspected Ukrainians with right-wing leanings from appropriating it as an expression of support for Ukrainian sovereignty. And listen to how Zelensky ends each speech. He says: “Glory to Ukraine and glory to its heroes”. This too was a nationalist slogan.

Ironically, by arming Russian in his eight-year war on Ukraine, Putin has brought about a linguistic revolution that is consolidating and redefining the very Ukrainian identity he had hoped to destroy.

As for Ukrainians, it’s time for Putin to say palyanitsa and pack his bags.