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The Language of Russia’s War on Ukraine

Putin’s weaponization of the Russian language has solidified Ukrainian identity and statehood.

By , a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.
Ukrainian soldiers in Lviv
Ukrainian soldiers in Lviv
Ukrainian soldiers carry water supplies near a military base in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 2. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

When Ukrainian defense forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur passing himself off 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, in World War II, the Dutch resistance would ask German spies to say the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the first syllable is pronounced skheh; in German, it’s sheh. It’s an age-old practice: An account of the first pronunciation test to identify enemies, known as a shibboleth, is mentioned in the Bible.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin must take the credit for weaponizing the Russian language in the last 20 years. But he wasn’t the first. Russia has a centuries-long history of suppressing non-Russian languages and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. In the 19th century, strict curbs were placed on those languages whose speakers the tsars perceived as the greatest threats: Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, for instance, was banned twice—in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a much-less-centralized patchwork of ethnicities—until 1919.

When Ukrainian defense forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur passing himself off 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, in World War II, the Dutch resistance would ask German spies to say the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the first syllable is pronounced skheh; in German, it’s sheh. It’s an age-old practice: An account of the first pronunciation test to identify enemies, known as a shibboleth, is mentioned in the Bible.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin must take the credit for weaponizing the Russian language in the last 20 years. But he wasn’t the first. Russia has a centuries-long history of suppressing non-Russian languages and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. In the 19th century, strict curbs were placed on those languages whose speakers the tsars perceived as the greatest threats: Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, for instance, was banned twice—in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a much-less-centralized patchwork of ethnicities—until 1919.

The Soviets didn’t ban non-Russian languages. Instead, they squeezed them out of most professions and cities, discouraged their use in 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 greatest opponents of these Russification policies, paying a high price for their patriotism by also forming the largest contingents of Soviet political prisoners.

Putin built on this inglorious tradition. He first dismantled Russia’s nascent democratic institutions, replacing them with an authoritarian system that bears an all-too-close resemblance to the regimes of Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Then he associated this new Putinite Russia with the Russian language and culture. That not only denigrated Russia’s magnificent contributions to world culture—but, more significantly, it also signaled to non-Russians in general and Ukrainians in particular that their insistence on reviving their languages would be viewed by the Kremlin as an act of aggression against Russia.

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.

It was a small step from there to the view that the Ukrainian government—headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and speaks Russian—consists of fascists and neo-Nazis committed to a “genocide,” as the Kremlin has claimed, against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. The charge is both absurd and obscene, as it suggests that Ukraine’s language policies are tantamount 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 doesn’t have in mind the neutralization of the handful of extreme right-wingers who exist in Ukraine, as they do in every country. Instead, his target is every person 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 shelling cities, killing thousands of civilians, and forcing millions to flee. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s actions have only turned formerly indifferent Ukrainians—including Russian speakers—into ardent patriots willing to fight for their country.

The Ukrainians are fighting back, not just with weapons and pronunciation tests. They’re also fighting back with language. Some Russian speakers in Ukraine have declared that they will switch to speaking Ukrainian, inasmuch as they now consider Russian to be the language of the aggressor and oppressor. Diaspora Ukrainians insist that those writing about the war transliterate the country’s capital city from the Ukrainian as Kyiv, not from the Russian as Kiev. Similarly, the Dnepr River is now the Dnipro, Odessa is Odesa, and Kharkov is Kharkiv.

Ukrainians have also followed the practice of some minorities in the United States who have appropriated the slurs used against them to neutralize their offensiveness. Ukrainians now call Molotov cocktails “Bandera smoothies,” named after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader demonized by the Soviets and Putin for his followers’ impassioned resistance to Soviet rule in the decade after World War II—but lionized by many Ukrainians for precisely the same reason. “Banderite” has become the Russian government’s favorite slur against any Ukrainian with pro-independence leanings. The association with Bandera—who cooperated with Nazi Germany’s military and counterintelligence service in hopes of liberating Ukraine from the Soviets but ended up in a German concentration camp for insisting on the independence of Nazi-occupied Ukraine—also feeds into Putin’s deranged view that today’s proponents of Ukrainian statehood are in need of “denazification.”

The Bandera slur hasn’t kept Ukrainians unsuspected of any right-wing leanings from appropriating it as an expression of support for Ukrainian sovereignty. And listen to how Zelensky ends every speech. He says: “Glory to Ukraine and glory to its heroes.” That, too, was a nationalist slogan.

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

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

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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