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The Language of Russia’s War on Ukraine

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When Ukrainian protection forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur passing himself off as a Ukrainian, they often ask him to say the Ukrainian phrase for a sort of native bread: palyanitsya. Nearly invariably the suspect betrays his nationality and politics by announcing it with a unique ending: palyanitsa. Equally, in World Conflict II, the Dutch resistance would ask German spies to say the identify of the seaside city of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the primary syllable is pronounced skheh; in German, it’s sheh. It’s an age-old follow: An account of the primary pronunciation check to determine enemies, often known as a shibboleth, is talked about within the Bible.

Following within the footsteps of nationwide liberation struggles all through historical past, each the Ukrainians and the Dutch remodeled their native languages into types of resistance to aggressors who had made their very own languages into autos of oppression. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had turned the language of “poets and thinkers,” as Germans used to consult with themselves, into the language of “judges and hangmen,” as critics of the Nazis countered.

Russian President Vladimir Putin should take the credit score for weaponizing the Russian language within the final 20 years. However he wasn’t the primary. Russia has a centuries-long historical past of suppressing non-Russian languages and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. Within the nineteenth century, strict curbs had been positioned on these languages whose audio system the tsars perceived as the best threats: Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, as an illustration, was banned twice—in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a much-less-centralized patchwork of ethnicities—till 1919.

When Ukrainian protection forces encounter a suspected Russian saboteur passing himself off as a Ukrainian, they often ask him to say the Ukrainian phrase for a sort of native bread: palyanitsya. Nearly invariably the suspect betrays his nationality and politics by announcing it with a unique ending: palyanitsa. Equally, in World Conflict II, the Dutch resistance would ask German spies to say the identify of the seaside city of Scheveningen. In Dutch, the primary syllable is pronounced skheh; in German, it’s sheh. It’s an age-old follow: An account of the primary pronunciation check to determine enemies, often known as a shibboleth, is talked about within the Bible.

Following within the footsteps of nationwide liberation struggles all through historical past, each the Ukrainians and the Dutch remodeled their native languages into types of resistance to aggressors who had made their very own languages into autos of oppression. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had turned the language of “poets and thinkers,” as Germans used to consult with themselves, into the language of “judges and hangmen,” as critics of the Nazis countered.

Russian President Vladimir Putin should take the credit score for weaponizing the Russian language within the final 20 years. However he wasn’t the primary. Russia has a centuries-long historical past of suppressing non-Russian languages and forcibly imposing Russian on recalcitrant minorities. Within the nineteenth century, strict curbs had been positioned on these languages whose audio system the tsars perceived as the best threats: Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. The printing of Ukrainian texts, as an illustration, was banned twice—in 1863 and 1876. The language flourished in western Ukraine, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a much-less-centralized patchwork of ethnicities—till 1919.

The Soviets didn’t ban non-Russian languages. As a substitute, they squeezed them out of most professions and cities, discouraged their use in public and colleges, and implied that Russian was the one language that mattered—particularly if one needed to advertise one’s training and profession. Ukrainian and Lithuanian dissidents had been among the many best opponents of those Russification insurance policies, paying a excessive value for his or her patriotism by additionally forming the most important contingents of Soviet political prisoners.

Putin constructed on this inglorious custom. He first dismantled Russia’s nascent democratic establishments, changing them with an authoritarian system that bears an all-too-close resemblance to the regimes of Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Then he related this new Putinite Russia with the Russian language and tradition. That not solely denigrated Russia’s magnificent contributions to world tradition—however, extra considerably, it additionally signaled to non-Russians generally and Ukrainians specifically that their insistence on reviving their languages can be seen by the Kremlin as an act of aggression in opposition to Russia.

It was a small step from there to the view that the Ukrainian authorities—headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who’s Jewish and speaks Russian—consists of fascists and neo-Nazis dedicated to a “genocide,” because the Kremlin has claimed, in opposition to ethnic Russians and Russian audio system in japanese Ukraine. The cost is each absurd and obscene, because it means that Ukraine’s language insurance policies are tantamount to the Holocaust. In Putin’s unhinged thoughts, the very assertion of a non-Russian id is a mortal menace to Russia, the Russian state, and naturally to him.

When Putin then insists that Ukraine be “denazified,” he doesn’t take into consideration the neutralization of the handful of utmost right-wingers who exist in Ukraine, as they do in each nation. As a substitute, his goal is each particular person in Ukraine who speaks Ukrainian, admires the distinctiveness of Ukrainian tradition, or in any other case asserts a non-Russian id. Their very existence is each a linguistic and a political menace that should be eradicated—if essential, by shelling cities, killing hundreds of civilians, and forcing thousands and thousands to flee. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s actions have solely turned previously detached Ukrainians—together with Russian audio system—into ardent patriots prepared to battle for his or her nation.

The Ukrainians are combating again, not simply with weapons and pronunciation checks. They’re additionally combating again with language. Some Russian audio system in Ukraine have declared that they may swap to talking Ukrainian, inasmuch as they now contemplate Russian to be the language of the aggressor and oppressor. Diaspora Ukrainians insist that these writing in regards to the warfare transliterate the nation’s capital metropolis from the Ukrainian as Kyiv, not from the Russian as Kiev. Equally, the Dnepr River is now the Dnipro, Odessa is Odesa, and Kharkov is Kharkiv.

Ukrainians have additionally adopted the follow of some minorities in the USA who’ve appropriated the slurs used in opposition to them to neutralize their offensiveness. Ukrainians now name Molotov cocktails “Bandera smoothies,” named after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist chief demonized by the Soviets and Putin for his followers’ impassioned resistance to Soviet rule within the decade after World Conflict II—however lionized by many Ukrainians for exactly the identical motive. “Banderite” has grow to be the Russian authorities’s favourite slur in opposition to any Ukrainian with pro-independence leanings. The affiliation with Bandera—who cooperated with Nazi Germany’s army and counterintelligence service in hopes of liberating Ukraine from the Soviets however ended up in a German focus camp for insisting on the independence of Nazi-occupied Ukraine—additionally feeds into Putin’s deranged view that at this time’s proponents of Ukrainian statehood are in want of “denazification.”

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

Sarcastically, by weaponizing Russian in his ongoing eight-year warfare in opposition to Ukraine, Putin has caused a linguistic revolution that’s each consolidating and redefining the very Ukrainian id he had hoped to destroy.

So far as Ukrainians are involved, it’s time for Putin to say palyanitsa and pack his baggage.

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