A man, cigarette jammed into his mouth, carries a land mine off a road. A woman teases a tank driver with threats of witchcraft. A coastguard responds to the threat of bombardment with the now infamous line “Russian warship, fuck off”. The people in these viral videos, as in many others that have emerged from Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s barbaric invasion, are doing the same three things: they are showing incredible courage in defending their homeland, they are speaking Russian, and they are swearing.
Taken separately, there is nothing surprising in these things. Of course people swear in wartime and the fact that many Ukrainians, especially in the east and south, speak Russian has long been a talking point for armchair experts. What underinformed Ukraine-watchers, with Vladimir Putin foremost among them, failed to anticipate is that speaking Russian in no way guarantees support for the Russian state. But the combination of these three things – resistance, Russian and expletives – and their prominence in the coverage of the war is itself significant. Obscenity might seem a trivial sidenote in such a horrific conflict, but understanding it is a way of understanding language, and language has played a big part both in Moscow’s professed motivations for this invasion and in Kyiv’s defiant response.
Language has played a big part both in Moscow’s professed motivations for this invasion and in Kyiv’s defiant response
Cursing occupies an ambivalent position in Russian-language culture. On the one hand, Russian speakers take pride in the expressiveness of their swearwords and, thanks in large part to online gaming, this flair for foul language has found an international audience. On the other, Russian-speaking societies have maintained strong taboos against public profanity. True, the censorious norms of the Soviet mid-century have been gradually eroded, first in the 1970s by illicit literature, then by the relaxation of censorship and the influx of western culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally by the rise of social media. Although the latter blurs distinctions between speech and text and between public and private, strict rules still apply. And politicians are adding new ones all the time: in both Ukraine and Russia anti-swearing legislation was introduced as recently as 2019 and 2021 respectively.
It is striking, therefore, that swearing now seems to have received a degree of official endorsement in Ukraine: the instruction that the Russian warship literally “go to a dick” has become a sort of national slogan, appearing on T-shirts, billboards and rewritten road signs across the country. The Ukrainian government has even released a commemorative stamp featuring a soldier giving the finger to a passing ship.
This is not entirely new. Just as this war is part of a longer-running conflict, so swearing has been edging its way into political discourse in Ukraine for some time. “Putin is a dickhead” (Putin – khuilo), initially a football chant, has been a common rallying cry against Russian imperialism since Euromaidan in 2013-14. This slogan was famously cited by acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia at the time and Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself made a jokey allusion to it in 2019 in Servant of the People, the TV show that brought him to national prominence.
Ukraine’s move away from Soviet-style linguistic prissiness does two things. First, it makes the obvious point that war is serious, a time to put aside politeness. Second, it emphasises the gulf between the communication strategies of the autocratic Putin and the self-consciously democratic, media-savvy Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian president and his team have shown their mastery – even in siege conditions – of the idioms of social media, of the way it blends homemade and professional, public and private. The language of Zelenskiy’s public persona reinforces this sense of familiarity: in a 3 March press conference, he addressed Putin directly, in Russian, using the informal “ty” form of address: “I’m an ordinary guy, sit down with me, I don’t bite.”
This informality, which is also evident in the military-casual attire of Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian delegation at the peace talks, is a deliberate contrast to Putin’s presentation which, especially on the eve of the war, juxtaposed banality and absurdity with its long tables, rants about history and ever-present technocratic suit and tie. I’ve seen the talking heads of Russian state TV express contempt for the Ukrainians’ alleged lack of professionalism but the fact that, by 9 March, Putin felt obliged to come out of isolation to address a rally, and to do so in a polo neck and (expensive, Italian) puffa jacket made the failings of Russia’s plan A pretty evident.
This massive, vicious invasion must be referred to as a ‘special military operation’
Attitudes to swearing, however, reveal a deeper divide between Moscow and Kyiv. Traditionally, there have been four words that you absolutely cannot print in a Russian publication or say on TV (they’re sexual taboos including, unsurprisingly, the words for male and female genitals). Now, at risk of imprisonment, there is a fifth: war. Instead, this massive, vicious invasion must be referred to as a “special military operation”. This sort of mealy-mouthed euphemism is common in war-mongering circles worldwide but the grotesque irony of banning “war” while waging war speaks to a particular Putinist pathology in attitudes to language – one that has a lot in common with his geopolitical vision.
Although Putin himself has a penchant for crude expressions, he avoids obscenity and his time in power has featured repeated attempted crackdowns on public profanity, as a way of signalling both a commitment to “traditional values” and central control over freedom of expression. By accident or design, these initiatives have often coincided with assaults on Ukrainian sovereignty. In 2005, after the orange revolution had begun to weaken Russian influence in Ukraine, a new law was introduced in Russia reaffirming the status of Russian as the state language and promising government action against “words and phrases not meeting the norms of contemporary literary Russian”. In March 2014, Russia completed its annexation of Crimea and began to sponsor breakaway republics in Donbas; the following month, the existing ban on swearwords in print media and TV was extended to theatre, cinema and music. Since February 2021, the same rules have applied, in theory at least, to social media.
The denial of Ukrainian statehood and intolerance of obscenity fit with Putinism’s preferred historical narrative
Most recently, just as the current invasion was launched, one of the charges cooked up against the imprisoned oppositionist Alexei Navalny was an accusation of contempt of court based in part on his use of the euphemisms blin and yo-moyo (of equivalent strength to “sheesh” and “frick”). Such pedantry might seem unnecessary for what is now an unapologetic police state, but the regime is here not only taking aim at Navalny’s knack – shared with Zelenskiy – for using informality to build rapport. It is also sending out a wider message: if need be, we will get you for the smallest slip-up.
The denial of Ukrainian statehood and intolerance of obscenity also fit with Putinism’s preferred historical narrative: in the 1990s the west deliberately disrupted Russian stability with deviations both big (the break-up of the motherland) and small (too much swearing), but the leader is ironing out these irregularities. What is more, both are evidence of an attitude to the world that is highly prescriptive: some things are inherently legitimate and some are not, and these norms are determined in Moscow. The result is a refusal to countenance both how people really talk and what people might really think about their national identity.
Marina Ovsyannikova interrupts Russian state news programme with sign saying: ‘Don’t believe the propaganda. You are being lied to here’ on 15 March. Photograph: DSK/EPA
The state’s determination to control language in this way shapes the response of those who oppose it, often to its detriment. For one, taboos make words more powerful. The total ban on even acknowledging the war is what made Marina Ovsyannikova’s celebrated interruption of Russian state TV news necessary but it is also what transformed her sign saying “Stop the war” – a statement that in any healthy society would be uncontroversial – into a political sensation.
What is more, the state-driven disjunction between discourse and reality provides space for creative, if toothless, counterthrusts. In late February Russian social media was full of jokes about Leo Tolstoy’s [Special Military Operation] and Peace. The same logic of substitution has been a frequent feature in protests. Forbidden to write “no war”, protesters have gone out with placards saying “two words” or a series of asterisks. In the latter case, this is more than just reminiscent of the censorship of foul language, as the eight asterisks in question could be a substitute for “no war” (net voine) but might equally imply “fuck the war” (khui voine). Even people holding blank pieces of paper have been bundled into the back of vans by faceless riot cops, as was a woman outside a cathedral bearing the sign “Thou shall not kill”. Absurdity, banality, brutality – this could be Russia’s new motto.
While we should be wary of tracing every aspect of modern Russia back to the Soviet era, especially at a time when people are all too eager to dust off cold war cliches, this back and forth between government and dissident manipulations of meaning is reminiscent of the long tradition of parodic slogans in the art of Komar and Melamid and the Moscow conceptualists, who drew attention to the emptiness of much Soviet rhetoric. This legacy was continued, in more innocent times, in the outwardly apolitical art event Monstration, which started in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in 2004: marchers would wave banners with surreal, comic slogans that were disconnected from Russia’s immediate problems but which, by the same token, also lampooned the dearth of civic initiative and the growing gulf between language and reality.
This sort of playfulness seems a long way from the authoritarian certainty that lies behind Putinism’s strict rules about what is unsayable and its black-and-white distinctions between “real” and “invented” nations. But, while Putinism has had little rationale other than the extraction of fossil fuel rents, the indulgence of the friends and the punishment of enemies, it has long used the critical mechanisms of postmodernism – spectacle, paradox and the questioning of absolute truth – to achieve these cynical ends, often by resurrecting Soviet forms devoid of ideological content. Above all, the greatest tragedy and triumph of the Soviet era, the victorious war against Nazi Germany, has been mined for usable material, such as the orange and black of the ribbons of St George now employed as floating signifier of patriotism. Here too, the manipulation of the symbols of the past has now reached an endpoint of both ridiculousness and violence, with innocent Ukrainians, the grandchildren of Soviet soldiers and Holocaust survivors labelled “fascists” and the bombing of hospitals described as “denazification”.
A Russian serviceman in Lugansk, Ukraine, last month. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA
Perhaps because of the sheer inaccuracy of this comparison, pro-Putin propagandists started looking beyond the Soviet store cupboard for iconography. The result is the now ubiquitous Z, first spotted daubed on tanks entering Ukraine. If it does stand for something, no one knows what precisely. Instead, Z is a handy tool for the creation of a flexible and self-serving mythology, recalling not only the American right’s Q, but also, from the annals of Russian postmodernism, the multivalent P of Viktor Pelevin’s classic of consumerism, conspiracy and computer manipulation Generation P.
Z is not a letter in the Russian alphabet, a fact that has probably facilitated its transformation into something of an abstract symbol, divorced from language – much like its forerunner, the swastika. As such its prominence at a time when good honest Russian words such as voina and khui are banned encapsulates the paradox of language in this war. While the Russian state purports to be fighting to preserve the Russian language, they are attacking it, murdering Russian speakers, tainting Russian culture by association and weakening the imagined connection between the Russian word and the Russian soil. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled abroad in the past few months; Russophone communities in neighbouring countries seem to be taking the side of Ukraine, perhaps fearing that they too might be “liberated”. And in Ukraine Putin has, in a stroke, dissolved any tensions between Ukrainians of different linguistic backgrounds, uniting them against a common enemy.
One long-term consequence of this might be that Russian becomes more of a rarity outside Russia, absent from the streets not only of Kharkiv but of Tashkent and Haifa too. Alternatively, a generation of anti-Russian Russophones might mean that, like English before it, Russian will benefit from shedding an automatic association with the imperial motherland. But these speculations are of little concern to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking resistance fighters. Language only gets you so far. “Russian warship, fuck off!” may indeed contain the seed of a different, cosmopolitan future for the Russian language. But the Russians didn’t do what they were asked and, until they do, it is more than words that Ukraine needs.