The Dictionary of Fear and Hope: The origin of wartime language in Ukrainian media

By Oleksiy Pluzhnyk

The truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions in the south of Russia [Ukraine] … We do not want to make it public, however, because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced…

British Foreign Office on Stalin’s genocide of Ukrainian people, 1934

We have a long history of loneliness in times of trouble. The world didn’t care much about the 1932-1933 genocide when millions of Ukrainians starved to death during the man-made famine. The world consciously chose blindness. When Putin started a war in 2014, the reaction was insignificant too. So, on that night of the 24th of February 2022, woken up by dozens of Russian explosions, we had little trust and a lot of fear. We wondered whether the world would have enough courage to crack down on its rooted illusions about Putin and Russia.

The fear and hope

People on their social media were chaotically tagging the accounts of European presidents, prime ministers, and other politicians. They were asking for help, for sanctions, for protection. Meanwhile, I kept mentioning foreign journalists in social media posts, constantly sharing images and videos of Russian atrocities.

All of us wanted to be heard. And, eventually, we were.

The world was finally listening – so we had to decide how to speak.

The world reacted with an unprecedented scale of sanctions and military support – the things we didn’t get in 2014. People all around the globe were gathering on the streets to show their solidarity; we started receiving dozens of supportive letters. That time, one of the journalists I had previously tagged on Instagram answered my message – and that one response resulted in the publication of my first article, starting my modest career as a journalist.

And in the cemetery of massacred illusions / there is no place for new graves anymore… These lines by Vasyl Symonenko, a Ukrainian poet and journalist assassinated by the Soviet Union after uncovering secret mass burial places of NKVD repressions, were messing with my head. And all that previously unknown attention was a heady responsibility. The world was finally listening – so we had to decide how to speak.

The dictionary

All the insecurities, all the uncertainty, the matter of our past and the question of our future, all our fear, and all our hope have formed a new language of responsibility. A commonly accepted list of new words and phrases has dartingly emerged. Now it is unanimously used by Ukrainian officials, all our media, and people on Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram. We see them on the streets and hear them on the radio.

First of all, we don’t call the nightmare of 2022 a “war.” We call it exclusively a “full-scale invasion” because, in fact, Putin started this war way earlier – in 2014. Back then, military action was taking place only in the country’s East, and Russia was hiding its face behind proxies. This was Putin’s cynical bargaining chip, which let world leaders doubt the fact of war and pretend to be confused.

When Putin dropped his mask last year, attempting to capture our capital and shelling our cities all around the country, the war became obvious. For many, it has really “started.” But here in Ukraine, we have no moral authority to let Putin (and whoever else) get away with eight previous years of bloody war, as well as with cynical justifications for it. If you call Putin’s flagrant invasion “a beginning of the war,” you will be corrected at best. Ukrainian media cannot afford such mistakes, so they always use this newly-generated term. Understandably so: the phrase is a form of memory protection. It contains all the distrust and resentment we have had, and it depicts our nagging fear of loneliness.

It is not only fear and distrust which have resulted in newly formed lexis. Irresistible hope has also been entwined with people’s daily speech.

Another term originating from the same mix of feelings is “Rashism.” This is an altered (Russified) form of the word “Nazism” and was often used to characterize the deeds of the Russian army in the first days of the invasion. I recall how this word was getting increasingly popular. Despite the resemblance with „Nazism,“ people use it to underline that Russian brutality does not have its roots in Nazism – in fact, it is originally Russian and much older. It has not emerged surprisingly after the full-scale invasion. Throughout history, Ukrainians have suffered from it both during the times of the Russian Empire and under Soviet occupation. The fact that some in the West haven’t seen it (or deliberately chose not to see it) does not mean that modern Russian brutality is imported from Germany.

In other words, the term “Rashism” protects Russian atrocities from political manipulations by autonomizing its cruelty. Just like “a full-scale invasion,” it prevents the pain of our past from oblivion.

But it’s not only fear and distrust which have resulted in newly formed lexis. Irresistible hope has also been entwined with people’s daily speech.

If discussing the future, you say the phrase “after the war,” most likely you would be kindly corrected: here we say “after the victory.” We call those territories occupied by Russia exclusively “temporarily occupied territories” – it is an unwritten rule, and it has been so for the past several years.

This non-exhaustive dictionary of artificial phrases is not a form of Orwell’s Newspeak. In Ukraine, you won’t be punished if you don’t use these terms. Usually, it’s not even the media or officials who invent them.

On the contrary, they stem from the people. These words we see in the media are the offsprings of a wild nature of language, of its pure tearing under powerful feelings and dismal circumstances. That’s why even after the war – after the victory – they are unlikely to disappear. They do not depend on political relevance; they are rather time capsules buried deep in the soil of language.

The author is a Ukrainian journalist.

1 thought on “The Dictionary of Fear and Hope: The origin of wartime language in Ukrainian media”

  1. A wonderful, poignant article. I myself gently correct friends, former colleagues, and even our local priests when they refer to a ‘war’ in Ukraine that ‘started in 2022’. I always stress the word ‘invasion’. Sadly, our national television broadcasters are far less disciplined in their language. I know I have an advantage – I have worked in Ukraine (though based in the U.K.) and had colleagues volunteering to defend Donetsk and Luhansk since they came under attack – but people need to understand the importance of refusing to use Putin’s words as part of reversing the invasion. Though Russian imperialism (Rasism) predates the German Nazis and continues to this day, there are striking similarities in their respective use of some words (and deliberate exclusion of certain other words) by both parties. Our politicians in the U.K. (and our aristocracy) were guilty of adopting the words and rationalisations of the Nazis in the run-up to WWII and have been doing it again since the occupation of Crimea and initiation of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Only the full-scale invasion has caused them to moderate their words and pretend to moderate their self-serving, tyrant worshipping thoughts, but it isn’t enough. And at the same time, Facebook (aka PutinBook) continues to poison the minds of many of our more impressionable citizens, by repeating the claims of the tiny tyrant.

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