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In a creative play on three different languages, Ukrainians identify an enemy: ‘ruscism.’
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By Timothy Snyder
The City Council of Mariupol, Ukraine, was trying to make a point about mass death. Their city had been hit hardest by the Russian invasion, and thousands of corpses lay amid the rubble after weeks of urban warfare. After the revelation of Russian atrocities in Bucha and other cities in northern Ukraine, the elected representatives of the port city wished to remind the world that the scale of killing in the south was still higher. In dry and sober language, they described the fates of Mariupol residents. Occasionally, though, emotion slipped through: In passing, the council members referred to the Russian perpetrators by a term of condemnation that every Ukrainian knows, though it is not yet in the dictionaries and cannot (yet) be said in English: “рашизм.”
As Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region, and photographs of the corpses of murdered civilians appeared in media, Ukrainians expressed their horror and condemnation with this same word. As I read about Irpin, about Bucha, about Trostyanets, of the bodies crushed by tanks, of the bicyclists shot on the street, of the desecrated corpses, there it was, “рашизм,” again and again, in comments sections, in social media, even in the official pronouncements of the Ukrainian state. As Russia renews its attempt to destroy the Ukrainian state with its Easter offensive in the Donbas, Ukrainians will keep using this new word.
Grasping its meaning requires crossing differences in alphabet and pronunciation, thinking our way into the experience of a bilingual society at war with a fascist empire. “Pашизм” sounds like “fascism,” but with an “r” sound instead of an “f” at the beginning; it means, roughly, “Russian fascism.” The aggressor in this war keeps trying to push back toward a past as it never happened, toward nonsensical and necrophiliac accounts of history. Russia must conquer Ukraine, Vladimir Putin says, because of a baptism a thousand years ago, or because of bloodshed during World War II. But Russian myths of empire cannot contain the imagination of the Ukrainian victims of a new war. National identity is about living people, and the values and the futures they imagine and choose. A nation exists insofar as it makes new things, and a national language lives by making new words.
The new word “рашизм” is a useful conceptualization of Putin’s worldview. Far more than Western analysts, Ukrainians have noticed the Russian tilt toward fascism in the last decade. Undistracted by Putin’s operational deployment of genocide talk, they have seen fascist practices in Russia: the cults of the leader and of the dead, the corporatist state, the mythical past, the censorship, the conspiracy theories, the centralized propaganda and now the war of destruction. Even as we rightly debate how applicable the term is to Western figures and parties, we have tended to overlook the central example of fascism’s revival, which is the Putin regime in the Russian Federation.
The origins of the word “pашизм” give us a sense of how Ukrainians differ from both Russians and Americans. A bilingual nation like Ukraine is not just a collection of bilingual individuals; it is an unending set of encounters in which people habitually adjust the language they use to other people and new settings, manipulating language in ways that are foreign to monolingual nations. I have gone on Ukrainian television and radio, taken questions in Russian and answered them in Ukrainian, without anyone for a moment finding that switch worthy of mention. Once, while speaking Ukrainian on television, I stopped for a moment to quote a few words of poetry in Russian, a switch that was an effort for me. But Ukrainians change languages effortlessly — not just as situations change, but also to make situations change, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, or even in the middle of a word.
“Pашизм” is a word built up from the inside, from several languages, as a complex of puns and references that reveal a bilingual society thinking out its predicament and communicating to itself. Its emergence demonstrates how a code-switching people can enrich language while making a horrific war more intelligible to themselves. Putin’s ethnic imperialism insists that Ukrainians must be Russians because they speak Russian. They do — and they speak Ukrainian. But Ukrainian identity has as much to do with an ability to live between languages than it does with the use of any one of them.
Ukrainian is written in Cyrillic, and so pausing upon “рашизм” in this, its original form, will help with the mental calisthenics required to apprehend things the way the Ukrainians do. Seeing those six characters, you might be tempted to begin by making them Latin ones. But languages work together in a complex way, especially in the minds of people who speak more than one of them natively. As Rimbaud and the Hasidim (who came from Ukraine) knew, each letter has magic. We have to go slowly.
Those six Cyrillic letters contain references to Italian, Russian and English, all of which a mechanical, letter-by-letter transliteration would block. The best (if imperfect) way I have found to render “рашизм” from Ukrainian into English is “ruscism” — though not what the standard protocol of transliteration would suggest, this gestures at both the word’s origins and its meaning. When we see “ruscism” we might guess this word has to do with Russia (“rus”), with politics (“ism”) and with the extreme right (“ascism”) — as, indeed, it does. A simple way to think about it is as a conglomerate of the “r” from “Russia” and the “ascism” from “fascism”: Russian fascism. This is barely the beginning of the story, but it starts us down the path toward the linguistic playfulness that makes the word possible, and toward the accumulation of meaning drawn from each sound.
I have had to spell “рашизм” as “ruscism” in English because we need “rus,” with a “u,” to see the reference to Russia. In losing the original Ukrainian “a,” though, we weaken a multilayered reference — because the “a” in “рашизм,” conveniently, allows the Ukrainian word to associate Russia and fascism in a way English cannot.
The State of the War
- Drone Attacks:Russia’s use of Iranian-made dronesin recent strikes across Ukrainemay be a sign that Moscow is running low on precision-guided weapons. It also shows how Tehran has become an increasingly close ally to the Kremlin.
- Occupied Regions:President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared martial law in four illegally annexed regions of Ukraineas pro-Kremlin authorities in the city of Kherson said they would evacuate tens of thousands of people in advance of a possible Ukrainian counterattack.
- A Looming Crisis:Russia’s stepped-up attacks on infrastructure and vital utility networksin Ukraine herald a new phase of the war — one that threatens millions of Ukrainians with the prospect of a desolate winter without electricity, water and heat.
- Russia’s Chaotic Draft:Newly mobilized Russian recruits are already at the front in Ukraine, reports say, fighting and dying after only days of training. The draft has provoked widespread criticismacross Russia and prompted thousands of Russian men to flee the country.
But wait: How can the “ra” (written “pa” in Cyrillic) suggest Russia in Ukrainian? You might guess that “Russia” in Ukrainian also has an “a” in the first syllable, but it does not. It’s spelled with an “o”: Росія. You might remember that Ukrainians also know Russian, and guess that perhaps the word for “Russia” in Russian is spelled with an “a.” It’s not: In Russian, too, the word has an “o” as its first vowel. But the guess puts us on the right track. We are about to see that Ukrainians can play with Russian in ways that Russians cannot — that a Ukrainian word can contain within it a reference to Russia that Russians themselves would never catch.
If you don’t know either language, you might think that Russian and Ukrainian are very similar. They are pretty close — much as, say, Spanish and Italian are. If you know one, you have a tremendous advantage in learning the other. But you do still have to learn it. Russian grammar is similar to Ukrainian — perhaps a tad closer than, say, Ukrainian and Polish — but the semantics are not that close. From a Russian perspective, the false friends are legion. There is an elegant four-syllable Ukrainian word that simply means “soon” or “without delay,” but to a Russian it sounds like “not behind the bar.” The Ukrainian word for “cat” sounds like the Russian for “whale,” while the Ukrainian for “female cats” sounds like Russian for “intestines.”
Russians do not understand Ukrainian, because they have not learned it. Ukrainians do understand Russian, because they have learned it. This fact has battlefield implications. Ukrainian soldiers often speak Russian, though they are instructed to use Ukrainian to spot infiltrators and spies. This is a drastic example of a general practice of code-switching. President Volodymyr Zelensky generally used Russian as a comedian and almost always uses Ukrainian as a politician — except for when he might switch, midspeech, to using Russian to address Russians, in the full knowledge that Ukrainians will follow along.
To switch back and forth between kindred languages requires a lively knowledge of the differences between them. One difference between Ukrainian and Russian has to do with that “ah” sound, which appears more often in Russian. In both languages, the vowel “a” consistently generates this sound. In Russian, though, a written “o” can do it, too. A salient example is the Russian word for “liberation” — “освобождение.” This is transliterated the way it looks, as “osvobozhdenie,” but sounds more like “asvobazhdenie,” with each “a” pronounced as an “ah.” To a Ukrainian ear, this is a very Russian word. The Ukrainian counterpart — визволення, vyzvolennia — sounds completely different (though it is almost identical to the Polish wyzwolenie).
The Russian освобождение is also laden with decades of Soviet usage, since it was applied relentlessly to describe every action of the Red Army, including ones where the people in question did not believe that they were being “liberated,” as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is the word now used by Russians to describe their invasion of Ukraine, and it carries with it decades of mendacious use. To Ukrainians it can sound both absurd and sinister; when Russians use it earnestly, Ukrainians might consider it a sign of “zombification,” зомбування, a word they use rather a lot. One Ukrainian explanation for the use of the letter Z by official Russia as the symbol of the invasion is that “the other half of the swastika was stolen in the warehouse,” a joke about the logistics of the Russian Army — but personally, the Z makes me think of “zombie.”
At present, Ukrainian media often features a special kind of mockery in quotations of Russians speaking Russian — a kind of humor that is only possible from inside a linguistic community. Ukrainians are perfectly capable of writing Russian correctly, but during the war some internet commentators have spelled the occasional Russian word using the Ukrainian writing system, leaving it looking unmoored and pitiable. Writing in Ukrainian, you might spell “oсвобождение” as “aсвобaждениe,” the way it is pronounced — a bit of lexicographic alchemy that makes it (and, by extension, Russians) look silly, and mocks the political concepts being used to justify a war. In a larger sense, such efforts are a means of displacing Russia from its central position in regional culture.
Live Updates:Russia-Ukraine War
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Indeed, one relevant case of this o/a shift is the name of Russia itself. The Russian word for “Russia” is “Россия,” but that “o” is pronounced as an “a,” something like “Rahssiya.” You can now see where this is going. The “rah” sound at the beginning of our new Ukrainian word, “рашизм,” doesn’t just signal “Russian” — it suggests the word “Russia” as it is pronounced by people speaking Russian. It is the peculiar way Russian speakers name their own country that seals a link between “Russia” and “fascism.”
In Russian you need to know when an “o” becomes an “a,” but once you know, the sound is consistent. Ukrainians play with English as well, which in this respect is trickier. In English it is all but impossible to predict how a given vowel will be pronounced; the letter on the page has almost nothing to do with the sound you are supposed to make. (If you don’t believe me, go back and sound out the vowels in any sentence of this essay.) English vowel sounds are also different — broader, lazier and more numerous — than those in Ukrainian and Russian. English speakers have about as many ways of pronouncing “a” as there are vowels in those entire languages.
When Americans say “Russia,” the first and second syllable rhyme. This is baffling, since the first vowel is a “u” and the second is an “ia.” Neither is pronounced in a way that corresponds to how speakers of Slavic languages — and indeed most other languages — would understand the pronunciation of “ia” or “u,” or for that matter any vowel. For both, Americans tend to make an “uh” sound, known as a schwa; we say “Ruhshuh.” This “uh” sound does not exist in Ukrainian or Russian, whose speakers sometimes have a difficult time knowing where it belongs and how to pronounce it.
It matters how we spell and say “Russia” in English because the Ukrainian word “рашизм” strips the English for parts. Ukrainians hear us say “Russia” a good deal. Now, they tend not to take too seriously what we say about Russia, and generally they are right — and so when they take “Russia” and make it “Pаша,” borrowing the way we might say it, they mean a Russia that is not to be taken so seriously, not to be accepted on its own terms, an object of contempt. This and the more dismissive “Pашkа” (the “k” makes it diminutive) are in the spoken language rather than written. And the way the word is spoken matters, too: the Ukrainians can’t quite do the schwa “uh” sound, so their “Pаша,” although it is meant to mimic English, actually sounds like “Rahsha.”
Here we begin to feel the density of the parts and references packed into “рашизм.” It is not just the “r” sound at the beginning that can stand for Russia. Nor is it even just the “ra,” as a reference to how Russian speakers pronounce the Russian word for “Russia.” The first three letters, “раш,” also make reference to how English speakers pronounce Russia. Although the reference to English is inexact, the “rahsh” sound that comes from it turns out to be very productive, because it makes the combination with “fascism” work smoothly. Three-quarters of the letters in a Ukrainian neologism from English (“Pаша”) are brought together with five-sixths of the letters from an adopted Italian word (“фашизм,” fascism) to generate the new word “рашизм” — a dense and effective conglomerate.
When we say “Russia,” the double “s” is pronounced “sh.” In the middle of “fascism” we find the same sound, “sh” — though this time it is generated by “sc,” which English borrows from the original Italian “fascismo.” We can render that sound with “sh” or, in these two words, “ss” and “sc,” but the clarifyingly simple Ukrainian orthography picks up that sound, however it is spelled in whatever language, and renders it as “ш.” So “раша” + “фашизм” = “рашизм,” also thanks to that middle sound. The “sh” sound in the middle, the “ш,” refers to both Russia and to fascism, but only because Ukrainians are playing with English. In neither Russian nor Ukrainian does the word for “Russian” have a “sh” sound.
“Pашизм” relies on English to work, but it is not easy for English to reclaim. When “Russia” becomes “Pаша,” the vowels firm up and become more honest; they no longer quite conform to English. The same is even true for the “ism,” which in Ukrainian requires a more clipped and disciplined sound. These honest vowels make it hard for English speakers to pronounce “pашизм” as it is supposed to be pronounced — and even if we were to pronounce it correctly in Ukrainian, it would not sound like much of anything in English.
This is why, to claim “pашизм” for English, I have to transliterate it — as Ukrainians also generally do — as “ruscism.” The mechanically correct transcription would be “rashysm,” which is hardly clear. We have to go back and get the “u” to indicate Russia, and we take the “ism” because we know this is about ideology. And while the Ukrainian consonant “ш” demands a “sh,” the resulting “rushism” would suggest a weakness for American talk radio or Canadian classic rock. We know that “ш” did not actually come from an “sh” in the first place; it came from both the “ss” of Russia and the “sc” of fascism. We choose “sc,” and get “ruscism.” As in Ukrainian, a “sh” sound joins the two parts. But now, in English, the visible “sc” recalls the unusual spelling of fascism, as it should.
In English, if you believe in racism, you are a racist; if you believe in fascism, you are a fascist. This lexical progression is similar in Ukrainian. “Расизм,” racism, has the associated personal form “расист,” racist. “Фашизм,” fascism, yields “фашист,” fascist. Likewise, the new word “рашизм” has “рашист,” or ruscist. (Unlike English, Ukrainian also generates female forms of these words.) Ukrainians sometimes refer to individual Russians as “ruscists,” making lists, for example, of prominent Russian supporters of the war. But there is also the tendency to refer to all Russian soldiers in Ukraine as “ruscists.” This runs into certain difficulties: Given the imperial character of the Russian state, a very high proportion of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine belong to national minorities. This suggests a deeper problem, which is that even soldiers dying for a fascist cause need not be fascists themselves.
Whereas Russian leaders have intensified the Soviet tradition of referring to contemporary enemies as “fascists,” in Ukraine, the word refers more simply to the horrors of World War II, which were even deeper there than in Russia. When Ukrainians speak of “ruscism,” they are accusing Russians of a deep betrayal of what should have been a common inheritance and a common memory. They are accusing Russians of becoming what should have been defeated long ago.
Few beyond Ukraine seem to know that millions of Ukrainians, exercising freedom of speech in a country that allows it, have invented and are deploying a new word. “Ruscism” will sound strange at first. So did “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing,” other words that emerged from (Eastern) European wars. The concepts that clarify our world today were once strange and new. But when they point to something, they can take hold.
Russian fascism is certainly a phenomenon that requires a concept. The Russian Federation promotes the extreme right everywhere. Putin is the idol of white supremacists around the world. Prominent Russian fascists are given access to mass media during wars, including this one. Members of the Russian elite, above all Putin himself, rely increasingly on fascist concepts. Putin’s very justification of the war in Ukraine, as an act of cleansing violence that will return Russia to itself, represents a Christian form of fascism. The recent publication, in an official Russian news service, of what I consider an openly genocidal handbook, providing a plan for the elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such, confirms all this. Moscow is the center of fascism in our world.
The greatest risk of such an effectively compact word is that it will carry the sense that all Russians are fascists, simply by virtue of being Russian. Given that half the Ukrainian population is either displaced or trapped by war, with thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands deported, a tendency toward general condemnation is not surprising; the fact that Ukrainians have had a very hard time convincing Russians that a war is actually taking place doesn’t help. But a usage that identifies all Russians as fascists would repeat the error it is meant to rectify. Thus far, the word is generally used as a response to particular actions, like kidnapping children or executing civilians.
The word is not only a condemnation of Russian actions; it is also an offering to the Russian language. The words “ruscist” and “ruscism” already flourish in Russian, or at least in Ukrainian Russian. I actually heard them for the first time in Russian, not in Ukrainian. It will be interesting to see if they catch on inside the Russian Federation. If they did, they would most likely be criminalized by the Russian state. Russia today is a country where it is illegal to call this war a “war,” and where reading a poem or showing a blank poster is deemed a slander of the army. Given Putin’s felt need to define the enemy of the moment as fascist, a word that points to Russian fascism is unlikely to be tolerated.
And so we see a difference between official Russia and unofficial Ukraine, one that is not about myths or ethnicity or even language preferences, exactly, but rather about how words matter in wartime, under pressure. In the tyranny, they threaten, because they might reveal truth; in the democracy, they conceptualize and suggest action. This difference is visible on the battlefield, where the Russian Army is conformist and cowering, and the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian Army adaptable and creative.
We also see a difference between Ukrainians and monolingual people generally. There is a liveliness inherent in Ukrainian code-switching that makes constructing the word “рашизм” possible — and once constructed, the word has a liveliness of its own. We can appreciate Ukrainian creativity, and perhaps borrow from it.
That “ruscism” is used to describe the enemy has implications for how Ukrainians define their own values. It stigmatizes Russia as an invader committing an injustice that can be linked to past injustices, and whose leaders abuse language to hide these basic facts. But it also takes as axiomatic (and thus affirms) that fascism is what is to be resisted. The language has supplied a new thing, and, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, new things are the best we can hope for in totalitarian times. The Ukrainian language has offered a neologism whose formation helps us to see deeper into the creativity of another culture, and whose meaning helps us to see why this war is fought — and why it must be won.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University. His book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” will be published in a new edition on April 26, and a new audiobook of his “On Tyranny” was recently released with 20 new lessons on Ukraine.
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