Ukraine is fighting back, one swear word at a time

This war of words isn’t all crude. It’s clever, too. Ukrainian officials encouraged residents to remove or change road signs to confuse and taunt Russian troops.

The first thing Ukrainians and historians of the Slavic world point out about this battle of Babel is that most of the fiery insults being heaved — and captured on social media for the world to see — are in Russian.

The anti-Russian profanity has made its way to the United States. Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery is selling 32-ounce crowlers with a label featuring a drawing of the Russian president with a label calling Putin a male body part.

When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked a Ukrainian man in a makeshift factory assembling camouflage materials and homemade weapons whether he had a message for Russia’s president, a voice-over from Cooper interpreted the man’s response as “I would tell him: He can go f— himself.”

But some of the nuance of what Ukrainians are saying isn’t being fully captured by the foreign media. For example, Emily Channell-Justice, director of a Ukrainian research institute at Harvard University, says a more accurate translation of the retort hurled at the Russian vessel by Ukrainian soldiers would be: “Russian warship, go sit on a d—.”

The phrase has become a rallying cry. A journalist for the Guardian in the region said on Twitter that the slogan can be seen emblazoned on highway signs, painted on checkpoints and written in dust on trucks. At a pro-Ukraine gathering in San Francisco last weekend, according to Zina Pozen, a 49-year-old woman in Oakland, Calif., who left her native Ukraine 30 years ago, says she heard the taunt leap out of a toddler’s mouth (with their parent’s full approval) in Russian.

It’s not that Ukrainians are a particularly foul-mouthed people. They’re just incredibly outraged at the Russian invasion of their country.

When Arthur Lavrinovich, a 29-year-old from southern Ukraine, woke at 4 a.m. last Thursday to the sound of explosions and people screaming, he quickly grabbed his mother and started driving toward Romania. With bombs going off in all directions, the words they uttered in the car were prayers for peace and safety, not expletives. “Our people are above and beyond stressed,” Lavrinovich said over the phone, now safely in Greece. But “when someone comes and destroys your home, kills children, makes your life a living nightmare, you have no other words left to describe your feelings. … How shall we describe this?”

In other words: If your nation were suddenly attacked, unprovoked, you would be swearing, too.

Pozen says she was struck by a YouTube video showing the bombed-out center of Izyum, a city about two hours’ drive south of Kharkiv. The man opened the recording by declaring: “Here is the f—ing Russian peace,” according to Pozen, who used to work on language technologies at Apple. Showing the detritus of a school and a park, the man punctuates his description with profane interjections. This week, Pozen’s hometown of Zhytomyr was bombed.

Ironically, a Russian phrase pops into Pozen’s head to describe the chaos of this moment. “Nyet slov, odni emotsii,” which she translates as “no words, only emotions.”

And what words are more spirited than crude ones?

The swearing might seem shocking if you’re looking at this conflict from the outside, says Ian Garner, a historian of Russian war and culture. “No one wants to say that they swear, but everybody uses these words and everybody knows them,” Garner says. Ukrainians, as a people, aren’t more prone to swear than anyone else, “but they’re under the most extreme kind of pressure now.”

Garner, who’s the author of the forthcoming book “Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival,” notes that Ukrainians swearing in Russian are poking holes in one of Putin’s justifications for this conflict — that Ukrainians aren’t allowed to speak Russian. “They are simply pushing out Russians and the Russian-speaking population from their historical territories,” Putin said at his annual news conference in December.

Although there is a law aiming to cement Ukrainian as the country’s dominant tongue, Garner says that the reality is more linguistically fluid, with people commonly switching between Russian and Ukrainian similar to how Canadians might toggle between English and French in Montreal.

“These are Russian speakers,” Garner says.

Channell-Justice, the Harvard research director, sees similarities between the obscenities being hurled today and the protest signs Ukrainians hoisted in 2013 and 2014 when then-president Viktor Yanukovych was trying to reintegrate Ukraine’s economy into Russia’s. One sign sticks in Channell-Justice’s brain years later: An image of Yanukovych’s face with a condom over it. Shocking images and words, Channell-Justice notes, make an impact when polite language doesn’t suffice. “It can be a coping mechanism to use slang and slurs to comment on a situation that many people don’t have any control over,” Channell-Justice says.

Swearing at an enemy as they’re invading is an act of performative resistance, says Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “These are words that could get you killed, but you’re not going to bend down.”

Strong language has always been a feature of wartime, Musgrave says. We just haven’t always had the technology to capture and disseminate the drama so quickly and widely. Sharing these atrocities on social media is “part of how Ukraine is fighting this war for the hearts and soul of the world,” Musgrave says. And sometimes the profanity is slipping through.

After this conflict, Musgrave predicts Ukrainians will add a new swear word to their vocabulary: “Putin.”

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