Shielding Democracy from Putin’s S/Words

Kyiv, Ukraine; February 24 2022: Putin attacks, there is war in Ukraine, Explosions in Kiev, missiles on other cities. The land invasion has begun
March 8, 2022

During the Cold War, Soviet Russia employed self-glorifying rhetoric to create a master narrative that was used to justify expanding Soviet hegemony and communism. Having previously forced the Soviet geo-political and ideological totality on 14 republics (Ukraine among them), after WWII the USSR started liberating Eastern Europe by occupying countries near its boarders – Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and many others. The result became known as the “Soviet Bloc” or “Eastern Bloc…” Behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviets celebrated their victories as liberators of Europe. And every time an occupied country (for example, Czechoslovakia) tried to resist, the mighty Red Army corrected the reality, while the communication “apparat” in Moscow corrected the narrative, enriching it with such terms as  “Пражская Весна – Prague’s Spring,” and “Советский солдат освободитель – Soviet-Soldier-Liberator,” and, of course, “Светлое коммунистиченское будущее – Bright communist future.” 

Any person, or country, that resisted “liberation,” however, was severely punished, be it in Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia, or in Central Asian Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Protesters were expelled from the Communist Party and frequently lost their jobs, their freedom, or their lives. The rhetoric out of Moscow framed resistance, which included adherence to Western values rather than Soviet ones, as a danger to society. Mass slogans issued warnings: “Сегодня в майке адидас, а завтра родину продаст – Today, s/he is wearing Adidas-T-Shirt, and tomorrow, s/he will betray her/his Motherland!” “Сегодня с сигаретой Кент, а завтра вражеский агент – Today, s/he is smoking Kents, and tomorrow, s/he is an enemy/foreign agent!” For an average member of the Soviet apparatus, the West has been the enemy ever since. 

The end of the Cold War, and the turbulent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, meant very different things to Russia and Ukraine. Independent Ukraine took a pro-Western course, with aspirations to enter the European Union and become part of NATO. Under the leadership of President Putin, Russia took a drastically different course in attempts to restore its Soviet might and territory. Having officially declared in a 2004 public address that the fall of the Soviet Union was the biggest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century, Putin became determined to recreate its former hegemon, time and again – be it in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Crimea, or now, in Ukraine. 

Invasion of sovereign territories is always perfectly orchestrated, and Putin’s autocratic national rhetoric is dangerously convincing, because it always builds on the public memory of the sacrality of the Great Patriotic War, recycling the pre-existing categories of the Soviet/Russian Liberator, Mother-Russia as the mighty martyr, underestimated and misunderstood by the traitorous West, in a sacred, self-sacrificing fight against the enemy, the Nazi.  

Putin’s semi-Soviet, neo-imperialistic ambitions have propelled his powerful rhetoric, in which words become s/words. At home in Russia, a popular slogan reads “Без Путина нет России – Without Putin, there is no Russia.” In 2014, when Ukrainian citizens protested their government’s decision to build closer ties with Russia rather than the European Union, Russian national media framed the civil unrest as a rebellion of Ukrainian Neo-Nazis that was sponsored by the West. What the democratic world defined as the 2014 Crimean annexation was celebrated in Russian national rhetoric as the re-unification of Crimea with Mother Russia. President Putin denied any presence of Russian military, mockingly defining the troops as “маленькие зелененькие человечки – little green men.” 

The current situation in Russia is even more dramatic: Heavily censored Russian national media channels are banned from using words such as war, invasion, or occupation. In the best traditions of the past, Russian national rhetoric suggests that the country is engaged in the liberation of Ukrainians from Nazis, and Russians in Ukraine from genocide. Russians respond in a variety of ways to this rhetoric: some patriotically support the sacred Russian fight against the West, some empathize with the Ukrainians as victims of Neo-Nazism, and still others are blissfully unaware that a full-blown war has been launched. Russian military engagement, first framed as a training exercise, was quickly renamed as a special operation to demilitarize Ukraine, and as de-Nazifying the country. De-Nazifying a country, whose capital Kyiv took the first hit from Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941? De-Nazifying a country that lost 8 million people in the war against Nazi Germany? De-Nazifying its Jewish president, whose grandfather fought as a Soviet soldier in WWII against Nazi Germany and died a Colonel in independent Ukraine? And how exactly does demilitarization happen? With bombs and bullets? 

In contrast to Putin, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, a talented comedian-turned-President, is currently teaching the world what powerful and inclusive rhetoric sounds like, in his courageous public addresses to the Ukrainian people, to the Russian people, to the Byelorussian people, to the West, and to the world. Contrary to the Russian news that has tried to discredit him and suggested that he has deserted the country just as Captain Francesco Schettino abandoned Costa Concordia, the Ukrainian leader (and the Number One target of the Russian army) has stayed with his people, using his best weapon – unifying, reasoning, encouraging words. There will be no “vada a bordo, cazzo” scenario; Zelensky will go down with his Ukrainian ship, if need be. Because Russian warships are, as we all know after the brave response of Ukrainian border guards and heroes of Ukraine, not welcome. When invited to be evacuated to the United States, the President answered, “I need ammunition, I don’t need a ride.” His words to the Russian people constitute a phenomenal example of emotionally rich, culturally nuanced, invitational rhetoric, rhetoric that urges the end of war and the recognition of the power of true democracy, demos, the people.

Many of us watch helplessly, as democracy tries to resist the bombs and bullets of the enemy – the murderous tyranny, the pitiless autocracy – asking ourselves what we can do.  We cannot control the murderous rockets, mercilessly raining on Ukrainian cities like April showers. But we can, and should, control the spread of the murderous rhetoric. 




JULIA KHREBTAN-HÖRHAGER is an Associate Professor of Communication, Director/Leader of Education Abroad programs in Italy, and Associate Program Director of ACT International Human Rights Film Festival at Colorado State University.