Where do the letters Z and V come from in war propaganda?

Svetlana Levina is a PhD candidate in philology and a specialist in linguistic research from St. Petersburg. She has been a member of the Yabloko party since 2011. Changes in Russian language under the influence of militaristic rhetoric are part of Svetlana's professional interests. How animosity toward Ukrainians was laid down through propaganda language, how many new words have appeared based on the Z symbol, and what the Russian language really needs to be protected from - Svetlana Levina told Eyewitness about this and much more.

Tell us about yourself.

- My name is Svetlana Levina. I am a philologist, a specialist in new vocabulary, so everything that happens to our country, everything that is reflected in words over the past 13 years, goes through me. It is equally important to identify myself as a person, as a citizen of my country, as a member of the Yabloko party, as an LGBT activist. I joined Yabloko in the twelfth year, because in the eleventh year a regional law on dehumanization of LGBT people in St. Petersburg began to be discussed and the following year was passed. Even though I am not LGBT, I knew right away that I was concerned. They would start with LGBT people, then someone else would be next. Unfortunately, I was right. I started looking for a political force that I could help.

How has your life changed since February 24?

- Well, I don't get bombed, I haven't left my house, I'm not in jail for what I think, not yet anyway. I don't have people close to me killed. As for things internal, for the first month I just couldn't do anything. Shortly before that I was editing the vocabulary for the '14 edition of the Dictionary-Yearbook, and understandably there I was also dealing with words related to Russian-Ukrainian relations. And I sat there thinking, "Don't, don't, please." That is, I understood that it could not be, but that it would be. I experienced all of this in fourteen, it was just stronger this time. The third time in my life was a feeling, like after Chernobyl or the Crimea: there was something in the world that hadn't been there until now-it was brought by people. And even the people who set it up can't handle it either. From the good - none of my Ukrainian acquaintances, real or virtual, did not curse me, no one abandoned me, even on the contrary, new friends on Facebook have appeared. It is clear that the gap is a decade, if not a century, but the more important thing is that some human connections are not just not destroyed, but also appear.

How has your professional life changed in year 22?

- We must now think about the vocabulary we record, not because it is or is not of scholarly interest, but with an eye to who will think what, what trouble may come. My colleagues see that words like "zigun," "zigamet," like the expression "to take the course of a Russian warship" are a significant part of the vocabulary of our era, but here's how to record it so that no one gets anything for it? I think we should just do our own thing. We can try to be reasonably careful, but we won't get into anyone's bad head. It's not clear to me yet how long we can keep doing what we're doing so that our academic work remains purely academic. We are, after all, engaged in science, not politics.

How has militaristic rhetoric changed the Russian language?

- Militarist propaganda did not appear yesterday. Nor was it reflected in words and utterances yesterday. Usually, first it starts in the head, then in the language, and only after that it moves on to some kind of action. After the presidential elections of '12 a terrible quotation from Lermontov "Die near Moscow" appeared. Why, in fact, should we die? At that time no one understood why. Now it is not clearer, but it is clear what was meant. "The words "never again" and "so long as there is no war" have become "we can do it again. By the way, the dictionary of the fourteenth year will reflect this very "we can repeat". The cult of victory, as the victory of good over evil, as the advent of the long-awaited peace, the cessation of endless killing, turned into a cult of strength: "We will do it not because we are right, but because we can, and right because we are our own." As a reaction to the cult, the word "victoriousness" appears - people saw that something was going on, and the language reacted. When I dealt with the materials of '14, I was struck by how everything in the language was ready for what began to happen then. It turns out that the words "Ukrop," "Maidauns," "Raguli," "daunbas," and other things that we heard then had appeared much earlier. That is, hostility was already embedded in the language.

How has the language changed in the 22nd year?

- First of all, any conflict is a clear labeling of their own/foreign, and a negative evaluative parity: those call each other all sorts of things, as do these. That is, on one side there is the bad "Z-sect", there are "zetniks", "ziganutnye", "eightlets", and on the other side there are "mozamirtsy", "netvoinetsy", "netvoinetsy", "mnestydnye", and in general, this concerns not the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but the confrontation in Russian society itself. Both sides now use approximately the same linguistic means to accuse the other side. We have heard how in fourteen years they began to refer to the realities of World War II, began to call Ukrainians fascists, Nazis, Banderaites. Last year it all came back with a bang. Very strong tendencies to euphemize our speech. But then again, it didn't start yesterday. We've known words like "cotton" or "labor release" instead of "unemployment" for quite some time and well. "V-word," for example, has become "what you can't call it." And there has been a reaction to this euphemization, too. Usually language reacts to such violence. "Goodwill gesture" has already been picked up not only by pro-Ukrainian, but also by pro-Russian bloggers, those who seem to be for what is happening there, but they very angrily called the abandonment of Kherson a "goodwill gesture." Now it is no longer just official practice, although it is not written in any law that the word "war" cannot be used. But we know the law enforcement practices. There are many derivatives of the word "special operation": "special operator", "special operative", "special operand", "special operative".

Where did the letters Z and V come from?

- I think it turned out to be an accident. These propaganda intentions were probably not there. Simply because no one anticipated that any long propaganda campaign would be necessary. I think what is significant is that they are very simple. You have to [draw a Z and a V in the air] in order to identify yourself somehow. That's it, you don't need anything else. Both those who like everything and those who don't like everything have seen some expressive potential in this. For example, I've seen Internet memes in which the letter Z was crossed out for something good, something important that makes up a human life. It turned out that the St. George's Ribbon successfully folded into that letter. But in general, the fact that we are already beginning to speak not in words, but in letters, and in foreign letters, while we seem to be trying to fight all sorts of foreign influences on our native language is unhealthy.

How has the popularity of the letter Z affected word formation?

- When I was writing an article about the language of '14 and '22, comparing what is similar, what is different, I found 502 words with the first part "Z" in the Integrum database: "Z-poetry", "Z-channel", "Z-operation", "Z-patriot". Moreover, these words are used again on both sides. Whether one likes or dislikes Russian policy in Ukraine, he uses it anyway. Well, what can I say... This is something new, because there is such a model in the Russian language - a Latin letter plus a word, but it is usually used either in terminologies or in nomenclatures. X-rays, for example - X-rays. M-class - the class of minivan vehicles. B-complex, C-complex - vitamin complexes. By the way, I know the opposite examples: there is a chocolate brand called "O'zera" which is a Russian brand, but it has always been written in the Latin alphabet. And it was the letter Z that was replaced with the Cyrillic letter Z last year.

Does the Russian language need the protection that the new law implies?

- It is, but not the one we are told it is. There is no need to confuse legal and linguistic norms. Language norms are formed and reflected only in dictionaries and grammar. There are real common linguistic practices that have stood the test of time, that are recorded and get into those sources where we can cope in order to know if we are speaking or writing correctly. It is impossible to forbid anything deliberately here. Theoretically, I allow such a rape of language, so that a person who speaks publicly - some deputy or official - does not use foreign words, the equivalents of which do not exist in Russian. First of all, they refer to some special dictionaries, which they say have yet to be created. To be honest, I can hardly imagine a dictionary that would combine linguistic and legal norms. By the way, just for the record, there is no glut of foreign words in Russian. Every year we monitor the words that come into the language, and we see that the biggest source of the vocabulary replenishment is word formation on Russian soil. It can be with borrowed roots, it can be with borrowed suffixes or prefixes, but first these things enter the Russian language, and then new words are formed. There are many borrowings, but not more than the Russian language can digest. And what's more, what's superfluous, is eventually eliminated by itself. In the 90s, a terrible avalanche of loanwords into Russian came. And how many have remained since then?

What really threatens the Russian language?

- Just as our superiors, beginning in late February, are discovering our beautiful homeland and discovering that we do not produce nails (maybe we already do, but then we did not), so I and many other people are also discovering our beautiful homeland. I hear the monologues of the Russian military captured in Ukraine and those who have returned from there. I hear what regional officials are saying, what federal officials are saying, and frankly, I'm scared. This is such primitive and pathetic language - people cannot express the simplest thoughts. The way a person speaks is a reflection of what's in their head. The protection of language is, as they say now, the development of human potential, the development of education, the development of culture. That is, it is necessary to create conditions for the normal development of the individual, and then this person will speak a good language.

Why then was the Law on the Protection of the Russian Language passed?

- It is an attempt to privatize language by power: "We will decide how you speak. It is almost like control over the human body: I will decide whether it is good or bad for you to live with the person you live with. I will decide whether or not to have your children, and if to have them, how to raise them. I will decide how you talk.

You openly express your position on social networks. Aren't you afraid of persecution?

- You can't live in Russia now and not be afraid at all. To be afraid is normal. But what can I do to make sure that absolutely no one persecutes me and no one touches me? What can I do to make sure that laws that are consciously written in such a way that they can be applied to whomever and to whomever else I want, will not touch me? As I see it, I do not discredit the Russian army. I'm an honest person, I simply can't deal with discrediting a huge state institution, even if I wanted to, because I have nothing to do with the army. Am I spreading fakes? No, I don't spread fakes because I believe that the information I link to that I post is reliable. I try not to post informational stuff - I think that everyone knows where what telegram channel is, where what media is, where you can read the same thing, but I don't prohibit myself from responding to such things. Am I promoting non-traditional sexual relationships? No, I'm not. I've just never tried them in my life. What's going to happen? We'll see.

Why didn't you leave Russia?

- Because this is my country. I have a son, he will soon be 17 years old, and he is going to be registered at the military registration office. Now, of course, it's frighteningly unsettling. I understand that he will not go to the front. But that's how it will be, how won't he go, and what will it cost? I can't promise that I will never leave. If I have to save my son from the army, that means we'll be leaving. If I realize that either I will leave, or I will go to jail, or I will be killed, in which case I will leave. But so, why do I have to leave my country?

What does the future hold for Russia?

- You don't have to listen to my predictions, because I always predict optimistically: after February, March will come someday. If it doesn't end well, that means that it just isn't over yet. Many will certainly not live to see it. We have some very difficult decades ahead of us. We have to figure out what happened to us, what we have done to ourselves. We have to get out of it. Not everything can be fixed right now, and Ukraine and Russia have irreparable losses, and I don't mean only killed people or destroyed cultural monuments. I also mean the fact that people are now gaining combat experience en masse, finding themselves in situations where violence is possible and even necessary. With this they will return to civilian life. Man is resilient, nature is resilient. Of course, you can't rule out the possibility that all this will end in a nuclear war, but I don't think it will happen. Everything will pass, this will also pass.

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