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How Russia uses language as a weapon of war

According to Russian propaganda Ukrainians are Nazis and people from the West are Satanists. Egbert Fortuin thinks we should take Russia’s words and metaphors seriously. ‘Perception is very strong, stronger often than facts. Knowledge of Russian helps us understand Russia.’

That Russia brands Ukrainians as genocidal Nazis and the West as Satanists came as a shock to many people not so long ago. But not for people who know Russia through the Russian language, Professor of Russian Language and Linguistics Egbert Fortuin will explain in his inaugural lecture on 27 January. ‘Framing Ukrainians as Nazis started much earlier and exploded during the Maidan Revolution in 2014,’ Fortuin explains. ‘From then on Russia used that framing very consciously, particularly towards its own population. To give the idea that annexing Crimea and regions in eastern Ukraine is good and is helping Russia liberate the people there from the Nazis.’

‘Russians who fight in Ukraine will have no compassion for any Ukrainians they meet.’ 

Ukrainians dehumanised

One example of this was in the news just this month. Russia has been removing orphans from occupied regions of Ukraine and placing them with foster families in Russia. ‘That is a war crime,’ says Fortuin. ‘But Russian television trumpeted about how these poor little children have been saved from genocidal Nazis. The framing has far-reaching consequences. It dehumanises Ukrainians to the extent that Russians fighting in Ukraine will have no compassion for any Ukrainians they meet. They are Nazis and fascists after all.’

Russia portrays the West as unchristian, perverse, satanic and the preserve of paedophiles. Russia is the guardian of Christian values and the West is a depraved society that flouts these. ‘For us this is all really bizarre,’ says Fortuin. ‘How can they seriously think we are Satanists and paedophiles? But we really should take it seriously. Perception is very strong, stronger often than facts, particularly in countries like Russia that don’t have a free press.’

Terms coined by the Kremlin are also adopted by the media.

No one took the propaganda seriously

Fortuin therefore calls on people to be more vigilant about Russian propaganda. ‘By systematically presenting the West or Ukraine in a certain way, with the aid of words, metaphors and images, Russia uses language as a powerful weapon to convey a certain point of view and persuade people consciously and unconsciously to subscribe to this.’ Groups in the Netherlands and other countries are already doing so and the media is adopting terms coined by the Kremlin.

In the past no one took the propaganda seriously, says Fortuin, but then in 2008 two territories in Georgia were occupied and in 2014 so too were territories in Ukraine. ‘I think it is important to look at how Russia tries to influence people’s perceptions and what its view of reality really is. To do so, you need a very good knowledge of the Russian language. And this knowledge can also help us resist the propaganda.’

Learn from Russian

In his inaugural lecture Fortuin will talk not only about Russian propaganda but also about how interesting Russian is for the study of other languages. ‘It is very different from the languages we know such as Dutch, French or English. Russian can offer insights into how language works in general. It has a very free word order, for example. By studying this we can learn more about what is innate and what is learned in terms of language.’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Istock

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