Ukrainan flag colours against a wall

Language in war: the case of Ukraine

Culture and languages

War has large and incalculable consequences for the societies affected. This also applies to a large extent to the languages spoken in the conflict area. At this seminar, which is organized by the research area Language and Society, four different researchers discuss how Russia's war in Ukraine has changed today's language situation in different parts of Ukraine. All interested are welcome!

6 Dec 2022
14:15 - 17:00
Room J236, Humanisten, Renströmsgatan 6

Good to know
Seminar language: English
Department of Languages and Literatures

Some of the questions that will be addressed are: What languages are used in today's Ukraine? Which languages have disappeared and why? What is the status of different languages in society? What symbolic value does one's own and the enemy's language have? What place do languages take in cultural-political discussions?
At the seminar, the language situation in Ukraine is discussed based on current and historical perspectives.


  • Alla Bidniuk, Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University Lutsk, guest researcher at the Department of Languages and Literatures, University of Gothenburg
  • Iryna Kalynovska, Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University Lutsk, KVVS stipendiate
  • Michael Moser, Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr, Universität Wien
  • Natalia Volvach, Department of Swedish Language and Multilingualism, Stockholm University, PhD student


Thomas Rosén, senior lecturer for Russian and Ukrainian.


14:15 Welcome (Thomas Rosén)

14:30-15:00 Michael Moser: The Ukrainian language under Russian occupation (2014–October 2022)

15:00-15:30 Natalia Volvach: Speaking absences: an ethnography of material-discursive relations in the occupied landscapes of Crimea

15:30-15:45 Break

15:45-16:15 Alla Bidniuk: What it means to speak Ukrainian today: observations and reflections

16:15-16:45 Iryna Kalynovska: War of words: present-day Russian propaganda social media tools

16:45-17:00 Rounding off



The Ukrainian language under Russian occupation (2014–October 2022)

Michael Moser (Vienna – Budapest)

The protection of the Russian language and Russian “compatriots” has been a major issue of Russian political discourse for years. According to Russian official announcements, it was even a major reason for Russian war activities in Ukraine. In 2014, the Russian Federation introduced its language policy in Crimea and began to control the language policy of Donec’k and Luhans’k “People’s Republics.” Both Russian and Ukrainian, as well as other languages, have been affected by these measures. Since 24 February 2022, Russian language policy has entered new temporarily occupied territories. Although Ukrainian has occasionally been declared a “state language” in Crimea, in DNR and LNR and then either been deprived of this status (LNR, DNR) or not (Crimea) it has never actually played this role. On the contrary, it has gradually been removed from the public sphere. Announcements regarding the language policy in recently occupied territories have been contradictory for months. Generally, Russian political discourse regarding the Ukrainian language is still based on traditional double bind strategies. Official “appreciation for the Ukrainian language” is notoriously accompanied with narratives about the “artificiality” of the Ukrainian language, its “uselessness,” and even its virtually inherent “Nazi ideology.” At present, new textbooks of “the classical Ukrainian language” are allegedly being prepared in the Russian Federation. Historians of the Ukrainian language are curious how this unheard-of language might be designed.


Speaking absences: an ethnography of material-discursive relations in the occupied landscapes of Crimea

Natalia Volvach

This talk seeks to illuminate the production of absence resulting from the processes of erasure of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula after its occupation by Russia in 2014. By foregrounding what is not there, the study expands semiotic landscapes and critical sociolinguistic research by interrogating absence and its haunting effects. More than 3.500 photographs of semiotic landscapes collected in Crimea over two months of fieldwork between 2017 and 2019 together with fieldnotes serve as ethnographic data. The production of absence is interrogated through an analysis of its material effects, that is, voids, holes, and blank walls in urban landscapes. It concludes that erasure does not simply negate Ukraine. Instead, pasts always remain present, visible and audible in semiotic landscapes. Absences, as part of a relational ontology of materiality, discourse, and affect, speak about complex invisibilized histories of violence. In this way, they suggest the need to probe traditionalapproaches to language and society that rely on an ontology of presence.


What it means to speak Ukrainian today: observations and reflections

Alla Bidniuk

What is the status of different languages in society? What symbolic value does one's own and the enemy's language have?

Ukrainian is the only official language in Ukraine but Russification was so strong in the Eastern part of the country, that most of the people use Russian there in their everyday life.
How come it happened this way? If we look back for 100 years ago, when Ukrainians in the Eastern part of Ukraine, where Ukrainian culture and language were prospering, were killed by Russians for only speaking Ukrainian, Russian genocide of Ukrainians and artificial Hunger of 1932-1933, deportations and murders. People wanted to survive. So they changed their surnames into the Russian ones and started speaking Russian in the families in front of their small children in order to survive. Children who spoke Russian without Ukrainian dialect were safe. When they later became grownups and had their own children and grandchildren, none of them even suspected that their ancestors spoke Ukrainian.

Thus, the right term is Russified-Ukrainian and not a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. Russian-speaking people, mostly Russians who took homes of killed Ukrainians then, as they even do now, had their own will to choose their language, and Russian was their native language. Russified Ukrainians adopted the Russian language of Russian murderers in order to survive. This language situation can be compared to a loaf of bread given to a Ukrainian now from a Russian terrorist soldier. The same Russian soldier who has just bombed the house of this Ukrainian person and killed his parents and children. Then he gives bread for this Ukrainian victim in front of the Russian propaganda TV-cameras. This goes on Russian propaganda TV all over the world. The Ukrainian citizen who is left without his family, home in cold and hunger without water takes this bread from murderer to survive. If he doesn’t, he will die of hunger or will be killed by the same soldier for not taking part in making propaganda news. And surely, he thanks in Russian to him with tears from despair...
Russified Ukrainians were never discriminated in Ukraine, it is the Ukrainian language that mostly suffered by Russification.


War of words: Present-day Russian propaganda social media tools

Iryna Kalynovska

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” George Orwell

“Dirty bomb”, Ukrainian Nazis, bio labs, nuclear bombs, Satanists… It seems that this is already beyond our understanding of what is happening now, but NO… 

Russian propaganda machine works non-stop.

We are aware of the fact that Russian propaganda has created many anti-Ukrainian narratives. By spreading them in social media, Russia hopes to destroy the consolidation of Ukrainian society and weaken international support of Ukraine. For instance, during May – June 2022, Russian propagandists actively created fakes about speculations in weapon supplies in Ukraine.

The problem of present-day Russian propaganda in social media is wider than just “fake news”. It includes messages, fakes and narratives. Fakes are produced regularly. Messages are wider in content; they are targeted on specific audience. Russian propaganda uses fakes, half-truths and manipulations to fill the messages and shape them. A collection of messages is combined into a narrative, the purpose of which is to form a certain worldview. It is the narrative that is strategically most important, because messages can be modified, but narratives are permanent.

Deeply rooted in Soviet framework, Russian propaganda repeats messages, fakes and narratives, imposing distorted information approved by Kremlin on the audience. The reason for starting the war (February – March 2022), the retreat of Russian troops and losses on the front lines (August – October 2022) are interpreted by propagandists as logical operations for specific purposes.

The falsification of facts heated by the rhetoric of hate and hostility is aimed at the zombification of Russians, spreading lies and misleading the EU and NATO member-states, trying to destabilize Ukrainian society. False narratives lead not only to the formation, but strengthening of public opinion. For example, Russia is fighting with Ukrainian Nazism. The paradox of the situation is that Russian soldiers are killing Ukrainian civilians, torturing men and women, destroying the infrastructure facilities and claiming that the victims are Nazis, or the civilians were killed by Nazis – this is how they call Ukrainian armed forces defending Ukrainians (March – April 2022).

We are to take into account the following three key factors: 1) the audience of present-day Russian propaganda in social media, that is Russians, Ukrainian society, or the EU and NATO member-states; 2) the messages that Russian propaganda uses for each audience; 3) the tools Russian propaganda machine uses for their spread, i.e. creating the threat, demonization of the enemy, appealing to authority, multiple repetitions, simplification of facts, falsification and distorted information, stereotyping, etc.