Norms and Values
The First Year of the Conflict: The Semantics of Words and Deeds

We must remember that mutual trust between society and the government has always been the basis of military success in history. When it is irrevocably violated, then no semantic euphemisms can help, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

February 24 marks the first anniversary of the start of the special military operation (SMO) announced by the Russian leadership. This day a year ago, without any exaggeration, was one that divided Russian history into “before” and “after”. I believe the same divide affected the history of the world. It is clear that great things are seen at a distance, and trying now to provide any kind of “final” assessment of what is happening and determine its historical significance, would be approximately the same as reflecting in autumn of 1918 on the historical significance of the October Revolution that took place a year before. Then, the whole struggle was still ahead. The same can be said now. How the wheel of history would turn, no one knew in 1918, and no one knows today. However, as then, each side has demonstrated confidence in its final victory, which is quite natural in the logic of an open military-political struggle.

If we talk about the perception of the past year in Russian society, then we can start, oddly enough at first glance, with semantics and semiotics — in relation to the very abbreviation “SMO”. The term “war”, as we all know, is being avoided in official Russian discourse. To a certain extent, how willingly this or that Russian uses this phrase “special military operation” in his speech can serve as a marker of his attitude to what is happening. Opponents of the military solution rarely use this official wording. On the contrary, people who have organically included this phrase in their vocabulary, as a rule, are supporters of the operation itself. But, in our opinion, the situation is more complicated with supporters. As the experience of communication over the past year has shown, a fairly significant number of people who support the actions taken by the Russian leadership, at the same time prefer, from their point of view, to call a spade a spade. They do this without a new abbreviation, considering it a product of political camouflage, albeit a necessary one. The same, in our opinion, is the position of many ordinary citizens who are neutral in relation to what is happening.

Russian writer Viktor Pelevin, in his latest novel “KGBT+”, published in the autumn of 2022, proposed the euphemism “W-word” (in a completely different context, but not without a transparent reference to modernity). As the experience of watching television debates in Russia during this year shows, we can say that despite the apparent taboo of this “W-word”, it is used there very often, in the mouths of not only opponents, but also supporters of Russian actions – for the reasons stated above. And the adjective “military”, outside the framework of its integration into the abbreviation “SMO”, is used to describe what is happening by absolutely everyone: a military conflict, a military situation, military events. It’s also used in the form of “pre-war”, — in memories (or even nostalgia) of a very recent past. Thus, the semantic richness of the Russian language has once again showed itself in all its might — providing a whole range of alternatives for those who do not want to use the official wording. In addition, it must be said that Russians have very recent experience of such a reaction to official euphemisms. As we remember, during the Covid pandemic, instead of declaring an emergency, official Russian discourse also used a camouflage phrase: “state of high alert.” As a result, the semantic perception is that the current euphemisms in society take cues from previous ones.

But this is the semantics of words. No less interesting and indicative is the semantic (in the broad sense of the word) perception of the events themselves taking place in Russian society. The semantics of the deeds, if you will. On the one hand, among the opponents of the military conflict, it manifested itself in understandable forms: in the form of real or “internal” emigration, in the form of open or hidden protests, in the fundamental rejection of Aesopian language or, conversely, in its increased use. With supporters of Russia’s actions, the situation has turned out to be more complicated. The spring and summer of 2022 showed a sharp increase in spontaneous civic activity in this segment of society. The volunteer movement to help the front, the phenomenon of military correspondents who filled in the gaps and omissions of official information and quickly gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers on social media, public training networks for drone operators, and much more — all this took shape in what can frankly be called the loyalist majority of modern Russia: spontaneous civic activism and civic involvement, coming spontaneously “from below”, and not in reaction to an order “from above”. Moreover, this happened on a scale that was even impossible to imagine before February 24.

As a result, an absolutely powerful euphoria could be observed in this environment during that period. They spoke openly and proudly about the birth of a new civil society, about the formation of a new elite. About the fact that February 24 became the starting point in the qualitative transformation of Russian society. One might even call it a revolutionary transformation.

This phenomenon is well known in history. The patriotic upsurge of the loyalist majority of society is characteristic and, one might even say, typological for the initial stage of any wars in any country. Opponents may call it “chauvinistic frenzy”, but that’s not the point. The bottom line is that if the authorities have already called society to war and the patriotically conscious strata of society have invested, in word and in deed, in victory, then they have the right to expect trust and support from the authorities in relation to civilian initiatives to help the front. If this does not happen (and quite often in history it does not), then the patriotic upsurge is replaced by disappointment. The history of Russia during the First World War is a good example.

In the Russian media over the past year, one can see estimates that similar dynamics have begun to be reproduced in the current situation. On the one hand, during many years of political practice, the civil passivity of the patriotic majority was sometimes perceived as almost the main value (or bond) in relations between the government and society, and it played its part. Spontaneous civic activism sometimes met not with trust, but with irritation in official circles. Again, the recent Covid-era narrative of “don’t bother us while we fight the pandemic” easily transformed into a “don’t bother us while we conduct the special operation in Ukraine” narrative. The government knows what’s best.

On the other hand, the not always positive (and not always clearly explained) dynamics of military events, which again gave rise to semantic euphemisms, such as “gestures of goodwill”, “regroupings”, “difficult tactical decisions”, and “everything is going according to plan”, was superimposed on this feeling among civil activists; that their help is sometimes perceived not as a blessing, but as an annoying hindrance. As a result, from late summer to early autumn 2022, the tone of the patriotic segment of the Russian information field, in our opinion, began to change significantly. It can be defined by such semantic images as the pain of a patriot, the anger of a patriot, the disappointment of a patriot. Or, as Pavel Milyukov said of World War I, “the excited feeling of a Russian patriot.”

In this context of the already-begun semantic transformation from euphoria to disappointment, it is worth highlighting the perception of partial mobilisation; a measure required by harsh military realities, which had not occurred in Russia since the Great Patriotic War. As sociological surveys have shown, within the first weeks of the announcement of mobilisation, the feeling of anxiety among Russians almost doubled: from 35% to 69%. Moreover, we are not talking about the opposition, but about ordinary, loyal citizens of the country. If we recall the information context of the Russian social media of those weeks, then one could often find a feeling of a forever changed world there. It can even be said that it was not February 24, but September 21, 2022, the day mobilisation was announced, that became for the Russians the turning point that divided their life into “before” and “after”. It was then that in the social media, the feeling that the old world with its simple joys of life had collapsed — was, in our opinion, especially strong. Another strong subjective feeling that can arise when viewing the pages of those days is tragedy. The tragedy of feelings for loved ones, leaving towards danger and possible death. And another feeling that can arise from the texts of those weeks, connected with all of the above, is a feeling of emptiness. One could observe how Russian society seemed to freeze in a daze in this anxiety. This sense of emptiness was broken only by the words of genuine pain and anger of patriotic activists regarding the shortcomings of the mobilisation.

Then came the adaptation. Since the end of autumn, the feeling of anxiety, according to opinion polls, has begun to decrease again. The provision of assistance to the mobilised men became a new topic that rallied patriotic civil society. The tone of the internet posts of military correspondents, although far from the euphoria of the first period, nevertheless became less alarmist. The process of grinding patriotic activists among the authorities has also moved forward. Increasingly, you can see reports of constructive interaction. But we must remember that mutual trust between society and the government has always been the basis of military success in history. When it is irrevocably violated, then no semantic euphemisms can help.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.