Linguistic purge. This is how the Ukrainian army gives up Soviet expressions

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Instead of «Gruz 200», the Soviet slang used for casualties in war, Ukrainians are urged to say «Na shchyti» («On the shield»). We spoke with servicemen, historians and writers currently serving in the army about the relevance of such replacements, other samples of Soviet military slang that has taken root in our language, and the way it affects the mentality of Ukrainians.

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The Russian-Ukrainian war activated processes in many spheres. In Ukraine, not only the process of de-communization but also de-Russification is ongoing. Ukrainians en masse get rid of Russian names in toponymy, Russian-language literature is turned over to waste paper, and the money earned from this is transferred to the Armed Forces. 

Reforms are underway in the Ukrainian army too. Recently, the General Staff of the Armed Forces initiated the replacement of the Soviet marking of casualties «Gruz 200» («Cargo 200») with «Na shchyti» («On the shield»), as was mentioned on the authority’s Facebook page.

To popularize the General Staff’s order, Ihor Myronenko recorded a video on Tik-Tok, which quickly became viral and gained more than 300,000 views.

Ihor Myronenko is an officer of moral and psychological support at the Sumy Territorial Center of Military Enrollment. He is an engineer by profession, but after February 24 the man joined the Armed Forces and now serves in Sumy Oblast. He did not expect his video to become so popular, and admits that he recorded it primarily for his own audience, but calls these linguistic changes highly appropriate:

«Given the specifics of the service, I often have to deal with burials. This is a very sad, sorrowful thing. I made this video rather as an executor of the General Staff’s order for my subscribers. I wanted to spread this message in my region, for my colleagues to use it when conducting a military burial operation. The attributes of the Soviet times are not appropriate at all now. Instead, it’s more symbolic to talk about the killed as those who returned «on the shield». This will fundamentally change the attitude towards our fallen boys and allow them to be commemorated properly.»

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Marking «Cargo 200» and «Cargo 300» is a consequence of the utilitarian approach of the Soviet Union, when they paid attention not to people, but to weight in the logistics process, Ihor Myronenko continues:

«It’s utilitarian, like everything that was in the Soviet Union. People were not counted at that time: transportation was counted. It started from the war in Afghanistan, where the weight of a zinc coffin with a body was approximately 200 kilograms. Accordingly, they calculated how many coffins could fit in one plane. Since we are trying to move away from all this, pay a very high price now, we have to form other narratives in future generations, to heroize our soldiers.»

This marking is an army slang that arose during the war in Afghanistan and gained popularity again at the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, says Ruslan Zabilyi, a Ukrainian historian, a specialist in the history of Ukrainian nationalism and the director of the National Memorial Museum of Occupation Regimes’ Victims «Lonsky prison» in Lviv. Currently, he is also serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the country’s east:

«This is army slang. It just has existed for a long time and has become widespread due to the war since 2014. Then army words began to appear in the press and became familiar to ordinary citizens who had no relation to the army. The term «gruz» («cargo») originates from the time of the Afghan war. In 1984, the Ministry of Defense of the USSR instructed its military cargo transportation department to encrypt various cargoes with various codes. For example, «Cargo 100» is a cargo with weapons, «Cargo 200» – killed soldiers, «Cargo 300» – wounded, «Cargo 400» – contused, and so on. There were up to 800 such markings. Transportation of medicines, chemical weapons and prisoners of war were also marked. Modern Armed Forces do not officially use such slang, but due to the fact that many soldiers are familiar with the subject of the war in Afghanistan, they began to use it again.»

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«Nul» («zero»), «bronia» («armor»), ‘‘zelionka» («green») are all Soviet military innovations that have become entrenched in the language and originate from the Afghan war, Ruslan Zabilyi explains:

«Nul» is the dividing line between opposing sides. I think it comes from military topography and cartography. The word «bronia» was also used during the war in Afghanistan: this is how radio operators called all armored vehicles during their talks. Sometimes, so that the enemy would not guess, it was reported on the radio that «korobochky [boxes] are coming», meaning tanks, but the «boxes» didn’t become common. During the Chechen campaign in the Russian army, tanks were called «mishky» [bags] in radio communication. «Zelionka» is an expression that refers to green areas. The PKM machine gun is simply called «Pokemon», the military personnel call Kalashnikov assault rifles «Kalashmat» in their usual communication.

Despite the rooting of Soviet military terminology in the Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian military experience a mental breakdown with the beginning of full-scale military operations – believes the historian, who reads lectures for them in his spare time.

«A lot of things are changing, it’s obviously clear who the enemy is, and in no case is there talk of any «good» Russians after they started openly fighting with us. Military personnel read a lot, are interested not only in Ukrainian culture but also in military history. When I have free time, I give them lectures on the history of the Ukrainian army. Not only from an applied point of view, namely to teach the methods and ways of conducting combat operations, to adapt the tactics of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Ukrainian People’s Republic or Cold War soldiers in modern conditions. In addition, the military is interested in Ukrainian military traditions. And this is a normal process, that’s how it should be,» – says an expert on the history of Ukrainian nationalism.

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The historian calls the change of the marking «Gruz 200» to «On the shield» debatable, since this expression is not specific for the Ukrainian military tradition. Thus, he advises to turn to the Ukrainian song tradition:

«This is quite a debatable issue. In the Ukrainian military tradition, no one said «on the shield». The expression «With a shield or on a shield» comes from Ancient Greece, and it refers to the Spartans who were sent into battle by their mothers. They said: «Return with a shield or on a shield», that is, with victory or death, but with honour. There are different opinions and interpretations of many things, and in the future, this too will obviously become the subject of separate studies, but now is not the time. I think that the roots of the tradition can be found quite easily if you turn to the Ukrainian song heritage, to Ukrainian Cossack and folk songs of the 20th century. There, we will find everything we need.»

Volodymyr Tymchuk, a poet, a colonel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and a teacher at the National Academy of Land Forces named after Hetman Petro Sahaidachnyi, personally approves of such a change in labelling. However, he adds that it will be difficult to immediately change the practice of use:

«The General Staff can initiate changes and determine trends. When it changed the symbols, names of units and uniforms, there were many opponents, but in 30 years, everyone has forgotten about it. Internal speech is more difficult to change than attributes. Speech requires a change in the inner world of many people. The practice of our political culture indicates that it will be difficult to change it right away, because the blood of many people, families, and tragedies are connected with the «200s» and «300s», it has already entered «with a painful nail».

«On the shield» markings are more solemn, but «Cargo 200» is a clear visual image used in literature, film and in everyday speech, explains the colonel.

«On the shield» is solemn and sublime, which probably should’ve been included in the farewell ceremony from the very beginning, so that it would be etched in the memory of those people who suffered losses. «Gruz 200» is a visual image of evacuation vehicles. It is used in literature, poetry, cinematography and in conversation. The military is sometimes very superstitious about these matters and often unwilling to change the established things. Personally, I approve of this idea, because I am in favor of correct emphasising. Still, I believe that the difficulties in popularizing the phrase «on the shield» may also be due to the fact that there are no shields as such at the moment,» – Volodymyr Tymchuk believes.

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In his opinion, de-Russification in the army partly reaches the practical level.

The implementation of the word «pan» (analogue to «sir» in Ukrainian) in army usage met considerable resistance in the Armed Forces:

«We had a transition from addressing «tovarysh» [comrade] to «pan» [sir]. All the officers who served at that time said: «Why do you call me «pan»? Pan is one who has a horse, land, house and money, and I am a homeless officer, so what kind of master am I to you?» Those who wanted changes and said that this was our ancient appeal among the riflemen, rested on the Soviet mentality of the general public: 95% of people did not accept it. Only such radical things as war forced to get rid of this question. Now, the question of «tovarysh» no longer exists, although it was also debatable at one time. Under [President] Yushchenko, this address was cancelled, then it was reintroduced under Yanukovych, under Poroshenko, and to this day, the address «pan» still exists.

The phraseology «on the shield» will be used together with the «200s» form, he predicts.

«In poetry, the form «with a shield and on a shield» occurs quite often. This is a well-known metaphor, and people who write poetry are usually well-read, educated, so there will be no problem here. However, it is worth noting that one of the features of poetry is that it tries to use words that are frequent, so images of the «200s» are also there. Such words as «nul», «predok» [ancestor] and «zelionka» also enter the mentality quite quickly. They are imprinted, change consciousness and have a deep imprint. Such things affect emotional and psychological memory, the memory of loss,» – Volodymyr Tymchuk says.

He is engaged in putting together a collection of war poems «In principio erat Verbum», written by military personnel, and emphasizes that it’s necessary to talk about language constantly, to look for like-minded people with whom certain changes could be made.

«The choice of the Ukrainian language is, in fact, an existential choice. If our nation wants to survive, it chooses the Ukrainian language, but if it does not understand that it must survive, it does not choose it. It’s necessary to write about this constantly, not only to do one-time promotions with the hope that everything will settle down by itself. All the terms of the present tense are sown widely and will have deep soil, although I do not like them. I would note that it’s worth focusing on etching a clear and obvious surzhyk [mix of Ukrainian and Russian], words deformed in a Russian way. And because it organically sounds Ukrainian, even if it’s not specific, it is probably necessary to give it life, to let it into the world,» – Volodymyr Tymchuk concludes.

Roman Tyshchenko-Lamanskyi, translated by Vitalii Holich

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