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Laada Bilaniuk discusses Russo-Ukrainian war, role of language

March 1, 2024

Rie Du
LASTING LANGUAGE: Laada Bilaniuk discusses the evolution of the relationship between Ukrainians and language in relation to the war in Ukraine in Searles 315. There has been further prioritization of speaking Ukrainian as opposed to Russian in recent years.

Yesterday afternoon, linguistic anthropologist and professor at the University of Washington Laada Bilaniuk spoke about the importance of language to Ukrainian culture and identity in her talk titled “Language and Identity in the Russo-Ukrainian War.” Bilaniuk discussed her background, her ethnographic research in Ukraine and how the use of language has evolved since the war in Ukraine began  ten years ago.

Bilaniuk, who was raised in Philadelphia by immigrant parents from Ukraine and spent several months in the Soviet Union as a child, began her talk with historical context on the conflict in the region. She discussed how Russian President Vladimir Putin often wields Ukraine’s former status under the Russian Empire and Soviet Union as a justification for the war in Ukraine and denies Ukraine’s right to exist.

“The debate over who owns history, who claims a particular part of history, is a big part of what’s going on right now,” Bilaniuk said.

Throughout the lecture, Bilaniuk emphasized the diverse history of bilingualism that continues to exist in Ukraine, while also noting that since the war began, language is increasingly seen as a political choice. Traditionally, many Ukrainians spoke Russian, Ukrainian or both as their native language and would often switch between them in daily conversation. Ukrainian serves as Ukraine’s official language.

Recent efforts to prioritize speaking Ukrainian have increased the number of native Russian speakers learning Ukrainian. Bilaniuk explained that Russian is often seen as the language of the enemy, especially given Putin’s claims that the invasion of Ukraine is necessary to protect Russians and Russian speakers.

“These are brochures and posters from NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that tried to encourage people to switch to Ukrainian,” Bilaniuk said. “After the war, this trend has picked up exponentially with many more people saying, ‘No, I don’t feel comfortable speaking Russian, why am I speaking Russian?’ and then getting familiar with the whole history because ultimately their country is being attacked in the name of protecting Russian language and they find that absurd.”

Still, Ukrainian, Russian, English and other dialects all remain commonly spoken in Ukraine, and Bilaniuk notes that many fierce defenders of Ukrainian independence are native Russian speakers.

“Native language doesn’t determine patriotism,” Bilaniuk said.

Attendee Alyssa McPoyle ’25 reflected on this contradiction between Ukraine’s embrace of bilingualism and the increasing politicization of language.

“I thought [the talk] gave a really good overall impression of the linguistic similarity and difference of Ukrainian and Russian,” McPoyle said. “Also how … [Ukrainians] were conflicted about growing up using Russian in their everyday life and now being invaded by people who are speaking Russian.”

Bilaniuk also discussed a modern form of unity and resilience that has emerged in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022: memes. She showed a number of recent Ukrainian memes, including some from her most recent visit to Ukraine, and discussed a metaphor that labels memes a “cultural immune response.” She said memes have been used to assert Ukraine’s right to exist and the distinctiveness of the Ukrainian language while also uplifting the country through difficult times by emphasizing humor, dedication and defiance.

“[Memes] neutralize cultural and psychological threats; they counteract terror. Coping with humor, it also builds solidarity,” Bilaniuk said.

Attendee Bettina Holden ‘27 said that this portion of the lecture stood out to her.

“I thought it was really interesting that she was able to connect with the younger part of the crowd by talking about memes,” Holden said. “I’ve never seen a teacher use memes before.”

The Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies department sponsored Bilaniuk’s visit, which had been in the works for about a year. Visiting Lecturer in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Mira Nikolova organized the talk as part of her class, The Egalitarian Empire: Ethnicity and Otherness in the Soviet Union (and Beyond).

Nikolava believes that Bilaniuk’s focus on language is relevant to all members of the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities, especially in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. February 20 marked the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the war, and February 23 marked two years since the full-scale invasion.

“I think it is an important piece of context that can be left out, sometimes understandably, to a degree in the coverage of the ongoing war. And I think that a lot of times people like making assumptions about language and politics and the intersection of both,” Nikolova said. “I would love to serve the community through having those who are interested in the topic to just have a more nuanced understanding of the topic.”


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