Russia’s war against Ukraine has added new words to the global lexicon.
Terms once only used by military specialists, such as HIMARS or Javelin, Ukrainian phrases like ‘slava Ukraini’, and a range of new slang, such as derogatory descriptions of invaders as ‘orcs’, have been widely used over the past year far beyond Ukraine and in a wide variety of languages.
One word in particular, previously only used by those familiar with Russian, has generated an intense online battle recently in the English information space. It’s ‘vatnik’.
What is a vatnik?
The word took off among Russians in 2011 as part of a meme mocking jingoistic followers of Russian government propaganda. The word is derived from the name of a cotton wool jacket once worn by soldiers of the Red Army. The implication is similar to the English expression of someone having ‘cotton between their ears’ in that they are not using their brain to think for themselves.
In memes first made popular by Anton Chadskiy on the Russian social network VKontakte, a vatnik is depicted in a cartoon as a person entirely made out of the padded cotton material, in an imitation of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, and often with a red nose and black eye, implying that they are prone to drunken fights.
After the meme became widely popular in Russia, and then also Ukraine, Chadskiy left Russia to escape persecution.
The term ‘vatnik’ was relatively unknown beyond Russia and Eastern Europe until the start of Russia’s full scale war in Ukraine in which it began to be used much wider online in English and other languages as part of the global backlash to Russia’s aggression.
It is similar to the term ‘tankie‘, which was coined during the Cold War to refer to Western supporters of authoritarian communist governments (who would always defend tanks being sent in to crush regime opponents). That term was actually coined by other Western Marxists who wanted to distance themselves from hardliners. The rise in use of ‘vatnik’ is partly due to the fact that tankie is seen as an outdated reference and is too limited to insulting people on the far left. While Russia remains an authoritarian agressor, it is of course no longer communist and those who repeat its propaganda can come from across the political spectrum. As a result, those who would previously refer to tankies are now often replacing it with ‘vatnik’.
In response, there appears to have been a concerted effort to redefine ‘vatnik’ by supporters of the Russian government. The Wikipedia page for vatnik has been frequently edited this year to describe it as an ‘ethnic slur’ in the opening line, despite the rest of the page contradicting that definition by explaining its real origins and use as a political pejorative. At least one user who made this edit has also erroneously amended other Wikipedia pages to reflect Russian government narratives.
Supporters of the Russian government on social media networks, most notably Twitter, have also repeated this false definition.
For example, the American ‘political analyst’ Andrew Korybko who is notorious for his close relationship with the Russian government and for promoting Kremlin propaganda, replied to a tweet on 8 December in which US Congressman Adam Schiff criticised the rise of hate speech on Twitter. In his reply, Korybko claimed that “slurs against Russians (“v****k”)” were higher than all others.
The purpose of this tactic seems clear. More people are discovering the word and using it themselves every day while criticising the Russian government and those that repeat its propaganda. Redefining that word as an ethnic slur attempts to disrupt the organic spread of the word, generate false impressions about the people using it, and assist with getting their accounts banned. It’s likely that many of the moderators policing hate speech on social networks will be unfamiliar with the word so may turn to Wikipedia and only read the first line when making a decision. There are anecdotal reports that some accounts have previously been suspending for referring to promoters of Russian propaganda as vatniks.
The redefinition is absurd for several reasons.
The word was popularised by Russians themselves and its widespread use is unchanged from their meaning in all but one crucial way. As the word gains global popularity, it is used to refer to people of all different nationalities who promote Russian government propaganda. As noted, it is now often replacing ‘tankie’ as a term for Westerners. Korybko knows this better than anyone as he himself as an American is regularly criticised for being a vatnik. All countries have political pejoratives that are widely used. In fact, vatnik is quite mild in relation to some of them.
It’s still a largely unsuccessful tactic, however. For one thing, eagle-eyed social media users keep noticing the Wikipedia edits and correcting it. This is relatively simple because Wikipedia content relies on sourcing and there is no credible source to justify its definition as an ethnic slur, but many that explain its real meaning as a political pejorative.
The opposition to Russian propaganda has grown so large and organic that it is an uphill battle for this tactic to make a significant impact.
Part of what makes the English language so globally successful is that there is no authority that aims to govern the language. It continuously evolves democratically based on common usage. It is certainly not up to Kremlin propagandists to redefine a word in a way that doesn’t actually reflect usage.