New Russian Newspeak

« previous post | next post »

The author of this article is Michele A. Berdy, who writes under the byline The Word's Worth.  Berdy, born in the US but a resident of Moscow for over 40 years, has been doing this language column for a couple of decades.  It is usually light-hearted, even whimsical.  Not this one.  She departed Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine, and may now be in the U.S.  As per this March article in Politico.

"Newspeak in the New Russia:
George Orwell must be spinning in his grave."

The Moscow Times (9/23/22)

Новояз: Newspeak

Tip:  to make the most of the reading experience, before you start, familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet or have a converter handy

The article begins on an ironic note that is sustained throughout:

In 1949 George Orwell published his last novel, “1984,” and it was translated into Russian and published in 1957 — but not in the Soviet Union. More than 30 years would pass before it was published officially in Moscow. Both the самиздат (self-published work) and bound book version were instant hits — after all, it was one of the first books to describe Soviet reality.

It was “1984” that gave the world Newspeak — in Russian called Новояз, a translation that captures the meaning and even has a whiff of the snappy abbreviations of the early Revolutionary period. A while back the linguist Maxim Krongauz wrote that новояз has developed three meanings in Russian: Orwell’s fictional language, the language of totalitarian systems, and ненормативный язык (non-normative speech) — itself a lovely example of новояз since ненормативный язык can include what we call expletives in Oldspeak.  

To that we can now add a fourth category: the language of 2022.

Let’s start with cамозащита России (Russia’s self-defense), which actually means “attacking a sovereign neighbor that has not threatened Russia or any other state.”

This was known in Oldspeak as война (war), but it is now a специальная военная операция (special military operation) or спецоперация (special op), which was meant to sound like — and meant to be — a quick in-and-out operation that would end with a new president and parades down main streets. This is also called операция по денацификации и демилитаризации Украины (an operation to deNazify and demilitarize Ukraine). Neither новояз version went well, the first because there is no new president or parades, the second because no one could find any Nazis.

But no matter. In новояз they say: всё идёт по плану (everything is going according to plan).

Another bit of новояз concerning the war is the phrase принуждение к миру (peace enforcement), which was patented, as it were, way back in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and annexed part of its territory. Президент Дмитрий Медведев убеждён, что проведённая Россией операция по принуждению Грузии к миру была верным решением (President Dmitry Medvedev is convinced that forcing Georgia to accept peace was the right decision).

In новояз the enemies in Ukraine are called неонацисты (neo-Nazis) and нацисты (Nazis) —even if no one has seen one, captured one, or shown one on television. The enemies of the special operation in Russia are called экстремисты (extremists), even though no one has ever figured out what they are extreme about.

In this language, you don’t conquer territory, you liberate it, like an official said in July: Территорию ДНР полностью освободят от присутствия Вооружённых сил Украины до конца августа (The territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic will be completely liberated from Ukrainian Armed Forces by the end of the August). This was said by deputy of what seems like another Orwellian term, министр информации (the minister of information). The minister should have double-checked that information.

When the territory that has been liberated gets liberated back to the original residents and authorities, the Russian armed forces’ hasty retreat is called жест доброй воли (a gesture of good will). There are suddenly many good will gestures, starting with Snake Island. Представитель Министерства обороны РФ заявил, что "в качестве шага доброй воли" российский контингент покинул остров (A representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that as a “gesture of good will” the Russian contingent left the island.)

Ликвидация (liquidation*), the term usually used to describe, say, closing out a company, is used now to describe death and total destruction.  Ликвидировано за сутки более двух десятков боевиков (More than 20 soldiers were liquidated in the past day). The word смерть (death) is not used. For the most part, Russian soldiers are not said to have been killed, not even with the euphemism of the Covid period — летальный исход (fatal outcome). Here’s how it is usually described: Во время чрезвычайного происшествия, повлёкшего гибель танка, солдат был объявлен пропавший без вести " (During an emergency situation — that is, an attack — which resulted in the tank being ruined — that is, completely destroyed — the soldier was listed as missing in action — that is, he was not MIA but KIA — killed in action).

*VHM:  Of all the words encountered in Berdy's article, this one ("liquidation") has always perplexed me the most.  How a technical term in finance meaning "to settle the affairs of an individual or organization, by using its assets to pay its debts" could also come to mean "to eliminate or kill off an enemy" was never quite clear to me, but apparently this transformation occurred already in mid-1920s Russian, and was borrowed with that new, extended meaning into English.  Under Новояз ("Newspeak"), the non-financial connotation of "liquidate" seems only to have intensified.

There is a lengthy, useful discussion of "liquidate" on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange here.

It is interesting that "liquidate" in its original financial meaning was borrowed into Mandarin as the neologism "qīngsuàn 清算" ("settle accounts"), but the idea of "killing / eliminating") persons appears not to have transferred over from Russian to Mandarin on a broad scale, which I find surprising, since China and Chinese language were under massive tutelage of Russia during the 50s. 

On the other hand, qīngsuàn 清算 did develop the extended signification of  "expose and criticize". (source)

During this non-war there might be an инцидент (incident), which really means some kind of major accident or natural disaster. It might be an explosion, now called хлопок (a pop) in новояз. This makes for strange official descriptions: Пострадавшие от хлопка газа жители вернутся в квартиры (The residents affected by the pop of gas — that is, gas explosion — will return to their apartments). Ночью были сильные хлопки в Белгородской области (Loud pops — that is, major explosions — could be heard at night in Belgorod oblast).

That инцидент can cause another инцидент — пожар (fire). But fire in новояз is either задымление (smoke, smokiness) or возгорание (flare up). Поступило сообщение о возгорании магазина, в результате чего повреждено потолочное перекрытие и продукция смешанных товаров на площади 72 кв м. (There was a report about a fire breaking out in a store, which resulted in damage to the ceiling and to 72 square meters of mixed merchandise).

Новояз is an important part of censorship, which is now called защита русскоговорящих и особенно русскоговорящих детей (the protection of Russian speakers and especially Russian-speaking children). People in Russia must be protected from many terrible things: провокация (provocative statements) — that is, criticism of the powers that be; фейки (fakes) — that is, any information that does not come from official Russian sources; and дискредитация российской армии (defamation of the Russian army) — that is, any criticism of the armed forces. And if the media fails to protect them properly, Роскомнадзор предупредит о мерах технологического воздействия (the Russian media watchdog organization will warn that they will take “measures of technical intervention.”) That is, they’ll block them.

And that’s today’s not-news from the not-war.

If you read through all of that, you would have painlessly learned a lot of Old Russian and New Russian.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]



  1. ycx said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 10:05 am

    >the soldier was listed as missing in action

    The Russians are learning quickly from the UNSC Spartan Program!

  2. David Marjanović said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 1:35 pm

    "Liquidated" is used in the Ukrainian Armed Forces' daily report on Russian casualties as well. The term also made it into German long ago.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 1:43 pm

    The OED suggests, under sense 7, that English "liquidate" in the sense of taking out an enemy, may actually derive from the Russian иквидировать rather than from theLatin liquidāt-, liquidāre:

    7. [after Russian likvidirovat′ to liquidate, wind up] To put an end to, abolish; to stamp out, wipe out; to kill.

  4. Sergey said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 3:43 pm

    Oh, come on, there is the same Newspeak in the American English, done by the people on the same end of political spectrum as Putin, the Democrats. "Misinformation" and "disinformation" and "fakes" is what they call any information about Democrats' misdeeds. "Fact checking" is the new word for censorship and disinformation. "Inflation reduction" means inflation growth. "Underprivileged" means "privileged".

  5. Viseguy said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 6:35 pm

    The "protection of Russian speakers and especially Russian-speaking children" is reminiscent of the current right-wing campaign in the U.S. to root out the teaching of "critical race theory" in schools and ban "subversive" books from the curriculum. Та же песня, да на новый лад. The lyrics may be slightly different, but it's the same old song.

  6. Viseguy said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 6:48 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Russians themselves seem to see the liquid in "liquidation" since they refer to such activities as мокрые дела (wet affairs).

    @Sergey: Been binge-reading "Through the Looking-Glass" lately, have we?

  7. Josh R. said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 7:25 pm

    David Marjanović said,
    ""Liquidated" is used in the Ukrainian Armed Forces' daily report on Russian casualties as well. The term also made it into German long ago."

    When the Hitler rant parodies using footage from Der Untergang were all the rage, I was somewhat surprised to hear Hitler say he should have let the military officers be "liquidieren." I wasn't sure if that was perhaps anachronistic.

    Checking, it reports that liquidate's sense of "wipe out, kill" dates back to 1924, and like Phillip Taylor notes, suggests that it comes from Russian ликвидировать (likvidirovat).

  8. Brett said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 7:44 pm

    I see one of the professions Russian trolls has shown up to complain. However, Sergey's script is actually more sophisticated than you usually see. Rather than trying to defend Putin directly, he attacks America and tries to tar the Democratic party as if they were Putin's allies.

  9. JPL said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 12:35 am

    I see this post has attracted a Russian troll, with a completely unserious and patently idiotic comment. The Orwellian term "Newspeak" refers to a universal (i.e., non-language-specific) phenomenon, which is a mode of language use, not a part of any particular language system. The "Newspeak" mode is a favourite tool of plutocratic political actors, the most prominent of which today are Putin's regime and the US Republican party, especially in its current Trumpist manifestation. (The term 'plutocrat' refers to the unholy alliance between those who have money and want political power, and those who have political power and want money.) In normal discourse, under ethical and Gricean principles, the speaker tries out of love to help the addressee to understand eg the causes of a problematic situation, and describes it accordingly, eg, supplying needed clarification of the reasons for the use of descriptive terms. Even in scientific discourse, the binary true/false distinction is too crude, and it is often more helpful to apply a criterion of accuracy, which admits of degrees of goodness of fit and an open-ended process of adjustment. In the Newspeak plutocrat self-preservation mode there is no love and no regard for ethical principles; rather the malicious intent is to deceive, fool, manipulate and divert the addressee from coming to understand real causes of real problems. (After all, the mob that stormed the capitol on 6 Jan, those are supposed to be the Bolsheviks, not the royal loyalists.) If anyone in Russia actually has the temerity to ask for clarification for why the military activity in Ukraine is described as "Russia's self-defense" as opposed to "an unprovoked and unnecessary invasion of a peaceful neighbour", that request will be met with only anger and lashing back. (BTW, in the critique of competing descriptions of a single situation x, it is good to have other ways of describing that situation x that are independent of the assumptions of the categories of the competing descriptions.) Clarification of the reasons for the application of terms in the description of a problematic situation are essential; an honest and ethical response will honour such requests with good reasons, and then provide evidence in support; a dishonest and self-serving response will offer no good reasons or no reasons at all, and will offer no evidence. That's how you tell the difference between normal mode and Newspeak mode. So why do you think that anyone here on the Language Log blog of all places would buy your description of "the people on the same end of the political spectrum as Putin, the Democrats", especially when everybody has seen people on Fox News, like Tucker Carlson, openly supporting Putin against the policy interests of the current American government and against the ethical interests of all of humanity, who have no words to describe the spectacle of a single man full of power sitting at a long table in Moscow inevitably using his power in such willful disregard for the dignity and worth of so many Ukranian lives as well as those of the poor Russian soldiers he has sent off unnecessarily to their deaths? The idea that you could continue your trolling by this point is hard to understand.

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 1:06 am

    I first encountered the Swedish likvidera in the kontext of the Soviets killing various real and imagined enemies, only later in the financial sense.

  11. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 7:47 am

    It is (almost) amusing to see in the sentence about the tank that гибель (libel') is the word for death/demise of living things…

  12. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 7:52 am

    Apologie: for (libel') read (gibel')

  13. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 11:41 am

    During WWII, US military forces were supervised by two cabinet departments: the War Department, created in 1789, and the Department of the Navy, created in 1798. After the Department of the Air Force was split off from the War Department in 1947, the decision was made to consolidate all three into a single Department of Defense. This new department was created in 1949.

    In 1950, the first major conflict conducted under the aegis of the Defense Department began in Korea. A few months after Pres. Truman ordered land, air and naval forces into combat there he told Americans, "We are not at war." Instead, he said, the US was engaged in a "police action."

    For three years, the United States "defended" itself by "policing" a small country on the far side of the world. In the process, 1.8 million US service members suffered 140,000 battle casualties. The number of casualties they inflicted on their adversaries (military and civilian) was ten times greater.

    I don't say this to criticize the US role in Korea or to defend Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I'm just pointing that the use of euphemisms to describe war is not unique to communist regimes.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 1:52 am

    I don't know if the US were first, but the trend to replace "War Departments" (or "Ministries" or other variants) with "Defence" ones seem to have swept the world by storm after WWII.

  15. JJM said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 9:27 am

    "I don't know if the US were first, but the trend to replace 'War Departments' (or 'Ministries' or other variants) with 'Defence' ones seem to have swept the world by storm after WWII."

    This trend began with the US after WWII, as you note. However, the reason was entirely practical, and based on lessons learned about largescale joint operations in that conflict. Traditionally, countries had two entirely separate ministries, a war ministry for the army and an admiralty for the navy. In some cases – as in pre-WWII Britain, the advent of airpower resulted in the creation of an air ministry as well.

    All this was found to be counterproductive: it built up separate siloes and empires and resulted in the duplication of many support services. A single defence ministry meant better coordination for missions and a tighter rationalization of resources.

    A few countries have not gone down this route. Mexico still has an entirely separate Secretaría de Marina (navy staff) and Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (army staff). Mexico has no air force; the army has its own air corps and the navy its own air arm.

  16. Terry Hunt said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 11:11 am

    @ JPL – Here, have some

    spare paragraph

    spaces. I have

    a good stock

    in hand.

  17. JPL said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 4:42 pm

    @Terry Hunt:

    LOL. Sorry! That "outburst" of a comment seemed to appear as a single thought, and that was the attempt to express the one thought. It was not a moment of tranquility. (I was surprised at how long it was.)

    Thanks, I'll keep that in mind!

    However, from a more tranquil place now, I think the distinction between a mode of discourse and a language's system (i.e., norms for the speech community rather than a speaker's idiolect) of lexical categories and syntactic schemata could be important for understanding the phenomenon of "Newspeak" in a broader context.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 4:51 pm

    @JJM, I don't think your post really responds to Andreas Johansson's linguistic observation (which I had also made mentally on the smaller scale of "Oh, so it wasn't just the UK"). It may not be unrelated in practice, according to the relative weights given to different audiences by the politicians choosing the names, but in principle it's orthogonal.

    Off the top of my head, reasons for choosing the name Ministry of Defence / Department of Defense / etc. could include (a) a desire to imply to an international audience that the country is against wars of aggression; (b) the same to a domestic audience; (c) a genuine expression of priorities; (d) internal politics within the ministry, by not retaining the name of one of various ministries which had been merged – and this point is where there's contact with your post.

    Something close to (a) applies to Japan, given the context of their re-establishment of military capability after the post-WWII occupation. And the shock of nuclear warfare and lip service to (or more sincere respect for) the ideals of the UN could also account for (a) in the general post-WWII context, and particularly among the permanent members of the Security Council.

    On the other hand, Ireland had a Ministry of Defence from independence, and is probably a case of (c): its priority was maintaining independence, not trying to be a late party to the scramble for colonies.

  19. Bloix said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    JJM and Peter Taylor –
    I suspect that one reason for the adoption of "defense" was that the UN Charter, adopted in 1945, flatly prohibits all use of force in international disputes with the sole exception of self-defense. The terms of the UN Charter were – and still nominally are – universally accepted as international law, such that a use of force that doesn't fall within the defense exception is likely to constitute the crime of aggression. This, I suspect, created something of a cottage industry in the field of fashioning reasons that wars of choice were really examples of self-defense.

    Nowadays, countries are less respectful of the UN and more casual about their willingness to use force in violation of the UN Charter. But the defense euphemism is useful for all sorts of non-legal reasons, and so it persists.

  20. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 1:56 am


    As Peter Taylor surmised, it was the linguistic part I was getting at. Practical concerns may explain the trend to amalgamate army and navy departments, but not the fact that almost everyone chose to call the combined department some variant of "Department of Defence" rather than, say, "Department of the Armed Forces".

  21. KeithB said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 8:22 am

    "Wet work" is a current euphemism usually used for CIA or Special Forces operations that involve assassinations.

    I have heard Christopher Lee's service in WW2 referred to that way.

  22. Sergey said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 11:47 am

    @Viseguy: No, the "protection of Russian speakers and especially Russian-speaking children" is reminiscent of removal of the "racist books and materials" from school.

    @JPL Nope, I'm not defending Putin. I'm ruing that America has been following the path of Russia to dictatorship. Superimpose Obama's administration timeline on Putin's, and it's eerily similar. What went different is that Obama encountered a much stronger resistance, and his "castling operation" had failed.

    And an important reminder: Orwell didn't invent Newspeak (other than the word itself). All he did was translate the Communist "new revolutionary world" linguistic patterns from Russian to English. And the word "newspeak" itself follows these patterns.

  23. chris said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 12:24 pm

    I'm not sure what to make of Sergey, but there certainly is an American politician with controversial/disputed Russian ties known for labeling news reports he dislikes "fake news". Although of course he's on the *actual* same end of the political spectrum as Putin so he is normally leveling that epithet *at* the Democrats.

    I don't know if this usage has followed in the footsteps of "liquidation" and "wet work" being adapted from Russian but it seems at least possible.

  24. Nori said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 11:12 pm

    I think actually, while Orwellian, these Russian terms would not really count as Newspeak, which describes not inversion so much as the new form of degraded grammar and limited vocabulary introduced by the state in 1984.

    If we consider that liquidity is the ability to obtain cash easily and so liquidation must mean turning things difficult to use into things useful, it is not surprising to see the connection to killing. Someone being difficult to manage? No problem. Change them from a useless asset into a "useful" one.

    For example, the Myrotvorets website lists journalists that are difficult for the Ukrainian government to manage. After they are assassinated, "liquidated" is written over their photo.

RSS feed for comments on this post