"Vatnik" — ethnic or political slur?

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Adam Taylor, Anastacia Galouchka & Heidi Levine, "Ukrainians fighting outside Bakhmut see Russian mercenaries withdrawing", Washington Post 5/282023:

“The Wagner guys have left and the [regular Russians] have come in,” said a 26-year-old commander who asked to be identified by his call sign, Chichen. He used an anti-Russian ethnic slur to refer to the troops who appear to be replacing the mercenaries […]

It's unclear whether Chichen's quote has been translated from Ukrainian. But it seems likely that the "anti-Russian ethnic slur" rendered as "[regular Russians]" was originally vatnik, and it's interesting that the authors or their editors see that word as offensive enough to warrant bowdlerization.

According to the vatnik entry at propastop:

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. […]

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.

The Wikipedia entry agrees with this history.

The propastop page goes on to explain:

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 The rise in use of ‘vatnik’ is partly due to the fact that tankie is seen as an outdated reference and is too limited to insulting people on the far left.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.

In any case, it seems unlikely that Chichen was using vatnik to mean "Russian", since the Wagner mercenaries replaced by the "vatniks" were also Russians.

Rather, since a vatnik was originally a cotton-padded army jacket, Chichen's usage was more probably like calling American army soldiers "G.I.'s", or British soldiers "redcoats" — though certainly with a pejorative tinge, given the word's recent history.  So would the Post have censored the word vatnik if they saw it as a pejorative metonymy for "Russian soldier", or as a pejorative term for a political group? Or was their concern due to the fact that there's an on-going attempt to portray the word as an ethnic slur?

Of course, this is taking place against the backdrop of a general tendency to shift taboos from body-wastes/sex/religion to ethnicity — see e.g. Rachel Hall, "Agatha Christie novels reworked to remove potentially offensive language", The Guardian 3/25/2023. That article makes the interesting point that the "potentially offensive language" includes essentially all ethnic and many physical descriptions, not just those expressed using offensive terms.

I haven't seen any attempt to make political slurs taboo, to the point of editing quotations to replace terms like "lib", "RINO", "MAGAt" with square-bracketed euphemisms. But maybe I just haven't noticed.


  1. inbalboa said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 9:12 am

    I think he actually said "rusnya".

  2. Th said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    >But it seems likely that the "anti-Russian ethnic slur" rendered as "[regular Russians]" was originally vatnik
    I strongly doubt the word was "vatnik". That Chichen may have used an actual ethnic slur used by Ukrainians, like кацап, москаль, or русня. However, considering he uses the word while referring to the Russian army, in contrast with the Vagner mercenaries, it most likely was мобик, a derogatory name for the Russian Ministry of Defense forces. It is a word play combining the "mobs" (low-rank enemies from video games) and an abbreviation of мобилизованный "conscripted".

    [(myl) "мобик" absolutely makes sense as the word that Chichen would use. But then it's all the more puzzling to characterize it as "an anti-Russian ethnic slur"…]

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 10:15 am

    I think it's very unlikely he used the word "vatnik". The word doesn't fit the context here at all. It means something like jingo, you know, Colonel Blimp, and while it's not typically something a vatnik would call himself, it's A. mild, and B. specific.

    My guess is more something like katsap.

    [(myl) The trouble with "katsap" is that the Wagner mercenaries they replaced were also Russian, right? Anyhow, the point remains about taboos shifting to ethnic or ethnopolitical grounds…]

  4. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 10:15 am

    Well, or simply moskal', of course, or a derivation of this.

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 11:06 am

    Ukrainians today use the term Рашисти (rašysty), рашизм (rašyzm) for Russians (= "Russia + Fascist), "Russian Fascism." This is widely used on the Internet. The "raš" part is from the English pronunciation of "Russia, Russian"[ Россия, Российский/Русский]. Latter two are in standard Ukrainian Росія, російський.
    Москаль [Moskal'], earlier a term for "Muscovite soldier" in Ukrainian, can have a negative connotation.
    Ватник ("quilted jacket" – often describing military jackets) came to be a term associated with supporters of Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

  6. mg said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 12:27 pm

    Sometimes replacing things with something in square brackets isn't done to Bowdlerize but for clarity. I'm sure I'm not alone among WaPo's readership in not knowing any of the potential original terms you and commenters have suggested. I don't care which of several possible ethnic slurs was used – all I want to know is what it was referring to. This substitution provides me with the info I need.

    [(myl) So instead of "anti-Russian ethnic slur", they might have written something like

    “The Wagner guys have left and the [regular Russians] have come in,” said a 26-year-old commander who asked to be identified by his call sign, Chichen. He used the Ukrainian word XYZ to refer to the troops who appear to be replacing the mercenaries


  7. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 1:14 pm

    my: Yes, katzapy, moskali and, as inbalboa suggested, rusnya, can be used for Wagnerites as well as for regular soldiers, but I had understood that whichever term X was used, it was about Wagnerite X versus regular X, not Wagnerites versus X.

  8. Peter Metcalfe said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 2:58 pm

    He might have called them Orcs.

  9. martin schwartz said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 6:34 pm

    The Ukr. pejorative katsap for a Russian may go back to Turco-Tatar
    kasap 'butcher', the -ts-, perhaps coincidentally, is found in Yiddish
    katsev/f 'butcher', from the Heb. cognate of the Arabic word behind
    the Turco-Tatar.
    Martin Schwartz

  10. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 29, 2023 @ 9:49 am

    I have seen "Orcs (Орки) used in online postings. Regarding кацап (kacap) there are several theories, both problematic. a) it derives from Turko-Tatar kasap (< Arab. qaṣṣāb "butcher") and was a term given to the Muscovite soldiers because of their skill with swords, axes and similar implements (холодное оружие), i.e. they were like butchers. The other claims that it was a term used by Ukrainians in the mid-17th century wars in which they called the Muscovite soldiers цап (cap) meaning "goat, billy goat" preceded by the word как "like, as" = "like goats" because of their beards. The problem is that one would expect that цап would be preceded by як (jak) not "как".

  11. V said,

    May 30, 2023 @ 5:25 pm

    Ватник is a derogatory term for a Russian conscript in Bulgarian.

  12. MarkB said,

    May 31, 2023 @ 6:24 pm

    Without trying to be dickish – sincerely – this is more about the internal workings of the WP than it is about language. Consider the term Jap. It was certainly used in derogative speech during WWII, but then people were being killed by the thousands, so let's not be surprised by harsh language. The thing is that in the end, Jap is just as abbreviation for Japanese. As Brit is for British. As with all such words, the content is in the intent. And abbreviation is not a crime. Not formal English, but not a linguistic crime either.

    The squeamishness shown by the Post comes from a belief in magic – that words have intrinsic magical powers that cannot be safely unleashed. Thus, we have the cognitive monstrosity 'n-word' – surely this one usage is worth at least a series of books, if not a career. I care far less about the ultimate origin of a particular Slavic-language curiousity than I do about the magical thinking that's been going on among a substantial slice of … hard to say exactly who they are. Hardly elites, but those who go by that name in the current culture wars. After a Catholic upbringing in the 1960s, I didn't give up on God the Father in order to by into pagan esoteric magic.

  13. AG said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 12:19 am

    markb –

    If you say something, and it seriously offends an entire group of other human beings, it's offensive. Doesn't matter if you intended it, or if it's an abbreviation or not.

    If you keep saying it after you know that fact (and PARTICULARLY if that group is one that has been discriminated against or lacks power), you're a bad person. It's not a complex situation.

  14. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 12:33 am

    "If you keep saying [[something that] seriously offends an entire group of other human beings] after you know that fact (and PARTICULARLY if that group is one that has been discriminated against or lacks power), you're a bad person".

    I disagree. The person to whom you refer is not a bad person, he or she is simply a person who does not share your beliefs. Neither you nor they can be judged as "good" or "bad" on the sole basis of your/their beliefs in this one respect

  15. Nathan said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 1:04 am

    AG wasn't judging the hypothetical person's beliefs, but their behavior.
    Deliberately hurting other people is bad.

  16. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 7:39 am

    "Deliberately hurting other people is bad". Agreed. But using language that some might find offensive is not "deliberately hurting people". It is, at most, demonstrating a lack of sensitivity, but if the intent to hurt is not there, then there is no concomitant badness.

    When my late maternal grandfather told my mother (while in hospital) that he was being looked after by "a lovely little nigger nurse", the very last thing that he intended was to hurt the nurse's feelings — he was simply using a word that, to him, was perfectly normal, and the thought that his use of it might offend not one but "an entire group of other human beings" never entered his mind. And when I later discussed the incident with the wife of our photographic club president, herself a member of that group, she assured me that she did not find his use of the word at all offensive, whereas had he said (for example) "F*****g n****r as a term of abuse then she would have been extremely offended and would have let him know so in no uncertain terms.

  17. Nathan said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 8:45 am

    That's a different premise. Our hypothetical person has foreknowledge of the offensive effect of their language.

  18. Petro from Ukraine said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 8:55 am

    Yes, *vatnik* is more political slur fro pro-Putin. Just for noticce, *vatnik* can be simplified to *vata* «cotton». And this word was used to Ukrainian who support pro-Russian parties too. Later the word [*vishivatnik*](https://drama.kropyva.ch/Вишиватник) was created where *vishi~* is from [*vishivanka*](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vyshyvanka).

    Ethnic slur for Russian had already mentioned in comments here:

    – *Ork* «an orc»,
    – *Katsap*. Yeah, it may be from Arabic «butcher» but this meaning disappeared and exits just as ethnic slur for Russian.
    – *Rusnya*: *Rus-sia* + suffix *nya*, maybe because it sounds as *khuy-nya*, where *khuy* is a vulgar word for *dick* but *khuyna* means mostly like vulgar *shit* when you don't like something or happened something bad.

    I'd add also *svinosobaka* which's basically «a pigdog». For context: *pes*, *sobaka* «a dog» in Slavic languages may be used or still using as vulgar word.

  19. Ebenezer Scrooge said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 1:54 pm

    Our current sensitivity to slurs has been weaponized by people alleging to be offended. Sometimes the aggressor wants to drive a perfectly legitimate but inconvenient word out of circulation. At other times, they are seeking a short-term rhetorical advantage. The technical term, I believe, is "pearl clutching." Since the weak will weaponize language as well as the strong, you can't infer sincerity from weakness alone.

    I try to err on the side of avoiding the appearance of offence. But when I'm reasonably sure I'm confronting a pearl clutcher, I double down.

    As always, meaning comes from context. It's hard.

  20. Pamela said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 8:42 am

    "Deliberately hurting other people is bad". Agreed. But using language that some might find offensive is not "deliberately hurting people". It is, at most, demonstrating a lack of sensitivity, but if the intent to hurt is not there, then there is no concomitant badness."

    I see an analogy to deciding to ignore stop signs and then running over pedestrians–all by accident, no harm intended. It's bad. There are some words that absolutely must be used, and if they create hurt, harm or havoc that's just the way things fall. All the words invoked in this discussion seem to be entirely dispensable. People using them are as clueness as drivers who see no harm in ignoring stop signs.

    Understanding the context in which a word is received is a basic element of a speech act. Your speaking licence assumes you know how to speak without running over people. The effects of words that are perceived by the hearer as humiliating, marginalizing, trivializing is deep and lasting. How can carefully preserving ignorance really be worth it for words as frivolous as this? I would like to live in a society where respect is freely given without people having to get demanding about it.

  21. Mark P said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 9:08 am

    This is purportedly a communication between two Russians about the war on Ukraine, quoted in a post on Quora.com:

    “I’m listening to a song that I like and understand that Sukachev who sings it supports war too. I can’t feel nostalgic about my youth anymore. These dumb vatniks have smeared everything and everyone with their shit.”

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