With little hope for the Russo-Ukrainian conflict to end anytime soon, millions of Ukrainians remain displaced in the countries to which they fled. Since February 2022, when the Russian invasion started, more than 8 million Ukrainians have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border, and about 1.4 million of them have registered in the Polish administrative system. This influx of migrants joined the 1.35 million Ukrainians that were already there – for almost ten years they had been gradually settling in Poland after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. These two waves of migration have reshaped the social structure of the country and essentially transformed Poland from a mononational state to a binational one.
Although Poland, like most other countries in the region, is currently facing rapid inflation (17.9% as of October 2022), and has spent about 1% of its GDP on aid for Ukraine and the refugees, there is still relatively little tension between the host and the migrant nation, and openly anti-immigrant or anti-Ukrainian speech is extremely rare in the mainstream political debate. However, one seemingly benign, but actually dangerous word has proliferated in the Polish public discourse as of lately. This word is “ukrainizacja” (“Ukrainization”).
Until the Russian aggression on Ukraine, this word was not used in general debate, but was mainly confined to the academic language of historians. The dictionary definition of this noun is rather neutral, see for example this Wikipedia entry: “a policy or practice of increasing the usage and facilitating the development of the Ukrainian language and promoting other elements of Ukrainian culture in various spheres of public life such as education, publishing, government, and religion.” Yet, in practice, the word is often used in anti-immigrant rhetoric as a warning against the alleged threat that Ukrainian culture poses to Polish culture – a theme characteristic of the pro-Russian propaganda in Poland.
Some far-right politicians create the image of Poland in which Ukrainians govern, and the Polish people become second-class citizens. In such narratives, the word ‘Ukrainization’ becomes an umbrella term for the changes that might be inspired by the presence of Ukrainian refugees. According to the report on ‘Ukrainization in pro-Russian propaganda (…)’ in Poland this term was first used to describe this threatening context by anti-vaccinationists and anti-Ukrainian groups, and was later amplified by certain radical political figures, most notably by Grzegorz Braun, an MP and the leader of the monarchist political party Confederation of the Polish Crown (Konfederacja Korony Polskiej). In July 2022, during the meeting of the parliamentary group on international relations, he presented the ‘Stop the Ukrainization of Poland’ (‘Stop ukrainizacji Polski’) pamphlet – a 64-page long document that describes the threats that the Ukrainian immigrants pose to the ‘ethno-cultural structure’ of the country and the actions the Polish government should undertake to ‘prevent the rapid depolonization of Poland’. This was also the start of the anti-Ukrainization campaign, in which help given to the Ukrainians by the Polish state is highly contested. On the official website of the campaign one can find articles titled ‘Enough dividing by favoring the displaced ones’, ‘STOP the replacement of the Polish ethnic structure’, ‘Teaching of the Catholic Church and opposing the Ukrainization of Poland’ or ‘How much does the Russo-Ukrainian war cost us’.
As J. Dauksza and A. Gielewska noted in their detailed piece on ‘Ukrainization’, the popularity of the term gained momentum on social media right after Braun launched his campaign in the Parliament. The topic quickly found its way to 5 million people online, was discussed on News Front, an openly pro-Russian media outlet, and spawned a very prolific #stopukrainizacjipolski hashtag. The catchphrase was also prominently displayed during the March of Independence – an event organized by the far-right groups on the Polish Independence Day, televised nationwide and attended by tens of thousands.
Interestingly, this kind of rhetoric is used in other European countries as well. The authors of the abovementioned report on pro-Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe researched how the theme of ‘Ukrainization’ is exploited in Romania, Poland, Serbia and Hungary. Although its use is context-specific, the core idea remains the same – that Ukrainians coming to other countries in great numbers pose a threat to the national identity of their hosts.
In the parlance of the Dangerous Speech Project, this is a clear example of the ‘threat to group purity’ hallmark, an assertion that one’s culture will somehow be damaged, replaced or even lost due to the influence of the outside group. It is similar to how the noun ‘islamization’ was exploited in Poland not that long ago and renders any speech that uses the word ‘Ukrainization’ in this context as potentially dangerous. However, the main feature that makes this word particularly dangerous is its apparent neutrality. There are several derogatory neologisms that have recently entered the Polish language which are Ukraine- or refugee-related, for example ‘ukroszajba’ (a combination of the prefix ‘Ukr’ and a Polish word that means ‘craziness’) or ‘upadlina’ (a play on words that suggests Ukraine is a fallen country). Given their conspicuous derogatory connotation, these words defy social norms that govern the mainstream discourse and are therefore mostly absent from it as those who use them risk facing a strong public backlash. But the negative context of the word ‘Ukrainization’ is not so apparent. It is not obviously derogatory. More than that, it can even be perceived as an academic term. This justifies its use in the mainstream debate and enables the word, and the ideas behind it, to reach the general audience, often through recognizable, influential speakers – a feat that the vilest of words typically fail to achieve, as they are usually used in niche sources that target devoted, but small and radicalized groups of followers.
A growing Ukrainian minority in Poland will definitely introduce changes to the shape of the Polish society, but calling all those changes ‘Ukrainization’ implies that Poland will lose its national identity in the process. This is a very black and white, radical assumption for a complex, nuanced issue. It is true that such a sudden shift in ethnical structure of any country can pose challenges, but it calls for a rational discussion on future co-existence, not for a witch-hunt.
Paweł Trzaskowski is a scholar based at the University of Warsaw and Radio Poland, and a 2020/23 DSP Global Research Initiative Fellow. He holds a doctor’s degree in applied linguistics. His academic work focuses mainly on language pragmatics, and his most current work concerns dangerous speech that targets Ukrainian immigrants in Poland.