Reaching into the past for words about Russia

A "revanchist Moscow," "Potemkin village" armed forces, Vladimir Putin’s violent "irredentism." The war in Ukraine is also a war of words.


News stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been filled with terms that hark back to the Cold War and earlier conflicts fueled by great powers’ nationalism. On March 2, the Monitor described how the invasion is dividing Europe between NATO on one side and a revanchist Moscow on the other. The Washington Post referred to Russia’s Potemkin village armed forces, while The Economist warned that Vladimir Putin’s violent irredentism has ushered in a “post-post-Cold-War world.” What do these words mean? 

Revanchist comes from revanche, French for “revenge,” but in English it has a very particular sense. A revanchist “advocates or fights for the recovery of lost territory or status,” as Merriam-Webster puts it; the Oxford English Dictionary defines its adjective form – “revanchist speeches,” for example – as “belligerently vengeful.” According to political scientist Ivan Krastev, revanchism is not a constructive ideology – it is “driven by the idea of payback. [Revanchists] dream not of changing the world but of changing places with the victors of the last war.”  

Revanchist was first applied to the French who couldn’t accept the 1871 loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-
Prussian War. Around the same time, a series of wars and alliances resulted in the unification of Italy, and gave us irredentism. Some Italians looked at the numerous Italian-speaking regions still outside their borders, and wanted to annex this terra irredenta (“unredeemed land”). Today irredentism is “a national policy advocating the acquisition of some region in another country by reason of common linguistic, cultural, historical, ethnic, or racial ties,” according to the Free Dictionary. These words are often used interchangeably, but to be precise, irredentist nations interest themselves in lands whose people share their language and culture, whether or not they have been historically united. Revanchists focus less on who is living in a disputed territory and more on the fact that it was lost. 

In 1787, Catherine the Great toured Crimea, which Russia had recently annexed. Its governor general wanted to impress his czarina with the prosperity of her new territory, and so, the story goes, he had pasteboard facades of buildings erected and brought in serfs and farm produce to portray a well-fed peasantry. His name was Grigory Potemkin, and according to his critics, he had created “Potemkin villages” to fool the empress. Historians now doubt whether he went to such lengths of deception, but the term caught on, and a Potemkin village is still, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.” 

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