Is there a right to silence? Silence as a reason for vigilance during the war in Ukraine

von Kateryna Yeremieieva

One particular reason to be vigilant

When does silence as an absence of statements become a cause for vigilance? At what moment is public attention directed toward silence and not only toward statements? We can see this in challenging crises like war when dividing people into insiders and outsiders suddenly becomes necessary to unite and develop further strategies and common concepts for describing reality. In a warring society, moral imperatives are actualised, built on the opposition of speaking out (affirming loyalty, for example, to one’s state and acting on its behalf) and silence, which becomes unacceptable (namely, the antithesis of social mobilisation, irresponsibility, betrayal, and support of the enemy). Silence became an attribute: “the one, who has been silent since 24 February”. Clear statements against the common enemy become an obligation due to the pressure in public space because the ambiguity of any communicative acts, both statements and silence, is perceived especially painfully during the aggravation of conflicts. The silence of those expected to speak out is even more alarming and more closely scrutinised than publicly unacceptable statements. In this text, I want to show that in times of war, attention to silence is sometimes of even greater importance than talking. We can analyse the nature of this phenomenon in the context of the war in Ukraine since 2022.

Theoretical background

In times after the war, silence may be a way of reconciling former enemies and creating a sense of ‘normality’ (Eastmond, Selimovic, 2012). Still, at the start of the war, silence is a cause for suspicion. At the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine’s representatives needed to engage in an active dialogue with those citizens of Russia whose role in the “friend-or-foe” opposition was not yet fully defined. With the outbreak of war, all citizens of the aggressor country – Russia – found themselves in the position, if not of being accused by citizens of Ukraine, then of being suspected during police interrogation. In this case, the Ukrainians demanded a response from the Russians from a position of power due to their status as victims of the war initiated by Russia, as well as to discredit the aggressor country. Theoretically, the “suspect” has the right to remain silent. Despite this, a suspect’s silence can often be interpreted as an indication of guilt (Ephratt, 2008). Given that the burden of proof rests on the accused, the innocent person will try to use the communication resource to prove his innocence or mitigate his guilt (provide an alibi, name the real perpetrators and separate himself from them, plead guilty in the hope of a lighter sentence and clearing his conscience) (Heydon, 2011).

Theoretically, the “suspect” has the right to remain silent.

These were what Ukrainian citizens expected from the silent Russians: recognition of the injustice of the war, taking responsibility for it, and calls for an end to aggression towards Ukraine. Silence would have meant the opposite from the Ukrainian point of view: supporting the Russian invasion. A common interpretation of silence becomes an additional reason for vigilance among Ukrainians: are “our people” following this interpretation of silence, or not? This is the so-called “preferred” response, the primarily accepted interpretation of silence. Calls not to remain silent were logically continued by calls to say what everyone expects, namely condemnation of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.

Silence would have meant the opposite from the Ukrainian point of view: supporting the Russian invasion.

The silence of those Russians, from whom Ukrainians expected statements about the war, caused even more anxiety among the dialogue initiators because of the difficulty of unambiguously identifying silent people as belonging to one side of the conflict (Marković, 2020). Expecting a preferred response from the “suspects” only increased attention to their non-presenсe in dialogue. Thus, the concept of silence becomes a significant element in the public discourse in times of crisis or war. Certain questions arise: Whose silence gets noticed (who hasn’t any right to be silent during the war)? What is the difference between their own silence and that of others? What are the platforms for silence or utterance that exist during the war?

Of course, many residents of authoritarian Russia have a lot of reasons to remain silent. Sometimes, silence meant survival, maybe it created an illusion of escaping from surveillance within their society, and for some people it might have been impossible to define their position toward the war in a dynamically changing reality. But in this study, I will focus primarily on the Ukrainian interpretation of silence and the reasons for Ukrainians’ increased attention towards it during the current Ukrainian-Russian war.

Whose silence gets noticed (who hasn’t any right to be silent during the war)? What is the difference between their own silence and that of others? What are the platforms for silence or utterance that exist during the war?

Statements and silence become public and a part of the struggle between Ukrainian and Russian antagonistic discourses during the war. Usually studies of silence focus on face-to-face dialogue, sometimes in specific contexts. In my research, I analyse dialogues in Ukrainian Internet communication during the full-scale war, for example threads in social networks or in comments on video hosting sites. I am exploring the multi-voiced dialogue (Priego-Valverde, 2009), which, as a rule, begins with calls by Ukrainian Internet users not to be silent. Such appeals were addressed to Russian media personalities with large audiences, acquaintances and relatives living in Russia. This includes all Russians, and some Ukrainian citizens (especially those whose loyalty to the Ukrainian state was questionable at the beginning of the war). Such calls could be made in posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, songs, and speeches by Ukrainian politicians and celebrities. Posters calling not to be silent about the war in Ukraine also appeared at pro-Ukrainian meetings.

Photos from these events helped spread appeals to talk about the war in the media space. Such public appeals were not made in a face-to-face dialogue by Russians. Therefore, the addressees could allow themselves more time to respond so as not to disrupt turn-taking. I intend to determine how long such a pause could have lasted between the Ukrainians’ call and the Russians’ (non-)response so that the interval would not be perceived as unacceptable silence.

Subjects of silence and vigilance

The pragmatics of silence in judicial practices applies to my study only insofar as it helps to define the roles of those who called for a response and the responders in the virtual dialogue during the war, as well as the reasons for the increased attention to the act of silence during this period.

From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine calls not to remain silent about the Russian aggression have been equated with calls for help and appeals to stop the war. President Zelenskyy set up a pattern for appeals and focused attention at the Grammy Awards: “Tell the truth about the war in Ukraine, but don’t remain silent”.1

YouTube preview of the video by Ukrainian band “Bez Obmezheniy”2 and Ukrainian singer Dmythro Monatik calling not to be silent during the war. The captions read: “Don’t be silent too!” and “Silence is synonymous with lies”.3

Above all, Ukrainian internet users directed their attention towards Russian residents, who could theoretically change the situation from inside Russian society and transfer from the category of “suspects” to that of “acquitted”. In addition, appeals not to remain silent also concerned those residents of Ukraine who, before February 24, 2022, had fallen into the category of Russia’s sympathisers. This was particularly true of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the members of the “Opposition Platform – For Life4 ”, some residents of eastern Ukraine5, and media personalities who had collaborated with Russia (for example, singers and other celebrities who gave concerts in Russia after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014).

Naturally, the Ukrainian society was particularly vigilant toward the latter. It took two months for the delay to respond to be perceived as a turn-taking violation in the dialogue. In other words, silence was interpreted as a betrayal of Ukraine as homeland. The citizens of Ukraine were now called to be vigilant of the silence of some Ukrainian celebrities (who were often already on Russian territory by this point) and urged to boycott them. To this end, in the second month of the war, bloggers and news channels compiled lists of prominent silent celebrities from Russia and Ukraine.6

 

https://youtu.be/1a3qffh0Q5M?si=uZJs4fc1xufIG846

Preview of a YouTube video with a list of celebrities who are silent about the war. The caption reads: “Ukrainian traitors. Silence is a position!” 

The lack of results of calls made to Russian citizens and celebrities not to remain silent led to several consequences. First and foremost, Ukrainians drew attention to cases when Russian celebrities and bloggers created posts about things that contrasted with the war: entertainment, shopping, travel, and plans for the future.

These were all equated with silence and increased the number of commentators from Ukraine urging not to be silent or blaming the silence. These attempts could be seen as another effort to attract attention by hijacking contrasting contexts. For example, Ukrainians started posting photos of destroyed Ukrainian houses, shops or schools in the comments of Russian bloggers’ posts about choosing a new apartment, buying new things or planning a trip to new places.

As we can see, a year after the outbreak of full-scale war, the perception of silence as a sign of guilt has increased.

Ukrainian celebrities who were living in Russia at the time of 24 February 2022 and did not speak out about the war in Ukraine also came under scrutiny. For example, Ukrainian singer Taisiya Povaliy, who had been making a career in Russia for several years, congratulated her followers on Family Day in one of her posts. In the context of this post, Instagram users in the comments accused the singer of keeping silent about the fact that Russians killed many Ukrainian families during the war.7

In February 2023, the Ukrainian authors of the popular YouTube channel Palaye released a video titled “ANI LORAK and Company: When Rubles Are More Valuable Than Conscience”. They set out to once again voice the list of Ukrainian celebrities who, after a year of war, were still in Russia (and some were planning to return to Ukraine). At the very beginning of the video, the authors mentioned silence as the main fault of these celebrities: “We know how large their audiences are and how much trouble they caused before 24 February with their silence or sometimes their statements, and now they are coming back, we need to be vigilant…

They do have large audiences who watch, who adopt the model of behaviour, and for whom the idea that it is okay to ignore the war and it is okay to be silent about the war is normalised.

But ignoring and silence later leads to mass graves”. 8 As we can see, a year after the outbreak of full-scale war, the perception of silence as a sign of guilt has increased. If in February-April 2022, silence meant implicit support for Russian aggression against Ukraine, a year later, the consequences of silence, from the point of view of Ukrainian bloggers, have received physical dimensions: mass graves. This makes the duty to talk about the war and be vigilant about silence vital.

Preview of a YouTube video “ANI LORAK and Company: When Rubles Are More Valuable Than Conscience”

Interestingly, while in the case of Ukrainian media personalities, there were lists of those who were silent about the war, in the case of Russian media personalities, there were lists of those who spoke out against the war.9 Both processes separate “insiders” from “outsiders” according to communication or silence.

The prolonged silence of some individuals added to the anxiety of not being able to identify “us” and “them” immediately. Therefore, all the subsequent attempts by the silenced to reaffirm their silence or take a position on the war did not change the attitude of the Ukrainian public towards them. The example of Ukrainian singer Ani Lorak, who did not stop her work in Russia after 2014, is illustrative. At the beginning of March 2022, she published a post on Instagram in which she referred to “the deadly and destructive war that is going on in Ukraine, in which civilians are being killed”. Doubts about Ani Lorak’s loyalty to Ukraine led to the perception of her statement as ambiguous, equal to reticence. The Russian language of the statement and the absence of reference to Russia as an aggressor became alarming markers. For at least part of the Ukrainian audience, such “hints” of a “going on war” meant an attempt to sit on two chairs during the war.10

So, vigilance towards one’s silence during the war subsides, and attention as a resource for mobilising society is directed towards more urgent objects.

Similarly, after a month and a half of silence, Kazakh and Russian stand-up comedian Nurlan Saburov was forced to explain the reasons for his silence during his concert in Los Angeles (after unsuccessful jokes on this topic, the comedian tried to explain his behaviour by fear).11 But, according to Ukrainian stand-up comedian Felix Redka, Nurlan Saburov’s reputation worsened after breaking his silence.12 So, vigilance towards one’s silence during the war subsides, and attention as a resource for mobilising society is directed towards more urgent objects (e.g., disinformation, air-raid alarms, etc.). All representatives of the aggressor state are unambiguously interpreted as “enemies”.

For Ukrainians themselves, silence in the context of ongoing war becomes unacceptable. For example, there is an almost instantaneous reaction in social networks to posts about the death of Ukrainian soldiers in the form of sadness and condolences to their relatives. As a rule, messages about dead Ukrainian soldiers were issued in the form of a black-and-white photograph of a soldier, a candle or a black ribbon – symbols of mourning. After that, users of the Ukrainian segment of social networks commented on such a post expressing their grief, and most often, the commentators show general empathy for the death of a person still unknown to them. However, in January 2023, among the posts about the fallen Ukrainian soldiers, somehow there was an obituary about the Russian comedian Andrey Rozhkov, who died in a car accident (who at the time was Vladimir Putin’s confidant in the presidential elections of the Russian Federation).13 This post was designed in the same way as most of the news about the dead Ukrainian soldiers. Many readers of the Facebook page on which the administrators posted this post considered it their ethical duty to write angry comments to the administrators of the Facebook page because of the publication about the death of the comedian-Putinist next to the posts about the dead Ukrainian soldiers.

During the war in Ukraine silence became even more of a cause for vigilance than speech.

Nevertheless, many commentators did not recognise the deceased in the black-and-white photo with a candle. They commented on the post with the already-established phrase “Eternal memory to the defender of Ukraine.” They were confused by the context of the publication, its design, and expectations from this Facebook account that they would publish only obituaries of dead Ukrainians. But above all, they hastened to express their condolence because of reluctance to violate turn-taking in virtual dialogue. It was built according to the following scheme: a message about the death of a Ukrainian soldier – a comment that expresses empathy towards him and, therefore, loyalty to other insiders. Those commentators who did not recognise the Russian comedian in the photo didn’t have enough time due to the turn-taking approach in the dialogue and the desire to provide the preferred answer as soon as possible.

Appeals not to be silent also concerned politicians of other countries. Thus, special attention in the Ukrainian information space was directed to the former Chancellor of Germany – Angela Merkel and her silence about the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian journalists explained their vigilance towards her because, according to Ukrainian journalist Natalia Smolentseva, Angela Merkel “knows Vladimir Putin better than other European politicians”, so many, including members of her party, expected her to condemn the war sharply.14 Moreover, the silence of one important participant in political rhetoric (even if it is a former chancellor) stimulates all potential speakers: experts on Russia, the president of Germany, etc., to speak out about the Russian-Ukrainian war and Angela Merkel`s silence.

Silence also becomes a reason to pay attention to the “biography of the silent person” and their personality in general.

In this case, it was not only the calls from the Ukrainian side that stimulated German public figures to speak out but also their determination to separate themselves from Russia as the aggressor in a conflict that was taking on global significance. Silence also becomes a reason to pay attention to the “biography of the silent person” and their personality in general.

Conclusion

During the war in Ukraine silence became even more of a cause for vigilance than speech. Silence causes anxiety because it interferes with a critical action in a moment of common danger, namely to classify people into “us” and “enemies”. The Ukrainian side perceived the silent ones either as suspected supporters of Russia or as potential supporters of Ukraine, which only increased vigilance against their media activities. Vigilance towards the silenced was accompanied by expectations of clearly correct statements about Russian aggression. Once the delay in condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine becomes a turn-taking violation of dialogue, silence becomes a sign of guilt, namely support for war. 

Future research could focus on silence not only as a reason for vigilance but also as a sign of vigilance in Ukrainian society (for example, the recommendations of the Security Service of Ukraine to maintain information silence regarding the plans of the Ukrainian armed forces, the locations of Russian missiles, etc.). Silence outside social networks and other mass media is also worth attention. And it is essential to compare the attitude towards silence regarding the war in Ukrainian and Russian societies.


Cite this article as: Yeremieieva, Kateryna,Is there a right to silence? Silence as a reason for vigilance during the war in Ukraine, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 24/02/2024, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/4916.


Literature:

1. Bilmes, Jack. “The Concept of Preference in Conversation Analysis.” Language in society 17.2 (1988): 161–181;

2. Eastmond, Marita, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. “Silence as Possibility in Postwar Everyday Life.” The international journal of transitional justice 6.3 (2012): 502–524;

3. Ephratt Michal. The functions of silence Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 40, Issue 11 (2008), Pages 1909-1938;

4. Ephratt, Michal. “The Silence Address: Silence as It Emerged from Media Commentators and Respondents, Following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2015 Address at the UN.” Israel studies (Bloomington, Ind.) 22.3 (2017): 200–229;

5. Ephratt, Michal. Silence as Language: Verbal Silence as a Means of Expression. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022;

6. Heydon, Georgina . “Silence: Civil right or social privilege? A discourse analytic response to a legal problem”. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(9), (2011), p. 2308-2316;

7. Jaworski, Adam. “The Power of Silence Social and Pragmatic Perspectives. Newbury Park”, Calif: SAGE, 1993.

8. Kurzon, Dennis, “The right of silence: A socio-pragmatic model of interpretation”. Journal of Pragmatics Volume 23, Issue 1, January 1995, p. 55-69;

9. Lestary, Agustina, Ninuk Krismanti, and Yulieda Hermaniar. “Interruptions and Silences in Conversations: A Turn-Taking Analysis.” PAROLE: Journal of Linguistics and Education 7.2 (2018): 64;

10. Luhmann, Niklas. “What Is Communication?” Communication theory 2.3 (1992): 251–259. Sacks, Harvey, Emmanuel Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson. “A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation.” Sotsiologicheskoe Obozrenie / Russian Sociological Review 14.1 (2015): 142–202;

11. Marković, Jelena. “The silence of fear, silencing by fear and the fear of silence” Narodna umjetnost 57.1 (2020): 163–195.

12. Priego-Valverde, Béatrice. “Failed Humor in Conversation: A Double Voicing Analysis.” Humor in Interaction. John Benjamins, 2009. 165–184

13. Sacks, Harvey, Emmanuel Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson. “A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation.” Sotsiologicheskoe Obozrenie / Russian Sociological Review 14.1 (2015): 142–202.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Blogredaktion (2024, 24. Februar). Is there a right to silence? Silence as a reason for vigilance during the war in Ukraine. Vigilanzkulturen. Abgerufen am 21. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vwh7

  1. «Розповідайте правду про війну… але не мовчіть!» – Президент Зеленський виступив на церемонії «Греммі» https://www.nrada.gov.ua/rozpovidajte-pravdu-pro-vijnu-ale-ne-movchit-prezydent-zelenskyj-vystupyv-na-tseremoniyi-gremmi/ []
  2. https://youtu.be/UO1VklKeo24?si=hjgkskgk04V9qF8z []
  3. https://youtu-be/Sk4vCJagU9s?si=l4P3CiiWb9XlEl7m []
  4. A parliamentary and since 20.06.2022 banned pro-Russian and Eurosceptic political party in Ukraine []
  5. Війна в Україні / Львів 4 березня 2022 / Не мовчіть, світ має знати правду (War in Ukraine / Lviv 4 March 2022 / Don’t be silent, the world must know the truth) https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=467861854872972 []
  6. Чорний список зрадників України. Дніпро news. []
  7. https://www.instagram.com/p/CfwlnAzs6w9/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link []
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beTngmWam3E []
  9. Борисова М. Ні війні: реакції росіян у соцмережах на війну проти Україниhttps://www.dw.com/uk/ni-viini-reaktsii-rosiian-u-sotsmerezhakh-na-viinu-proty-ukrainy/a-60903354 []
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beTngmWam3E []
  11. Комик Нурлан Сабуров объяснил, почему не высказывается о войне в Украине. https://rus.tvnet.lv/7497814/komik-nurlan-saburov-obyasnil-pochemu-ne-vyskazyvaetsya-o-voyne-v-ukraine []
  12. Черниш О. Гумор проти ракет. Як Україна жартує під час війни. https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/features-61473573 []
  13. https://www.facebook.com/slavaukrainiii/posts/pfbid0A8esdCArhMpYnNbvviZ7aKQSH9sVXMttno2Hp1h1CLPNoeso7BMRL7WzWVeTQgVwl []
  14. Смоленцева Н. Війна в Україні: чому мовчить Анґела Меркель? The war in Ukraine: why is Angela Merkel silent? https://www.dw.com/uk/viina-v-ukraini-chomu-movchyt-angela-merkel/video-61636906 []

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