Centuries of Stargazing Leave Jesuit Names Written in the Heavens

The latest list of approved labels for asteroids includes nods to three more scholars of the order, as well as a pope, challenging the idea that science and religion make awkward partners.

A bearded man with gray hair and glasses, wearing a priest’s collar, looks into the eyepiece of a giant telescope.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican’s observatory near Rome, in 2017. The observatory, or Specola Vaticana, has roots dating to Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century.Credit…Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Centuries after the Holy See muzzled and burned Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos, Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican’s in-house observatory are increasingly writing their names in the heavens.

The Vatican, run by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history, recently announced that three more Jesuit scientists from its Jesuit-run observatory had asteroids named after them as part of a fresh batch that included the 16th-century pope who commissioned the Gregorian calendar and a Tuscan pastry chef whose hobby is the firmament.

Jesuits, while not quite yet as numerous as the stars, have had more than 30 asteroids assigned to them since the space rocks began to be formally named in 1801. That “should not be surprising, given the often scientific nature of this community,” said the astronomer Don Yeomans, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and is now part of the group that gives official approval for the names given to asteroids.

The three astral Jesuits named last month are the Rev. Robert Janusz, a Polish priest and physicist who focuses on measurements of light from star clusters (565184 Janusz); the Rev. William R. Stoeger (1943-2014), an American priest (551878 Stoeger); and the Rev. Johann Georg Hagen (1847-1930), an Austrian American who, per the naming citation for 562971 Johannhagen, “devised several ingenious experiments at the Vatican to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, directly confirming the theories of Copernicus and Galileo.”

All three work or worked in the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory, just off the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo, a short drive from Rome. The observatory is a descendant of centuries of Vatican-sponsored research into the stars, and it is the only Vatican body that carries out scientific study.

The history of the observatory, which has been staffed by Jesuits since the 1930s, is a rebuttal to the notion that the Roman Catholic Church has always sought to stand in the way of scientific advancement, an idea perpetuated by high-profile cases like those of Galileo and Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition during the Renaissance.

“There are institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Science that tell the Vatican what’s going on in the world of science, but we actually do the science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an asteroid honoree (4597 Consolmagno) and director of the observatory, whose website tagline is “faith inspiring science.” In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Brother Consolmagno said that part of the mission of the observatory was “to show the world that the church supports science.”

It’s telling that a former director of the observatory, the Jesuit astrophysicist Rev. George V. Coyne, who died in 2020, played a significant role in getting the Vatican to shift position and formally acknowledge in 1992 that Galileo might have been correct.

“One thing the Bible is not,” Father Coyne told The New York Times Magazine in 1994, “is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.”

The Specola’s roots date to Pope Gregory XIII, who built an observatory — known as the Tower of the Winds — inside the Vatican so that astronomers could study the reform of the Julian calendar, which was in use until 1582. Gregory, a.k.a. Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1585), was an important early patron of the Jesuits and now has an asteroid named after him, 560794 Ugoboncompagni.

Among the astronomers who worked on the reformed calendar was a Jesuit, Christopher Clavius (1538-1612) — asteroid 20237 Clavius — who lived at the Roman College, a school in the Italian capital started in 1551 by St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order.

The Roman College formed generations of astronomers, including Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671) — asteroid 122632 Riccioli — who published a map of the moon in 1647 and codified some of the lunar nomenclature that is still in use. When Neil Armstrong said: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed,” on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission, “Tranquillity” was a reference to the Mare Tranquillitatis, or Sea of Tranquillity, which Riccioli had named.

Asteroid 4705 Secchi is named after the Jesuit priest Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), who pioneered astronomical spectroscopy and was the director of the observatory at the Roman College from 1948 until his death.

Scientific equipment on a gantry with an eerie blue horizon in the background.
Mount Graham International Observatory, Ariz., where the Vatican operates a telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.Credit…Joe McNally/Getty Images

The Vatican observatory’s current astronomers mostly split their time between Castel Gandolfo and Mount Graham, Ariz., where the Vatican operates a telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.

The Rev. Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya Eluo, who works at the observatory, said that being a scientist and a man of faith changes the way that a person observes the world. He said that his scientific vocation had been fostered by his superiors in the Jesuit order. (He also has an asteroid named after him: 23443 Kikwaya.)

As Jesuits, “because we truly believe that God is the one who put everything there, it puts us in a very different relation with the thing we are observing,” Father Kikwaya said in a Zoom conversation from Arizona.

The naming of asteroids — which are also known as minor planets or small solar system bodies — is overseen by a group of professional astronomers, part of the International Astronomical Union. The group is presented every month with a list of proposed names and citations, but not all asteroids are labeled; only about 3.8 percent of the 620,000 numbered asteroids have been named, following specific guidelines.

Traditionally, names favored mythological figures from Greece or Rome (the first four were named Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta), but inspiration was later drawn from other cultures. Ryugu, for example, is a magical underwater palace in Japanese folklore, while Bennu was named for an ancient Egyptian bird deity (selected from thousands of entries in a “Name that Asteroid!” contest). There is also Apophis, who, in Egyptian mythology, is the enemy of the sun god Ra.

Over the decades, more prosaic attributions emerged, mostly for scientists, astronomers or high-profile figures. In recent years, asteroid names have also been inspired by the winners and top participants of high school science and engineering fairs. (The New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an asteroid, too: 212073 Carlzimmer.)

There are restrictions. “Names of pet animals are discouraged,” the guidelines note, and historical figures associated with “the slave trade, genocide or eugenics” are not acceptable. There is also a restriction on military and political figures — they must have died at least 100 years ago to be considered.

Opening up the process has raised questions about attributing asteroid names to students whose future is still an untraveled road, however.

Two beige-color buildings with metallic domed roofs linked by a pathway.
The Specola Vaticana is in Castel Gandolfo, a short drive from Rome.Credit…Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times
A drawer pulled out to reveal small boxes carrying plastic bags with various samples and labels.
A collection of meteor samples at the Specola Vaticana.Credit…Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Take the case of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had an asteroid named for her (23238 Ocasio-Cortez) after her high school project won a prize at an international science and engineering fair. “It’s true,” she wrote on Twitter in 2018.

Despite Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s subsequent career, the asteroid will retain her name; there is no retroactive reclamation. “We don’t do that,” said Gareth Williams, secretary of the naming group, which is called the Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature.

The group also tends to “strongly discourage” naming asteroids after religious figures, Dr. Williams said. But the current crop of Jesuit astronomers “were not named because they were Jesuits, they were named because they were astronomers. They just happened to be Jesuits,” Dr. Williams noted.

Many of the asteroid names have a story attached. In the latest batch, asteroid 44715 was named Paolovezzosi, for Paolo Vezzosi, an amateur astronomer and pastry chef from the Italian town of Montelupo Fiorentino, in Tuscany. Mr. Vezzosi, according to the citation, “provides delicious cakes,” at outreach events.

He was nominated by Maura Tombelli, president of an astronomy group that funded and built a public observatory in Montelupo Fiorentino. Ms. Tombelli has discovered 200 asteroids during her decades of stargazing (asteroid 9904 is called Mauratombelli in her honor).

Nominating Mr. Vezzosi was a way of thanking him for helping to get the observatory off the ground, Ms. Tombelli explained.

“We had nothing else to give, just my rocks in the sky,” she said.

New York Times – March 23, 2023

Her Doctor Said Her Illness Was All in Her Head. This Scientist Was Determined to Find the Truth.

After enduring severe nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, the geneticist Marlena Fejzo made finding the cause of her condition, hyperemesis gravidarum, her life’s work.

A black-and-white photo of Marlena Fejzo wearing a white lab coat standing in a lab.
Hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy condition marked by nausea and vomiting so severe it can cause catastrophic complications for mother and fetus, has long been under researched and under recognized.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Taped above a tidy wooden desk in the corner of her bedroom, right at eye level, is a piece of paper that Marlena Fejzo has saved for 24 years.

It’s a portrait of Dr. Fejzo at age 31 during the worst ordeal of her life. Her face and body are drawn in the gaunt greens and yellows of illness; her hollowed cheeks are marked with tears. The colored pencil drawing, made by her sister in 1999, is the only image she has held on to from that time. The few photos her mother took “were too horrible” to keep, said Dr. Fejzo, now 55.

A little nausea and vomiting in pregnancy were normal, she knew. But she experienced weeks of debilitating illness when she was pregnant with her son, and when expecting her second child, Dr. Fejzo was so ill that she couldn’t move without vomiting.

She couldn’t go to work or care for her little boy, or swallow so much as a teaspoon of water, let alone a bite of toast or a prenatal vitamin. Her empty gastrointestinal tract would spasm so violently and for so long that she couldn’t breathe.

“Every living moment was torture,” she said.

For at least a month, Dr. Fejzo couldn’t keep down any food or drink, and she received fluids through an IV. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds from an already slight 105, after which she grew too weak to stand on a scale.

“I was starving,” she said, “and the doctor just kept trying higher doses of drugs and different drugs, and nothing helped.”

Finally, her doctor agreed to deliver liquid nutrients through a catheter running into a large vein near her heart, but Dr. Fejzo believes this step came too late. Fifteen weeks into her pregnancy, the fetus’s heart stopped beating.

Dr. Fejzo was devastated. “All that incredible suffering for nothing,” she said.

Dr. Fejzo, who was then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, is now a faculty researcher in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

During her pregnancy, she suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition whose hallmark symptoms include nausea and vomiting so severe and relentless that it can cause dehydration, weight loss, electrolyte imbalances and hospitalization.

The complication is rare, affecting about 2 percent of pregnancies, but its consequences can be devastating. In surveys, women have described their experiences with the condition in harrowing terms: “I was depressed and bedridden for 20 weeks. I wanted to die,” one wrote; “I am terrified to experience another pregnancy,” another said.

Some wrote of feeling “miserable, with no hope”; or lonely and abandoned, with references to suicide. “I sobbed when I awoke in the mornings because I realized, I was still alive.”

A black-and-white photo of a close-up of gloved hands using a dropper.
In a recent survey of more than 5,000 hyperemesis patients, 52 percent had considered — and 5 percent had gone through with — terminating a wanted pregnancy; and 32 percent reported contemplating suicide.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Yet despite the gravity of hyperemesis, as it’s colloquially called, doctors are often slow to treat it. Sometimes, they dismiss it as a temporary discomfort, or even a psychological disorder, said Dr. Jone Trovik, a gynecologist and a professor of clinical science at the University of Bergen in Norway.

“My doctor pretty much thought it was all in my head,” Dr. Fejzo said. He told her that women make themselves sick during pregnancy to gain the sympathy of their husbands, and later, that her illness was a ploy for attention from her parents, who were helping with her medical care.

That her doctor would blame her suffering on her own psyche infuriated Dr. Fejzo. So she made it her life’s work to find the condition’s true cause.

“It was so devastating what happened to me that I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,” she said.

Career interrupted

Marlena Fejzo grew up a few miles from her current home in the affluent Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, one of four siblings in a household humming with cousins and friends. It was a charmed California childhood, Dr. Fejzo said, with regular trips to ski at Mammoth Mountain, hike in Yosemite National Park and vacation in Palm Springs.

She graduated near the top of her high school class from the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School (then known as the Westlake School for Girls), and then studied applied math at Brown University.

During her third year at Brown, an introductory genetics class captivated her, and she decided to pursue a doctorate in the field at Harvard University — a surprise to her family of lawyers, language scholars and musicians.

As a graduate student at Harvard, Dr. Fejzo discovered two genes involved in the development of uterine fibroids, and she received national recognition for her research from the American Society of Human Genetics.

It was a rare honor for a young scientist, particularly one working on a health problem that didn’t affect men, said Cynthia Morton, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Fejzo’s doctoral adviser.

“She was a hard worker and dedicated to the work,” Dr. Morton said. “She could do anything.”

In 1995, Dr. Fejzo began a postdoctoral fellowship in breast cancer genetics at the University of California, San Francisco, setting her sights on a tenure track faculty position and a career researching the genetics of conditions that affect women. But first, she and her husband wanted to start a family.

Within a few weeks of becoming pregnant with her first child in 1996, she was hit with constant nausea and vomiting — similar to the symptoms that would afflict her second pregnancy, though not as severe. Still, she could barely eat and was unable to work for eight weeks, and she twice needed IV fluids for dehydration.

A black-and-white photo of a Styrofoam box with the handwritten label “H.G. Study.”
About 70 percent of pregnancies come with some degree of nausea and vomiting, but health care providers can be slow to differentiate between regular “morning sickness” and hyperemesis, and to offer treatment for it.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

This was Dr. Fejzo’s first experience with hyperemesis, though her doctor at the time never told her the name of her condition or offered medication to treat it.

By her second trimester, she felt well enough to return to work, and the rest of her pregnancy was normal. “When my son was born, I was ecstatically happy, and it was all great, which is why you do it again,” Dr. Fejzo recalled.

Dr. Fejzo’s second pregnancy came two years later, in 1999, after she moved back to Los Angeles and began a second postdoctoral position at U.C.L.A. That was when, she said, she experienced the worst ordeal of her life, leading to 10 weeks of severe illness and her miscarriage.

Dr. Fejzo’s sister, Melanie Schoenberg, now 45, a public defense lawyer for Los Angeles County, remembered seeing her at the end of her ordeal. She was in a wheelchair, too weak to walk and wrapped in a blanket, sobbing and shaking with grief.

“She looked like a ghost,” Ms. Schoenberg said. “Like a pile of bones.”

An under-researched condition

At age 31, as Dr. Fejzo regained her strength, she made two life-altering decisions. First, she said, she wouldn’t try another pregnancy; her twin daughters would later be born with the help of a surrogate. Second, she was determined to find the cause of hyperemesis.

She scoured the medical literature for clues. Why had she gotten so sick when most pregnancies had far milder symptoms? “Nothing was known,” she said. “There was so little research.”

Hyperemesis has long been under researched and under recognized, in part because about 70 percent of pregnancies come with some degree of nausea and vomiting, which is usually not dangerous, Dr. Trovik said. Health care providers can be slow to differentiate between the more common “morning sickness” and the rarer but more severe hyperemesis, and to offer treatment, including medications and nutrition, she said.

Marlena Fejzo standing with her arms crossed and a slight smile on her face. She has shoulder length, straight brown hair parted down the middle.
“It was so devastating what happened to me that I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,” Marlena Fejzo said of her experience with hyperemesis, and of her doctor’s dismissal of the condition as being all in her head.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Before IV fluids became routinely available in the 1900s, hyperemesis killed pregnant women often enough that medical literature listed excessive vomiting as a reason to induce abortion because of the danger it posed to the mother’s life. Some experts believe that the death of the author Charlotte Brontë in 1855 was most likely caused by hyperemesis, not tuberculosis, as was listed on her death certificate.

Today, deaths from hyperemesis are rare, but they do occur, as do serious complications.

Electrolyte imbalances caused by excessive vomiting and dehydration can bring about heart arrhythmias and cardiac arrest. Malnutrition and deficiency in the B vitamin thiamin can lead to a brain disorder called Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which can result in miscarriage, brain damage and death.

Hyperemesis is also linked with a higher risk of pregnancy complications including preterm birth, pre-eclampsia and blood clots.

In a recent survey of more than 5,000 patients with hyperemesis in the United Kingdom, 52 percent had considered — and 5 percent had gone through with — terminating a wanted pregnancy; and 32 percent reported contemplating suicide. A 2022 study found that hyperemesis is one of the main predictors for postpartum depression.

Most babies born from hyperemesis pregnancies are healthy, but recent studies have shown that they have a small increase in risk of having low birth weight, and of having cognitivemental health and behavioral difficulties in childhood — effects that could be caused by malnutrition and stress in the womb, researchers hypothesize.

Over the last century, physicians have claimed, without evidence, that hyperemesis is a subconscious attempt at “oral abortion,” as if trying to throw up a pregnancy; a rejection of femininity; a product of sexual frigidity; a strategy for taking a “time out” from stressful household responsibilities; or a bid for attention, as Dr. Fejzo’s doctor had told her.

As a result, women have often been blamed and punished for their own illnesses. In the 1930s, hospitalized hyperemesis patients were “denied the solace of the vomit-bowl” and forced to lie in their own vomit.

To this day, patients hospitalized with the condition are sometimes isolated in a dark room and prohibited from having visitors or access to their cellphones. This treatment has been based in part on the theory that hyperemesis is caused by a woman’s subconscious rejection of pregnancy, and that isolation would make her accept it, said Dr. Philippe Deruelle, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Strasbourg, via email.

The practice is “misogynist” and “indefensible,” he said, but it still occurs at least occasionally in France and elsewhere in Europe. In 2022, the College of French Gynecologists and Obstetricians issued new guidelines that included a statement condemning it.

Dr. Fejzo was haunted by the dismissal of her illness as having a psychological cause, and by the lack of effective treatments to help her. Nothing would change as long as the condition’s true cause was unknown, she thought.

A decade of Fridays

When Dr. Fejzo returned to her lab at U.C.L.A. after her miscarriage, she told her boss, the chair of the genetics department, that she wanted to find the cause of hyperemesis. “She just laughed at me,” Dr. Fejzo said, “like it was a joke.”

Unable to find a mentor interested in hyperemesis, Dr. Fejzo took a job studying ovarian cancer at the university, a position she stayed in, mostly part-time, for 20 years. But she began piecing together research on hyperemesis during her evenings and weekends and on Fridays when she wasn’t working in the lab.

Her younger brother, Rick Schoenberg, 51, a statistician at U.C.L.A., helped her create an online survey of hyperemesis patients, and the Hyperemesis Education and Research (HER) Foundation offered collaborators and small grants to fund her work. In 2005, Dr. Fejzo also began partnering with obstetrician-gynecologists at the University of Southern California.

Tallying survey responses, “I saw right away that it was running in families,” Dr. Fejzo said. “The answers kept coming in where people were like, ‘Yeah, my sister has it; my mom has it.’”

In 2011, Dr. Fejzo and her collaborators published their findings in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Women who had sisters with hyperemesis, they found, had a 17-fold higher risk of developing the condition than those who didn’t, providing some of the first clear evidence that the condition could be passed down from parents.

Dr. Fejzo knew that DNA analysis would be crucial to understanding the genetics of hyperemesis. So in 2007, she began collecting saliva samples from people who had experienced the condition and those who hadn’t.

Every Friday for 10 years, she called study participants — more than 1,500 in all — to request their medical records and consent to participate, and mailed them saliva collection kits from her home.

But Dr. Fejzo wasn’t sure how she would pay for the genetic analyses. Her grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health were rejected. Since 2007, the agency has funded only six hyperemesis studies, totaling $2.1 million.

That amount is small in comparison with the economic burden of the condition, said Kimber MacGibbon, executive director of the HER Foundation. (Amy Schumer, who publicly documented her struggles with hyperemesis, is on the foundation’s board of directors.)

Hyperemesis hospitalizations are thought to cost patients and insurers about $3 billion per year, she said, and then there are the expenses of medications, home health care, lost work and complications like postpartum depression. “The costs of it are just astronomical,” she said.

‘This is it’

Without funding to analyze the saliva samples accumulating in the lab freezer, Dr. Fejzo discovered an alternative strategy when her older brother gave her a 23andMe DNA testing kit for her 42nd birthday.

After registering her kit, she received a standard email giving her the option of participating in the company’s research studies by completing an online survey and consenting to the use of her genetic data.

“I saw what they were doing, which I thought was brilliant,” she said.

She asked 23andMe if they would include a few questions about nausea and vomiting in pregnancy on their customer survey, and they agreed. A few years later, she worked with the company to scan the genetic data of tens of thousands of consenting 23andMe customers, looking for variations in their DNA associated with the severity of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. The results were published in the journal Nature Communications in 2018.

A handful of gene mutations were flagged as significantly different, but the most striking was for one that makes a protein called growth differentiation factor 15, or GDF15. Dr. Fejzo had never heard of it, but as soon as she started reading about it, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’” she recalled.

GDF15 acts in a part of the brainstem that suppresses appetite and sets off vomiting, and it had already been shown to cause appetite and weight loss in cancer patients. Blood levels of the protein are naturally increased in pregnancy and have since been found to be even higher in those with severe nausea and vomiting.

Researchers speculate that GDF15 may have evolved to help pregnant women detect and avoid unsafe foods that might harm fetal development early in gestation. But in hyperemesis, this normally protective mechanism seems to run in overdrive, at least in part because of too much GDF15, said Stephen O’Rahilly, director of the metabolic diseases unit at the University of Cambridge, who now collaborates with Dr. Fejzo on GDF15 research.

New York Times – March 14, 2023

Russia’s Mercenary Chief Prepares Ground for a Political Advance

Yevgeny Prigozhin says his Wagner force will shrink when the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is done. Now he’s maneuvering on the home front, for the favor of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, in an olive-green fleece adorned with medals, alongside a suited official, both carrying flowers.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, the founder of the Wagner private military company, in September at a memorial service for a Wagner fighter in Volgograd, Russia.Credit…Artem Krasnov/Kommersant, via Associated Press

For months, Yevgeny Prigozhin has been Russia’s most public and provocative military leader in Ukraine. When he is not lauding the heroics of his private fighting force from the front lines, he is castigating the Russian generals for starving him of the supplies he needs to finish the work they could not.

Yet now, as his mercenaries struggle to complete a takeover of the eastern city of Bakhmut, Mr. Prigozhin is increasingly turning his attention to Russia’s home front, in what analysts see as attempts to secure a political offramp from the debilitating struggle on the battlefield.

He has said his fighting force, Wagner, will recede to the background after the fight for Bakhmut is over “to gradually reload, to shrink.” He also added, in a video message published on March 11, that Wagner would “transform into an army with ideology, and this ideology will be the struggle for justice.”

Such statements have coincided with other recent announcements suggesting Mr. Prigozhin wants to move past his standing as a military leader and play a larger role in Russian society.

Last week, Wagner, which operated in secrecy as recently as last year, announced that it would open recruitment centers in 42 Russian cities, despite the shrinking of the pool of veterans who have formed the backbone of its forces. Wagner has also recently opened a patriotic youth club, called Little Wagnerite, and hosted an exhibition of pro-war paintings.

The shift coincides with a wave of speculation about Mr. Prigozhin’s political ambitions, as he mixes aggrandizing statements and criticism of Russia’s military with careful navigation of the Russian hierarchy — and respect for President Vladimir V. Putin.

Two soldiers on snowy ground, firing a wheeled weapon that is emitting a jet of flame.
Ukrainian servicemen targeting Russian forces near Bakhmut in March. The battle for the city has stretched on for months.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

“He sees his future at risk, and he is scrambling to present a place for himself after Bakhmut within the larger war,” said Jack Margolin, a Washington-based expert on Russia’s private military companies.

Mr. Prigozhin has stepped up efforts to demonstrate broad support for Wagner among Russian businessmen, politicians and servicemen.

Last week, he publicly thanked Russia’s minister of industry and an executive at the military-industrial conglomerate Rostec for providing ammunition.

In the last several months, he has also publicized ties with regional officials and nationalist politicians on the fringes of Mr. Putin’s political system, as well as other pro-Russian paramilitary leaders. Wagner has been endorsed by the governor of Russia’s Kursk region, Roman Starovoyt, who in January went on a training course at the group’s base. His region has been a frequent target of Ukrainian drone and missile strikes.

Analysts say these kinds of alliances could serve a prelude for Wagner’s transformation into a political movement that, through recruitment and propaganda campaigns, will aid Mr. Putin’s goal of mobilizing Russian society for a long war. That would allow Mr. Prigozhin to show continued value to the Kremlin even if Wagner suffered battlefield defeats, Mr. Margolin said.

At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin has continued to lambast top military officials for denying his forces critical supplies. On Sunday, he went as far as claiming that ordinary Russian servicemen were bypassing military bureaucracy to donate some of their scarce ammunition to Wagner.

Yevgeny Prigozhin in combat gear, on a concrete platform overlooking a settlement.
A video still released by Mr. Prigozhin’s public relations firm, said to show him speaking near Bakhmut. He is hyperactive on social media.Credit…Concord Press Service/via Reuters

“Such servicemen are the majority,” he said in a follow-up statement on Monday. “It’s just that we missed the moment when unqualified scoundrels and intrigants crushed these humble guys,” he said, using his usual insults for the Russian military general staff.

Russia’s defense and industry ministries and Rostec did not respond to requests for comment.

To some analysts, Mr. Prigozhin’s flurry of boasts and grandiose projections betray a losing struggle against Russia’s top generals.

“I see some desperation here,” said Kirill Rogov, the founder of Re: Russia, an analytical group. “Prigozhin’s positions have noticeably weakened, because they have not taken Bakhmut, they are taking big losses and it’s not clear how they will replenish them.”

The Russian political scientist Dmitri Oreshkin said Mr. Putin had tolerated Mr. Prigozhin’s outspokenness and military autonomy because his grinding advance on Bakhmut had pushed the regular Russian military to show similar success elsewhere in Ukraine.

Mr. Prigozhin has himself framed his battlefield role in similar terms. As Wagner advances, “others must to try to keep up with us to save their face,” he said in a video published on March 4.

Mr. Putin made a bet on Mr. Prigozhin last summer, after Russian forces stumbled from one military disaster to another in the early months of the war.

Wagner was allowed to boost its ranks with tens of thousands of men recruited directly from Russian prisons. Mr. Putin personally issued mass pardons for the enlisted convicts, a departure from legal precedent that showed the scale of Kremlin’s involvement in Mr. Prigozhin’s project at the time.

Thrown into battle with little training, the ex-convicts have gradually exhausted Ukrainian defenses around Bakhmut with waves of costly assaults, allowing the group to take control of the eastern half of the city last week. The Russian forces have failed to make meaningful advances elsewhere.

Aerial footage of wrecked buildings in Bakhmut, with wisps of smoke or cloud above.
A photo of a screen showing Ukrainian drone footage of Bakhmut in January. Grinding advances there built the Wagner group’s credibility, while Russian forces elsewhere were faltering.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Throughout the monthslong battle for Bakhmut, Mr. Prigozhin has appeared to relish his role as Russia’s military provocateur, posting profanity-laden accusations of incompetence against senior commanders and insulting the relatives of the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu.

Mr. Prigozhin has mocked Mr. Shoigu’s son-in-law for vacationing in Dubai and toying with antiwar sentiment, and last week said Wagner had recruited a namesake of the son-in-law. Social media channels affiliated with Wagner then posted a video of the fighter cursing the son-in-law.

But while Wagner’s progress in Bakhmut has put Russia on the cusp of its first significant victory since last summer, it has also exposed the limits of Mr. Prigozhin’s military strategy and the cost of his attacks on the Russian defense chiefs.

Mr. Prigozhin said last month that Wagner had lost access to Russian jails to recruit fighters; last week he added that he and his representatives had been banned from Russian military facilities. These developments have cut Wagner’s access to recruits and supplies, he said. He has regularly complained about a lack of ammunition.

Ukrainian officials said this month that Wagner had begun to run out of ex-convict fighters, forcing it to use more efficient but scarce professional units in assaults. That amplifies the cost of casualties.

On Sunday, Mr. Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of advance in Bakhmut, calling the fighting “difficult,” and saying that Ukrainian defenders continued to “claw at every meter.”

Mr. Prigozhin has also in recent days warned of a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate the contested city, saying that it could collapse Russia’s entire front line if the regular army does not come to Wagner’s aid.

“He is turning to public opinion and the media because he is no longer able to resolve problems behind the scenes,” said Mr. Margolin, the analyst.

Three soldiers, two with shovels, digging a trench alongside an urban highway.
Ukrainian soldiers digging trenches in Bakhmut in December. Russian forces have now taken the city’s east, but at an escalating cost.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In a written response to questions, Mr. Prigozhin said his plans to turn Wagner into an ideological army referred to the political training of his fighters rather than a broader political project.

“Ideological preparation, in my opinion, will greatly increase the effectiveness of our units,” he said.

Russian and Western analysts said that the volatility of Russian politics and society in wartime made it difficult to predict how successful Mr. Prigozhin might be in transforming himself from a paramilitary leader into a national political figure. He has refashioned his public persona before, turning himself from a convicted fraudster to a catering tycoon, who became known as “Putin’s chef.’’

national survey by the Moscow-based pollster Russian Field in early February found that 41 percent of respondents approved of Mr. Prigozhin’s role in the war. This makes him one of the country’s more popular wartime leaders, said Artemiy Vvedenskiy, Russian Field’s founder.

But despite Mr. Prigozhin hyperactivity on social media, the same survey found that nearly a third of Russians didn’t know anything about his war effort, showing the limits of internet image-making in a country where most people still get their news from television.

Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser and frequent guest on Russian state television shows, said last month that the Kremlin had directed TV channels to limit the coverage of Mr. Prigozhin to keep his ambitions in check.

But among younger, technology-savvy Russian war supporters, Mr. Prigozhin has been able to stoke patriotic sentiment by building a powerful anti-elite narrative. His messages place the blame for Russia’s military reversals and staggering losses on incompetent and corrupt military commanders, said Mr. Rogov, the political analyst.

Thus far, this narrative has served Mr. Putin’s goals of mobilizing war supporters and pressuring his generals to perform. But it could backfire should Russia’s battlefield fortunes turn catastrophic, Mr. Rogov said, because it was Mr. Putin who appointed the commanders.

In a system that emphasizes public unity, the analyst said, “Prigozhin could become a powerful force of destabilization.”

Rows of three-barred wooden crosses in a graveyard. Snow covers the ground, and matching wreaths left by the crosses.
Graves of Wagner soldiers on the outskirts of Bakinskaya village in Krasnodar region of Russia in February.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

New York Times – March 14, 2023

Ukraine urges Kherson residents to evacuate amid Russian shelling.

Dozens of people wearing coats and hats stand in line outside a store.
Kherson residents wait in line to shop with subsidized food vouchers in February.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Residents should evacuate Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Kherson region because of relentless shelling by Russian forces, the authorities said on Tuesday, in a tacit acknowledgment that efforts to restore normal life to the area have been thwarted.

Russian forces stationed on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River have rained down thousands of shells in recent weeks on the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kherson and nearby towns and villages on the west bank of the river, regional authorities say. On Monday alone, 354 shells fired from multiple rocket launchers and other forms of artillery landed in the region, hitting houses and apartment blocks and wounding four people, the City Council and the regional military administration said.

Shelling has killed at least four people this month, and one day last week there were almost 500 blasts from shelling, the authorities said.

In a letter posted on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday, the Kherson City Council called on residents to accept offers of free evacuations so as “not to endanger your own lives and your families’ safety.” Buses would take residents west to the city of Odesa on the Black Sea coast.

Ukraine recaptured the city of Kherson and the land on the west bank of the river last fall in one of its biggest victories since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Ukraine had advised residents who had remained in the city of Kherson through the months of Russian occupation to leave, given that the city lacked power and water. But many stayed and, as utilities were gradually restored, some people returned.

After their retreat, Russian forces almost immediately began lobbing a barrage of shells at the western side of the Dnipro. Earlier this week, the regional Ukrainian military authorities in Kherson said on Telegram that Russian forces at Nova Kakhovka, a town on the eastern bank of the river, had placed artillery on residential buildings and were in effect using civilians as human shields.

Moscow says that its forces do not attack civilian areas. On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said in its daily update that it had destroyed three Ukrainian armored fighting vehicles, eight motor vehicles and a howitzer.

Ukraine is likely to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks to try to claim back territory on the eastern bank of the river, according to two senior Ukrainian officials and military analysts. That territory comprises parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions that have been under Russian control for nearly a year.

New York Times – March 7, 2023

Ukrainian incursions into Russia have usually been kept quiet, until now.

Women dressed in black and soldiers in camouflage stand by coffins bearing the photographs of dead fighters.
Relatives and fellow fighters at a funeral for four members of the Bratstvo battalion in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. The four were killed during a raid on Russian territory.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — It was Christmas Day, and four fighters from a volunteer Ukrainian special forces team had slipped over the border into Russian territory. They were on a mission to scout enemy positions, place mines to blow up Russian military equipment and engage in sabotage operations to undermine Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The four soldiers were killed soon after they entered Russia.

It was the type of operation that Ukraine undertakes regularly, covert incursions that bring the war to Russia in small ways, though the Ukrainians rarely talk about them openly.

This time, as the fighters were buried on Tuesday at a crowded funeral at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in central Kyiv, their fellow soldiers were eager to talk, praising their comrades and offering a rare glimpse into a shadow war that has been playing out for months, with Ukrainian forces seeking out targets inside Russia itself.

“The enemy must always be in tension,” said a soldier named Marat, 51, a member of the battalion who has engaged in clandestine operations. “It is important for us to bring the war to the enemy’s territory.’’ The Times is identifying the soldiers by first name only, for security reasons.

The bodies of the four soldiers were returned to Ukraine in exchange for the bodies of dead Russian soldiers.

The exact cause of death for the four was still being determined. The bodies were riddled with bullets, and one was still wearing a tourniquet. It remained unclear if the soldiers had stumbled into a minefield and were shot later, had died in a shootout or were executed in some fashion, according to the leader of the battalion, identified by his call-sign, Borghese. Some members of the volunteer battalion said they believed the four were killed after refusing to surrender.

“The Russians deliberately mutilated the bodies,”  Borghese said.

Despite the extraordinary danger of cross-border missions, members of the Bratstvo battalion — which means “brotherhood” — said the risks were worth it because Russian forces involved in the destruction of Ukraine should not feel safe anywhere.

For months, ammunition depots, fuel storage facilities, railroad tracks and other industrial targets inside of Russia related to Moscow’s war effort have been blowing up in seemingly mysterious explosions.

The Ukrainian military has largely stuck to a policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to strikes inside Russian territory, neither confirming nor denying any role in such attacks.

Clergymen in white robes with mourners and coffins inside a monastery painted with religious figures.
At the funeral, soldiers said that since the Russian secret service had broadcast video of their dead comrades, they felt they could speak openly about the operation in which they were killed.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

The fighters have been identified as Yuriy Horovets, 34; Maksym Mykhaylov, 32; Taras Karpyuk, 39; and Bohdan Lyagov, 19.

A member of the battalion, Vladyslav, 22, has gone on missions in occupied parts of Ukraine and inside Russia itself. Attacking in Russia rather than Ukraine, he said, is less dangerous in some ways, because the occupied territory inside Ukraine is now covered in land mines and Russian soldiers are everywhere. The New York Times witnessed two of the Bratstvo operations behind the enemy lines in an occupied region of southern Ukraine in November, a mission that included two of the soldiers killed in Russia.

Vladyslav said he could not go into detail about specifics of the large-scale operations other than to say they can include trying to destroy bridges, airfields, oil depots and other targets in Russia and Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

He recalls feeling pride the first time he was asked to go on a mission across the border. He declined to go into detail about that mission but said his first thought was: “Finally.”

He was with the four soldiers shortly before they died and recalled that they were excited for the operation.

“They went to the mission on Christmas night, and the next afternoon, it was already known they wouldn’t be back,” he said.

Ukrainian soldiers dressed in camouflage carrying coffins draped in red banners outside a blue and white monastary building with golden detailing.
The Bratstvo battalion occasionally conducts operations in collaboration with the Ukrainian Army and special forces, but its volunteer status makes it somewhat distinct from the regular Ukrainian military.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Andriy Kovaliov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff, which is responsible for overall military strategy, confirmed on his personal Facebook page that one of the soldiers, Mr. Horovets, died a “heroic death” during a combat mission “on enemy territory.”

Ukrainian officials have grown increasingly bold in saying that they reserve the right to strike military targets inside Russia to protect Ukrainian cities and towns, even if they rarely comment on individual reports. Ukrainian special forces on Monday took credit for destroying an unmanned observation tower in Russia’s Bryansk region using a drone strike.

New York Times – March 7, 2023

How Is Soufflé Linked to Flatulence? Ask the Linguist, Not the Doctor.

A new book exploring the origins of common food terms — from bialy to lima bean to bibimbap — is a fascinating history of how we eat and cook.

A table is set with a book, a cup of coffee in a saucer, and c piece of cake on a plate.
Judith Tschann’s new book explores the origins of food words.Credit…Stella Kalinina for The New York Times

Used judiciously, the snappy tidbits of food etymology in “Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day,” a new book by the medieval scholar Judith Tschann, could make you a hit at dinner parties.

Say someone shows up in a seersucker suit. You could inform her that the British took the word seersucker from the Hindi sirsakar, which itself came from a Persian word meaning milk and sugar. The smooth stripes are the milk, the bumpy ones the sugar.

Over the Caesar salad, you could casually mention that the English word romaine comes from the medieval French laitue romaine, or Roman lettuce, which possibly arrived in France along with the popes who moved to Avignon from Rome to escape some nasty politics in the early 1300s.

But here’s a pro tip: When sharing food lore at a meal, it’s easy to cross the line. Do your friends dipping into a bowl of guacamole need to know that the word avocado started out as ahuacatl, a Nahuatl term that the Aztecs likely used as slang for testicles? Or that soufflé comes the French word for blown, which stems from the same root as the word flatulent?

“Language is just so amusing. It has playfulness built into it, and so does food,” said Dr. Tschann, who taught English and linguistics for many years at the University of Redlands, in California.

The etymologies of food words, she said, are a path through the history of how we eat and cook.

Take the word recipe. It’s the imperative form of the Latin verb recipere, which means to receive or take. In Western medieval and early modern manuscripts, it was used to instruct people how to take medical prescriptions: “Recipe honey with codfish oil,” for example. (Rx is a medieval abbreviation of the word.)

Mushroom first appeared in English at the end of the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-French musherum and the Central French moisseron.

“The English lexicon is fat from centuries of sucking up words from other languages,” Dr. Tschann said.

Relish came from the Old French relaisser, to release, which came from the Latin relaxare, to relax. The idea is that relish releases flavor, she said.

And that Starbucks mocha you just ordered? Mocha is a toponym — a word derived from a place. In this case, Mukha, a port city in Yemen that handled coffee shipments in the 18th century.

Other toponyms include vichyssoise, from Vichy, France; Tabasco peppers from the Mexican city; bialy from Bialystok, Poland; and lima beans from Lima, Peru (not Lima, Ohio).

A woman with glasses and gray hair is at a kitchen table that holds flowers, books and papers.
Dr. Tschann at home in Redlands, Calif., where she taught English for many years. Credit…Stella Kalinina for The New York Times

Conversely, some geographic names started with food. Topeka may derive from a Dakota word meaning a place for digging potatoes. Chicago comes from the word for wild leek in Miami-Illinois, another Indigenous language.

Food and drink names also slip into common use through a process Dr. Tschann calls “coining,” in which a marketing term becomes a generic name. Granola, which today refers to a crunchy cereal with grains and nuts, started as a proprietary name invented by John Harvey Kellogg in the late 1800s.

Compounding is another way food language grows. Bibimbap comes from the Korean pibim (to mix) and pap (rice). The espressotini is a mix of espresso and vodka.

The martini, by the way, was originally named for Martinez, a town in California where the drink was developed for Gold Rush miners. At some point, the Italian vermouth maker Martini & Rossi elbowed its way in and the “ez” fell away.

Food words are sometimes adopted by pursuits that have nothing to do with food. Consider the world of computing, which uses a menu to navigate selections. The first portable computer, introduced in the late 1980s, was called a lunchbox. Some developers of the 1990s programming language claim they called it Java because of all the coffee they drank while creating it. Cookies, chips, hosts and servers have all settled nicely into computer language and, increasingly, social media.

Ms. Tschann is careful to offer caveats when caveats are due. No one really knows if balls of fried cornmeal batter are called hush puppies because they were tossed to howling hounds to shut them up, or if pie came from cooks who observed magpies filling their nests with a collection of disparate objects.

Was the Reuben sandwich named for Reuben Kulakofsky, a Nebraska grocer in the 1920s and ’30s? Or was it based on the Reuben’s special, which Arthur Reuben created in 1914 at his New York City delicatessen?

Whatever the case, there are plenty of established facts to hang one’s dinner napkin on.

Taco is a 20th-century word from Mexican Spanish that means plug or wad, a reference to part of an explosive used in silver mining.

Ceviche is likely from Quechuan, the language of the Inca Empire, where people used the word siwichi to describe fresh or tender fish.

A book is open on a rug.
Dr. Tschann’s book takes a playful approach to food etymology. Credit…Stella Kalinina for The New York Times

Barbecue comes from barbacoa, a word in the Arawakan language of the Caribbean that describes a wooden frame for sleeping on and drying food.

Fans of the Broadway musical “Six” might like to know that the Bloody Mary is named after Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (As Queen Mary I of England, she burned Protestants at the stake in an effort to reverse the Reformation, initiated by her father.) The first recorded use of Bloody Mary to describe a drink was in 1939, when a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune declared it “the new pick-me-up.”

The evolution of the word cocktail is one of Dr. Tschann’s favorites in the book. It comes from the docking of a horse’s tail, which then stood up like a rooster’s and was referred to as a cock-tail. Thoroughbred racehorses did not have their tails docked, but if a horse had docking in its lineage, it was considered of mixed breed. By the 19th century, cocktails had come to mean mixed drinks.

She is also fond of junket, like the kind of trip a politician might take. It derives from the French jonquette, a sweet made with boiled milk, which has connections to the medieval Latin joncata, a type of soft cheese. In English, junket came to mean sweetened curds.

She can’t pinpoint exactly how cocktail made the leap to a beverage and junket made the leap from food, though. Language is always changing, and accounting for semantic evolution is not always possible.

That can be challenging for Dr. Tschann when she finds herself at a party.

“When you’re studying the history of food words, people can pepper you with questions,” she said. “They ask me the etymology of a word, and I have to think about it way too long. I feel oddly tongue-tied.”

New York Times – March 7, 2023

Ukraine claims a drone strike on a military target inside Russia.

Ukrainian special forces said on Monday that they had destroyed an unmanned observation tower in Russia’s Bryansk region using a drone strike, a rare public acknowledgment of a cross-border attack that underscored Kyiv’s increasing willingness to directly hit Russian territory.

The timing of the strike was not clear but the Kraken unit, which reports to Ukrainian military intelligence, released a video that it said showed the assault on its Telegram channel on Monday.

It comes days after a brief armed incursion into a Russian border village in Bryansk by a group claiming to fight for Ukraine, a rare known case of a raid inside Russia. The Kremlin described it as a “terrorist” attack.

The Russian Volunteer Corps, a group opposed to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, claimed on Thursday that it briefly took control of the small village of Lyubichane, near the border with northeastern Ukraine. There were conflicting reports about the episode and what took place in Bryansk, but by the end of the day, the Russian authorities said the group had been driven back into Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine share a land border extending more than 1,200 miles, including several hundred miles in the eastern Donbas region, parts of which are controlled by Moscow. Russia has used territories close to Ukraine — including Bryansk, along Ukraine’s northern border — to stage assaults, fire rockets, launch air assaults and mount other attacks throughout the war.

Officials in Kyiv have said they reserve the right to strike targets within Russia that they claim are used to attack Ukrainian towns and cities, but have promised not to use weapons supplied by Western allies for such assaults, since allies fear Moscow could view that as a provocation.

Over the course of the yearlong war, explosions and fires have been reported at oil depots, rail hubs and other military targets in Russia, but Ukraine has maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity over such attacks, very rarely claiming responsibility.

Ukraine is believed to have struck inside Russia on several occasions, including in December, when the Engels Air Base, which is about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border, was attacked twice.

On Monday, the governor of the Russian region of Belgorod, which also borders Ukraine, said that Russian air defenses had shot down three missiles in the city of Novy Oskol. The Ukrainian authorities did not comment on the Russian claims.

But the Ukrainian government has expressed growing concern that Moscow is using the Bryansk region to launch drone assaults. The latest such attack, it said, took place before dawn on Monday. Alarms blared across Kyiv as air-defense guns echoed. The Ukrainian Air Force said it had detected at least 15 drones launched from Bryansk and claimed to have shot down 13.

Kyiv’s forces also continued to target Russian strongholds in occupied areas of Ukraine. Two large explosions were reported Sunday night in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine, the city’s exiled mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said in an appearance on national television. Mr. Federov said that the Ukrainian military was still working to confirm the damage from the strike.

The Russian military has also continued to fire long-range missiles and drones at Ukraine’s cities and energy grid. The death toll from a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in the city of Zaporizhzhia last week has since risen to 13, Ukrainian officials said Sunday.

New York Times, March 6, 2023

Ukraine’s top generals want to keep defending Bakhmut, as Russian fighters demand more ammunition.

Ukrainian forces continue to defend the eastern city, Bakhmut, against brutal Russian attacks that have knocked out basic utilities including gas and water.CreditCredit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Ukraine’s top generals want to bolster their forces clinging on in Bakhmut, the government said on Monday, suggesting that Kyiv would continue to defend the battered eastern city despite its near-encirclement by Russian forces and growing speculation about a possible Ukrainian retreat.

After holding a scheduled meeting with the military’s top generals, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the situation in Bakhmut was a particular focus, with Ukraine’s most senior military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and another top commander signaling that Ukraine’s fight there should continue.

“They spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” Mr. Zelensky’s office said in a statement about the meeting.

Russian forces have been pounding Bakhmut and the surrounding areas in a brutal monthslong campaign, slowly tightening their grip around the city. The advances have led some Ukrainian officials in recent days to start preparing the public for the possibility of a retreat. But Ukrainian assault brigades went on the attack over the weekend and appeared to push back Russian forces.

Russian forces attacking the city from three directions have leaned heavily on assaults by fighters including ex-convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group. The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has sought to cast his mercenaries as the vanguard of the Russian assault. But in recent weeks he has also complained that his forces have been hamstrung by senior military commanders seeking to deny him credit.

He repeated that complaint on Monday in a social media post, claiming that his representative was banned from the Russian military headquarters in Ukraine after requesting additional ammunition.

In a separate audio message, Mr. Prigozhin said that Ukrainian forces not only seemed intent on holding the city, but were most likely preparing a counteroffensive to trap exposed Wagner units around Bakhmut. He urged the Russian military to send reinforcements and ammunition to avoid his fighters being cut off. “If not, we are all” in deep trouble, he said, using an expletive.

On Monday morning, Ukraine’s military said that Russian forces “continue attempts to storm the city of Bakhmut and neighboring settlements.” Despite the ongoing assaults, it said on Sunday that soldiers in the city were “holding the lines” and receiving support.

“There is an opportunity to deliver ammunition, provisions, medicines, and take the wounded from there,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, said on national television on Sunday night.

The battle for Bakhmut has been one of the longest sustained campaigns of the war, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. While Bakhmut itself has limited strategic value, the city has taken on heightened symbolic importance for both sides. Capturing Bakhmut would hand Russia its first significant battlefield victory in months, while for Ukraine, the city has become an emblem of resistance to Moscow’s invasion.

The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, echoed that assessment on Monday when he was asked about the status of the battle. While noting that he refrains from making predictions, he told reporters that Bakhmut is “more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value.”

“So the fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” he said while en route to the Middle East.

Mr. Zelensky, who last month called Bakhmut “our fortress” and vowed not to give up the city, used his nightly address on Sunday to praise Ukrainian soldiers defending it for their bravery.

“It is one of the toughest battles,” he said of fighting in eastern Ukraine. “Painful and challenging.”

New York Times, March 6, 2023

The Dictionary I Read for Fun

March 2, 2023

A thick untitled book with an image of a person’s mouth on the cover.
Credit…Pablo Delcan
John McWhorter

By John McWhorter

Opinion Writer

You’re reading the John McWhorter newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  A Columbia University linguist explores how race and language shape our politics and culture.

Not long ago, a book that is truly a gorgeous thing, in all senses of the word, was published. It is a third and expanded edition of a full-length dictionary of the Native American language Lakota. And I mean full-length. The New Lakota Dictionary, compiled by the Lakota Language Consortium under the supervision of the linguist Jan Ullrich, is of the physical heft most commonly associated with brands like Webster and American Heritage. (There is also an online version.)

Lakota is primarily spoken in North and South Dakota. The closely related Dakota language is spoken there as well. Of the more than 300 Indigenous languages once spoken in the present-day United States — differing as much as English, Japanese, Hungarian, Thai and Indonesian do — the vast majority now are extinct as spoken languages or are spoken fluently only by people nearing the end of their lives.

Without serious efforts toward revitalization, dozens of them will become extinct a generation from now, according to an estimate in “Ethnologue,” which catalogs languages. Many of the groups, often assisted by linguists, seek to keep the languages spoken in some fashion. Of course, an important step is compiling dictionaries and descriptions of how their grammars work.

Compared with many Indigenous American languages, Lakota is doing rather well, with an estimated 2,000 native speakers remaining, according to the Endangered Languages Project, and this marvelous dictionary may help keep the number of speakers from falling. It gathers over 41,000 words and illustrates them with more than 50,000 sentences, usage notes and collocations.

Lakota is not my language of study, nor are other Native American languages. Yet partly because I am this strange thing called a linguist and partly because I am the kind of linguist who wants to know a little of every language on Earth, I have curled up with this book with a glass of wine countless times over the past couple of months just to savor the cornucopia that this dictionary is.

However, I must admit that one section of the dictionary gives me pause. For this edition, Ullrich has contributed a new section on the language’s grammar, and as expertly composed as it is, it’s hard to miss that Lakota, frankly, is hard!

I’ll give you just a quick sample. In a basic sense, the word for “I” is “wa.” Or more properly, it’s a prefix. So “made it” is “káǧe,” and “I made it” is “wa-káǧe.” If this were a language like English, that’s pretty much all you’d need to know about “I.” But the thing is that with many verbs, you have to jam “wa” into the middle of them. So “I found it” is “iyé-wa-ye,” not “wa-iyéye.” There’s more: If the verb is less about doing something than having an experience, then “I” is said differently, as “ma” instead of “wa,” also often jammed in the middle. “Tired” is “watúkȟa,” and “I am tired” is “wa-má-tukȟa.”

Lakota is like this throughout. But in the grand scheme of things, it is about as hard to learn as most of the world’s 7,000 languages. When it comes to grammar, English is on the easy side. You need just a single suffix, “-s,” to run through the present tense conjugation. There are no suffixes for the past, future or conditional that change for person and number the way they do in, for example, Romance languages. “I” stays the same whether you are doing something or experiencing it, and we certainly don’t plug it into the middle of other words.

But as the world’s languages go, English’s relatively streamlined grammatical nature is by no means the norm. Typically, a language makes you face either a boatload of prefixes and suffixes or, if not, then a lot of tones. To oversimplify, what this means is that a language tends to be like either Russian or Chinese. Lakota is more like Russian.

So if a typical language — i.e., one not like English — isn’t passed on from parents to their children but is learned in school and maybe starting only in the teen years or later, the signal has a way of weakening.

Researchers stipulate that the window on our ability to learn languages with native competence starts closing sometime during adolescence, because of biology or just the fact that you get busier and also shyer about making mistakes.

The result tends to be that beyond older speakers who grew up speaking only the tribal language or learned it alongside English from infancy, a new version of the language develops. Predictably, it is less grammatically elaborate. For example, I surmise that someone learning Lakota in school might not master exactly which verbs you slide the pronoun into, putting it instead at the beginning as one would feel comfortable doing when used to English. Also, vocabulary gets smaller. It is natural to sub in, for example, English words, especially for things most often encountered in English such as laptops and the kiddie goop called slime. You might even often sprinkle in transitional words like “anyway.”

This is the way new generations speak many threatened languages worldwide. It’s been documented in the case of Irish Gaelic, for example. In some parts of Ireland, younger people are certainly speaking it, but to a considerable extent, it could be said to be Irish in English, in which the quirkier Irish rules get flattened out in favor of rendering it the way you would in English. And the truth is that there is nothing wrong with this. We can see it as language changing, especially given that languages are always changing in countless ways, many of them because they’re being used alongside other languages. Languages in the same mouth will mix, unsurprisingly.

For example, my linguist friend Ghil’ad Zuckermann has assisted in the revival of an Australian language, Barngarla, which stopped being spoken in 1964. In his book “Revivalistics,” he notes that New Barngarla, inevitably, does not use some of the things that original Barngarla did. For example, Indigenous Barngarla pronouns were awesomely baroque: “Ngadlaga” means “we two” (but not “we three” or “we four”) and only when used by a mother and child or a man and his sister’s child (not his brother’s) and then only in a sentence that has an object. If there’s no object — as in “We two are sleeping” — then you have to use a different pronoun.

This distinction corresponded, in part, to the nature of kinship in Indigenous Barngarla society. But much has changed in Barngarla lives since then to force them into integration with white Australian society to a large extent, and making distinctions between pronouns like that naturally feels less urgent today. But what they are working with is still Barngarla; it sure isn’t English.

This might seem like a dilution or disintegration, but keep in mind that the language I am writing in is a lexically infected and grammatically streamlined version of Old English. King Alfred would find modern English alternately incomprehensible and barbaric. Many researchers think it got this way mainly because of what Viking invaders did to the language starting in the late eighth century, C.E. They spoke Old Norse, which was related to Old English but different. When they started using Old English, they probably spoke it as well as an American speaks Spanish after a few years of classes — functional, but just.

And they stripped Old English of its harder things, like vast tables of verb conjugations and noun declensions and the meaningless gendering of nouns of the kind that German imposes on “silverware.” It’s why English is the only standard language in Europe (other than, for instance, Basque, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian and Saami, which are not in the family that all the other languages belong to) that does not assign things to genders.

Then because of the Norman Conquest that followed the Vikings’ invasion, you can scarcely produce an English sentence without recourse to originally French words. Just in that last sentence there are eight (“because,” “Norman,” “conquest,” “invasion,” “scarcely,” “sentence,” “recourse” and “originally”). And the Vikings planted plenty of their own words, too. Without these new users, our word for “take” would be “nim,” our word for “knife” would be “sax,” and we would speak casually of being blithe rather than happy. I doubt anyone sees this as a problem. We speak our English; only the linguist calls it modern English, in salute to there having once been some earlier stage, which to us was a noble but bygone, “Beowulf”-y thing.

Revived languages today are going through a similar process, and the result will be more new versions of languages. A great many languages of the future will be structurally streamlined versions of their original form, but in the end, most of languages’ grammatical doodads are accidental accretions. They creep into a language and pile up over time, and somehow toddlers can wangle them and therefore do. But just as “silverware” doesn’t need to be gendered, full human expression hardly needs eight tones (in Hmong), four gradations of past tense, as in today, yesterday, a little while ago or just now (in Kikongo) or so many prefixes and suffixes that a single verb can appear in 1,502,839 forms (in Archi, a language of the Caucasus Mountains).

Lakota will likely change in the same way that many languages have. And that’s normal. In any case, in this succulent pot roast of a dictionary, the language lives, improvises and even beckons between the book’s covers. I salute Ullrich, the Lakota Language Consortium and the many, many native speakers they collaborated with for 1,420 pages of glory.

New York Times – March 2, 2023

Europe is struggling to provide Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Members of the military stand on and sit in a Leopard 2 tank.
Military personnel at a media event at a base in Swietoszow, Poland, in February.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

BERLIN — Nearly a month after Berlin gave European allies permission to send German-made tanks to Ukraine, the flow of tanks so many leaders vowed would follow seems more like a trickle.

Some nations have discovered that the tanks in their armory don’t actually work or lack spare parts. Political leaders have encountered unanticipated resistance within their own coalitions, and even from their defense ministries. And some armies had to pull trainers out of retirement to teach Ukrainian soldiers how to use old-model tanks.

The struggle to provide Leopard tanks to an embattled Ukraine is just the most glaring manifestation of a reality Europe has long ignored: Believing that large-scale land war was a thing of the past and basking in the thaw of the Cold War, nations chronically underfunded their militaries. When Russia launched the largest land war on the continent since World War II, they were woefully unprepared.

Hints of the problem have surfaced repeatedly since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, through shortages of weapons and ammunition. But now, as Germany and its allies struggled for weeks to scrape together enough Leopard 2s to fill two battalions of tanks — 62 vehicles in total — the extent of their quandary has become even clearer.

The irony of this situation is not lost on Germany.

New York Times – March 2, 2023