Russians vs. Russians

Jan 23, 2011 by

Speaking of the connection between language and thought, what is “lost in translation” and how etymology of certain words helps us understand the history and worldview of the speakers, here’s a thought for you: not all Russians are Russians. Yes, in English it sounds like a contradiction. But in Russian it does not.

The reason is that Russian (the language) has two words that are both rendered in English as Russian: russkij and rossijanin. As is typically the case, the two words that mean almost the same do not mean exactly the same. And for some nationalistic elements in Russia (some of which also moonlight as “amateurish linguists”) they mean something completely different. So here’s the scoop.

Russkij is an adjective, of which the suffix -sk is a give-away. This word derives from Rus’, the old name of Russia, itself originally the term for the vikings (the Russian term is varjagi) who came to Russia as mercenaries or traders in 9-12th century.

In contrast, rossijanin (plural: rossijane) is a noun, formed by a suffix -anin, which creates nouns for ‘a person from X’: e.g., rizhanin ‘a person from Riga’, parizhanin ‘a person from Paris’, prazhanin ‘a person from Prague’.

The word rossijane was used already in the 18th century, but mostly in a high, poetic style. It appears, for example, in Karamzin’s History of the Russian State. At the time, it was not yet in opposition to russkie — both meant the same thing and the difference was purely stylistic. The same use continued through the 19th century and the early 20th. In Ushakov’s famous dictionary of Russian, published for the first time in late 1930s, rossijane is marked as an archaic, high-style and formal word. But in the middle of the 20th century the word acquires the present-day meaning of Russian citizens regardless of nationality/ethnicity.

However, the true revival of rossijane started in the 1990s, when it was regularly used by Boris Yeltsin in his addresses to the people. Interestingly, Putin tends not to use this word, saying “Dear compatriots!” (Dorogie sootechestvenniki!) instead. This may be because of his desire not to aggravate the nationalistic elements in the country. Or perhaps it is part of Putin’s attempt to generally emphasize his St. Petersburg style of speech as quite different from the Moscow style of his predecessor.

To recap, not all Russians are Russians. Moreover, not all Russians are Russians. Okay, let me try this with Russian words: not all rossijane are russkie. And not all russkie are rossijane. For example, Russian Jews are rossijane but not russkie. And ethnic Russians living in Riga or Almaty are russkie but not rossijane.

And speaking of these two cities, all people living in Riga are latvijtsy ‘citizens of Latvia’, but not all of them are latyshi ‘Latvians’. And while all people living in Almaty are kazakhstantsy ‘citizens of Kazakhstan’, the russkie among them are not kazakhi ‘Kazakhs’.

And one last curious note: James Forrestal’s famous 1949 phrase “The Russians are coming” is translated into Russian as Russkie idut, although poor Forrestal, who is said to have died with this phrase on his lips, probably meant Russian citizens, not ethnic Russians. Go figure!

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: