Staunton, September 28 – There are two words in Russian that are typically translated as “Russian,” “russkiy” and “rossiyanin,” with the first generally thought to be an ethnic term referring to members of a particular East Slavic nation and the second a political term referring to all the population of the territory of Russia.
That distinction was pushed hard by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s who invariably began his appeals by talking about “rossiyane” rather than “russkiye” lest he offend non-Russians within the Russian Federation. And it continues to be pushed by Valery Tishkov, Yeltsin’s nationalities minister and former director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnography.
But as a survey of scholarly opinion by the Russian7 news portal suggests, the relationship of the two terms is more complicated than this simple bifurcation suggests, with “rossiyanin” historically having a pronounced ethnic dimension and “russkiy” a political as well as an ethnic one (russian7.ru/post/otkuda-vzyalos-slovo-rossiyanin/).
According to the portal, the word “Rossiya” first appeared in the ninth century when after the Rus became Christian, the Constantinople patriarch referred to “the metropolitan of Rosiya.” But the shift from Rus to Rosiya did not become widely accepted until the 16th century when the idea of Moscow as the third Rome was introduced.
Moscow historian Fyodor Gaida says that “initially the word ‘rossiyane’ was a solemn, literary variant of the word ‘rusiny,’” and “thus, it was in the first instance an ethnonym and not a designation of attachment to the state,” as many now think. Some suggest it has Greek origins, and others have offered a variety of other explanations.
Austrian diplomat Sigismund Herberstein who wrote a classic book about his travels in Muscovy offered the following explanation for the word “rossiyane.” He said people in that land had told him that they “from time immemorial” had been called ‘Rossiya,’” a reference to the back that they lived in a highly dispersed way across Eurasia.
With the passage of time, “rossiyane” became generally used in the first instance by historians and cultural figures; but philologist Aleksandr Grishechenko says that in the 18th and 19th century, no one saw it as designated anyone other than members of the ethnic Russian nation.
“The first attempt to draw a distinction between the ethnonym and politonym of the term ‘rossiyane’” was made by some members of the first Russian emigration after 1917, Russia7 says. In 1929, General Aleksandr Kutepov, who was later kidnaped by the Soviets, said that “all the peoples populating Russia, independent of their nationality are above all ‘rossiyane’” and that their liberation should take place under the slogan “Russia for the Rossiyane.”
In the 1930s, this idea was picked up by Konstantin Rodzayevsky, the head of the All-Russian Fascist Party; and during World War II, it was accepted by the leaders of the anti-Soviet Vlasov movement, most prominently in the Prague Declaration of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia.
Not surprisingly, this background limited the willingness of Soviet officials and writers to make widespread use of this term, even though in the USSR, the Russian republic was a federation with numerous non-Russian nations, many of whom were and are at a minimum put off by any talk of the state being a “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians.”
But with the end of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin, reportedly under pressure from Andrey Sakharov’s wife, Elena Bonner, used the term widely supposedly to avoid offending anyone by using what he viewed as the inherently ethnic “russkiy.” Many Russians were and are offended by that term, however, both because they recall its use by emigres and view it as a denigration of their national dignity.
Some view “rossiyanin” as “an artificial term,” but despite that, Yeltsin’s use of it led to its spread throughout the population. But many remain unhappy, and Gaida argue that it is now time to return to the original meaning of “rossiyanin,” a term that he says is “connected with ethnic and tribal membership” and in no way is simply a neutral political term.