Staunton, April 24 – Many Russians make a clear distinction between “russky,” the Russian adjective for a member of the Russian ethnos, and “rossiyanin,” a noun designating anyone who is a subject of citizen of the Russian state. And many Russian nationalists dislike the former precisely because they say it demeans their ethno-national identity.
But a new analysis of the origin of “rossiyanin” offered by commentator Taras Repin argues that “the meaning of this word is not limited” to citizenship as some assume but connotes a variety of specifically ethnic Russian values as well.
The word “Rossiya” has its origins in the ninth century when Constantinople first began to talk about the metropolitanate of Rosiya. That term soon replaced Rus even when Moscow turned in the 16th century to ideas about Moscow as the Third Rome. According to historians, Rossiya was used in Europe alongside Rus until the proclamation of the Russian Empire.
According to Fedor Gayda, one of their number,” the word ‘Rossiyane’ initially was a triumphal literary variant of the word ‘Rusins.’” Thus, he insists, “it in the first instance is an ethnonym and not a designation of political status.” Other historians suggest “rossiyane” has a Greek origin.
By the eighteenth century, the term “rossiyanin” had passed firmly into the language and was used by tsars, officials, and historians. Philologist Aleksandr Grishchenko argues that it never designated anyone other than “russkiye” or ethnic Russian people at that time or even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Repin says that the first attempt to distinguish between an ethnonym and a politonym was made by General Aleksandr Kutepov, the head of the Russian All-Forces Union, who was kidnapped and killed by Soviet agents in 1929. He insisted that “rossiyanin” designated everyone in Russia while “russkiye” referred only to ethnic Russians.
In the 1930s, this idea was developed by Konstantin Rodzayevsky, the leader of the All-Russian Fascist Party, and later during World War II by General Vlasov, the head of the anti-Soviet Russian army that the Germans set up as part of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russian President Boris Yeltsin invariably used “rossiyane” to refer to his fellow citizens, something that angered many Russians who remembered the use of the term by the Vlasovites. According to some, Yeltsin was trying to avoid giving offense; according to others, he was giving way to ideas pushed by Elena Bonner.
Many viewed “rossiyanin” as an artificial and unnecessary word and pushed for the use of “russky” instead. Gaida says they might feel differently if they knew that “rossiyanin” by its origins was “connected with ethnic and tribal membership” while the word “russky” they like so much was initially used simply to refer to anything under central government control.