Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#19 - JRL 2008-106 - JRL Home
Moscow News
May 30, 2008
How to Call a Russian Citizen
By Daria Chernyshova

The more I learn the more I discover that there are lots of little details everywhere. These details are in fact very important, though at first they don't seem to be significant. Sometimes ignorance leads to grave mistakes and misunderstandings. The reality is that not even some experts or gurus are aware of such details.

Lots of different fields have their "real professionals." As for foreign languages, I regard native speakers as gurus. Who else could speak a language better than a native speaker, born and bred in its heritage? Different languages lack some words and the temptation to literally translate a word from one language into another, regardless of subtext, should be resisted. Sometimes a word exists and describes something in one language, yet in another language it may seem not to exist. Such phenomenon are called lexical lacuna.

English has one word "Russian" that is used to describe a citizen of Russia and a person of Russian ethnicity. Meanwhile, the Russian language sometimes considers the mixture of the words Rossiysky and Russky as an insult. The proper usage of these words is a way to avoid misunderstandings. Rossiysky means all the citizens of the Russian Federation, while Russky means ethnic Russian - the bulk of its population (80 percent). Coming back to native speakers - not all Russian people pay attention to this difference and often mix up these words; for a long time they were synonymous.

It happened not long ago that they began to distinguish between these definitions. In the days of the Soviet Union, the leaders were very careful in the use of words. But then, instead of Rossiysky they used the word Sovetsky, to denote all the citizens of the Soviet Union. Aiming to unite all the nations of the superpower this word was the best choice. But Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin introduced a term for the citizens of the Russian Federation: Rossiane - a derivative of Rossiysky. Today, this term is offensive. At the moments of high tension this distinguishing line becomes more obvious. Without communism there is no longer a need to ignore these dividing lines. But living together in the same country we now face the problem of nationalism.

An ethnically Russian resident of Moscow isn't likely to say he is Rossianin, as he is ethnically Russian or Russky. And it is possible that he will react badly to a Caucasian calling himself Russky. That person should ask himself: Do we really want to be a single whole or a "Russia is for Russians only" - for Russkys in fact?

By international standards Russia is a multi-cultural country and our government should provide everybody with equal life opportunities, as well as the preservation of other cultural traditions, not forcibly assimilating them with the "Russkys." The issue is whether or not it is possible, and how many people would genuinely support such an initiative.

So, this lexical reality is a political reality in Russian, but sometimes it is not noticeable even to Russian speakers. The gap in English means that national differences aren't visible from abroad and westerners don't draw enough attention to this matter. But they should - it would be more politically correct. After all, why are there the different words Englishman and Brit(on) in English? They have their counterparts in Russian, as well.