I’ve been slowly working my way through The Russian Language Today, by Larissa Ryazanova-Clarke and Terence Wade—an excellent and detailed discussion of the changes in Russian since 1917—and have gotten to the section on “The restoration of pre-Soviet lexis in the cultural sphere,” which contains this analysis of the histories and current situations of the terms litsei (ultimately from Latin lyceum and Greek lykeion, the name of Aristotle’s school) and gimnaziya (ultimately from Latin gymnasium and Greek gymnasion, a place for exercising):

The renaming of educational establishments has reached mammoth proportions. Here, as in many other spheres of contemporary Russian life, a change in nomenclature symbolises rejection of the past and a new beginning in social life. Schools now often reject the traditional term shkola ‘school’, a word which for some is associated with the Soviet educational system. The words gimnaziya and litsei, from pre-Revolutionary schooling, are perceived as more prestigious and attracting more interest in the educational establishments in question. As critics observe, however, a change of words on a school sign does not necessarily reflect modifications in content or educational method…

The word gimnaziya is of Greek origin, but came into Russian through German and Polish. In the nineteenth century gimnaziya meant ‘high school’. The name was not confined to one particular type of school, thus the klassicheskaya gimnaziya ‘classical high school’ concentrated on classical languages and humanities, while the real’naya gimnaziya ‘real (modern) high school’ placed more emphasis on natural sciences and vocational disciplines.

The word litsei, althouth it derives directly from French lycée, also originated in Greek. In Russian, the word referred to ‘a secondary or tertiary educational establishment for privileged boys’. The word is closely associated for Russian speakers with the life of A.S. Pushkin, who received his education in the most famous Lycée of all in Tsarskoe Selo. The word litsei has become a symbol of liberal thought, enlightenment and the bonds of friendship.

Since the differential semantic properties of these words are not clearly defined in modern Russian, they are of considerable interest as words which have no referent, i.e. no class of objects which they and they alone refer to. Even so, these words have strong connotations, since they are symptomatic of a return to traditional, humanistic values in education and the prestige of new (albeit restored) names…

(I’ve replaced the book’s Cyrillic with transliteration for the benefit of non-Russian-speaking readers.) The phrase “words which have no referent” is overstated, but the situation of words which used to have distinct meanings and now are more or less interchangeable is an interesting one.


  1. Michael Farris says

    If you can type Cyrillic, why not give the original Cyrillic plus transliteration for the Cyrillic impaired (and computers that might not handle it well).
    But I have to admit that ts in Slavic looks wrong, wrong, wrong (I understand why it’s done, but ….)
    In Poland, licea (sg liceum) never disappeared during the communist period, but gimnazja (sg gimnazjum) did but have been recently reinstalled.

  2. Well, actually I can’t type Cyrillic — I have to copy each letter from a Cyrillic site, then make sure it renders OK on my website. I know, I know, but I can just barely do basic HTML — I learned my original computer skills in the days of punch cards and Fortran.

  3. It looks OK to me in Russian, where is no “ts”: , гимназия.
    LH, the article you refer to states origin of the лицей to the French word, whereas your own link to Pushkin-time institution description gives derives the source as the town to the north of Athens.
    Shouldn’t the authors of the article say as much, since in French this is probably a borrowed word as well?
    Also, as to the distinct meaning of the word: the institution itself is quite different in France from what it connotated(?) in Pushkin times in Tsarskoe Selo. I think what contemporary word in Russia means today is much closer to the French meaning.
    Anybody having knowledge of both?

  4. Oops, sorry – I meant лицей, гимназия.

  5. I should have mentioned that the derivation from French is probably wrong; Vasmer derives лицей from German Lyzeum because of the ц.
    I don’t know enough about either French or Russian schools to comment on the similarity of the institutions.

  6. Michael Farris says

    It looks OK to me in Russian, where is no “ts, лицей, гимназия.
    Well the Russian Cyrillic looks okay, but for transliteration purposes, I think licej, gimnazija look much better, more in line with normal Slavic usage of the Roman alphabet. The nicest looking (IMHO) transliteration of Russian uses Czech haceks instead sh, ch, zh, e-umlaut (as in Russian) and e-grave (or circumflex) for the ‘hard’ e (with e being soft). But if language hat could do that, then he’d probably also be able to do Cyrillic and decide it’s not necessary to have transliteration ..

  7. I could do that (my HTML skills extend that far), but the whole point of transliteration is to enable English-speakers to know what the words sound like, and I’m not willing to limit my audience to those who can decipher haceks. The Russian letter ц is pronounced ts, so it seems the obvious way to represent it. In a Slavicist forum, of course, different factors come into play.

  8. Thanks for the word gymnasiya. Before emigrating at the time of the pogroms of 1905, my Russian Jewish grandparents both attended gymnasiya in Kiev. They were so proud of that. I guess it was a big deal then. When my grandfather took the boat to come to New York, he packed a copy of Shakespeare in English to help him with learn the new language.

  9. Toby, it was a very big deal not because of high level of education gymnaziya provided, that not withstanding, but because Jews generally were not permitted to be educated in gentiles’ institutions. For a Jew to be accepted in gymnaziya or University you have to be a) exceptionally talented, b) exceptionally rich, c)convert. And/or.

  10. LH, I wonder if that section mentions spetsshkova.
    Toby: Jews faced a number of restrictions in imperial Russia, the best known being the Pale: most Jews could only settle in certain areas, primarily in Ukraine, Poland and Belorussia. They were accepted to gymnasias and universities only within a fixed percentage quota. That is, the St. Pete and Moscow universities limited Jewish enrollment to 3% of the total, while Jews consitutued 4% or 5% of the empire’s population, and were on average better prepared for higher education than non-Jews. Within the Pale, the quota was 10%. (Remember that Mandelstam got baptized by a Methodist pastor to bypass the 3% quota?)
    I don’t know how the quota system worked for gymnasias, but I assume it was similar. Kiev was within the Pale, which meant a higher quota. But gymnasias were by definition privileged–classics-based grammar schools for children of the nobility. Therefore, getting into one was not only an achievement for a Jewish youth in light of the restrictions, but was also socially prestigious and could set him on an upward path. University-educated Jews, by the way, were exempted from the Pale.

  11. Alexei: The book mentions spetsshkola as an example of the use of spets- but defines it only as ‘special school.’ What kind of school is/was it?

  12. Toby, you might want to check out this article (quick googling; I’m sure in-depth research will turn up more detailed info)
    Some statistics:
    “…The comprehensive population census of 1897 provides a general picture of the demographic and economic condition of Russian Jewry at the close of the 19th century. In the census 5,189,400 Jews were counted; they constituted 4.13% of the total Russian population and about one-half of world Jewry.
    In certain provinces of the Pale of Settlement the percentage of Jews rose above their general proportion (18.12% in the province of Warsaw; 17.28% in the province of Grodno). The overwhelming majority of the Jews in the Pale lived in towns (48.84%) and townlets (33.05%)….
    …After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the serious lack of land for the Russian peasants themselves became evident and the government ceased to encourage Jewish settlement on the land. Emigration became the only outlet. Until the 1870s the migration was mainly an internal one, from Lithuania and Belorussia in the direction of southern Russia. While in 1847 only 2.5% of Russian Jews lived in the southern provinces, the proportion had increased to 13.8% in 1897”
    “…In an attempt to halt the flood of Jews now seeking entry to secondary schools and universities, and their competition with the non-Jewish element, the number of Jewish students in the secondary and higher schools was limited by law in 1886 to 10% in the Pale of Settlement and to 3–5% outside it. This numerous clauses did much to accomplish the radicalization of Jewish youth in Russia. Many went to study abroad; others were able to enter Russian schools only if showing outstanding ability…”
    I couldn’t find demographic numbers for Kiev in 1897, but based on the above I’d assume Jewish population in the city was considerably more than 10%.

  13. Tatiana and Alexei, spaciba balshoye for all the information, some of which was new to me. I will pass this along to my mother, who will get some nachas (that ain’t Russian, but I bet you get the message) out of it. I love this site because of the people and the info.
    BTW, do any of you know when Russian speaking Jews within the confines of the former USSR stopped having mostly Jewish names and started getting typical Russian names also with patronymics? My grandparents had totally Jewish (ie: non-Russian names and didn’t use patronymics). Our Russian Jewish cousins all have names like Yelena, Misha, and Masha.

  14. Tatyana: The 1911 Britannica says “In 1862 the population of Kiev was returned as 70,341; in 1874 the total was given as 127,251; and in 1902 as 319,000. This includes 20,000 Poles and 12,000 Jews.”

  15. So, according to them, it was 12,000 Jews in 1862, 1874 or 1902? There were too many events with devastating effect, so to speak, on Jewish population in Russia between 1864 and 1902 to assume it stayed unchanged.
    The census was in 1897. I would like to compare apples to apples if you don’t mind and look for a figure for that year – if I could find it, I’d post it.

  16. Thanks to my mad URL skills, I was able to turn up this from Tayana’s link:
    In 1897 Jews constituted 30% of the urban population of the Ukraine, 26% of them living in 20 towns, in each of which there were over 10,000 Jews.
    I’d be pretty surprised if 30% of the urban population of the Ukraine didn’t work out to something near that percentage in the population of Kiev.
    Of course, neither my ability to be surprised nor my prettiness is at issue here, however important they may be an sich.

  17. I just remembered I had a book Kiev: A Portrait, 1800-1917, which turns out to have a nice table on p. 104:
    Major Ethnic Groups of Kiev, 1897
                    Male    Female
    Russians    71,122    62,556
    Ukrainians  31,721    23,343
    Jews         15,798    14,139
    (I omit the Poles and Belarussians, whose numbers are far smaller.)

  18. Brilliant, LH!
    The only thing left for Toby is to figure out what percentage of general population of Kiev those 29,937 Jews comprised.
    I’ve done it myself but it’s nota 10% correct figure since table have omitted other nationalities present.
    I have 15,87% of population.
    If you take into the consideration that small towns and “schtetl” around Kiev didn’t have gymnazias and University or any women institutions (mid-wife medical courses and such) and so the young people from countryside went to big city to study, as all young people everywhere always did and do, you’ll see how difficult was the task Toby’s grandparents accomplished.

  19. oops, that should’ve been 100%, not 10% abive.
    Didn’t have my coffee yet…

  20. Sorry, I should have given the total population, which (p. 103) was 247,723. It’s early in the day for me (my first coffee is just beginning to be absorbed), so I’ll let you do the math…

  21. I’ll let Toby to pick up from there…

  22. LH: spetsshkola has many meanings, including a) a school that emphasizes certain subjects; b) a school for certain types of students (e.g., diplomats’ children); c) a special education institution; d) a reform school, and so on. Many of the type a), the so-called “English,” “French,” “math” schools, have been renamed gymnasias.

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