As a follow-up to my LITSEI/GIMNAZIYA post, another example (also from The Russian Language Today) of convergence of originally distinct terms:

The title of the head of city administration, previously predsedatel’ gorodskogo soveta ‘Chairman of the City Council’, has been changed to mer ‘mayor’, a loan word [from French maire] which imparted a European flavour to the title of the city head. However, for some reason this was considered not to be good enough, and in 1995, in many towns, people found themselves electing not a mer but a gubernator ‘Governor’, a title dating back to the nineteenth century. This old name, exorcised in 1917, has now come full circle. In 1995 it caused some confusion among the population at large, because for many Russians casting their vote the word gubernator sounded outlandish and dated, and prompted a humorous reaction. The situation was all the stranger as there was no unified standard terminology: the head of the Moscow administration is called mer, while in St Petersburg the name of the same post is gubernator.


  1. I’m sure there is something else in that article you probably didn’t get a chance to read yet. Or they got really bad editor in that book.
    Not all cities got a gubernator as a head administrator, only the capitol cities of gubernias, or provinces.
    Like, say, Albany is a state capitol, so their mayor …ehm.. is still a mayor… Never mind. (What do you think of the title “capitOlist-mayor”?)

  2. I hit the “post” button too soon.
    Gubernator is not a mayor, it’s the same administrative position as governor. Or it used to be, before 1917.
    I thought since they got old administrative divisions back and renamed the cities their original names, gubernator and gubernia returned in tandem, in place of oblast’.
    Which, I just realised, not necessarily so. (I recall that my college friend still lives on Dzerzhinskaya Street)…

  3. The mayor of Krasnodar made a big deal about not wanting to be called mer because it was an unacceptable injection of foreign words into politics—he preferred the Slavic construction gradonachal’nik. Of course, he then went on to speak of his plan to revitalize the krai’s economy.

  4. As I understand, mer is a head of a city, while gubernator is a head of gubernia, which in size are probably close to US states. So it would be, say, mer of Portland, but gubernator of Oregon.

  5. Gradonachal’nik is the head of the city administration, not kraiya. Kraj has many cities and Krasnodarskij kraj is quite big geographically.
    Administratively, the head of the kraj used to be (my info is 12 y.o., sorry) “krajispolkom”; what is there today I am interested to know myself.

  6. I guess the authors are a little confused themselves. Mer is “mayor,” head of the city government. Gubernator is “governor,” typically of an oblast’ or kray, i.e., region-members of the Russian Federation. The only case where this rule doesn’t work is Putin’s beloved city of St. Petersburg, which has a gubernator instead of a mer. Note however that St. Pete, although a city and not a region, is a member of the Federation. (The only other city-member is Moscow, which has a mer.)
    Arnold Schwarzenegger is therefore gubernator Kalifornii, and Michael Bloomberg, mer N’yu-Yorka.

  7. Map, Alexei: Of course I (and the authors of the book) know the theoretical difference between a mer and a gubernator; their point is that some cities have taken over the latter (more grandiose) term for the municipal head. Alexei, are you sure it’s only SPb that has done so? I of course don’t rely on the accuracy of the book’s authors (especially since their beat is language, not bureaucracy), but they do make a point of stressing the plural. I googled but found only SPb and a bunch of non-Russian references; the closest was gubernator goroda L’vova, but that referred to the early part of the 20th century, when Lvov/Lemberg was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Come to think of it, that may have influenced the Russian use; if Austro-Hungarian cities could have governors, why not Russian ones?

  8. Also, unless I’m greatly mistaken, they haven’t revived the guberniya, only the gubernator. So it wouldn’t make sense to say the latter is head of a guberniya.

  9. California now has an official often called the “Governator”. On the one hand, I wonder if the person who first made the joke was a Russian-speaker. On the other, I wonder if Russian newspaper translators might not slip right past the joke.
    Refresh me: I have read that the city was called Sankt-Petersburg, (from German, Swedish, and/or Dutch?) because Peter the Great was essentially a Slavophobe. People seem to call it Petrograd now, and Leningrad was a Communist imposition. Is it more complicated than that?

  10. Somewhat. It’s not that Peter was a Slavophobe, but he greatly respected Europe, especially the Dutch (the great naval power of the day), and he imported from the Netherlands not only all the shipbuilding and naval talent he could hire but also the city’s name: it was originally Sankt Pieter Burkh, but the residents “soon Russified its Dutch-sounding name into St. Petersburg [actually Sankt-Peterburg],” according to W.Bruce Lincoln (Sunlight at Midnight, p. 18).
    It was called Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, but I don’t know of any move to use that form now; its inhabitants have always affectionately known it as “Piter.”

  11. Gradonachal’nik is the head of the city administration, not kraiya. Kraj has many cities and Krasnodarskij kraj is quite big geographically.
    *nod* I realize that. I’m not sure I why I wrote krai at the end of my comment—my not paying attention to my own writing, and not my ignorance of Russian, was at fault.
    Administratively, the head of the kraj used to be (my info is 12 y.o., sorry) “krajispolkom”; what is there today I am interested to know myself.
    It’s gubernator—at least that’s how Tkachev is referred to.

  12. Thank you, Chris.
    So they do have gubernators without gubernia now…
    Shoemaker without the shoes.

  13. A gubernia is not the only thing Tkachev is missing.
    But then, I’m letting my opinions about Russian politics show. Let’s just say they were popular among my Armenian friends, but I rarely voiced them among native Russians in Krasnodar. 😉

  14. Zizka, one doesn’t have to be Russian to combine “governor” and “terminator.” Besides, it’s el gobernador in Spanish. A Russian gubernator does not, of course, require a guberniya: the word simply means a governor, not necessarily the one of a guberniya.
    Petrograd was once a poetic name for St. Pete, on par with Petropolis. Note that the “Sankt” part somehow disappeared from the name when it was officially Russified in 1914. (And in England, Lord Battenberg became Lord Mountbatten.)
    Peter the Great was, at least at a certain age, a big fan of all things naval and, therefore, Dutch. “Damn you, the carpenter of Saardam,” as one Russian poet wrote.

  15. Which poet? I know Aleksei Tolstoi called him “Piter, plotnik zaandamskii.”
    And of course the British royal family, with a family name of Wettin and a dynastic name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, magically became Windsor at that time. Presto!

  16. Here:
    Будь проклят, император Петр,
    стеливший души, как солому!
    За боль текущего былому
    пора устроить пересмотр.
    От крови пролитой горяч,
    будь проклят плотник Саардамский,
    мешок с дерьмом, угодник дамский,
    печали певческой палач!
    Сам брады стриг? Сам главы сек!
    Будь проклят, царь – христоубийца,
    за то, что кровию упиться
    ни разу досыта не смог!
    А Русь ушла с лица земли
    в тайнохранительные срубы,
    где никакие душегубы
    ее обидеть не могли.
    Будь проклят, ратник сатаны,
    смотритель каменной мертвецкой,
    кто от нелепицы стрелецкой
    натряс в немецкие штаны.
    Будь проклят, нравственный урод,
    ревнитель дел, громада плоти!
    Ведь я служу иной заботе,
    а ты мне затыкаешь рот.
    Будь проклят тот, кто проклял Русь –
    сию морозную Элладу!
    Руби мне голову в награду,
    что вместе с ней, – НЕ ПОКОРЮСЬ!

  17. LH: Boris Chichibabin. And I suppose you mean Alexei N. Tolstoi and his novel, Peter the Great, in which some Dutchman so addresses the Czar. (No wonder: Peter signed his letters from the Netherlands, “Mester Pieter”.) Surely you don’t mean Alexei K. Tolstoi?

  18. Michael Farris says

    “Petrograd was once a poetic name for St. Pete, on par with Petropolis”
    Of the various names for that city, my favorite is easily Petrograd and I cannot understand why residents prefer the clunky German name (I do have a certain affection for clunky German names, but it’s always seemed misplaced there).

  19. What, my font isn’t readable?
    I can see it perfectly well, and it’s in West Europ. (ISO).

  20. Tatyana: Thanks! (And yes, I can see it perfectly well.)
    Alexei: Yeah, the Peter novel.
    Michael: Funny, I have the reverse reaction — the Russified form sounds false to me.

  21. gosh, i remember when this “de-Communization” was just-just starting… Mihail Zadornov used to have a very funny bit about all these “mer”s and “gubernator”s and “prefekt”s.

  22. Above my desk is a Russian busted bond: Loan of the City of Moscow 1912. It’s signed by the Mayor (Gorodskoi Golova) and his deputy (Tovarisch Gorodskogo Golovy).

  23. Interesting that the feminine noun golova ‘head’ becomes masculine when used as the name of a civic official.

  24. The archaic glava has replaced golova in titles such as glava administratsii.

  25. John Cowan says

    Archaic because of Church Slavonic origin, which metathesized Pre-Slavic ToRT (T = stop, R = r or l) to TRa:T rather than /a:/ > /o:/ plus epenthesis to To:RoT, as things went in East Slavic.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    John, in your neck of the groves, where does the stress fall in “metathesized” ? On the second, as in “metastasized” and “anesthetized” ? On the third, as in “micturesis” ? On the first, as in “supersized” ?

  27. John Cowan says

    On the second.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks, now I see what made me uncertain. It seems I say metAs-tasized, not metA-stasized – pulling the “s” over into the “meta”. So, trying mentally to pronounce “metathesized” as metAth-esized, I kept getting something like metAth-tesized. Didn’t trip off the tongue, at any rate.

    This is all much easier in German: ME-ta-these (“th” = “t”) is an established term in philosophy. Perhaps the phonological term could be stressed Me-ta-thE-se (“th” = “t”), to distinguish it from the other. Dunno.

    If someone wanted to make a verb of it, it would be me-ta-the-sIE-ren (“th” = “t”), I suppose, along the lines of me-ta-sta-sIE-ren.

  29. David Marjanović says


    That’s how I’ve always imagined it. Stressing the first syllable would seem to require contrastive stress to distinguish it from some other -thesen.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    To distinguish it from ThE-se while retaining the sound association: ME-ta-thE-se. You know how people will prefix “meta” to the word for an idea, in order to get a “higher” idea. ME-ta-lO-gik, ME-ta-mo-dEll. Even Metamorphogenesis.

    Unfortunately, turns out I misremembered Metathese as being a term in philosophy contrasted with These. Metathesis was used by Kant in some “switch positions” sense, as in phonology:

    # Métathèse des jugements, se dit, dans la logique de Kant, d’une espèce de transposition des termes d’un jugement qui sert à en déduire un autre par voie de raisonnement immédiat. #

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