Tom, the correspondent who sent me the Romani links posted earlier today, has a question to which I do not know the answer, and I am hoping some of my readers do:

Today the name of the Russian language in Russian is russkii, but the name of the country is Rossiia. I realize that it was Peter the Great who changed the name of his realm from Muscovy (Moskovskoe Tsarstvo) to the Russian Empire (Rossiiskaia Imperia) in 1721. In doing so he fell on the Greek translation of the Slavic name Rus, that is, Rosia. In line with Peter’s choice, Lomonosov wrote about the Russian language as rossiiski, not russkii. But at the turn of the 19th century, the latter form had almost completely replaced the former. (The Latin translation of Rus was Ruthenia, which was preferred to the Greek version in Catholic and Protestant states west of Russia.)
I wonder why it happened and when exactly some official decision was taken to this effect.
The only inexact and vague hypothesis on the change I have drawn from books by the French Slavicist Danie Beavouis. Between 1772 and 1795, Austria, Prussia and Russia partitioned Poland-Lithuania. Russia got the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose law was based on the 16th-century Lithuanian Statute. The statute was composed in Cyrillic-based Ruthenian (ruski), which was the official language in the Duchy then. Ruthenian was based on the local Slavic dialects of the Orthodox population, who dubbed themselves ruski (Ruthenian), an adjective derived from the name of the medieval polity of Rus. This written vernacular of Ruthenian came in two varieties shaped by the two ducal chanceries in Vilnius and Kyiv. In turn, Ruthenian influenced the development of the still heavily Church Slavonicized Muscovian chancery language, before the latter spawned Russian as we know it.

After 1697, Ruthenian ceased to be an official language, and the Lithuanian Statute was perused in a Polish translation. St Petersburg retained the statute as the basis of law in the territories of the former duchy until 1840, but turned to the Ruthenian-language original. The name of Ruthenian cropping up as ruski in the statute was interpreted as Russian. Until the imposition of the name Rossiia on Muscovy by Peter the Great, the polity’s inhabitants referred to themselves as rus(s)kii. After the partitions this allowed St Petersburg to claim credibly that the ruski of Poland-Lithuania and the rus(s)kii of Muscovy/Russia were the same thing, namely Russian. This interpretation allowed for the legally based introduction of Russian as an official language in the erstwhile grand duchy. Because at that time there were more literate people in the area than elsewhere in the empire, St Petersburg was extremely interested in legitimizing its incorporation of the duchy into the empire in the eyes of the inhabitants of the erstwhile grand duchy. Their loyalty to the Romanovs was crucial for the modernization of the empire through the 1830s.
However, even if this explanation is true, I still don’t know when St Petersburg officially changed the name of the Russian language from rossiiskii to russkii.

Any thoughts?


  1. John Emerson says

    No thoughts, but didn’t yoy do something abou the name of Sankt Pieterburkh awhile back.

  2. That’s odd. In all my years of learning Russian, spending time in Russia, and being friends with Russians, it never once occurred to me that русский and россия were not directly related words, and that россиский is really the more appropriate term.

  3. I think there’s some confusion here. The ancient name for these lands was Rus’. My etymological dictionary (Fasmer) shows that Rossiya is first noted in print in 1517; before then it was Rus’ or Rusiya (or at least that’s what the surviving print sources have). Fasmer says that the “o” appeared via Greeks, and that the “u” and “o” forms were first used interchangably. Under Ivan the Terrible the adjectives for the country were both rossiisky and rosskiy. Meanwhile, Rus’ in Latin was Russi, which eventually led to Russia as the English name of the country.
    Ivan the Terrible was the first to crown himself Tsar and of “all the Russias,” since by that time other lands (Lithuania, etc.) had been added to the empire. Peter the Great was the first to call himself Emperor. He may have also codified the “o” when he codified his new title, but I haven’t found that yet. It’s also possible that the two alternative spellings coexisted for a longer period of time. A lot wasn’t codified until the 19th century.

  4. So the ancient name ‘Rus’ was a convenient excuse for Muscovy to expand its dominion over other groups?

  5. In modern Russian language, the difference between the words russkiy/rossiyskiy is the difference between ethnic and political entities. ‘Russkiy’ is usually said about things defined by ethnic criteria, like Russian language or Russian traditions. ‘Rossiyskiy’ is the thing which is related to Russia as a country, like Russian government or Russian football union or Russian state archives, etc. The latter form sounds a bit official and the distinction, rather strict in 1990s, becomes more vague. The form ‘russkiy’ is currently gaining popularity, especially in the names of companies (Russian telephone) or banks, etc.
    A similar distinction may be found in the pair Latvian/Lettish.
    Peter I was not the first to use the word Rossiya, even though he made it much more frequent when proclaimed the formation of the Russian Empire (Rossiyskaya imperiya) in 1721. The change of the vowel has, probably, happened much earlier, in late XV century. In Greek language, the Russian (Slavic) tribes were traditionally called ρως, and when Russian tsar Ivan III married Sophia Paleologue, niece of Constantine XI, a Byzantine emperor, she introduced this word into Russian language. It was not too popular in the first years, but in 1517 (AFAIK) it was already mentioned in some official document as ‘Rossiya’.

  6. “So the ancient name ‘Rus’ was a convenient excuse for Muscovy to expand its dominion over other groups?”
    Gosh, just a bit hostile, are we?
    Actually, before this time the principalities were smaller and something like city-states. Muscovy was one along with Tver, Novgorod, Vladimir, etc. “Foreigners” in Moscow were folks from these other principalities. Then came “the gathering of the Rus'” (ie the conquering and joining together of these city-states under Moscow). It was quite a bloody time, but not much different than anywhere else in the world, me thinks.

  7. It was quite a bloody time, but not much different than anywhere else in the world, me thinks.
    True, but given the extreme autocracy increasingly practised in Moscow as contrasted with the more open societies of the other city-states, notably Novgorod, and the ferocity and thoroughness with which the Muscovite tsars eradicated those traditions (going so far as replacing the populations of conquered cities), it’s hard not to feel that Russia (and eventually much of the world) would have been much better off if Moscow hadn’t won out. One shouldn’t idealize the other cities, of course, but I find it as hard to remain a disinterested spectator when reading about the triumph of Muscovy as when reading about the Mongol destruction of the ancient cities of Central Asia and Khorasan.

  8. Russia (and eventually much of the world) would have been much better off if Moscow hadn’t won out.
    Like most Russians, I share this viewpoint :). And yet, note that in medieval societies the heaviest burden usually lies on the social stratum immediately underlying the ruling stratum. I mean that, in the autocratic Muscovy, where the nobility were subjugated to the monarch, the life of peasantry and craftsmen was way more secure and, I dare say, liberal than, say, the life of their ‘colleagues’ in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or in England.

  9. Oh, I don’t know, my dear Hat. It’s always impossible to compare horrors, and in Russian they say that “history doesn’t know the subjective case.” It’s hard to say what might have been.
    I, too, thought of Novgorod as a beacon of early democracy, and it did have some interesting practices, like the veche (a kind of town council), but it turns out that if the veche couldn’t reach a decision, they all went out on the bridge and bashed each other and knocked each other into the river, until only the “winners” remained. And the boyars in Muscovy tried hard (sometimes successfully) to institute various councils that oversaw the Tsar’s actions. In the end, I think Novgorod wasn’t quite the shining beacon of democracy, and Moscow wasn’t quite the black hole of autocracy.

  10. Off-topic, mostly:
    I don’t know Rumanian, but according to Bantaş’ dictionary, there’s a pair of words for “Romanian” too:
    “Român”: Romanian (n, adj).
    “Rumân”: Serf, villein, peasant.
    Musorgsky’s two operas are really about the Russian State. I don’t usually like opera, mostly because of the melodramatic or frothy plots, but I think Musorgsky as an artist was on a par with Tolstoi or Gogol. If he lived I think that he would have surpassed Wagner. As it, I think that Boris Gudonov was the greatest of all, and if Khovanshchina had been finished it might have surpassed Boris.

  11. I have an unrelated question about Russia. Was count Sergey Witte from Dutch or German descent? Different internet pages give different answers to this question. About Nesselrode they are clear: he is from Westphalian origin. Because this is close to the border he probably has a surname related to a small village in the Netherlands.

  12. I think Novgorod wasn’t quite the shining beacon of democracy, and Moscow wasn’t quite the black hole of autocracy.
    Sure, it’s easy to exaggerate at both ends, but I don’t think revisionism can eliminate the disparity. And to answer Dmitri’s point: sure, there may have been temporary advantages for the lower orders, but I think history shows that in the end less autocracy is better for everyone.
    bertil: According to Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography, by Sidney Harcave, Witte’s father’s name was Christoff-Heinrich-Georg-Julius F. Witte and he was from Courland (run by Baltic Germans), so I would have thought he was of German descent. But Heroes and Friends: Behind the Scenes at the Treaty of Portsmouth, by Michiko Nakanishi, says his father “was a Baltic gentry of Dutch descent.” So I guess that answers that, if you assume Nakanishi knows what she’s talking about.

  13. Thanks, Language Hat. When I have time, I am going to change his Wikipedia entry to reflect this information.

  14. Since the religious and political model for all those states was Orthodox and Byzantine. wouldn’t the resulting state have ended up autocratic whatever statelet won out as the consolidator? What real difference does it make that it happened to be Muscovy?
    Also, what real chance did a merchant city-state like Novgorod have of 1) becoming dominant or 2) even just staying independent, under the conditions that prevailed?

  15. To John Emerson: the Romanian word “ruman” is the form inherited from Latin ROMANUM, with “roman” being a learned borrowing (of the same word, naturally). And the name of the city itself, RIM in Romanian, seems to have been borrowed back into Romanian from Slavic (where long U shifted to I).

  16. Revisionism and history, such a can of worms!
    I don’t know any Russian history, but I was struck by this passage: “The name of Ruthenian cropping up as ruski in the statute was interpreted as Russian. Until the imposition of the name Rossiia on Muscovy by Peter the Great, the polity’s inhabitants referred to themselves as rus(s)kii. After the partitions this allowed St Petersburg to claim credibly that the ruski of Poland-Lithuania and the rus(s)kii of Muscovy/Russia were the same thing, namely Russian.”
    It seems to suggest a view of history in which the Rus were an ancient but divided people who were just ‘waiting’ to be unified (vaguely reminiscent of the ancient Central Plains of China, actually). That’s why I was rather interested in how accurate it is as a depiction of ethnicity in pre-unification Russia.
    As for Central Asia, Languagehat, may I suggest you check out Wikipedia’s entries on Mongolian history (I can’t access them myself), where Genghis Khan and his ilk come up smelling of roses. All this talk about slaughter and destruction was just the other side giving him a bad press!

  17. As I understand it, about a hundred years after Rumân became Român, it nearly became Romîn due to spelling reform. Then an exemption was made for Roman- words. Then the whole thing was undone in favor of â in the middle and î at the ends.

  18. Dmitri Minaev said:
    “A similar distinction may be found in the pair Latvian/Lettish.”
    I don’t believe so – I am Latvian, and I’ve never seen Latvians use “Lettish”. It is an archaic usage I only see in old books, and is based from the German word for a Latvian person, being “Lett”. The Latvian word would be “latvietis”, and for the language it would be “latviešu valoda”.

  19. I am Latvian, and I’ve never seen Latvians use “Lettish”.
    On the one hand, I am not sure that the usage of this word by Latvians is a good illustration of the English usage 😉
    On the other hand, you are probably right and the parallels with the disctinction drawn in Latvian language between Latvijas and Latviešu is more correct. Am I right?

  20. >it’s hard not to feel that Russia (and eventually >much of the world) would have been much better off >if Moscow hadn’t won out.
    The same could be said about France -> Paris or Germany -> Berlin, then.

  21. Dmitri: But your “A similar distinction may be found in the pair Latvian/Lettish” comes immediately after a comment about the use of rossiiski and russki in Russian, so it was reasonable to assume you were talking about Latvian usage. In any case, no, Lettish is just an older equivalent of Latvian; there’s no distinction in meaning as far as I know.

  22. Dmitri: Yes, language hat is right – Lettish is an older equivalent of Latvian. I live in Canada, so I see usage of terms in English all the time, and the only place where I see Lettish is in old texts.
    “Latvijas” would be “belonging to Latvia (the country)”, meanwhile “latviešu” is “belonging to the Latvian people”. I’m not sure if this corresponds to the rossiiski/russki exactly, but it could to a certain extent.

  23. Paldies, Kali! This is an exact parallel to the Russian pair of adjectives.

  24. Every nation-state has this problem. In China everyone is Chinese, and the ethnic Chinese are Han.
    The nation-state is a monster. Powerful, but murderous.

  25. michael farris says

    Also in vietnamese,
    người = person
    người Việt Nam = citizen of the country
    người Việt = ethnic vietnamese, also known (in Vietnamese) as Kinh

  26. David Marjanović says

    the German word for a Latvian person, being “Lett”.
    Not quite — Lette. But the adjective is lettisch.
    In Russian the division extends to the nouns, BTW: an ethnic Russian is русский, a citizen of the country is россиянин.

  27. Probably way off track, but here’s something I came across today:
    In an article on the history of the Eastern (i.e. Ukrainian/Ruthenian) redaction of Church Slavic, the author lists various grammars and dictionaries of Eastern Church Slavic. In these works, the language is referred to under more than a few names. But the most common appears to be словенороський (attested in a grammar published in Vilnius in 1596) / славенорѡскїй (a dictionary from 1627) while the Statues of Lithuania refer to the vernacular used in the same territory as “Рускиe слова”.
    Could it be that the distinction ros-/rus- when referring to language was one of high (inspired by Church Slavic) vs. low (vernaculars)? Lomonosov was thus writing a grammar of the official language of the empire and the replacement of rosskiy by russkiy could be ascribed to the rise of nationalism and vernaculars?

  28. Mustay Karim, Bashkir poet (1919-2005), wrote a poem “Рус түгелмен, ләкин россиян мин” (“I am not (ethnic) Russian, but I am Russian (citizen)”, which is based upon the two discussed words. “Не русский я, но россиянин” is often cited in Russia when referring to not-ethnic-Russian citizens of Russia.
    The poem and its Russian translation is on the Bashkir language community site.

  29. That’s really interesting, thanks!

  30. It reminds me of a university professor from Xinjiang, Uighur I think, who took me aside a few years ago to tell me (in English) that “We are politically Chinese, but not culturally Chinese”. (So much for 中华民族).

  31. David Marjanović says

    Zhōnghuà mín shénme?
    (“China in the cultural sense”, and “people”, and what’s the last character? I’d have expected guó, yielding “ROC” for the whole name, but that’s not even similar…)

  32. Venetians referred to Ivan III’s domain as “Rusia” (or “Russia” — I don’t remember exactly) as early as the 15th century. When Ivan IV titled himself the czar of all Rus’ (vsea Rusii), it did not please the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which controlled Western and Southwestern Rus’ (would-be Belarus and Ukraine). Czar Mikhail (reigned from 1613) signed a deed, “Czar and Great Prince Mikhailo Fedorovich, the Autocrat of all Rusia.”
    I suggest using “Ruthenian” for “related to Rus'” and “Russian” for “related to Russia”. But it’s a long and complicated story, too much so for a comment.

  33. bulbul — as far as I know, “russkiy” as used in the 19th century and up to 1917, included all the three Eastern Slavic peoples: the “Greater Russians”, the “Minor Russians” or Ukrainians, and the Belarusians. Under Soviet rule, the word simply replaced the old “Greater Russian”.

  34. I suggest using “Ruthenian” for “related to Rus'”
    Unfortunately, “Ruthenian” already means “western Ukrainian,” so it can’t be pressed into service for this purpose (not to mention that the connection between Rus and Ruthenian is far from obvious). One might try using “Rusian,” but it looks like a misprint. There is no good solution.

  35. Zh?nghuá mínzú. It’s not easy to translate. It essentially means that all the (recognised) ethnic groups of China form an indissoluble entity by virtue of being, er, contained within the borders of China. It’s a nice ideology for the way it gives all ethnicities respect and equality as members of the larger family (in theory, at least), which is an advance on some older thinking; it’s not so nice in the way it creates what some Russian 🙂 called a ‘prison of nations’.
    The term is heavily politicised. Try the Wikipedia article, which is rather sympathetic to the official Chinese version (as with many things pertaining to China in Wikipedia).

  36. Yes, “Ruthenian” is sometimes used to mean “Carpatho-Ruthenian”, which is not exactly “Western Ukrainian” (a Ruthenian is русин in Russian) but closely related to it. But I don’t see this as a major problem.

  37. For “sometimes” read “always”—at least, I’ve never seen it used any other way in English. (I was using “western Ukrainian” as shorthand.) I see trying to get people to use a word in a completely different way as a major problem. Better to invent a word.

  38. David Marjanović says

    Oh, that’s that zú. I’ll need to remember the character.
    (Chances are I won’t, of course…)

  39. David Marjanović says

    So I misremembered the tone of huá, confusing it with huà “speech”. Typical of me. Grmpf.

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