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The Difference Between Being «Русский» And Being A «Россиянин» Posted by on Jul 3, 2008 in Culture, language, Traditions

In the light of the discussion that arised around my last post, I thought I might take today to clear a few things up as well as explain some linguistic peculiarities. After four years in Russia I’ve seen and heard a great deal of things, not all of them have made me happy and proud to be living here, to be able to have the amazing opportunity that I have been blessed with to study a beautiful language and an amazing literature, but some have. I think most people can relate to the problem of immigration, after all we’re living in a ‘global village’ these days. Personally, I see nothing wrong in wanting a better life. Mankind’s progress [including its harmful reverse side, of course] has been achieved because mankind has always [and will always be] dreaming of a better life and working for a better life. Leaving your country of birth in order to find that better life is something that a huge number of people have done, are doing and will do, and to some of them a better life can be found in Sweden or in the US of A, to others in Russia. But that’s not what matters – what matters is that you as a foreigner respect the fact that you’re living in another country, and try to learn its language, understand its culture and participate in its traditions.

Quite often when driving around in Russia you’ll come across big posters along the road side that say: «Да здравствует российский народ!» [‘Long Live The Russian People!’] (never mind that the same side on reverse proclaims: «Да здравствует Единая Россия!» [‘Long Live (the political party) United Russia!’]). Though I probably should’ve, I never did ask myself why the adjective used was «российский» and not «русский», because to me the difference between these two words has always been more or less clear. When translating these two words you are, of course, faced with difficulties no matter if you’re Hindu, Icelandic or Tartar, because many languages make no difference between the two. Here you can read a thread discussion about that in English, and here is one in Russian. According to my «толковый словарь русского языка» the difference is as follows:

«Российский: относящийся к россиянам, к русским, а также к России, её территории, внутреннему устройству, истории; такой, как у россиян, как у русских, как в России.» [‘Rossijsky’: related to citizens of Russia, to Russians, and also to Russia, to its territory, to its internal devise, history; such like citizens of Russia, like Russians, like in Russia.]

«Русский: 1. народ, составляющий основное коренное население России, 2. относящийся к русскому народу, к его языку, национальному характеру, образу жизни, культуре, а также к России, её территории, внутреннему устройству, истории; такой, как у русских, как в России.» [Russian: 1. people making up the main native population of Russia, 2. related to the Russian people, to its language, national character, way of living, culture, and also to Russia, to its territory, to its internal devise, history; such like Russians, like in Russia.]

I never once questioned that you could be «русский» anywhere in the world without necessarily also being a «россиянин», and that even if you were a «россиянин» and a citizen of the Russian Federation, it didn’t automatically make you «русский». As my first ‘real’ experiences of living in Russia [not counting those first frail six months in Saint Petersburg, as I did spend most of them doing heavy drinking with Swedes on the banks of Neva] took place in Siberia, I was faced very early with the reality of meeting many Russians who weren’t actually Russians at all. My best friend in Russia, with whom I became acquainted over 3,5 years ago, is Tartar, and I have spent much time with her visiting her family back in Tobolsk. They’re Muslim, they speak another language at home (Tartar) than they do elsewhere in society, they eat mostly their own traditional food and do not participate in Orthodox Christian holidays, though they do respect them. For me, a young Swedish girl of 20, meeting my friend’s family was a very important event in my life. It was the first time in my life that I had come across ‘a country within a country’, and what struck me most was their harmony with rest of society, as well as their awereness of not being Russian ethincally, but still Russian politically, culturally and, yes in many ways, emotionally. Since then I have met many more ‘countries’ within Russia and this has grown to be one of my favorite features of this country. After all, no one in Russia is actually a 100% Russian [but is there anyone out there in the world today that can claim they’re a 100% anything?], and there are two popular sayings dealing with this, the first one being: “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar” and the second: “My father was German, my mother Jewish, so I’m a Russian”.

Say whatever you want about the Soviet Union [no, I suppose them GULAG camps, the political oppression and that lack of freedom of speech were no good things], but it deserves to be honored in some respects – it did bond many peoples together in bringing them a common language [Russian] and giving them common holidays [Soviet/Communistic] and creating a union that in many ways still lives on today, as you can always crack an anecdote in Russian no matter if you’re in line at the post office in Moscow, sipping black tea on the train to Ulan-Ude, fishing with business partners outside of Kamchatka, haggling for watermelons in Odessa or hiking in the mountains of Kirgizstan.

When trying to find information about these two nouns and the difference between them, I came across a very intresteting article called «Возвращение русского и “третья Россия”» [The Return of Russian and “Third Russia”]. One part of it was especially thought-provoking, and I think I need to quote and translate it for you:

«Можно было бы сказать, что “русский” и “россиянин” – синонимы, но сегодня это всё же не так.» [One might say that “Russiky” and “Rossiyanin” are synonyms, but today it is after all not like that.]

«Правда, разница между ними обратна той, на которой настаивают наши доморощённые “нацисты”: “русский” – не уже, а шире, чем “россиянин”.» [True, the difference between them is the opposite of what our homebred “nazists” cling on to: “Russky” is not narrower, but broader than “Rossiyanin”.]

«Слово “русский” относится сегодня не только к государству Россия, но и к большому русскому миру – миру, созданному на основе русского языка и культуры, относящемуся к русской политической традиции.» [The word ‘Russky’ is today related not only to the state of Russia, but to the big Russian world – the world that was created on the foundation of the Russian language and culture, related to the Russian political tradition.]

«Это и обитатели пространства, перестающего ныне быть “постсоветским” (но остающегося русско-культурным), и русская эмиграция, и все, кто учился на русском языке в русских университетах, чтобы затем ехать в свою Африку или Азию строить справедливое общество – так, как понимали это русские.» [It is both inhabitants of the area, that is no longer “post-Soviet” now (but remains culturally Russian), and the Russian Emigration, and everyone who studied in Russian in Russian universities in order to afterwards go home to their Africa or Asia and build a righteous society – like Russians themselves understood it.]

Judging by this article, I, who have studied in Russian at a few Russian universities (despite not really with the aim of later building a rightoes society back home, mostly due to my society back home already, in my strictly personal opinion, being fairly righteous), am «русская» though not being a «россиянка» [the words in their female form] since I am yet to become a citizen. Funny, I always thought it to be the other way around for me – that I could become a legalized citizen instead of a legal alien in this country, but never a ‘real’ part of this people.

My opinions are based on what I know and what I’ve seen or heard. I haven’t lived very long, so as you can guess I haven’t seen or heard everything, neither do I pretend for this to be the case. What I’ve come across in Russia, and what I wanted to illustrate in my last post, was a society in rapid change. Such graffiti as “Russia – for everyone!” was impossible here a couple of years back. Why? Because Russia couldn’t care for immigrants on an economic level. Now, however, the situation has been essentially altered – Russians are earning more money, there are many financial opportunities and big business prospects in their country today, a country that has become a place which many people dream of living in (I can hear some of my more ‘radical’ Russophiles from back home screaming with shock and annoyance). I come from a country that has, despite some wanting to claim the opposite, profited tremendously from immigrants on all levels of society. I believe in diversity, and I also believe in respect. If you want to live in another country than the one that you were born in, no matter the circumstances (financial, because of war, political, religious, for professional reasons) for your move, you are obliged to learn its language and have respect for its culture and tradition. I can understand if Russians feel that foreigners are ‘taking over’ their country, not learning Russian and staying in special parts of the cities with no knowledge of Pushkin or even Putin whatsoever. But perhaps you should think about what you personally, as a Russian, have done to welcome someone new to your country? But I think that’s where Russians actually win over other ‘shy’ peoples, like the Swedes, who aren’t as keen to invite newbies in the ‘hood over for tea and cookies 😉

As for me, I’ll always celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it again on the 7th of January.

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  1. Alexey.:

    Well as usual you’re missing the point. Russians are not against immigration, we don’t want ILLEGAL immigration. Seems like you Josefina have a trouble distinguishing between legal and illegal immigraion. Most immigrants in Russia right now are illegal. A country that doesn’t control its borders will not last very long… If you look at countries such as Sweden , UK, etc. Most immigrants in those countries are legal. Sweden does control its borders, thats why Sweden for the most part has only legal immigrants. When Sweden catches illegal immigrants, Swedish government puts them in ‘special places’ until court decides what to do with them, often deports them back home. What would happen if Sweden was invaded by a million of illegal immigrants? (You see just a ‘million’, Russia has 7-10m of illegals)
    Of course you won’t answer my question. Because beyond F.M.D, Rus. Lit., etc., you know very little about geo-politics, borders, immigration, etc., and how it will effect Russia for generations to come. My guess if Sweden had a million of illegals running around a country without any sort of control,… Swedish people wouldn’t be so nice to immigrants of any kind.
    Josefina if you don’t want a wrath from a Russian, any Russian (90% of Russians think like me) stick it with Russian lit., Russian language.

  2. Stas:

    I always had and have a tremedous respest for someone studying Russian for it is such a difficult language. And I have twice respest for you, Josefina, for trying to study Russian from the inside by living in Russia. As for the likes of Alexeys, just don’t pay a lot of attention to them: life’s too short. You will always be “проклятая иностранка” [damn forienger] for them even if you become россиянка and live in Russia for decades. It’s just something similar to the “white supremacy”. They won’t hear any of your arguments; they just clatch to their limited opinion.

    There is a very good word in Russian language скудоумие, which according to my online dictionary is as follows: “feeble mind, poverty of intellect”. It’s not that these Alexeys are stupid – they’re just “скудоумные”.

    And as for illegal immigration. (This bit is more for Alexey.) About 10 years ago I looked up some information for illegal immigration in States. On the website of Immigration and Naturalisation Agency numbers were available at that time only for 1996. So, according offical estimates there are about 5 millions illegal Mexicans arriving to the country every year. And it’s not counting illegals from other countries. It’s been like this for decades and States are still States. And Russia will be Russia in 50 years and forward thus giving the opportunity for all russophiles to study Russian language.

  3. John Turner:

    Although you have not “lived for very long,” I think you responded, considering your 20-something-years of age, very maturely and intelligently. Immigration/emigration are issues that have confounded people and their societies for thousands of years. Alexey is clearly struggling with the illegal immigration occuring in Russia, and I struggle daily with the illegal immigration that is occuring in Virginia/USA.

    I think what Alexey is having problems with, and you touched on briefly at the end of your blog, is that some of the immigrants in this day and time feel that do not have to assimilate into our cultures. We (the current inhabitants of the country they are choosing to immigrate to), on the other hand, should accomodate their lack of proficiency in our language, allow them all the rights and privileges of citizenship and when they are unable to support themselves or need medical care, we should provide those things as well.

    I really enjoyed your perspective on this issue and look forward to your next posting. Also, enjoying a little drinking and having fun should not be looked down upon by anyone, especially a Russian. Keep having fun and enjoy your youth…

    John T.

  4. Katie:

    I think I have told you before, but your blog is my absolute favorite. It is informative, insightful, and beautifully written, about a culture that has always seemed so far away from me. Thank you so much for bringing snippets of it to my Inbox a few times a week. I hope you aren’t letting one person’s negative comments bring you down. I think that it is he who is missing “the point”.

    Katie K.

  5. Сергій:

    Word “Россия” incorrectly translated, that’s why there are such questions.
    Latin – Cyrillic
    U – У
    O – О
    РОССИЯ – ROSSIA, РОССийский народ – ROSSian people, РОССияне – ROSSians
    РУССИЯ – RUSSIA, РУССийский народ – RUSSian people, РУССияне – RUSSians
    РУСЬ – RUS, РУСский народ – RUSians people, РУСские – RUSians
    Example:белаРУСЬ-belaRUS,БелаРУССКИЙ народ – belaRUSIANS people.
    In ROSSIA(РОССИЯ) many nations live: русские -RUSians, украинцы – ukrainians, беларусы – belaRUSIANS, together they – ROSSIANS
    Double “c” just feature in Russian language: руССкий not ruSSian, but it is ruSian.
    Just in the past,Россия (Rоssia) did not have to call Rossia, it called Russia – Руссия