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Have you ever wondered where Russian language came from? Have you ever looked at its strange, unfamiliar words and its strange, unfamiliar letters and thought, “why is Russian so weird?”. In this three part blog series we’ll be trying to answer exactly that question by looking at the origins of spoken Russian and its writing system and how they have both changed and been reformed over time.
In this, the third and final post in our three part series, we’ll be looking at the sweeping changes the Bolsheviks made to written Russian after their rise to power, the effect that Soviet Rule had on everyday speech and accents, as well as the linguistic effects of the Soviet collapse.
Язык революции / The Language of the Revolution
One of the most obvious changes the Soviets made to the Russian language was to its orthography (the writing system). Look at any pre-revolutionary monuments in St Petersburg and you’ll see just how differently Russian looked prior to the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. Just take a look at this example sentence and then compare it to it’s modern equivalent below:
“Сложно ли тебѣ читать это предложеніе, которое написано на дореволюціонномъ русскомъ?”
“Сложно ли тебе читать это предложение, которое написано на дореволюционном русском?”
The main feature of the Soviet orthographical reforms was the elimination of several more letters that had become obsolete during the course of the 19th Century. The most obvious change was the removal of unpronounced hard sign (ъ) that came at the end of most masculine nouns. Pre-reform Russian also included three letters “i” and “ѵ”, and “и”, which were all pronounced identically, after the reform only “и” remained. The pre-reform letter “ѳ” (th) was replaced in different words with “т” and “ф”, whilst the letter ѣ, which as we mentioned earlier in the series had been pronounced as “е” from the 17th Century onwards, was finally totally replaced by “e”. This last change, on the one hand, made Russian easier to learn. Prior to the reform, because “ѣ” was pronounced exactly like “e”, you just had to know which one to use in any given word (it’s basically the same problem that English learners face when they have to write there, their, or they’re). This could be useful however, as these different spellings could help readers identify words with different meanings that were pronounced identically, for example, есть (to be) and ѣсть (to eat), or некогда (no time) and нѣкогда (at some time). After the Soviet reform the true meanings of all such words became decipherable only through context and explanation. The same happened with words using “i” and “ѵ”, and “и” too; in the Soviet Union, what had previously been two separate words “миръ” (peace) and “мiръ” (human society/the world) became one “мир”, leading to some confusing urban legends about the exact meaning of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace (even prior to Soviet reforms the book was publish under the title “Война и миръ” http://peace-and-world.narod.ru/tit/tit13_odessa_1915.jpg).
The Soviet State also made sweeping changes to Russian spelling. Prior to the reforms Russian adjectives had a separate plural form for feminine nouns in the nomintive and accusative cases. If you lived before 1917 you wouldn’t write “многие женщины” but rather “многія женщины”. Adjective endings in the masculine genitive singular also got changed up: where we now write -ого they used to write -аго and where we now write -его they used to write -яго. Compare the following sentences:
“Колонны Исаакіевскаго собора сдѣланы изъ сплошныхъ куски мрамора.”
“Колонны Исаакиевского собора сделаны из сплошных куски мрамора.”
The Bolshevik Revolution also had a huge impact on the words that people used. Gone were the pre-revolutionary terms of a address and in came the new, classless titles. No longer did people refer to others as господин (mister), госпожа (miss), сударь (sir), князь (prince), or княгиня (princess), but rather as гражданин (male citizen), гражданка (female citizen) or the gender-neutral товарищ (comrade). Names changed too. Caught up in a revolutionary fervour, Russians began naming their children in honour of key figures of the Soviet state and core aspects of its ruling ideology. Proud Soviet parents, inspired by Lenin’s revolutionary drive and charisma, named their sons and daughters in his honour: Владлен (Vladimir Lenin shortened) for boys and Нинел (Lenin backwards) for girls. Weirder names appeared too, some boys ended up with the name баррикад (baricade) whilst a number of girls were named Искра (Spark) after one of the Communist Party’s newspapers. Even funnier still was the appearance of seemingly normal names with a secret double meaning like Гертруда, which just looks like a Russian version of name Gertrude, but was actually an abbreviation of the phrase герой труда (hero of labour).
It wasn’t just people’s names that got weird, the names of new Soviet Organisations were also pretty strange. Quite often these were very long; take, for example, the Soviet Youth Movement “Всесоюзный ленинский коммунистический союз молодёжи” (lit. the All-Union Leninist Communist League of the Youth). This was clearly far too long to say in full and so the last three words were abbreviated and amalgamated to form the far more pronunciation friendly name, “Комсомол” (the Komsomol). A similar process of shortening was used to make the names of a whole range of Soviet institutions easier to pronounce (if not easier to understand). From here we get Пролеткульт (Пролетарские культурно-просветительные организации/The Proletarian Cultural Enlightenment Organisation), Госплан (Государственный плановый комитет/The State Planning Committee), and of course the infamous Гулаг (Главное управление лагерей и мест заключения/The Main Directorate of [labour] camps and places of imprisonment). George Orwell even played on the Soviet Union’s orthographical reforms and it tendency for name shortening when naming the main totalitarian ideology in the his book 1984, Ingsoc (English Socialism), as well as it’s various Ministries, like Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and Minluv (Ministry of Love).
После Революции / After the Revolution
After the immediate post revolutionary reforms, the formal rules of Russian changed very little for the rest of the Soviet Union’s history. In terms of written Russian there was a brief surge in the use of the letter “ё” in newspapers in the 1930s and 40s, and a set of rules regarding proper use of punctuation was published in 1956. Russian pronunciation also underwent a gradual process of standardisation as urbanisation, population movement, and a general desire hide one’s place of origin if it was not a prestigious city, lead to the elimination of many regional dialects.
Informally, on the other hand, the language changed immensely. From the very start of the revolution, stereotypical Communist slogans like “вся власть советам!” became well known amongst Russians, and from that point onwards more and more new revolutionary jargon also appeared. Many of these words came to the people from above. In the Stalinist era in particular, state press was saturated with new words to describe supposedly dangerous social groups. These included the infamous кулак (fist – from the idea that kulaks were tight fisted) used to describe wealthy peasants, and Нэпман (Nepman) which was used to describe individuals who had profited from the Soviet Government’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which had legalised some forms of private enterprise. Both of the aforementioned groups were labelled враг народа (enemies of the people), a catch-all term for all those considered to be undesirable by the Stalinist state due to political sympathies, ethnic ties, religious beliefs, economic activities, links to former nobility, etc.
New, unofficial words also emerged. Take for example the colloquial phrase for a homeless person, Бомж, which was formed from the phrase Без определённого места жительства (without a designated place of residence) used by the soviet police to describe the homeless. Another of example of soviet slang is the word блат, or “networking, soviet style”. Блат refers to a wide group of friends and acquaintances who could help a person gain access to restricted goods or help solve administrative problems in return for other favours. The soviet economy’s constant problems with shortages also led to old words taking on new meanings. The word достать (obtain/procure) was frequently used as a replacement for the word купить (to buy) when talking about products that were in limited supply. These products (know to soviet citizens as дефицит) were not difficult to buy in the sense that they were expensive, but rather they required a great deal of effort or luck to obtain so the word “procure” seemed to fit better. Similarly, when shops were selling дефицит people preferred to use the verb выбросить (to throw out) rather than продать (to sell).
The final major changes to Russian came during and after the decline of the Soviet Union. The new market economy in Russia drove a mass borrowing of English financial and economic terminology like, бизнесмен (businessman), менеджер (manager), трейдинг (trending), дистрибьютер (distributor), and бизнес ланч (business lunch). Similarly the growth of technology over the last 27 years has had a profound influence on Russian. Words like принтер (printer), сканер (scanner), биткоин (bitcoin), криптовалюты (cryptocurrencies), and смартфон (smartphone) have all become commonplace in Russian speech. The growth of the internet has led to even more English words, especially informal and slang terms, finding their way into the vocabularies of the Russian youth. Head онлайн (online) today and you’ll find plenty of Russians sending each other смайлики (smileys) on мессенджеры (messengers) checking out the latest хештеги (hashtags) on твиттер (twitter) and generally feeling pretty хайп (hype).
So there you have it. The history of Russian over the past 1000 years. Undoubtedly the changes described in this post are not the last stages in Russian’s evolution. Even now debates rage over the use of loan words in Russian and the role of the letter “ё”. Some have even questioned the future of the Cyrillic alphabet, suggesting that adopting a script based on the Latin alphabet would allow Russian to be used more easily with modern technological devices like smartphones. Perhaps if you could travell forward in time and look at the articles on this blog twenty years from now, all the Russian would be unrecognisable. Кto znayet, tol’ko vremya pokazhet…