The Evolution of Russian: Empire

Back to archive
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 second of our three part blog series, we’ll be looking at how modern Russian was born and how it replaced Church Slavonic as the main written language in Russia, as well as how the country’s most ambitious reformer, Peter the Great, left his mark on his people’s language.

Как древнерусский стал современным / How Russian Stopped Being Old
When our story ended last time we were in a period when the Slavic languages all sounded much alike. The eastern Slavs spoke in dialects of Old Russian; there was no concrete Russian language, nor Ukrainian, nor Belorussian. In fact, at this time the dialects spoken around Moscow and Kiev had more in common with each other than the Moscow dialect had with that spoken by people around Novgorod. The reason why this is still not the case is all to do with politics and state borders. Kiev was absorbed into the Grand Princedom of Lithuania in the middle of the 14th Century, whilst Novgorod and Moscow both became part of the Muscovite Grand Princedom. Over time as the Novgorodian and Moscovite languages interacted more and more with each other they fused to create a new dialect with features of both, the first truly Russian language.
During this process Russian lost many of the more complicated aspects it had inherited from Old Russian. In particular, the language went down from having two future tenses and a whole bunch of different past tenses to just one of each. Also, the ability to distinguish between singular, plural, and paired objects disappeared and Russian speakers were left only with the ability to differentiate between the singular and plural forms that we now all know so well. Over time Russian pronunciation changed too: in the 14th century unstressed “o” started sounding like “a”, and in the 17th century the old Russian letter “ѣ” (yat) began to be pronounced identically to “е”, a fact which would later lead to it being relegated from the Russian language entirely.
Письмо по-русски / Writing in Russian
In the 17th century Most Russians still wrote in Church Slavonic but that was beginning to change. Some authors start to use both Russian and church Slavonic together in texts. The ultimate defeat of Old Church Slavonic however, came at the hands of Russia’s first Emperor, Peter the Great.
Peter was a reformer and more importantly a moderniser. He hated the way other Europeans viewed Russia as backwards and old fashioned. In his attempts to eradicate these stereotypes, Peter transformed the Muscovite Tsardom of his predecessors into the Russian Empire. This new, modern state, Peter reasoned, required a new, modern writing system. In his eyes Church Slavonic was old, tired and dusty, and long overdue replacement. As a result Peter created a new “civil script” for Russian, which would allow newspapers, official publications and proclamations, scientific papers, fictional literature and all other forms of texts to be published in Russian itself rather than church Slavonic. In the process of creating this new script Peter decided to simplify the alphabet, ridding it of all accented letters (except й, ё was added to the alphabet later) and many unnecessary letters like “Ѯ” and “Ѱ”. Most of these unnecessary letters were those that had been carried over from Glagolic script, which is why if you compare Glagolic script with the modern Russian alphabet now, you’d see very little in common between them.
Peter also introduced Arabic numerals and through his policy of hiring European experts to instruct Russian apprentices he began a process of mass importation of foreign words into Russian. Italian architects brought words relating to their craft like балкон (balcone/balcony) and купол (cupola/dome), as well as to their food, like макароны (maccheroni/macaroni). Dutch shipbuilders and sailors brought in nautical terms like киль (kiel/keel) and рейс (reis/voyage), as well as some others like апельсин (applesien/orange). One of Peter’s favourite languages however, was German, from which he borrowed a wide range of words including ярмарка (jahrmarkht/market), штраф (straft/fine), and the name of his new capital Санкт-Петербург (Saint Peter’s fortress town).
Despite the creation of Civil Script and the enrichment of Russian with numerous new words, written Russian remained stylistically separated from spoken Russian for a long time. Even within written Russian itself there were many stylistic differences which restricted the way that people could write depending on whether they were writing a scientific text, poetry, or a news article, for example. The ideal Russian which was perfect for use not only when writing newspaper articles, but also when composing poetry or even for recording everyday speech, was pioneered by Pushkin and was popularised further by other Russian writers, particularly Lermontov.
Besides a few changes to spelling and the addition of the letter “ё” in the 19th century, Peter’s reformed Russian remained intact right up until the 20th Century. New words were borrowed along the way, especially from French, and arguments erupted between those who greeted these additions warmly and those who sought to preserve Russian’s Slavic roots. Despite these disagreements the next revolution in Russian language came only after a revolution in Russian politics. To find out more about how the Bolshevik Revolution, 74 years of Soviet power, and the Union’s ultimate collapse impacted Russian make sure you check out the final post in this series.