Monday, June 4, 2018

Ethnic Insults for Non-Russians Come from the Army and Militia, Semiotician Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 4 – Following the disintegration of the USSR, Kseniya Knorre-Dmitriyeva says, many Russians began using ethnic slurs about other nations both within the Russian Federation and in the post-Soviet states, terms which had their origins in either military or criminal jargon “where nationality always played a particular role.”

            “In the army, Uzbeks were called ‘Uryuks,’ Daghestanis ‘Dags,’ and so on, the semiotician says. In  the army “everyone always knew who was who by nationality, even though few civilians could distinguish a Daghestani from an Ingush” (

                And “in such closed communities, groups often are formed on the basis of where people are from.”  As to the expression “persons of Caucasian nationality,” she continues, that “was borrowed by the newspapers at the end of the 1980s from the language of militia protocols” when the militia began focusing on ethnic crime.

                That and not the earlier use of the term “persons of Jewish nationality” is the explanation for its widespread appearance especially in the early 1990s. The former term, she suggests, “undoubtedly was more correct because Jewish nationality, in contrast to a Caucasian one, exists; and the new expression arose on this basis.”

            Knorre-Dmitriyeva’s observation is important as a corrective to the widespread assumption both among Russians and among Russian specialists in the West that “persons of Caucasus nationality” was a direct expansion of “persons of Jewish nationality” and had equally ominous terms for members of the former that the latter did for Jews in the last days of Stalin.

            But her conclusion is even more important because they show the ethnicizing rather than integrating role of the military and the police not only in Soviet times but subsequently, a reminder that military and militia service heightens ethnic awareness and sensitivities rather than  reduces them as many in Moscow are inclined to think.

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