Staunton, June 10 – Russians use the ethnonym “Russian” as if it were something ancient, Yaroslav Butakov says; “but this is not the case: the word ‘Russian’ as a name entered into the language comparatively recently; and “for a long time, our ancestors called themselves something else.”
“The ethnonym ‘Russian’ is initially an adjectival form,” much as is the case with many Germanic peoples like the English and Deutsch but far more rarely among other Slavic groups like the Poles, the Czechs, the Croatians, the Ukrainians, and the Bulgarians, the Russian commentator says (russian7.ru/post/kak-i-kogda-russkie-uznali-chto-oni-russ/).
For most of the last millennium, “’Russian’ related only to the land populated by Rus or under the power of Rus,” he says. Many of the residents of the Russian land called themselves Rusins, while others like the Byzantines called them Rossy. Then when ancient Rus was split between Muscovy and Lithuania, “the word Rusin was used by the former.”
“As a rule,” Butakov continues, it served for identification in the conflicts of a larger community” and acquired a certain super-national meaning. But Muscovy and Lithuania “called [the residents of] one another Muscovite and Lithuanian.” But even in the 18th century, he says, “Russians as had been the case earlier did not know that they were Russians.”
“Only since the middle of the 19th century did official ethnography, obviously under the influence of the term ‘nationality’ from the ideological slogan-triade, introduce the word Russian to designation the entire community of Orthodox subjects of the all-Russian empire who spoke Slavic languages.”
The official ideology divided these people into the Great Russians, the Little Russians and the White Russians, Butakov says; but it is important to keep in mind that “the population itself never called itself” using these terms. And that points to an important conclusion: the neologism Russian was invented to consolidate the Orthodox of the empire.
Up to World War I, there is a great deal of evidence that “the mass of the people who are now called Russians did not have any common national self-consciousness” and identified instead by regions. Those who did use the term Russian as a self-designator extended it exclusively to the Great Russians, even though no one used that term.
After the Bolshevik revolution, the liquidation of illiteracy and the imposition of a passport regime “confirmed the term Russian as a form of ethnic self-identification,” a shift that was finally cemented in black by the Russian patriotism that Moscow promoted during World War II.