Thursday, January 13, 2022

Originally Neutral Tsarist Term ‘Inorodtsy’ Increasingly has Taken On a Negative Connotation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Nov. 24 – Few terms about ethnic relations in the Russian Federation are as negative and loaded as inorodtsy, a word that typically is translated into English as “aliens” and is used by some Russians to denigrate all ethnic communities that are not tightly integrated into the Russian.

            But the term was not originally a negative one. Tsarist officials used it to designate certain groups with their own distinctive cultural, linguistic and religious characteristics such as the indigenous peoples of Siberia and even viewed the inclusion of these groups into this category as a form of paternalistic protection.

            In a new article, Elena Samrina of the Khaskass Research Institute on Language, Literature and History seeks to rescue this term from the abuse it has suffered in recent years by describing the complex history of its application from the eighteenth century to the end of the tsarist period when the term was dropped from the official lexicon.

            Her word is to be found in the book, The System of Land Use and Social Categories of the Population of the Volga-Ural Region and Western Siberian in the 16th to 19th Centuries (in Russian; Kazan, 2021) online at

            Various travelers and officials used the term in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to designate peoples in Siberia and elsewhere who were fundamentally different from the Orthodox Slavs; but the term did not acquire a legal definition until 1822 when it came to be used to classify peoples who were not closely related to Russians and had a different legal status. 

            Eleven years later, Samrina writes, the tsarist government subdivided the population of the empire ito three groups, native residents, foreigners and inorodtsy, who were then subdivided into settled and nomadic groups. Each of these categories had distinctive rights and obligations within the strata of the empire.

            In this way, the Khakass scholar says, “the inorodtsy were defined in ethnic opposition to the rest of the population of the Russian empire,” something that explains but does not justify the usual English translation of the term as “aliens.” That term also fails to capture the diversity of treatment groups within the inorodtsy category experienced.

            Settled urban inorodtsy had rights similar to that of Russian peasants, while nomadic ones had far fewer. But they are typically lumped together because until the end of the 19th century, none of them were subject to the military draft. And even in World War I, they were used only in support roles. 

            The reason the inorodtsy were not drafted is interesting. Some Russian officials argued that drafting them would cause these peoples to lose their fear of the power of the state, but others just as authoritative said that not drafting them would help preserve their distinctive ethnic cultures.

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