Essay: Can a fresh study of linguistics help us to understand Russian loyalty to the state?

Russian culture is a rich and colourful collision of language, history and ideology which results, for many, in a fierce pride and shared fidelity to the state. It is a culture which is often misunderstood and is heavily masked in a deep curiosity. Will the loyalty of a great number of citizens be better understood, or at least processed to a greater extent, if we understand Russian culture? A report in August 2014 stated that Putin’s approval rating has reached a record high of 87 percent, and 67 percent of respondents said they believe Russia is “moving in the right direction.”[1] Putin’s popularity and the limitless authority of the executive is an effective combination in ensuring lack of presidential reform. Will we understand the support for Russian ‘sovereign democracy’?[2] The term is used by the Kremlin to describe the Russian system of government. Triesman argues that it is used by politicians in order to justify a system where leaders and their ideas are more important than the political institutions.[3]

In the words of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill; “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”[4] I argue that one of these keys is language. I believe it is possible to understand Russian culture in a great depth through linguistic study and word analysis. Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher and linguist, argued that language was an expression of the nation.[5] An analysis of definitions in Russian, and their translation into English will reveal natural patterns that I argue help to explain why Russian conceptualisations affect behaviour. Some people refuse to believe that there exists a close connection between culture and language. Carroll argues this is because ‘all one’s life one has been tricked, all unaware, by the structure of language into a certain way of perceiving reality, with the implication that awareness of this deceit will enable one to see the world with fresh insight.’[6] I argue language ‘tricks’ or influences the Russians into believing certain ideas, thus creating and consolidating certain conceptualisations and proving that an organic support for Russian ‘sovereign democracy’ exists.  Of course, this is not the case for all Russians.

There is not officially a translation for Родина that exists in English because it is a word so specifically tied to the culture, land and community. Westerners translate ‘Rodina’ as ‘Motherland’. It is not only a word or expression, but encompasses the loyalty and deep connection that Russians feel towards its country. The first part of the word is род, a word which is used in Russian to mean ‘genus’, ‘family’ or ‘kin’. The importance of Russia to its citizens can be understood here clearly, solely by the very definitions. There is a Russian proverb which aptly summarises the bond between Russians and the native country; ‘a person without a Motherland is like a nightingale without song’. Moreover, родить, a verb which shares the same root as Родина translates as ‘to give birth’ or ‘to bring into the world’. One can infer that the Russians are sensually and sensitively committed to the ideology of the Motherland, partly as a result of the reinforcement of ideas and beliefs through language. This helps demonstrate the devotion that Russians have to every aspect of the nation, arguably including the controversial effects of a ‘sovereign democracy’ advocated by the government. Putin successfully instilled fresh pride in the Russian masses. On becoming President, he had a vision, and he is achieving that vision, and the public are supporting him for it. “In contemporary Russia, the rhetoric of unity is based on the mobilisation of patriotism”.[7] The analysis of language, I argue, offers a deep understanding of the national experience.

The word государство means ‘state’. It is fascinating to analyse the roots of such a word, and the links that one certain word has with others, almost like a web. The Russian word for security is безопасность. Госбезопасность translates as ‘national security’, but literally means ‘state-without-danger’. From a Western point of view, most are in agreement that national security means protecting the country as a whole from internal or external threats. The Russian language however signifies the centrality of the state as most important. Studying the etymology of the language is revealing of the inner nature of Russian culture. A word which the author regards with fascination is господство which is translated as ‘domination’ or ‘supremacy’; this word shares the same root as the word for ‘state’. The verb господствовать translates as ‘to rule’ or ‘to prevail’. A very interesting variety of words interconnects. I suggest that there is a natural linkage between the word and thus belief of ‘state’ and ‘domination’; arguably the web of words which exist instinctively compel Russians to believe that their government has the right to rule supremely without threat or opposition. As has been discussed, without challenge the current, strong regime will be unstoppable and reform will be unachievable.

The Russian word for ‘government’ is правительство. The purpose of linguistic analysis is to reveal how the Russians perceive and then process definitions and produce conceptualisations. With every use of the word, these conceptualisations are reinforced. Править, a verb sharing the same root as the word for ‘government’, translates as ‘to rule’. The linkage is expected and similar results are found when investigating definitions and connections of ‘government’ in the English language. Further analysis demonstrates, however that править is additionally understood by the Russians as ‘to correct’. This is of utmost interest because it illustrates how an embedded connection exists in mass consciousness between the government and the ‘correct’ course of action. Moreover, правило translates as ‘regulation’, ‘algorithm’ and even ‘stern’, in addition to ‘rule’. I argue that from this analysis of vocabulary, Russians believe in abiding by the governmental regime. This testifies to the argument that rule by administration of an overwhelming character is natural to the Russian people. Правка means ‘correction’, which I infer, indicates that the Russians consider the government as the body that can produce successful improvements for the country. I argue that in addition to the public support for the Kremlin as a result of popular social reforms and the state’s positive influence on the economy, language offers a further dimension in which to analyse Russians’ innate beliefs, behaviours and responses.

An assortment of words provides evidence suggesting language acts as either a ‘strait-jacket’ or a more gentler influencer. This is clear with the following example. Ivan IV has been known throughout history as ‘terrible’; грозный in English translates as ‘terrible’.[8] Most believe this label appropriately reflects his methods. However, in Russian it translates as ‘fearsome’ or even ‘awesome’.[9] Moreover, the Russian translation for ‘Siloviki’ is Силовики, and its root lies in the word ‘power’. In addition, differing vocabulary requires varying levels of social injection. Народовластие translates as ‘democracy’, a word which has a great contentiousness surrounding it in the Russian Federation. Народ and власть are the two words which formulate the Russian term for democracy; they translate as ‘people’ and ‘power’, signifying that authority lies within the masses. However, the concept of ‘democracy’ has an inordinate level of dependency on social and political circumstances; for the Russians the word ‘democracy’ has negative connections to the transition period of the 1990s, and the term has been abused. It is vital to comprehend that how we live sculpts understanding, in parallel to an appreciation that language influences the process of comprehension and naturally contributes to Russian conceptualisations. I argue linguistic impact will intensify, particularly because Russia’s Duma has recently proposed a bill which bans the use of foreign words to be said in public; in order to maintain and protect the Russian language.[10] Analysis of roots of words reveals how Russians subconsciously process language and form perceptions. They terms and conceptualisations feed off each other and this will continue if the cycle is not broken.  Innate conceptualisations exist because language has developed over thousands of years and are continually reinforced. To better understand Russia, or any state, it is vital to respect a country’s deep cultural roots and to consider that fresh knowledge can often be extracted from new and different insight. Here is a last thought-provoking quote to leave you with:

No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. [11]

 By Phoebe Eloise

Phoebe Eloise Waters studied Russian and Slavonic Studies at Undergraduate level, and International Security and Terrorism at Postgraduate level, both at the University of Nottingham. She resides in London.


[1] Levada Centre poll result (August 6th 2014) ‘Putin’s approval rating soars to 87%’, The Moscow Times,, accessed 07/08/2014.

[2] Surkov, Russian deputy Prime Minister until 2013, coined the term ‘sovereign democracy’, which is unique to Russia. For more information look at Lipman (July 15th, 2006) ‘Putin’s Sovereign Democracy’ The Washington Post, accessed 04/08/2014.

[3] Triesman (1999) ‘Russia 2000: After Yeltsin comes… Yeltsin’, Foreign Policy ,Winter,, accessed 04/07/2014.

[4] Winston Churchill’s quotation, made in a radio broadcast in October 1939.

[5] This philosophy is explored by various authors, including Underhill, J (2009) Humboldt, Worldview and Language, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press., and Bod, R (2014) A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Carroll, J (1956) ‘Introduction’ Language, Thought & Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.27.

[7] Medvedev (September 10th, 2009) ‘Go, Russia!’, accessed 20/07/2014.

[8] A good source on Ivan’s reign is: Skrynnikov, R (1981) Ivan the Terrible, Florida: Academic International Press.

[9] This is important because Stalin admired Ivan’s tactics, and in contemporary Russia, Putin nationally venerates Stalin. This can have implications on Russian conceptualisations of terror.

[10] The Moscow Times (June 19th, 2014) ‘Russia’s Culture Committee wants to ban Foreign words’,, accessed 20/07/2014.

[11] Sapir, E (1929) ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’, in E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley: University of California Press, p.69.

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Categories: Europe

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