The Complexities of Eastern Slavic

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After reading this post — "Ukrainian at the edge" (10/30/22) — Peter B. Golden appended the following comment to it:

A few notes: krai (край) means "edge, border" and "territory, land, country" in Russian as well. There are numerous overlaps in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian – and a number of "false friends.” All three languages derive from Eastern Slavic, the language of the Kyivan Rus' state (Novogorod, in what is now northwest Russia was the second city of that state). The literary language of Kyivan Rus’ was heavily influenced by Church Slavonic and with slight variants remained the literary language of the Eastern Slavs in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest as well as the Lithuanian and Polish takeover of what became Belarus’ and parts (western) of what became Ukraine. The Old Belarusian/Rus' language became the primary written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Texts in those languages are mutually intelligible, indeed, barely differentiated. It was the shattering of an already fragmenting Kyivan Rus' state produced by the Mongol conquest and the Lithuanian and Polish gobbling up of those lands that the Mongols did not take, that over time produced three distinct peoples: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Dialect divisions were already apparent in the Kyivan period and a number of scholars have argued for the existence even then of "Old Ukrainian" etc. Some of the dialect divisions cross "borders." The dialect associated with the Chernihiv (Chernigov) principality of Kyivan Rus', now in Ukraine, extends into Belarus'. The dialect of Chernobyl' (of sad fame) in Ukraine is virtually identical to the dialect of the area of Rogachov, Belarus. I know this from personal observation. The career of Feofan Prokopovich/ Prokopovych, d. 1736 who moved easily between Moscow and Kiev (and other places) and helped to shape the modern Russian literary language is typical of more than a few who are called "Ukrainian" or "Russian" depending on the stance that one takes. Ahatanhel Krymsky of Crimean Tatar (paternal) and Polish (maternal) origin, became one of the leading Ukrainian Turkologists-Orientalists was not an ethnic Ukrainian, but identified as Ukrainian – and was ultimately accused of Ukrainian nationalism (1941) by the Soviet government and died in exile in Kazakhstan in 1942. More than a few families in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ have branches in all three areas (mine does). Yes, today, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian are separate and distinct languages and their speakers take national identities accordingly…but not always what one would expect. National identity, so often the case, had to be taught or situationally adopted. In the pre-Soviet era there was much movement between Belarus’ and Ukraine. Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus’, has a typical Ukrainian last name and is vaguely aware of distant Ukrainian origins…and is much more at home speaking in Russian than in Belarusian. He is far from unique.

Putin is a KGB thug and now a war-criminal with a Soviet elementary school understanding of Russian history and of the peoples that comprised the Soviet Empire for which he has such nostalgia (shared by some older Russians). If you are interested in serious studies of the formation of the Ukrainians (and Belarusians) read the works of Serhiy Plokhy.

[Not long thereafter, Peter wrote to me saying that he "was just getting warmed up :)" and sent me the following, which, with his permission, I'm making into a guest post:.]

There is so much to say. The ethno-linguistic history of the area is complicated. A number of us, including Victor Ostapchuk (a Ukrainian-American historian of Ottoman-Ukrainian relations, among other things) have been discussing the creation of a workable terminology that gives each of the three Eastern Slavic peoples and their Rus’ heritage, their due. It may be a while. In each of the ESlav. languages it is quite possible but it becomes more complicated in English.

Having spoken an Eastern Slavic mix with my grandparents: provincial Russian (as spoken in Belarusian towns), heavily mixed with Belarusian and Ukrainian (my grandfather, although from rural Belarus’ often worked part of the year in Ukraine – that was typical of working people in Belarus’, with the result that his speech was peppered with Ukrainianisms and my grandmother’s family called him khokhol (хохол), a slightly pejorative term for “Ukrainian”), I simply grew up with this as family “music” in the background. Family friends came from areas as far apart as Grodno/Hrodna in the northwest of Belarus'and Vinnytsia in the south (in Ukraine). In the towns and cities, there are mixed languages (Surzhyk in Ukraine, Trasianka in Belarus’) that are accepted norms. Odessa, a very cosmopolitan city, has its own special dialect with Ukrainian lexical elements embedded in Russian, spoken with a slightly Ukrainian accent. Instantly recognizable. A number of famous comedians come from there.

My mentor in grad school in Byzantine and Rus’ history, was Ihor Ševčenko, one of the great scholars of the era. He was a Ukrainian, born in Poland where his family had just fled – his father had been a member of the Ukrainian government before the Bolshevik takeover. Although a kind of Russianist attitude prevailed in US schools, Ševčenko was particularly attuned to all things Ukrainian and made the handful of students in the seminar who did not have roots in the area fully aware of the differences.

Many locals were only dimly aware of “who” they were. There is the oft-told tale of a Russian ethnographic group, in Tsarist times, going to the western Russian-eastern Belarusian borderlands to try to determine with precision where the Russians ended and Belarusians began. They interviewed an old man in one of the villages. In response to the query “are you a Russian or Belarusian?” He responded: “Я? Я тутейший!” (Me? I’am from here!).

A number of the towns being bombed are known to me since childhood from my grandfather’s stories. Dnipro (formerly Yekaterinoslav) was where my grandfather apprenticed in construction and house-painting, a town for which he had great affection. I have friends in Kiev (where my grandmother also had relatives). One with three sons serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. Emails and postings of the horrors being perpetrated by Putler (as Ukrainians are calling Putin) are deeply saddening. The Ukrainians have a sense of humor, however, and now instead of various derogatory terms for “Russian” have taken to calling them “Orcs” (from the “Lord of the Rings”).


Selected readings


  1. DJL said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 7:03 am

    The oft-told tale may refer to the 1919 census of Polesia, which was then part of Poland but where people spoke mostly a variant of Belarusian.

    It is mentioned in Hroch's European Nations book (among many other places), and the reference Hroch gives is this:

  2. languagehat said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 8:55 am

    The Ukrainians have a sense of humor, however, and now instead of various derogatory terms for “Russian” have taken to calling them “Orcs” (from the “Lord of the Rings”).

    While technically true, this may leave the false impression that it was Ukrainians who came up with the terminology. It was in fact Russians themselves, as explained at length by Eliot Borenstein in his book Plots against Russia. Russians decided that Tolkien’s books are an example of the West's demonization of Russia: elves represent the West, Mordor is the USSR/Russia, and orcs are the Russians. The Ukrainians simply took this over and reversed the valences so that orcs are again wicked, as in Tolkien.

  3. Ross Presser said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 9:11 am

    There is a Russian novel, The Last Ringbearer (1999) by Kirill Yeskov, which is the story of the War of the Ring told by the losers (the orcs). It's not hard to squint and see Russians instead of orcs in the book.

    It has never been officially published in English, in deference to the Tolkien estate, which would undoubtedly sue to prevent publication. But a quite good English translation was released as a free download n 2010.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 3:52 pm

    Of course assuming that there are three-and-only-three "Eastern Slavic peoples" with "Rus' heritage" is itself contestable and denies any sort of independent ontological status to the people called inter alia Rusyns. They must just be a regional flavor of Ukrainians, or else that ethnological genius Josef Stalin wouldn't have stuck them into the Ukrainian SSR, right? But if you have a good neutral umbrella terminology for the whole grouping of three-or-more you can bracket/finesse the question of how many subgroups there are.

  5. Chips said,

    November 2, 2022 @ 1:47 am


    It is the same word—and spelling—in both the Russian and the Ukraine languages. Slightly different pronunciation


    A word Vladimir Putin seems to have never learnt.

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