Name of Russia

This article is about Rus' as a name. For information about the Rus' people, see Rus' people.
Name of Russia redirects here. See Name of Russia (Russia TV) for the television programme.

Originally, the name Rus’ (Русь, Rus) referred to the people,[1] the region, and the medieval states (9th to 12th centuries) of the Rus' Khaganate and Ruthenia (Kievan Rus') polities. In the western cultures and English language the term is better known as Ruthenia since 11th century.[2] Its territories are today distributed among Belarus, Ukraine, and a part of the European section of Russian Federation.

One of the earliest written sources mentioning the people called Rus' (as Rhos) dates back to year 839 AD in a Royal Frankish chronicle Annales Bertiniani; the Frankish authorities identified them as a Germanic tribe called Swedes. According to the Kievan Rus' Primary Chronicle, compiled in about 1113 AD, the Rus' were a group of Varangians, Norsemen who had relocated somewhere from the Baltic region (literally "from beyond the sea"), first to Northeastern Europe, then to the south where they created the medieval Kievan state.[3]

The modern name of Russia (Rossiya), which came into use in the 17th century, is derived from the Greek Ρωσσία (nowadays spelled Ρωσία) which in turn derives from Ρως, an early Greek name for the people of Rus'.[4] "Rus'" as a state had no proper name; by its inhabitants it was called "rusĭska zemlya".(русьска(я) земля) (with rusĭska alternatively spelled russka, rus'ka, and most often ruska), which might be translated as "Land of the Rus'". The word "rusĭska" is an adjective: the morpheme -ĭsk- is used to form adjectives in Slavic; -a is a grammatical ending for feminine adjectives (namely, zemlya, "land", is grammatically feminine in Slavic). In similar fashion, Poland is called Polska by its inhabitants, that is, Pol-sk-a, originally being the adjective Polish (land).

To distinguish the medieval "Rus'" state from other states that derived from it, modern historiography calls it "Kievan Rus'." Its predecessor, the 9th century "Rus' Khaganate," is a somewhat hypothetical state whose existence is inferred from a handful of early medieval Byzantine and Persian/Arabic sources that mention that the Rus' people were governed by a khagan.


Further information: Rus' people

According to the most prominent theory, the name Rus', like the Finnish name for Sweden (Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for "the men who row" (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (the Rowing crews) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times.[5][6] The name Rus' would then have the same origin as the Finnish, Saami, Estonian and Võro names for Sweden: Ruotsi, Ruoŧŧa, Rootsi and Roodsi.[7] It is remarkable enough that the local Finnic and Permic peoples in northern Russia proper use the same "Rus'" related name both for Sweden and Russia (depending on the language): thus the Veps name for Sweden / Swedish is Ročinma / Ročin,[8] while in the neighboring Komi language the same term Ročmu / Roč means already Russia / Russian instead.[9][10]

The Danish scholar T.E. Karsten has pointed out that the territory of present-day Uppland, Södermanland and East Gotland in ancient times was known as Roðer or roðin. Thomsen accordingly has suggested that Roðer probably derived from roðsmenn or roðskarlar, meaning seafarers or rowers.[6] Ivar Aasen, the Norwegian philologist & lexicographer, noted Norwegian dialect variants Rossfolk, Rosskar, Rossmann.[11]

Early evidence

In Old East Slavic literature, the East Slavs refer to themselves as "[muzhi] ruskie" ("Rus' men") or, rarely, "rusichi." The East Slavs are thought to have adopted this name from the Varangian elite, which was first mentioned in the 830s in the Annals of Saint Bertan. The Annals recount that Holy Roman Emperor Louis II's court at Ingelheim, in 839 (the same year as the first appearance of Varangians in Constantinople), was visited by a delegation from the Byzantine emperor. The delegates included two men who called themselves "Rhos" ("Rhos vocari dicebant"). Louis inquired about their origins and learned that they were Swedes. Fearing that they were spies for their brothers the Danes, he jailed them. They were also mentioned in the 860s by Byzantine Patriarch Photius under the name, "Rhos."

Rusiyyah was used by Ibn Fadlan for Varangians near Astrakhan, and by the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah who visited Novgorod and described how the Rus' exploited the Slavs.

As for the Rus, they live on an island ... that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy... They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and... sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands... When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, "I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon." (Ibn Rustah, according to National Geographic, March 1985)

When the Varangians arrived in Constantinople, the Byzantines considered and described the Rhos (Greek Ρως) as a different people from the Slavs. In his treatise De Administrando Imperio, Constantine VII describes the Rhos as the neighbours of Pechenegs who buy from the latter cows, horses, and sheep "because none of these animals may be found in Rhosia". His description represents the Rus' as a warlike northern tribe. Constantine also enumerates the names of the Dnieper cataracts in both Rhos and in Slavic languages. The Rhos names have distinct Germanic etymology:[12]

  • Essoupi (Old Norse vesuppi, "do not sleep")
  • Oulvorsi (Old Norse holmfors, "island rapid")
  • Gelandri (Old Norse gjallandi, "yelling, loudly ringing")
  • Aeifor (Old Norse eiforr, "ever fierce")
  • Varouforos (Old Norse varufors, "cliff rapid" or barufors, "wave rapid")
  • Leanti (Old Norse leandi, "seething", or hlæjandi, "laughing")
  • Stroukoun (Old Norse strukum, "rapid current").

According to the Primary Chronicle, a historical compilation attributed to the 12th century, Rus' was a group of Varangians who lived on the other side of the Baltic sea, in Scandinavia. The Varangians were first expelled, then invited to rule the warring Slavic and Finnic tribes of Novgorod:

The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians - Chuds, Slavs, Merians and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, "Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Ves' then said to the Rus, "Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us". Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated.

The earliest written mention of the word Rus' or Rus'ian/Russian appears in the Primary Chronicle under the year 912. When describing a peace treaty signed by Varangian Oleg of Novgorod during his campaign on Constantinople, it contains the following passage:

Oleg sent his men to make peace and sign a treaty between the Greeks and the Rus', saying thus: [...] "We are the Rus': Karl, Inegeld, Farlaf, Veremud, Rulav, Gudi, Ruald, Karn, Frelav, Ruar, Aktevu, Truan, Lidul, Vost, Stemid, sent by Oleg, the great prince of Rus', and all those under him, [...]

Quite tellingly, none of the Rus' names listed are Slavic and few are likely to be Finnic; most or all are Germanic.

Later, the Primary Chronicle tells us, they conquered Kiev and created Kievan Rus'. The territory they conquered was named after them as were, eventually, the local people (cf. Normans).

However, the Synod Scroll of the Novgorod First Chronicle, which is partially based on the original list of the late 11th Century and partially on the Primary Chronicle, does not name the Varangians asked by the Chuds, Slavs and Krivichs to reign their obstreperous lands as the "Rus'". One can assume that there was no original mention of the Varangians as the Rus' due to the old list predating the Primary Chronicle and the Synod Scroll only referred to the Primary Chronicle if the pages of the old list were blemished.

Other spellings used in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries were as follows: Ruzi, Ruzzi, Ruzia and Ruzari. But perhaps the most popular term to refer to the Rus' was Rugi, a name of the ancient East Germanic tribe related to the Goths. Olga of Kiev, for instance, was called in the Frankish annals regina Rugorum, that is, "the Queen of the Rugi."

In the 11th century, the dominant term in the Latin tradition was Ruscia. It was used, among others, by Thietmar of Merseburg, Adam of Bremen, Cosmas of Prague and Pope Gregory VII in his letter to Izyaslav I. Rucia, Ruzzia, Ruzsia were alternative spellings.

During the 12th century, Ruscia gradually made way for two other Latin terms, Russia and Ruthenia. Russia (also spelled Rossia and Russie) was a dominant Romance-language form, first used by Liutprand of Cremona in the 960s and then by Peter Damiani in the 1030s. It became ubiquitous in English and French documents in the 12th century. Ruthenia, first documented in the early 12th century Augsburg annals, was a Latin form preferred by the Papal chancellery (see Ruthenia for more information).

From Rus' to Russia

In modern English historiography, Kievan Rus' is the most common name for the ancient East Slavic state (usually retaining the pedantically correct apostrophe in Rus’, a transliteration of the soft sign, ь)[13] followed by Kievan Rus, Kievan Russia, Ancient Russian state, and, extremely rarely, Kievan Ruthenia. It is also called the Princedom or Principality of Kiev, or just Kiev.

But Rus' can mean

  • a small princedom around Kiev, incorporating the cities of Vyshgorod and Pereyaslav (roughly within a 200-kilometre radius of Kiev), and
  • a vast political state (of the territories mentioned above) ruled first from Novgorod and then from Kiev.

The vast political state was subsequently divided into several parts. The most influential were, in the south, Halych-Volyn Rus'; and, in the north, Vladimir-Suzdal Rus' and the Novgorod Republic. The southern part fell under Catholic Polish influence; the northern part, under much weaker Mongol influence, went on to become a loose federation of principalities.

Byzantine hierarchs adopted translations of the names, then politically imposed by Russia upon the earlier Slavs, directly into the Greek. For that reason the ancient Kievan Rus' became Μικρὰ Ῥωσσία (Mikrà Rhōssía, Russia Minor or Little Russia), and the newer Russia was referred to by the name it nominated to give itself: Μεγάλη Ῥωσσία (Megálē Rhōssía, Great Russia). There are claims - from Russian authors - that the names are not of Slavic origin[14]

By the 15th century, the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscow had reunited the northern parts of the former Kievan Rus'. Ivan III of Moscow was the first local ruler to become universally recognized under the title Grand Duke of all Rus’. This title was used by the Grand Dukes of Vladimir since early 14th century, and the first prince to use it was Mikhail Yaroslavich of Tver. Ivan III was styled by Emperor Maximilian I as rex albus and rex Russiae. Later, Rus’ — in the Russian language specifically — evolved into the Byzantine-influenced form, Rossiya (Russia is Ῥωσσία (Rhōssía) in Greek).

Differently from other Slavic languages, in the specific case of Russian language russkiy (русский) refers to (and that being a Russian-specific concept) both the Rus' people and Russians with no distinction (implying both being the same people with the same language - see Russification); and rossiyskiy (российский), concerning specifically the Russian people and their state (the latter being the meaning of "Russian" as understood in the modern English language). In modern Polish the words being ruski (adj. of Rus’, Ruthenian, the older Eastern Slavs from the historic Kievan state) which may equally refer to modern Belarusians, Ukrainians or both, or in a historical context to the people of Rus’; contrasted to rosyjski (Russian, native to what became of the Muscovite state, only indirectly related to the older historical Rus’). Similarly in other Slavic languages, including modern Ukrainian: rus’kyy (руський) (Rus’, Ruthenian), whereas rosiys’kyy (російський) refers to everything belonging to Russia.

The doubled S in Russia

In Slavic documents two historic spellings are common, with one or two letters s: Rosiya or Rossiya (noun), and ruskiy or russkiy (adjective). Western languages (English: Russia, French: Russie, Italian: Russia, German: Russland) where the doubled s is necessary for pronunciation with [s] or [ʃ] (one s between vowels representing [z]) all reproduce Latin: Russia.

The form of the adjective with -ss- reflects Old East Slavic рѹ́сьскъ(-ꙑи) (rusĭskŭ), where rus- is a word root (from Rus’), -ĭsk- is a suffix, an -ŭ is a masculine ending. Although in earlier sources dating back to Kievan Rus' the spelling with one s is most often found, in modern Russian a double s is used. The single-s variant was prevalent in Russian until the end of the 18th century; for example, the 16th century correspondence between Ivan the Terrible and Prince Kurbsky constantly uses the single-s spelling.

In the 13th century in the Balkans, and then in 14th century Russia, the literary variant Ру́сия (Rusiya) appeared, derived from the old root Rus’ with the Latin and Greek suffix -ia (-ия). Later, by the mid-17th century, it was replaced by Rossiya with the letter o and double s. This form remains in the Balkan languages: Bulgarian: Русия, Serbian: Русија, Macedonian: Русија, Croatian: Rusija, Slovene: Rusija, Romanian: Rusia.

In the Greek language the double sigma appeared for the first time in the 14th to 15th centuries under the western influence (probably Venetian or Genovese), although the ancient one-sigma spelling is used today.

From the 16th century, the Greek variant Рос(с)и́я (Rossiya) and the adjective рос(с)и́йский (rossiyskiy) began to be used, but the spelling with one s was also accepted and widely used until the middle of the 18th century, when Lomonosov wrote his Grammar (1755) and finally established the -ss- spelling.

From Rus' to Ukraine

Meanwhile the southwestern territories of historical Rus' had been incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (whose full name was Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia). The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as a whole, was dominated by Rus', as it was populated mainly by Rus', many of its nobles were of Rus' origin, and a descendant of the Old East Slavic language, Ruthenian, is the language of most surviving official documents prior to 1697 (excluding Polish).

The southern territories dominated by Lithuania have cognate names in Russian and Polish, respectively:

While Russian descendants of the Rus' called themselves Russkiye, the residents of these lands called themselves Rusyny or Ruskiye (Ruthenians).

The word "Ukraine" (ukraina) is first recorded in the 15th century Hypatian Codex of the 12th and 13th century Primary Chronicle, whose 1187 entry on the death of Prince Volodymyr of Pereyaslav (aka Volodymyr/Vladimir Monomakh) says “The Ukraina groaned for him”, ѡ нем же Оукраина много постона (o nem že Ukraina mnogo postona).[15] The term is also mentioned for the years 1189, 1213, 1280, and 1282 for various East Slavic lands (for example, Galician Ukrayina, etc.),[16] possibly referring to different principalities of Kievan Rus' (cf. Skljarenko 1991, Pivtorak 1998) or to different borderlands (Vasmer 1953-1958, Rudnyc’kyj and Sychynskyj 1949).

In 1654, under the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Cossack lands of the Zaporozhian Host were signed into the protectorate of Muscovy, including the Hetmanate of Left-bank Ukraine, and Zaporozhia. In Russia, these lands were referred to as Little Russia (Malorossiya). Colonies established in lands ceded from the Ottoman Empire along the Black Sea were called New Russia (Novorossiya).

In the final decades of the 18th century, the Russian Empire, Prussia and Austria dismembered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a series of partitions, and all of historic Rus', save for Galicia, became part of the Russian Empire.

During a period of cultural revival after 1840, the members of a secret ideological society in Kiev, the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, revived the use of the name Ukrayina for the homeland of the "Little Russian" people. They drew upon a name which had been used by 17th century Ukrainian Cossacks. It had earlier appeared on 16th century maps of Kiev and its local area (Kievan Rus'). Ukrayina was originally an Old East Slavic word for a "bordered land" or "a separated land parcel, a separate part of a tribe's territory",[17] attested as far back as the 12th century. See krajina for cognates.

In the early 20th century, the name Ukraine became more widely accepted, and was used as the official name for the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, West Ukrainian National Republic and Ukrainian Hetmanate, and for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Application of the name "Ruthenia" (Rus') became narrowed to Carpathian Ruthenia (Karpats’ka Rus’), south of the Carpathian mountains in the Kingdom of Hungary, where many local Slavs consider themselves Rusyns. Carpathian Ruthenia incorporated the cities of Mukachiv (Rusyn: Mukachevo; Hungarian: Munkács), Uzhhorod (Hungarian: Ungvár) and Prešov (Pryashiv; Hungarian: Eperjes). Carpathian Rus' had been part of the Hungarian Kingdom since 907 AD, and had been known as Magna Rus but was also called Karpato-Rus’ or Zakarpattya.

Alternate Anti-Normanist theories

A number of alternative etymologies have been suggested. These are derived from the "anti-Normanist" school of thought in Russian historiography during the 19th century and in the Soviet era. These theories are discredited in mainstream academia.[7] Slavic etymologies suggested by "anti-Normanist" scholars include:

  • The Sarmatian of the Roxolani, who inhabited southern Ukraine, Moldova and Romania (from the Old- Persian rokhs, meaning light, white);
  • One of two rivers in Ukraine, the Ros and Rusna, near Kiev and Pereyaslav, respectively, whose names are derived from a postulated Slavic term for "water", akin to rosa (dew), rusalka (water nymph), ruslo (stream bed). (Only rosa is related to the Sanskrit 'rasa'—water, juice, essence—suggests itself.)
  • Rusiy (Русый), light-brown, said of hair color (the translation "reddish-haired", cognate with the Slavic "ryzhiy", "red-haired", is not quite exact);
  • A postulated proto-Slavic word for "bear", cognate with arctos and ursus.

The Russian linguist I.N. Danilevskiy, in his Ancient Rus as Seen by Contemporaries and Descendants, argued against these theories, stating that the anti-Normanists neglected the realities of the Ancient Slavic languages and that the nation name Rus' could not have arisen from any of the proposed origins.

  • The populace of the Ros River would have been known as Roshane;
  • Red-haired or bear-origined people would have ended their self-name with the plural -ane or -ichi, and not with the singular -s' (red hair is one of the natural hair colors of Scandinavians and other Germanic peoples);
  • Most theories are based on a Ros- root, and in Ancient Slavic an o would never have become the u in Rus'. But u could give Russian o in step of the ablaut.

Danilevskiy further argued that the term followed the general pattern of Slavic names for neighboring Uralic peoples—the Chud', Ves', Perm', Sum', etc.—but that the only possible word that it could be based on, Ruotsi, presented a historical dead-end, since no such tribal or national name was known from non-Slavic sources. "Ruotsi" is, however, the Finnish name for Sweden.[18] But in the old Russian word Serbs pronounced as the Serb'. Danilevskiy shows that the oldest historical source, the Primary Chronicle, is inconsistent in what it refers to as the "Rus'": in adjacent passages, the Rus' are grouped with Varangians, with the Slavs, and also set apart from the Slavs and Varangians. Danilevskiy suggests that the Rus' were originally not a nation but a social class, which can explain the irregularities in the ''Primary Chronicle and the lack of early non-Slavic sources.

The name Rus' may have originated from the Iranian name of the Volga River (by F.Knauer Moscow 1901), as well as from the Rosh of Ezekiel.[19] Prof. George Vernadsky has suggested a derivation from the Roxolani or from the Aryan term ronsa (moisture, water). River names such as Ros are common in Eastern Europe.[6]

See also



  • "How Rusyns Became Ukrainians", in Ukrainian.
  • "We Are More 'Russian' than Them: a History of Myths and Sensations", in Ukrainian.
  • "Such a Deceptive Triunity", in Ukrainian.
  • Hakon Stang, The Naming of Russia (Oslo: Meddelelser, 1996).
  • Y. M. Suzumov. Etymology of Rus (in Appendix to S. Fomin's "Russia before the Second Coming", available on-line in Russian.)
  • P. Pekarskiy. Science and Literature in Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. (St Petersburg, 1862)
  • S. M Solovyov. History of Russia since the Ancient Times. (Moscow, 1993)
  • E. Nakonechniy. The Stolen Name: How the Ruthenians became Ukrainians. (Lviv, 1998)
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