In honour of the Victory Day celebrations throughout Europe, it is, perhaps, only fitting that we look at the Allied country that suffered the most loss during World War II – Russia. Though it currently dominates the news due to its foreign relations and most Westerners still mostly identify it as being the former Soviet Union, many aspects of Russia still remain an intriguing mystery. For now, let’s simply start with the name and examine where “Russia” originated.
The name that is commonly associated with the country, Россия (Rossiya), has its roots in the Byzantine Empire. Originally, the term was used to designate people from the Eastern Slavic tribes of Kievan Rus which encompassed areas of modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and with whom Byzantine had trade and military ties. As in many other instances, the name defined the people more than a specific land- Russia literally means the “land of the Rus people”- while the “Kievan” aspect of it is a modern addition to geographically denote it from other period in the history of Rus.
While the origin of the name of Russia is relatively simple, tracing the origin of the people who have lent their name to the largest country in the world isn’t. The first recorded mention of the Rus can be found in The Annals of St. Bertin, a Frankish historical chronicle from 839, where an envoy from Rus is introduced to King Louis the Pious, and the Rus are defined as a Swedish people. (“qui se, id est gentem suam, Rhos vocari dicebant” “who stated that their entire people were called Rus” “eos gentis esse Sueonum” “are of the Swedish peoples”) In Kievan Rus’ own chronicle, entitled Tale of Bygone Years and compiled in 1113, the Rus describe themselves as follows: “These particular Varangians (Vikings) were called Russes, just as some are called Swedes and others Normans, English and Gotlanders, for they were thus named. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of the Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but once they were Slavs.” Still, others in between the 2 aforementioned time periods, during the 900s, referred to Russia as Rugi, which was the name of an ancient Germanic tribe associated with the Goths: Olga of Kiev was referred to by the Franks as regia Rugorum, or “the Queen of the Rugi.”
The first time the English audience got introduced in print to the term Russian to describe the East Slavonic-speaking people living primarily in nowadays Russia and neighbouring countries, was back in 1538, in The dictionary of sir Thomas Eliot: “They be now called Russians, Moscovites [living along nowadays Moscow river], and Tatars.”