“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means.
With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.
Russia, or Росси́я in the Russian alphabet, doesn’t ultimately come from Russian. The word, passing into English via the Latin Russi (“Russians”) by the 1400s, comes from the Old Russian Rus’, “the Rus people.” (The marker after the s in this transliteration is complicated, but, put simply, it softens the preceding consonant and, historically, also concerns collective nouns and reduced vowels.) But the Rus, it’s believed, were Scandinavian merchants and warriors, perhaps Swedish Vikings, who settled parts of modern-day Eastern Europe and Russia starting in the 9th century.
Most scholars connect Rus’ words to Ruotsi, the Finnish name for “Sweden,” from Roslagen, the Uppland coastal region of the country where the Finns first encountered them. The older name for Roslagen was Roþrslandi, the “land of rowing.” The first part, Roþrs-, is from the Old Norse roðr, “steering oar,” making the Rus something along the lines of the “the ones who row.”
English’s own rudder is related to roðr, both of which paddle back to the same Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European root that gives us row.
Attested as a place name in English since the 16th century, the city of Moscow (Москва́) takes its name from the Moskva River, which runs through it. An inflected form of Moskva in Old Russian – the accusative case, to be exact – lead to its rendering in other languages, including English’s Moscow and Latin’s Muscovia, hence Muscovite.
The origin of Moskva is unknown, as if often the case with old place names, but efforts have attempted to trace it to Proto-Balto-Slavic and Proto-Indo-European roots for “wet,” not insensible for a river.
Just as Washington or DC stands in – as a metonym – for the larger US Government, so Moscow has stood in for Russia’s government since at least 1920, when British polymath Bertrand Russel so used it in his Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.
At the heart of Russia’s capital, Moscow, is the Kremlin (Кремль), which encloses the imperial palaces, cathedrals, and various other high-profile government buildings, including the official residence of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.
Historically, kremlin named the central “citadel” or “fortress” of any Russian city – indeed the meanings of its Russian origin, kreml’.
The deeper roots of kreml’ are unclear. The word may be related to the Russian króma (“slice”) and kremén (“flint”), perhaps alluding to the original, stony construction of walled fortresses. The word may also come from the Tatar language, a Turkic language by the Volga Tatars in the Volga-Ural region southeast of Moscow.
The Kremlin, as we saw with Moscow, also serves as a metonym for the larger Russian government. H.G. Wells so used Kremlin in his 1933 “future history,” The Shape of Things to Come. As the actual Moscow citadel, though, Kremlin is much older in English, appearing by the 1660s.
Russian President Putin’s first name, Vladimir (Влади́мир), has a long history in Russian culture, religion, and politics. Putin, surely, would like the literal meaning of his given name, as it joins the Old Church Slavonic vladĭ (“power”) and měrŭ (“great”), making Vladimir mean something akin to “Famous Ruler” or “Strong Leader.”
The first part, vladĭ, is from an Indo-European root for “to be strong,” which also shows up in Latin-derived roots like valiant, valentine, and value, as well as Vlad Dracula, an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The second part, měrŭ, is often mistaken for a Slavic root for “peace,” which gives us Mir, the name of the space station.
And as for Putin (Пу́тин)? The surname would also please the Russian ruler: It may literally mean “one’s own path,” from the Russian putʹ, “way,” “road,” and “path,” the latter word possibly sharing the same Indo-European root.