Word of the Month: Soviet

The October Revolution is famous the world over. In October of 1917, Lenin and his followers seized control of the government of Russia, ushering in 75 years of Communist rule. But few today realize that the October Revolution actually happened in November. Tsarist Russia had not converted to the Gregorian calendar and while by traditional Russian reckoning the revolution took place in October, from the perspective of the rest of the Western world it happened in November. One of the first acts of the new Communist government was to change the calendar to bring it in line with the rest of the world.

So in honor of that event some 86 years ago this month, our word of the month is:

Soviet, n. & adj., an elected council that performs governmental functions. English use dates from 1917. Soviets operated at all levels of government in the Soviet Union, the highest being the Supreme Soviet or national legislature. The word literally means council in Russian. The noun was also used to mean a citizen of the Soviet Union. As an adjective, it is used to denote things associated with the Soviet Union.

The following terms are (mostly) of Russian origin or inspiration and are all associated with the Communist era. In English usage, these words are not obsolete or obsolescent; instead they still are very much in use. They are what lexicographers would call historical. They are only used in reference to the past.

Unless otherwise stated, the dates given are the term’s appearance in English usage. In most cases, the use of the word or term in Russian is older and often is not especially associated with Communism, but rather simply denotes some aspect of Russian culture or society. But in English usage, all these terms carry connotations of the Communist era.

Agitprop, n., agitation and propaganda, from the Russ. agit[átsiya] + prop[agánda], 1934. Agitprop was originally a department of the Russian Communist Party’s Central Committee with local branches.

Apparatchik, n., a Communist agent or spy, from the Russ. apparat + -chik, 1941. Apparat was borrowed into Russian from the German and was used to denote the Communist party machine.

Bolshevik, prop.n., a member of the Communist Party, from the Russ. meaning member of the majority, an early name for the Russian Communist party, 1917. Later meaning a person with subversive views, 1926. This name for the Communist Party was coined in Russian in 1903 when a vote during the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party gave Lenin’s faction a temporary majority. The party subsequently split, cf. Menshevik.

Cheka, prop.n., Russian secret police organization that existed from 1917-22, acronym from the Russ. Chrezvycháĭnaya Komíssiya or Extraordinary Commission (for combating Counterrevolution, Sabotage, and Speculation). In English use from 1921. Also chekist, a member of the Soviet secret police.

Comecon, prop.n., economic association of the Communist nations of Eastern Europe, acronym for the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the English name of the organization translated from the Russ. Ékonomicheskoĭ Vzaimopomoshchi, 1949.

Comintern, prop.n., the international wing of the Russian Communist Party which existed from 1919-43, an acronym for Com[munist] + Intern[ational], or Komintérn in Russian.

Commissar, n., a Communist Party member responsible for political indoctrination of a group, esp. a military unit, from the Russ. komissár, 1918. More general use of the term to mean one charged to act as a representative dates to the 15th century and is from the French commissaire, but the specific Communist sense is a re-borrowing from the Russian.

Cosmonaut, n., an astronaut, esp. a Russian one, from the Russ. kosmonaut, or space sailor, 1959.

Disinformation, n., deliberately false information, esp. that provided by a government to the media, calque of the Russ. dezinformatsiya. Russian word coined in 1949, English use from 1955.

G.R.U., abbrev., the foreign intelligence organization of the Soviet (now Russian) Ministry of Defense, the counterpart of the American Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), from the initials of Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie or Main Intelligence Administration.

Glasnost, n., a policy of being open to public scrutiny. The Russian word first appears in the 18th century in the sense of publicity. The sense of openness is first used by Lenin. It was used again in 1969 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The first use in English dates to 1971 in reference to Solzhenitsyn’s use of the word. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that glasnost was an official policy of the Soviet Union.

Gulag, n., the Soviet system of labor camps and prisons, an acronym of glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh lagereĭ or Chief Administration for Corrective Labor Camps, 1946.

Intelligentsia, n., the intellectual elite of a society, from the Russ. intelligéntsiya, 1907.

Intourist, n., the Soviet state travel bureau, responsible for foreign visitors and tourists, from the Russ. Inturíst, abbrev. of inostránnyĭturíst, foreign tourist, 1932.

K.G.B., abbrev., Soviet intelligence and secret police organization (1954-91), abbrev. for Komitet Gosudarstvennoĭ Bezopasnosti or Committee of State Security. English use dates to 1960.

Kalashnikov, n., a Soviet-manufactured assault rifle, after its inventor, Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov (b.1919). His most famous design is the AK-47, or Avtomat (automatic) Kalashnikov design of 1947. English use of Kalashnikov as a name for the rifle dates to 1970.

Komsomol, n., Communist youth organization, acronym for Kommunistícheskiĭ Soyúz Molodëzhi or Communist Union of Youth, 1934.

Kremlin, n., the medieval fortress in the center of Moscow that houses the upper echelons of the Soviet (now Russian) government. English use is from 1662 and is borrowed from French, which in turn is from the Russ. kreml or citadel. Hence Kremlinology, the study and analysis of the Soviet government, particularly by Western intelligence services, 1958.

Kulak, n., a well-to-do farmer from pre-revolutionary times, later a peasant who grows food for profit, from the Russ. word for fist, signifying a tight-fisted person, in English use from 1877.

Kulturny, adj., cultured, civilized, 1955; its opposite is nekulturny, unenlightened, boorish, 1959.

Liquidate, v., to make someone disappear, to murder, from the Russ. likvidírovat´ to liquidate or wind up one’s affairs, 1924. The legal and business senses of the term date to the 17th century and are directly from Latin, but the sinister sense is from the Russian usage.

Menshevik, prop.n., a more moderate faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party than the Bolsheviks, from the Russian for member of the minority, in Russian use from 1903, English use from 1907. The Menshevik Party was suppressed in 1922.

MiG, abbrev., a Soviet aircraft design bureau responsible for the creation of a number of Soviet fighter aircraft or aircraft manufactured by that bureau, abbreviation for the names of M[ikoyan] + i (and) + G[urevich], the heads of the bureau, 1942.

Molotov cocktail, n., a makeshift incendiary device consisting of a glass bottle or other breakable container filled with gasoline and stopped with a cloth fuse, 1940. Probably from the Finnish Molotovin koktaili, and used by Finns against Soviet tanks. Named after Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, who led the disastrous 1939-40 winter campaign against Finland. (Despite overwhelming superiority in numbers, the Soviets suffered horrific losses at the hands of the Finns, but eventually did win through sheer numbers.) Also, Molotov breadbasket, a WWII-era term for a container filled with scatterable bombs, probably from the Finnish Molotovin leipäkori, after a speech in 1939 where Molotov said he would bring bread, not bombs, to Finland. Molotov was the revolutionary name of Vjačeslav Mihajlovič Skrjabin (1890-1986), molot is Russian for hammer.

-nik, suffix, meaning one who is characterized by the preceding word, borrowed into English from the Yiddish, which in turn acquired it from Russian. Productively used in English since 1945, usually humorously or pejoratively, e.g., beatnik (1952), peacenik (1965).

N.K.V.D., abbrev., Soviet secret police organization, from the Russ. Naródnyĭ Komissariát Vnútrennikh Del or People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Created in 1918, it assumed overall control of the state security apparatus in 1934. It officially ceased to exist in 1946, but its head, Lavrentii Beria, continued to control the secret police until his execution in 1954 and the creation of the K.G.B. English usage of the term dates to 1942.

Nomenklatura, n., the Communist Party elite of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites who held positions of privilege, from the Russian, literally those who are appointed (named), 1959.

O.G.P.U., abbrev., Soviet secret police organization (1923-34), acronym for Ob´´edinënnoe Gosudárstvennoe Politícheskoe Upravlénie or United State Political Directorate, 1923. Also spelled Ogpu.

Orwellian, adj., characteristic of the writings of George Orwell (a.k.a., Eric Blair, 1903-50), particularly of his novel 1984, characteristic of a totalitarian state as envisioned that novel, in use since 1950.

Perestroika, n., from the Russ., literally restructuring. In English it refers to the political and economic reforms attempted in the final years of the Soviet Union. A policy of perestroika was first proposed at the 26th Party Congress in 1979 and implemented under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev starting in 1985. English use dates to 1981.

Politburo, n., the highest policy-making organ of a Communist Party, esp. that of the Soviet Union, officially the politburo was a Party organ but had the de facto control of the government, from the Russ. politbyuró, abbreviation of polit[ícheskoe] (political) + byuró (bureau), 1927. Also politbureau.

Pravda, prop.n., the newspaper of the Soviet (now Russian) Communist Party, from the Russian word for truth.

Presidium, n., the standing committee that presided over the Supreme Soviet, the highest organ of government it was de facto subordinate to the Communist Party, from the Russ. prezídium, which in turn is after the Latin præsidium or garrison, 1924.

Refusenik, n., a Soviet Jew denied permission to emigrate to Israel, partial calque of Russ. otkáznik, from otkazát’ (to refuse) + -nik, 1975.

Resident, n., an intelligence agent stationed in a foreign country, calque of the Russ. rezidént, 1963. Also sometimes spelled rezident in English usage.

Samizdat, n., the clandestine copying and distribution of writings and literature, an underground press, the writings published by clandestine means, from samo- (self) + izdát[el´stvo] (publishing house), 1967.

Smersh, n., popular name of a Russian counterintelligence organization that operated during WWII, abbrev. of smert´ shpionam or death to spies, 1953.

Sputnik, n., an artificial satellite, specifically the first artificial satellite launched 4 October 1957, literally traveling companion, from s + put´ (way, journey) + -nik, 1957.

Stavka, n., the Russian army’s general staff, from the Russ. stavit´, to put, place, 1928.

Tamizdat, n., subversive writings published abroad and then smuggled into the Soviet Union, from tam (there) + izdat[’el’stvo] (publishing house), 1974, cf. samizdat.

Tass, prop.n., the official Soviet news agency, acronym for Telegrafnoe agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza, Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, 1925.

Totalitarian, adj., pertaining to a system of government where all individuals and institutions are completely subordinated to the will of the state, calque of the Italian totalitario, 1926.

Tovarich, n., form of address, from the Russ. továrishch or comrade, 1918. Also tovarish.

U.S.S.R., abbrev., official name of the Soviet Union, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, from the Russ. Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, 1927. Often seen as the Cyrillic C.C.C.P.

Zek, n., a prisoner of the Gulag, probably formed in an attempt to represent the pronunciation of z/k, an abbreviation of zaklyuchënnyĭ or prisoner.

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