June 01, 1998



Despite 70 years of communism and nearly 10 years of reform, plenty of “tsarist” imprints have survived into the modern Russian lexicon. Regular readers of Survival Russian will recall the beautiful form of address “merciful monarch” – милостивый государь, which was a polite comme il faut (proper) formula once used by the educated and noble classes.

It is common for domestic political observers to draw parallels between the present day and the tsarist era, comparing the rule of President Boris Yeltsin during his second term to the reign of a tsar. But then President Yeltsin himself, addressing members of his inner ruling circle, was recently quoted as saying: “Listen to what the tsar says” – Слушай, что тебе царь говорит. (Incidentally, an off-handed reference to “Tsar Boris” can be a humorous flourish: making reference to Tsar Boris Godunov). And some observers, reflecting on Yeltsin’s authoritarian style of dealing with his subordinates, may comment that he is acting in accordance with the tsarist principle, “хочу – казню, хочу – милую” (“I’ll execute or pardone you, as I like”).

Most luminaries of Russian literature from Pushkin onwards were at odds with the Russian autocracy – likely because they did not want the fate of their literary works to depend on the caprices of the tsar. Yet many rank and file Russians loved their tsars. Some historians would even argue that Russians cannot live without a tsar-like regime. The national anthem used to be titled Боже царя храни, (God Save the Tsar). And the old motto За царя, за Родину, за веру, (For the Tsar, for the Fatherland, for the Faith) still strikes a chord with many Russians. Therefore, the word “tsar” often has a positive connotation. When somebody gives you a gorgeous expensive gift you may say he rewarded you “tsar-style” – наградил по-царски. Moreover, today the word “tsar” is even used for marketing – suffice it to note the names of restaurants like “Царская охота” or “Tsar’s Hunt” (where Yeltsin likes to dine) or dishes like “оленина по-царски” (“venison a la tsar”). They would not give a name like that to something inedible, would they?

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