Countries of the Former Soviet Union: Origins and Etymologies

Countries of the Former Soviet Union: Origins and Etymologies

Countries of the Former Soviet Union: Origins and Etymologies

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Why do we call these countries what we do? Where did their names come from?  The etymological theories for the names of all 15 countries are equally fascinating, drawing on the history, religion, and mythology of the Eurasian region.


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Why do we call these countries what we do? Where did their names come from? The etymological theories for the names of all 15 countries are equally fascinating, drawing on the history, religion, and mythology of the Eurasian region.

Armenia

The origins of the Armenian people are truly ancient, and if you look back far enough their history begins to merge into legend.

No-one knows exactly where the word ‘Armenia’ comes from or what it means – the furthest back that we know for certain is the Old Persian word Armina.  There are number of theories as to what this refers to:

  • The Proto-Indo-European root *ar which means to assemble, to create
  • A place-name from the Diyarbakir and Sason regions (now located in modern-day Turkey)
  • The most probable theory is that the legendary king Aram gave the Armenians their name. As Aram was contemporaneous with biblical figures, records about the king are scant, and those few that do exist are cryptically worded – it is unlikely that we will ever know the true answer

The local endonym, Hayastan, is equally mysterious.  The –stan is a common Persian location suffix which just means place of. Haya refers to Hayk, another patriarch.  As with Aram, very little is known about him other than that he was purportedly the great-great-grandson of Noah.

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Azerbaijan

Atropates, a trader, nobleman, and soldier under Darius III and then Alexander the Great, is the source of the word ‘Azerbaijan’. Atropates’s hospitality and military prowess secured the trust of the emperor and he was duly awarded with the eponymous province.  When Alexander’s empire crumbled, Atropates continued to rule the province as an independent kingdom that more or less encompasses modern-day Azerbaijan.  The descendants of this land inherited his name, which eventually became ‘Azerbaijan’ as the Persian language developed.

Many Azerbaijani scholars disagree with this theory. They argue that the name comes from the Persian words azar (fire) and payegan (guardian), combining to mean ‘guardians of the fire’. The country’s Zoroastrian traditions and its natural features do give this theory some credence.

Belarus

‘Belarus’ literally means White Russia (from Bel’ meaning white, and Rus’ which refers to confederation of East Slavs based in Kiev).

What is interesting is that, although the term ‘Belarus’ has been used since the 13th century, it has referred to considerably different regions throughout its lifetime.

Belarus was used by Germanic traders to describe successively the Black Sea region, the White Sea region, Novgorod and its surrounding provinces, Muscovy, and finally the location of the modern-day country.

The last movement was actually headed by the Russians in preparation for an invasion of Poland. They believed that by insisting that the region – at that point controlled by the Poles – was historically Russian territory, it would lend emotional and moral justification to their mission.

As to why these traders considered it ‘white’ in the first place there are many theories:

  • The region was famed for the blond hair and white clothing of its inhabitants
  • It was called ‘White Russia’ to distinguish it from the ‘Black’ soil of other parts of the empire
  • Whiteness was associated with purity and freedom – it was the part of the Russian land that was not overrun by the Mongol hordes

Estonia

Estonia’s etymology at first sight seems straightforward.

In his Germanica, the Roman historian Tacitus mentions the ‘Land of the Aesti’, a mysterious place far to the north of the Roman empire. It is from this that the word Estonia ultimately derives.

However, research has shown that Tacitus’s Aesti were actually a Baltic people, whereas Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people. It is likely, therefore, that the tribe he was describing actually lived south of what is now Estonia.

So why did that change?

The most credible answer is that the Vikings were responsible.  Aware of Roman accounts of the people of the East, they began to reuse the name to describe the people that they encountered after crossing the Baltic Sea.

This ‘Eistland’ was then imparted on all of the Germanic languages, before transforming into ‘Estonia’ in modern English.

Georgia

It is unknown why we call the Georgians, another ancient Caucasian people, what we do.

As with Azerbaijan, it appears that the word Georgian stems from a Persian word: gurgan, which means wolf.

The rather unconvincing explanation is that Georgia was known as the land of the wolves and thus received this designation.

A previously widespread explanation was that the kingdom gained the name Georgia owing to the popularity of St. George amongst its people. This deceptively simple theory has now been completely rejected by all major etymologists.

The local endonym is Sakartvelo – this relates to the central region of Kartli, which was originally inhabited by the Karts tribe. While the links are perfectly clear in Georgia’s native language, it sadly provides no assistance in deciphering the enigmatic English designation.

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Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs have been a nomadic people since time immemorial and their name reflects this lifestyle:

Qaz is an ancient Turkic word that means to wander, and the ak part of their name simply denotes a particular clan or tribe.

Interestingly, the same word formation has also lent into itself to a non-Turkic (but also semi-itinerant) people – the Cossacks. In Russian, the phonetic difference between the two people is even smaller – Казах (Kazakh) and Казак (Kazak), respectively.

The Kazakhs themselves have a far more colourful theory regarding their origins: (see above)

Kyrgyzstan

Running to approximately 500,000 lines, the Kyrgyz epic poem, Manas, is one of the longest in history.

One of the many feats of the eponymous hero was to unite the forty feuding tribes of the Kyrgyz people and then go on to defeat the Uyghurs. The name of the country and its people cements this achievement:

Kyrg means forty, iz means we are.

The unity of the Kyrgyz people is also reflected in the forty-pronged star that is depicted on their flag. The bands running across the star represent the Tunduk, the crisscrossing laths that hold up the top of a yurt.

Latvia

Latvians are known as Lats in most languages, but the origin of this word is unclear.

Scholars know that it is a contraction of the Latgalians, one of the four original Baltic tribes.

Other than the fact that the word is of Germanic origins and that it is probably a hydronym, nothing else is known.

Lithuania

There are multiple theories concerning the etymology of ‘Lithania’, most suggesting that, like ‘Latvia’, it is a hydronym:

  • The most convincing one claims that the word is connected to Lietava, a small river in central Lithuania
  • More generally, it could derive from the Lithuanian lietus, which means ‘a rainy place’
  • Alternatively, It could originate from the Lithuanian word lieti which means to consolidate or to unite
  • Most fancifully, it might come from the Latin word litus, meaning tubes – a reference to the wooden trumpets that were played by Lithuanian tribesmen

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Moldova

The river Moldova in Romania gave its name to the surrounding Principality of Moldavia, which in turn was the source of the country’s etymology.

The theories behind the original word’s roots are relatively diverse. Some scholars believe that the Gothic word for dust is the source, others claim that it derives from the Romanian word for spruce.

Legend has it that the river was named in honour of a nobleman’s hunting dog, which had drowned in its waters whilst chasing after a Carpathian wisent (a cousin of the bison).

Russia

As most people know, the word Russia comes from the medieval state of Rus’, a confederation of East Slavic peoples that was based in Kiev.

However, the word Rus’ itself comes from the Greek name for the Viking raiders and merchants who sailed down from Scandinavia and settled in the lands that now comprise Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Tribes of East Slavs already lived in these areas, but it was these Vikings that brought them together to form a state and ruled over them as overlords (in much the same way as the Normans subjugated the native Anglo-Saxons of England).

‘Russia’ reached its modern form via Byzantine Greek, whose name for their northern neighbour was Rossia (the modern-day endonym).

Tajikistan

The etymology of the word ‘Tajik’ is somewhat confusing.

It is well known that ‘Tajik’, a New Persian word, derives from the Tayy tribe whose name meant Arab in that form of the language. The Tayy are indeed a well-documented Arab tribe that can trace their history to before the time of the Prophet.

However, there is no proof that the Tajiks actually have anything to do with the Tayy. As Persian speaking Muslims they need not necessarily have had any Arab blood in them – the association may simply be a case of muddled identities.

The other major theory postulates that Tajik comes from the Tibetan words, Tag Dzig, meaning Persian and leopard, respectively.  This may not be as farfetched as it sounds, given the intricate links that the mountain people of South and Central Asia had with one another.

Turkmenistan

For a long time, etymologists believed that Turkmen, a Sogdian word, meant Turklike.

This led them to believe that the inhabitants of modern-day Turkmenistan were thought to be on the periphery of the Turkic mythological system and, as such, were described by the Sogdians as quasi-Turks.

Research developments have completely reversed this theory. It is now thought that Turkmen is actually an intensifier, meaning something like ‘pure Turk’ or ‘most-Turkic-of-all-the-Turks’.

Another theory – recently discredited – argued that ‘Turkmen’ is simply an amalgam of ‘Turk’ and ‘iman’ (meaning faith in Arabic).  This referred to a mass conversion of 200,000 Oghuz Turkic households that took place in the region in 971.

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Ukraine

‘Ukraine’ derives from the Slavic words u and kraj which together mean near the border.

This term was used to delineate parts of Kievan Rus’s border with Polish lands in the 12th century.

One of the few transparent etymologies, its authenticity is supported by contemporaneous Latin texts which referred to the land as Marginalia.

Uzbekistan

‘Uzbekistan’ comes from three roots: uz meaning free, bek meaning master, and stan which, of course, means land of.

Together they mean land of the free man.

Another theory states that Uzbek is simply a transformation of Oghuz, one of the major tribal confederations of West Turkic people.

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