The Union of Councils

After some technical posts here’s finally one that is back on my blog’s stated topic, ‘naming things’.

When I was a kid, we lived practically next door to some nice people. They were called the Council Folks. These people, it was said, considered all the people of the Earth their friends. They were hospitable to strangers and had an interest in all walks of life. When the Council Folks set their mind on something they would eventually excel, whether in agriculture, chess or music. The Council Folks were at home even in space where they kept a permanent presence aboard an orbital station named Peace.

Not a lot of people ever believed the official lithurgy, I suppose. When I was 11 the Union of Councils collapsed and the ‘Council Folks’ reverted to being just Russians, which is what most everyone in Finland had been calling them anyway.

Finland was never actually part of the Communist Bloc, but the post-war governments certainly maintained friendly relations with the Soviet neighbors. The relations were so close that in Western Europe a particular word was invented to describe it, Finlandization… But that’s not the word I want to explore in this post. I’m interested in the naming of the long-gone Soviet Union itself. How come we in Finland came to know it as the ‘Union of Councils’, yet most other countries adopted the Russian word ‘sovyet’ as part of the official name of the state?

Sovyet (совет) does indeed mean ‘council’, so the Finnish name of the country was a literal translation. Was this naming just a Finnish eccentricity since even neighboring languages such as Swedish and German use the russianic ‘soviet’ instead?

To bring some light to this mystery, I looked up the translations of ‘Soviet Union’ vs. ‘council’ in the major European national languages. Turns out that Finnish, Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian were the only languages outside the Soviet Union that used the literal translation. Even though they were politically part of the Soviet sphere, the Czechoslovakians, Hungarians and Romanians referred to the Communist mothership as ‘Soviet Union’ rather than ‘Union of Councils’. The following map illustrates this point.

Could we perhaps deduce that the use of the native word ‘council’ indicated some kind of affinity with the aims of the Soviet revolution? After all, the naming of a political entity can have a powerful effect on how people perceive that group. The ‘Union of Councils’ sounds fairly benevolent and understandable, essentially like a discussion forum where local representatives might meet to discuss common issues. In contrast, all that we can tell of the ‘Soviet Union’ is that it’s some kind of joint group of foreigners. Sounds scary already. Why are those mysterious foreigners forming a union anyway? They must be plotting something…

There is clearly room for propagandistic manipulation of language here, as Orwell so aptly showed. In Finland we should know it first-hand: the practice of methodically replacing ‘Russians’ with those benevolent ‘Council Folks’ in Finnish media before 1990 was clearly politically motivated.

However I don’t quite believe that the English name of the Soviet Union originally was the result of such an intentionally propagandistic purpose. The adoption of ‘sovyet’ probably came about mainly to clearly separate the Russian communists from previous European attempts at revolutionary government. The most successful of these had been the French “Commune de Paris”, a socialist-anarchist council that controlled Paris for a few months in 1871. In English this goverment became known as the Paris Commune rather than by the direct translation “Council of Paris”. The borrowing of ‘commune’ from French was thus a direct precedent of the borrowing of ‘soviet’ from Russian.

This back story of the ‘Union of Councils’ serves as a reminder that it’s generally worth asking why a particular word was adopted. When you encounter a word that’s been borrowed from a foreign language and is not directly parseable — say, ‘skeuomorphic’ — do you stop to ask why this word has been adopted instead of trying to come up with a native expression? Is the goal of this word to make its referent more clearly delineated; or rather to obscure something behind its forebodingly foreign façade; or perhaps it’s simply come into use because someone wanted to appear smarter than his audience? All of these are reasonable possibilities.

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