When you're translating a text containing the word Russian from English to Russian, you must be aware of the context, because it can mean "a citizen of Russia, regardless of ethnicity" (россиянин), or "an ethnic Russian, not necessarily a citizen of Russia" (русский), or both, in which case there is no single word for it in Russian.

What do native speakers of English usually mean when they use the word Russian (when referring to a person or people)?

As I understand it, native English speakers are not acutely aware of the distinction between the two meanings, but it's very important in Russia.

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    Russian: 1. adjective Russian means belonging or relating to Russia, or to its people, language, or culture. ...the Russian parliament. 2. countable noun A Russian is a person who comes from Russia. Three-quarters of Russians live in cities. 3. uncountable noun Russian is the language spoken in Russia, and other countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgystan. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/russian
    – user 66974
    Nov 21, 2018 at 18:36
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    It is not clear what you are asking. What we mean when we use the word "Russian" depends on the context. You ask about the noun use, but appear to overlook the adjective. Generally, "a Russian" is probably a citizen of the Russian Federation, regardless of ethnic classification. Something that is "Russian" (adjective) is something from that country. Russian (noun, no article) is the language. Nov 21, 2018 at 18:37
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    Surely it depends on the context - though I suppose that in most contexts there is no need to make a distinction between the two. Nov 21, 2018 at 18:38
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    This may end up being an opinion question. How many native English speakers are even aware that the concept of "ethnic Russian" exists?
    – shoover
    Nov 21, 2018 at 18:39
  • 1
    This is like an Eskimo asking what do native speakers of English usually mean when they use the word snow. Nov 21, 2018 at 18:41

1 Answer 1


Although this question is very similar to ‘what’s the difference between being English or being from the UK?’, I think that there is scant awareness of the difference between ‘Russian’ (from the country) and ‘Russian’ (ethnically) in the UK.

I think you are correct - that there is not an acute awareness of this.

In fact I think there is almost no awareness of it. I myself had never heard of it, it never crossed my mind. Thanks for pointing it out.

So I think, in translating, you could say ‘Russian citizens’ or ‘ethnic Russians’. Which would at least... begin the process of letting us know that there is a difference.

When native English speakers refer to ‘Russians’ they typically mean ‘anyone from Russia’. Without knowing there is a distinction.

“How can the confessor teach/ those who are lost and sick at heart,/ when he himself, among the sinners,/ is worst, and most forsaken?/ It is only a game we play/ with other people's sins./ Besides, everyone knows/ that everyone lies confessing.” ― Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Stolen Apples

  • The person you quoted is an ethnic Ukranian... the irony.
    – alex811
    Nov 21, 2018 at 19:12
  • The demonstration... of
    – Jelila
    Nov 21, 2018 at 19:34

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