Decoding Soviet institutions (an introduction)

Literacy is the path to Communism
Literacy is the path to Communism

And you thought remembering names was bad enough…

Trying to make sense of the myriad Party and state agencies that gave institutional shape to the civilization of Stalinism can be every bit as challenging. The Bolsheviks’ zeal for bureaucracy produced a maze of entities possessing names that were often too long and confusing even for native Russian speakers. Typically, Soviet institutions came to be known by shorter acronyms built through a combination of the first syllables of words mushed together [yes, that’s a technical term] to form a short-hand referent for the full, official name.

Fortunately for non-Russian speakers, many of the “base” terms used by the Bolsheviks are cognates; they’re drawn from foreign words (i.e. non-Russian) you already know.

The more common ones include:

  • MIN = “ministry” (ministerstvo / министерство)
  • KOM = “committee” (komitet / комитет)  OR “commissariat” (komissariat / комиссариат)
  • ORG = “organizational” (organizatsionnoe /организационное)
  • REV = “revolutionary” (revoliutsionnyi / революционный)
  • SOV = “council” (soviet / совет) [Not a cognate, but familiar enough to remember]

In addition to these, there are a small number of Russian words used frequently enough that they are worth remembering. The two most important are:

  • NAR = “people” or “peoples'” (narodnyi / народный) [adj.]
  • GOS = “state” (gosudarstvennyi / государственный) [adj.]

References to Party organizations typically include the abbreviation of a geographic (or territorial) unit:

  • OB = oblast’ / область (“oblast” — this word is typically translated into English as “region)
  • RAI = raion / район (“district”) [Note: this is a cognate from the French word “rayon” meaning “department” or “honeycomb”)
  • GOR = “city” (gorod / город)

The above list is be no means exhaustive. A great many institutional acronyms include Russian words specific to the institution’s function [EX: VOEN = “military” (voennyi / военный) as in Revvoensovet, or the “Revolutionary Military Council.” Still, being able to recognize the more common “roots” listed above should help you makes some sense when you encounter an acronym for the first time.