A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In the old Soviet Union, what did it mean to be branded a "cosmopolite"?

March 3, 1988

Dear Cecil:

Two questions. Soviet authorities used to brand a person as a "cosmopolite" in order to signify his or her lack of good Soviet citizenship. Why? What pejorative connotations did this word have in their minds? Second, they often seemed to use "hooliganism" as a specific criminal charge like theft or assault, although the term as we use it is vague, covering a host of activities. What types of crime(s) did it cover?

Cecil replies:

Those of us who are fastidious about these things, Jonathan, always say "cosmopolitan," "cosmopolite" being a too-literal translation of the Russian kosmopolit. Also, you seldom see "cosmopolitan" without "rootless" stuck in front of it like a cheap cigar. The significance of the term is clear to any Russian. It meant (and for all I know, may still mean) the Jews.

Kosmopolit first entered the Russian language in the 1860s, around the time Czar Alexander II first permitted some Jews to emigrate to other parts of Russia from the Pale, the region in the western part of the empire to which they had long been restricted. Many Jews took the opportunity to move to big cities like St. Petersburg, where they apparently aroused the ire of the local goyim, who regarded them basically as roving loan sharks. Jews were also widely presumed to have extraterritorial loyalties — that is, they were thought to be Zionists, dreaming even in the 19th century of returning someday to Jerusalem.

The Soviet-produced Dictionary of the Contemporary Russian Literary Language defines kosmopolit as "a person who does not consider himself as belonging to any nationality." If that's too ambiguous, the definition of kosmopolitizm should remove any doubts about the word's implications: "a bourgeois reactionary ideology."

Jews were persecuted off and on throughout Soviet history, notably by Stalin in the 30s and again during the "Doctor's Plot" in the early 50s, which involved several Jewish doctors who allegedly plotted against the dictator's life. Officially, of course, the Soviet Union did not single out ethnic groups, hence the need for code words.

A University of Chicago professor with whom I spoke on this subject recalled that a friend of his who was Jewish was once arrested in the Soviet Union for speculating (in books, of all things). The authorities officially described the friend as "a thin, agile brunette," which presumably made the situation clear to all concerned.

Moving on to "hooliganism," you're right that the term is vague to us. It's vague to the Russians, too, and that's why Soviet authorities liked it — if they couldn't nail you for anything else, there was always hooliganism. In this respect the charge is similar to our disorderly conduct, although the penalties can be far more severe.

It should be noted that hooliganism referred strictly to common crime rather than political crime. I recall reading prior to the breakup of the U.S.S.R. about 30 Lithuanians being arrested for hooliganism following anti-Soviet demonstrations, but that was just an attempt to sweep things under the rug. The authorities undoubtedly felt it was better to be dealing with rowdies than revolutionaries. Not that it made any difference in the end.

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