Novorossiya: a geographical name misused by propagandists

Novorossiya is a historical and geographical, rather than political, term. It has recently been much abused by Russian demagogues. The term dates back to the 18th century, when it referred to the steppes north of the Black Sea where agricultural settlement began about that time.

In a broader sense adopted by the end of the 19th century, Novorossiya included all the steppes from the Dniester to the Kuban and even to Stavropol. Dnepropetrovsk was founded as Novorossiysk in 1776, later to be renamed Ekaterinoslav. The Russian port of Novorossiysk, founded as a fortress in 1838 on land ceded by the Ottomans and captured from the Circassians, is evidence that the term Novorossiya applied to lands on the east coast of the Black Sea as well.

I believe the paragraphs above are in agreement with the Encyclopedia of Ukraine’s History (2010). Interestingly, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia limited Novorossiya to the south of Ukraine and admitted it had been settled mostly by Ukrainians and Russians. The much-respected Brockhaus and Efron encyclopedia (1890-1916) also favored a narrow definition and included a detailed account of the 18th-century settlement.

The –rossiya in Novoròssiya sound close to Rossìya, but does it meant today’s Russia? No, rather the old Russian Empire or its tripartite core: the “Greater, Minor, and White Russia,” that is in today’s speak Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The term was never meant to exclude Ukraine. Recall that Grushevsky insisted that Ukraine was the true Rus’, and Gogol’ russky includes “Ukrainian”.

Why “Novo”? Because it was a colony in the sense of empty land to be settled, like New France, New England, New Holland or New Caledonia. Why colonized so late? Because slave raids by the predatory Crimean Khanate prevented safe settlement until the Russian Empire put an end to them. Settled by whom? Novorossiya’s countryside, largely by Ukrainians and Russians but also by Serbian, German, Greek colonists. Novorossian cities were ethnically mixed: Russian-speaking with strong Jewish, German, Greek and Armenian presence. It all changed after WWII, of course.

Novorossiya is no more Russian than New England is English – the dominant language may be a dialect of Russian but that’s it. Ethnically and culturally, Novorossiya is a unique mix and is closely related both to “old” Ukraine and to Southern Russia, the Russia of the steppe – which is also a “new” Russia compared with the forests north and east of Moscow. But Canada is not aiming to annex Maine and armed minutemen from Seattle don’t cross into British Columbia. Even if the UK breaks apart, it’s hard to see England sending tanks over the border because the south of Scotland is so much like the north of England.

In the next post on Novorossiya, I’d like to discuss Grigory Danilevsky’s once-popular novel, Fugitives in Novorossiya (1862). Danilevsky’s focus is on the eastern parts, “Rostov, Mariupol, Taganrog.” I’ll get back to this work because Danilevsky (not to be confused with the proto-Eurasianist Nikolai Danilevsky) drew from his experience as an ethnographer and geographer charged with describing the Azov Sea area in the late 1850s.


  1. […] Donetsk separatists, possibly from the French far right and the Spanish far left; Alexei K. on the history of the term Novorossiya ‘New Russia,’ Russian journalistic practice, and (less directly about Ukraine) Krylov’s […]

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