I grew up with Russian grandparents. After losing everything in Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis burned their homes and killed their neighbors, they decided to make a new start in America. While my parents refused to speak Russian around me in (successful) hopes that we would integrate more easily into America, мои бабушка и дедушка (my grandmother and grandfather) lived just down the street and I visited them almost daily.
Once I moved away from Tucson, AZ when I was 7 years old, I lost access to the only people I had that I could speak Russian to. Living in Colorado (a state with only 14,026 household speakers of "Russian, Polish, or Other Slavic Languages" out of a population of 5,758,736 people according to the US Census Bureau ACS 1-year Estimate), I have never naturally encountered another Russian speaker. Even after moving to Denver county, the most linguistically and ethnically diverse county in Colorado, I still have never encountered one. All of this is to say that my fluency is basically dead and I could be misunderstanding something or have things wrong.
Russian is a very strongly gendered language. Every word pertaining to people is gendered in some way. Right now, given that I am a woman, I use she/her pronouns. Some examples of this (taken from pronoun.is) being:
- She went to the park.
- I went with her.
- She brought her frisbee.
This, as you would expect, translates very easily into Russian. Она/её in Russian is directly equivalent to she/her in English.
However, I have not always used these pronouns. Until recently, I was trying they/them pronouns as part of investigating my feelings about gender more generally. While I eventually decided that they're not for me, I still gained some interesting experience in trying to speak Russian as a nonbinary person.
You may have noticed that I said Мои бабушка и дедушка (my grandmother and grandfather) in the first paragraph of this post where I would normally simply say "my grandparents" in English. This is because there is no (officially recognized, anyways) gender-neutral noun declension that can be respectfully used for people in the Russian language. I can't say "мои деды" unless I'm talking about my plural grandfathers. I can't say "мои бабушки" unless I'm talking about my plural grandmothers. I definitely can't say "мои дедя" as that still has the masculine connotations of "дед" while also being dehumanizing. The closest Russian has to the neutral form "grandparent" that we have in English is "бабушка или дедушка" (literally "a grandmother or grandfather").
This, precisely, is the problem encountered when nonbinary people speak Russian. "бабушка или дедушка" is not an exhaustive set of all potential genders like "grandparent" is in English. No matter how many genders are chained together in the form of "бабушка или дедушка," it will never be exhaustive. An exhaustive collection of all types of grandparents is not possible with this form.
The Existing Solutions
So what if you wanted to have a word analogous to "grandparent" in Russian? How would you make a default case that exhausts the category of "parent of your parent?" A singular great grandparent can be described as "Великий предок," but this is an inherently masculine phrase in the same way as "мой прадедушка" (my great grandfather). If you were talking specifically about your grandmother, you would say "моя прабабушка." Because there is no neutral (neutral being distinct from neuter in that it can respectfully be used for people as opposed to inanimate objects) noun declension in officially recognized Russian, it's not possible to create an exhaustive term like "grandparent."
Nonbinary people, however, do still exist. Just because a language doesn't provide space for someone to exist comfortably doesn't mean that person isn't who they are. This brings us outside of the textbook usage of the Russian language and into real-life usage, where nonbinary people have been making space for themselves in their language. In hir article from October 2018, Cecil Leigh Wilson (then a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) says:
In classrooms, on forums, and in other places where the question of nonbinary Russian comes up, someone will always offer the unhelpful and invalidating answer: “It’s just not possible (so get over it).” But because binaries are created and imposed, there is always nonbinary slippage.
Dr. Wilson spells out 4 options in hir article, those being:
Alternating between genders. As Dr. Wilson describes: "using 'both/and' in the absence of 'neither/nor.'" This is a common approach in the Russian nonbinary community, and is also present in English-speaking cultures separetely from our singular they.
"The Royal We"
This was my preferred solution while I used they/them pronouns in English, but some nonbinary Russians are offended by the dehumanization typically associated with "они." Just because slavic languages like Russian don't have the same precedent for a singular "they" that English does doesn't mean neutral plural pronouns can't be attempted at all. Simply attempting to mimic the singular they as seen in English with the Russian "они" also has the added benefit of being correctly gendered by computer translators.
Some nonbinary Russian speakers have attempted to take the problem of limited gender expression in Russian head-on by simply adding more gender. This comes in the form of combining word endings with underscores or slashes and a concept similar to neopronouns in English. One such example, provided by the nonbinaryresource Tumblr blog is ох/ех/ех/ем/их/ниx. To use the sentence "he/she/they went to the store," for example:
- Masculine: Он пошел в магазин
- Feminine: Она пошла в магазин
- Neutral: Ох пошло в магазин
I definitely admire this approach. It drops the dehumanization of они while being functionally analogous to the English singular "they." However, as expected for pronouns that don't exist in Russian language curriculum, computer translators can't handle it.
"Just" Pick One
This is eventually the choice* I ended up making along with Dr. Wilson, both in Russian and in English. While ze "settled" for the masculine Он, as a woman I use the feminine Она. However, my usage of they/them was just because I was questioning my identity. For a lot of people, they/them is the answer, not the question. The solution of "just" picking from "он или она" is simply not sufficient because, like in the aforementioned case of "бабушка или дедушка," it's a non-exhaustive and therefore insufficient answer. There is no default case to catch the people who identify with neither. As noted by Dr. Wilson on hir choice to adopt он:
I started learning Russian long before I started my process of self-acceptance—for years my grammar was that of my assigned gender, because why wouldn’t it be? It was actually my experience living in Russia immersed in what I experienced to be a binary system not actually all that much more restrictive than that of the U.S., just restrictive in different ways, that pushed me to socially transition back home. “At least you get to go home,” a Muscovite trans friend told me, so I left the closet at customs.
My decision came down to this: between the grammar of my assigned gender, which completely invalidates all the work I put in to accept and disclose my transness, and the grammar of the other binary gender, which… isn’t accurate, but at least isn’t that… I settled for the latter and hoped I would grow into it.
And I did, in a way. Flamboyance and camp come through my Russian masculinity much more strongly than they do in English—in tone, gesture, posture, and other paralinguistic performances—as if on balance, as if queerness demands to be written on my body in one way or another.
The Requirements of a Sufficient Solution
Gender (including pronouns) is a highly personal journey, regardless of language. While I personally chose to use Они/их while I was using they/them pronouns in English, that solution doesn't work for everyone.
To ensure a sufficient default case, a grammatical gender expression must be:
- Globally applicable
To be exhaustive, a grammatical gender must match all possible genders. Another way to think of this is passing the "grandparent" test established above, where the term "grandparent" matches all possible genders of "the parent of your parent." Put more formally:
- Where the set of all possible genders is defined as G,
- the cardinality of G is uncountably infinite,
- and the set of all genders matched by the default case is defined as M,
- an exhaustive grammatical gender asserts that G ⊆ M.
To be globally applicable, a grammatical gender must be readily usable in all linguistic mediums. For example: if the gender can be expressed in writing but not in speech, it is not globally applicable.
The Flaws of Existing Solutions
- Switching back and forth between masculine and feminine is non-exhaustive because there are people who don't identify with one or all of the genders being switched between.
- Они/их is not exhaustive because, although it's not gendered, it's a traditionally neuter (as opposed to neutral) grammatical gender. Analogous moreso to a plural "it" than a singular personal "they," many nonbinary people are not comfortable identifying with it.
- Combining gendered endings with an underscore or slash is a sign of how extremely online our global society is. It's a strong assertion of "both" in a language that does not traditionally allow for that, but it only works in writing. It is not globally applicable.
The Sufficient Solution
Out of these existing solutions, Ох is the only one that satisfies the requirements of a sufficient solution. It's globally applicable and has the potential to exhaustively match all possible genders depending on how the neutral implications of the pronoun evolves in practice. However, due to the lack of precedent for a neutral personal pronoun in Russian and the conservatism of Russian culture in general, widespread adoption would prove even more difficult than adoption of singular they in English.
Unfortunately, I'm just one Russian-American. I don't have the authority or power to make, mandate, or implement a sufficient solution. That said, I think ох/ех is the best approach towards a truly exhaustive default case. What's needed right now is more recognition of nonbinary Russians and a neutralization of the Russian language not just in real-world practice, but in academic Russian too.