Can You Be Nonbinary in Russian?

Cecil Leigh Wilson


It’s a question I get at least once every time I teach introductory Russian, or talk about Russian in my community of nonbinary English-speakers, or disclose this part of my identity to a Russian-speaker.

Artwork by the group NEBO (Nebinarnye v obshchestve)

Contrary to the handwringing of reactionary armchair grammarians, English is a language with long-established options for gender neutral and nonbinary language. Even the “new” nonbinary pronouns like ze/hir, ey/em, and others are have been recorded for several decades already—which, at the pace of internet-age linguistic transformation, is basically forever. And in English we’re mostly dealing with pronouns. There are other gendered aspects of language (Is ‘hey guys’ gender neutral? [No]), but they’re mostly on the sociolinguistic level.

In Russian, of course, things look very different for a nonbinary person just trying to be. So much greater a proportion of the language lets us know loud and clear that there is no room for our existence, that we are not meant to be. Many undergraduate students have asked me whether it’s feasible to use the built-in neutral, оно, for oneself—but, as it’s never used for people in standardized Russian, it usually comes off as dehumanizing.

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. There are always options. Here are a few:

The Switcheroo

I’ve known some nonbinary Russian-speakers to opt for ‘both/and’ in the absence of a ‘neither/nor.’ In their circle of disclosure, they feel seen and affirmed by linguistic oscillation, switching back and forth between feminine and masculine grammar day by day or hour by hour. Some undergraduates I’ve met at UW-Madison have chosen this approach as well as So*ni and Sasha, interviewed in this article from The Moscow Times.

The Royal We

Although Slavic languages do not have the same historical foundation of a singular ‘they’ that English does, employing a neutral plural is still an option. Likely modeling on the English singular they, some Russian speakers have given it a try. In texts such as this article on dysphoria, a translation from English into Russian, the verbal agreement seems to match in number to its antecedent, sometimes switching in a single sentence: “Ами говорит, что в иные дни они чувствуют себя «на сто процентов комфортно», но в другие дни они «не хотят, чтобы их даже видели».”

Get Creative

One of the most beautiful things about linguistics for my queer heart is that, no matter how deeply a language is structured to normativize, there are always speakers with the ingenuity to make it work for them. Even if these creative solutions are not widely recognized as legitimate language use (as nonbinary Engilsh often is as well), it makes an enormous difference to have even a small language community in one’s sphere of disclosure validate linguistic innovation. Here are some creative solutions I’ve seen:

  • In writing, it’s possible to combine masculine and feminine grammar in past-tense verbs, adjectives, and nouns, marked with some form of slash mark “/” or underscore “_”, as modeled in the above linked article on dysphoria:
    “С тех пор, как я узнал_а термин “небинарный”…”
    “Долж_на отметить, что я не учен_ая и моя выборка довольно маленькая…”
    “Практически все участни_цы говорят, что интенсивность дисфории зависит от обстоятельств…”
  • After getting involved with the Language Neutralization Laboratory (whose web presence is no longer active as of 2016, but remains as an excellent archive of discussion and modeling of nonbinary Russian), So*ni developed a past-tense verbal ending “-кши”—for example, “я читакши” instead of “я читал_а.”
  • There is a multitude of Reddit and other forum and blog threads working out new pronouns and grammar. One that comes up occasionally is оне (as in this thread: “Оне походиле в магазин; У неге есть кошка; Еме нравится кофе; Еге зовут Сам; Мы с ним поехал в Китаю; Мы говорили о нем.” Another is ох, included in this compilation of gender neutral terms in various languages: “ох/ех/ех/ем/их/ниx.”

“Just” Pick One

I want to discuss this option because it’s the choice* that I ended up making for myself, but I want to be clear first that this should not be the only, or even first, advice given to a student seeking solutions. But it is an option, and one that many nonbinary people take (including in English) with their own complex reasons and emotional connections to it.

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.

If you know other nonbinary Russian possibilities, I would be so grateful to hear about it in the comments. I’ll leave you with the parting words of Loki, interviewed for this article by the Center for Human Rights Information:

“Прежде всего, к любому человеку стоит обращаться на “вы”. Во-первых, это свидетельствует об уважении и культуре, во-вторых – предупреждает оскорбительное восприятие. Следует задать вопрос “В каком роде мне стоит к вам обращаться?” Если общение уже началось и человек поправляет вас, то стоит прислушаться и использовать то обращение, о котором он просит, даже если вам кажется, что внешность или голос этому не соответствуют.”

Cecil Leigh Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hir pronouns are ze/hir (Eng), on (Cz), and он (Rus).

SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


Primorye Triangle: Human Trafficking into Russia’s Far East

Randall Rowe


Development of Russia’s Far East, namely its principal city Vladivostok, has been named a main priority of Vladimir Putin’s government. A special ministry (Минвостокразвития) within the government has been tasked with overseeing this expansion and economic development. The New York Times (NYT) ran a story on July 14, 2016 likening this effort to the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, with a headline full of bravado exclaiming, “Russia Looks to Populate Its Far East. Wimps Need Not Apply.” While the NYT may be romanticizing this effort through the story of a Cossack (photo from NYT is on the right) who is taking advantage of the government incentives to develop the eastern reaches of the country, nothing is said about human labor trafficking as a result of this effort. The article aptly points out problems of cronyism and national anxiety of Chinese expansion, however it fails to mention that forced labor practices are also at the crux of Russian development of its Far East. In order to fully unpack the international dynamics of this effort, one must consider the worsening humanitarian situation in North Korea, the growing global influence of China, and Russia’s government-sanctioned eastern expansion.

Primorsky Krai (Maritime Territory), Russia’s Far East

UN Report on North Korea

On October 28, 2015, about eight and a half months before the NYT article, Marsuki Darusman, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, delivered a report to the UN General Assembly in which he warned the international community about the North Korean regime’s profit from forced labor as a new source of income for the country, which is currently desperate for foreign currency. The political situation as a result of Kim Jong-un’s repressive, autocratic regime is forcing many to seek alternative methods of leaving the country, both for work and political freedoms. Predictably, the North Korean government highly regulates the migration of its citizens both within and outside of its borders. Section C.30 of the report aptly highlights the financial gain for “brokers” who are hired to assist North Koreans out of the country, often times to China and the Russian Federation, noting that “[i]n past years, a large number of brokers, many of them operating mainly for financial gain, have assisted citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cross the border. The fees charged by brokers have reportedly increased as movement across the border has become more difficult.” More pertinent to this contextualization, section C.34 mentions that “tens of thousands of workers have reportedly been contracted by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to work in foreign companies in China, the Russian Federation and other countries, mostly in construction and other manual jobs.” There are many recipient countries of North Korean workers, but none more prolific than China and Russia. This is due in part to North Korea’s need for economic stimulus, because of its international isolation and a particularly bad drought in 2015, in correlation with Russia’s need for labor to drive its eastern expansion project in response to China’s growing influence globally and locally on Russia’s south-eastern border.

Russian Anxiety Towards the Chinese

Chapter 3 out of the book Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europeauthored by Victor Larin, examines the attitudes and resulting policies around Chinese migration into Russia’s Far East. This tension is due to the perceived (and sometimes real) threats, “such as “ethnic” and economic aggression, political pressure and criminal activity” (75). Larin goes on to note that, “despite official statements from both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation that border disputes between China and Russia have been resolved, many local residents still fear that China will annex the Russia Far East in the future” (75). Russian fear, or sometimes fascination, with Chinese migration into the Far East has preoccupied the public consciousness both in official policies and popular culture. For example, the latter may be found throughout Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which imagines a reestablished Russian empire that is heavily under the financial and cultural influence of the Chinese. The former, however, is exercised in the contemporary policy of offering Russian citizen’s a fire sale of property in the Russian Far East in order to combat the feared Chinese invasion.

Kremlin-Sanctioned Eastward Expansion

According to the NYT’s article, “the Kremlin… has thrown its weight behind the program, set in motion this summer with a blitz of publicity on state news media presenting the Far East as an El Dorado of opportunity.” With the Kremlin actively encouraging Russians to settle the Far East, more and more people are coming to the region and with them the demand for development in and around Vladivostok is rising. In order to meet this demand, workers are needed. The Russian Federation is also infamously facing its own population crisis. At the moment, Russia doesn’t have an adequate workforce in its more populated areas, let alone its less populated eastern regions. The North Korean regime is eager to meet this demand for labor with its own citizens. Through a program of hyper-regulation, the North Korean regime allows for the contracting of its citizens to Russian companies engaged in construction projects in the Far East. The UN report mentioned earlier in this post also notes that, “those workers reportedly live in poor conditions, are subject to lengthy working hours and oversight and limitations on their movement. They reportedly receive only a fraction of their pay, as the hiring companies pay the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea directly.” Their labor is being exploited by foreign companies with the blessing of the ruling regime in Pyongyang.


The United States’ 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (“TIP Report”), reminds us that “to target prevention measures more precisely, governments and civil society should encourage and fund research that identifies populations vulnerable to human trafficking, including a more comprehensive understanding of root causes that are specific to states, communities, and cultural contexts” (US TIP 10). The UN report is eye-opening for many reasons, but chief among them is the participation by the North Korean regime in blatant human trafficking to companies in the Russian Federation. However, heeding the reminder from the TIP Report, I have triangulated the situation to better understand its causes and possible solutions and to combat the exploitation of North Korean citizens. Russian fears of Chinese expansion into the Far East have triggered development efforts, which in turn have illuminated a need for labor. This need is eagerly answered by Kim Jong-un et al. in an effort to combat their own financial struggles in North Korea. The “Primorye Triangle” practice stands outside the commonly accepted notion of human trafficking as being perpetrated by organized criminal networks, due to the fact that it is carried out through comparatively “legitimate” channels, in which the primary actors are the state and companies acting in the interest of the state. This is precisely why examples of human trafficking must be investigated in the proper historical, social and cultural context in which they are perpetrated; so that better, viable solutions may be developed and effectively deployed on the very ground where the injustices are taking place.

Sources not hyperlinked

Chang, Felix B. and Sunnie T. Rucker-Chang. Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Milton Park: Abingdon, Oxon, 2012. Print.

Randall Rowe is a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. He has earned a B.A from Michigan State University and an M.A. from New York University. His research interests include Cultural studies, Migrations and Diaspora studies, and Russian media.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!