SOVIET TURMOIL; Russians Are at a Loss For a Respectful Word

Published: September 9, 1991

MOSCOW, Sept. 8— One of the things bothering Soviet citizens now that the Communist Party is a thing of the past is what to call each other. 

"Comrade" just won't do any more, it seems, although President Mikhail S. Gorbachev kept using the word -- "tovarishch" in Russian -- when he called upon members of the now-defunct Congress of People's Deputies during its last farewell this past week. 

Nobody seemed to object, perhaps because more than 80 percent of them were members of the party when they were elected. Technically, only they were entitled to be called "comrades," though for want of a better word people all over the country used to use it when addressing strangers. 

No more. The attempted appellation is likely to bring the frosty response, "I am not your 'comrade' " in many quarters nowadays, and Russians are groping for a better word. A Thing of the Past 

The problem is that there have been no honorifics in comfortable colloquial Russian use since the 1917 revolution, and it often shows. Like so much else the Communists did, trying to do away with them as relics of capitalism did not really work. "With the victory of socialism," the Soviet Ethical Dictionary proclaimed a few years ago, "comradely relations spread through society as a whole for the first time. Precisely, this is the significance of the use of the salutation 'comrade' in socialist society." 

But as daily life under Communism often showed, that was never really true. Now it is indisputably a thing of the past. 

"Young person!" ("molodoi chelovek!") a harassed stewardess aboard an Aeroflot flight to Tbilisi said the other day, addressing a paunchy, middle-aged man who refused to take his seat before takeoff and ignored her. "Man!" she tried again, before he finally sat down. 

On the return flight to Moscow on Saturday evening, the chief steward was heard muttering, before takeoff, "Gospodin, gospodin," ("Mister, Mister,") and smiling to himself. Addressing the passengers, he announced, to some amusement on the part of the stewardesses, that the captain of flight 938 was "Gospodin Sinelnikov," a term of address used only for foreigners during the days of Communism; "Mrs." is "Gospozha." 'Masters of Nothing' 

The words have a little of the connotation, in contemporary Soviet Russian, of "Milord" or "Milady," and the same root as "Gospod," or "the Lord," God. 

"Of course, we're not lords of anything," wrote N. Andreyev in Izvestia last week, musing over the awkwardness. "We are masters of nothing at all, with zero property." 

Some former comrades find the word insulting, anyway. Nikolai S. Petrushenko, one of the most intransigent former hard-line Communist people's deputies, denounced a bill on private property by saying, "The deputies who proposed this do not deserve to be called comrades, but Messrs. deputies." 

"Messrs. democrats," Izvestia pointed out, was one of the favorite derogatory expressions of Leon Trotsky. 'Citizen' Wouldn't Do 

In Soviet jails, prisoners have long been addressed as "grazhdanin," or "citizen," a form of address also used by police officers about to make an arrest; thus it is hardly the thing you want to be called by a stranger. "Devushka," or "Miss," seems patronizing, since it means "Girl," and the archaic "Sudar," or "Sir," seems too Czarist, like one of those "Your excellencies" out of a Tolstoy novel. 

So the Russians continue to grope, unlike their comrades (whoops) in the Ukraine, who have been heard reverting to the honorific "Pan" or "Pani," Polish adaptations with their own feudal connotations of gentry, which survived even under Communism. 

"The salutations of one person to another will evolve naturally," Izvestia predicted, but how it did not venture to guess.