The Sion-Osnova dispute was provoked by Veniamin Portugalov. Son of a Jewish merchant from the town of Lubni, in the Poltava gubernia, and a reformed Jew by religious conviction, Portugalov enrolled in the medical faculty of Kharkiv University in 1854. There he became aware of the exceptional situation of Jewish students in Russian universities. Jews often concealed their identity to escape insults and derogatory nicknames and thought of themselves as outsiders. To alleviate the burden of their race, Portugalov and a few of his Jewish friends joined a secret student circle organized by Iakiv Bekman and a group of Ukrainian students. Bekman's circle accepted Jews as equals and promoted a tolerant attitude toward them among the students. These efforts seem to have been quite successful, for Portugalov could later claim: "With our joining [of the circle], the vile nickname zhid disappeared from the university and Hebrew students changed. In recent years we have been true Russians, only of Hebrew origin." Portugalov remained close to the circle even after many of its members, including Portugalov, were expelled from Kharkiv University for participating in the 1858 student disturbances.
Portugalov, Bekman and several other students decided to move to Kiev, where the St. Vladimir University was then at the height of its reputation owing to the liberal administration of its humanitarian curator, Dr. Nikolai I. Pirogov. The ancient capital of Rus' also provided a wider arena for the socio-political endeavours of the young activists. Under the patronage of the liberal professor of history, Platon V. Pavlov, students helped to set up a network of Sunday schools where they taught literacy and liberal ideas to the youth of the working classes. They also worked for the Kievskii telegraf, a newly founded Russian-language newspaper of liberal leanings.
The very first issue of the new periodical carried a serialized article under the title "Prejudice Against Hebrews," signed with the cryptonym P-v, and most likely written by Pavlov himself. Condemning anti-Jewish prejudice in Russia, the author drew attention to the offensive terminology which tended to perpetuate this prejudice. "To refer to Hebrews in print as zhidy is as unacceptable as to insult Little Russians with the nickname khokhly and the Russians with katsapy." No educated, self-respecting Jew could tolerate such an insult and gentiles, who cannot be persuaded by scholarly arguments, are invited by the author to "go up to any decent Hebrew and try to call him zhid to his face." The good qualities of Jews (sobriety, thriftiness, commercial and academic skills) were pointed out, as were their shortcomings (resistance to assimilation and spiritual demoralization). The author urged Jews to reform their religion, to reject the Talmud as their guide for religious life and stop waiting for a Messiah to lead them to Palestine. Finally, he enjoined them to reaffirm their allegiance to Russia by declaring: "We recognize no other fatherland but the one to which we are bound by birth and citizenship."
Portugalov's ideas on the Jewish question coincided with those expressed in Pavlov's article, and the condemnation of the word zhid by the revered professor only strengthened his young admirer's conviction of the unacceptability of the term.
In January 1860, Portugalov was arrested along with other members of the Kharkiv circle, but after several months of interrogations he was released and allowed to finish his studies at the University of Kazan. Although the old friends were now dispersed throughout the empire, they kept in touch by correspondence. It is probably from one of his Ukrainian friends that Portugalov got his first copies of Osnova, the new journal of Ukrainian studies. Published in St. Petersburg by the Ukrainian hromada, a loose and unofficial circle of former members of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Osnova was the only legal organ of the Ukrainophiles. The editors of Osnova sought to reach both the Russian and the Ukrainian literate public and, therefore, printed articles in both Russian and Ukrainian. How surprised Portugalov must have been to come across the cursed word zhid on the pages of this progressive journal supported by his own Ukrainian friends.
Portugalov expressed his discontentment in a letter addressed to the editor of Osnova. He described the evolution he had witnessed in student attitudes toward the Jews and in the use of the term zhid during the six years he had spent at three different universities. When he had just begun his studies, "the abusive nickname zhid still resounded in the university, and it was often used to denote students of the Hebrew faith. But with the renewal of Russia the nickname disappeared from the universities. From then on my numerous friends designated with that reproachful word every cheat and swindler, be he of Hebrew, Catholic or Orthodox faith."
Portugalov saw no objection to the use of zhid in the sense of "scoundrel," as long as it was not employed in the meaning of "Jew," and he implored the editors "in the name of Hebrews insulted by the expression" and "for the sake of the success of the journal and the welfare of Ukraine," to use the correct national name, evrei.
In that letter, written in Russian, Portugalov did not specify whether he objected only to the Russian zhid or also to the Ukrainian zhyd, the two terms being easily distinguishable phonetically but having an identical orthography in the Cyrillic alphabet. This lack of precision on Portugalov's part would suggest that he considered the two terms as identical and equally objectionable. This failure to distinguish the two words is surprising since Portugalov, along with several other Jewish students, was active in the Sunday school movement, where the Ukrainian language enjoyed wide usage, especially among the mainly Ukrainian local pupils and the Ukrainophile student-teachers from the Chernihiv and the Right-Bank gubernias. In spite of this Portugalov either ignored the fact that the Ukrainian language knew only one word for "Jew" — zhyd — or if he knew this linguistic detail, refused to accept it.
Portugalov's quarrel with Osnova, however, went much further than a simple objection to name-calling. He questioned the editor's motives:
These were serious accusations of crass Judeophobia and social agitation.
Kulish pointed out that Ukrainian writers took a pro-Jewish stand when three years earlier they protested against an anti-Jewish attack by the Russian periodical Illiustratsiia.
Declaring that he never used the term zhyd himself, Kulish nonetheless upheld its usage by Ukrainian writers. Etymologically, he pointed out, the term is identical with the Latin Judeus, the German Jude, the French juif and the Polish zyd; all these words are considered correct in their respective languages. The term, according to Kulish, was in no way inferior to evrei or izrailtianin. As for the Ukrainian language, he said that it knew no other term but zhyd and that its acceptability had been sanctioned by long usage:
Kulish also noted that the term zhyd is found in old legal documents and charters granting rights to Jewish lessees. It was used by Ukrainian writers including Taras Shevchenko, because "Our South Rus' literature takes its origin and replenishes its forces directly from the [common] people: popular examples of oral literature serve as its base. Ukrainian writers either came directly from the people or, having been cut off from it by class education, returned to it with the reawakening of their consciousness, and for many years not only studied the people but also learned from it."
Roman Serbyn, The Sion-Osnova Controversy of 1861-1862, in Howard Aster and Peter J. Potichnyj (editors), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1990, ISBN 0-920862-53-5, pp. 85-89.
Osnova's challenge was picked up by Sion, the Russian-language Jewish journal published in Odessa. In an article entitled, "Osnova and the Question of Nationalities," the editor chastised Portugalov for his impolite letter and rejected as ludicrous his assertion that any Jew who does not feel offended when called a zhid is insensitive to any insult. On the contrary, argued Sion, anyone who loses his temper over the word shows that he is not yet ware of the dignity and the historical importance of his people. Such a man will bring little benefit to his people since he will waste all his energy on insignificant bickering and have little time for important work.
Sion was willing to accept zhid as a legitimate designation for Jews because etymologically there was no difference between zhid and evrei. In some languages, such as the Russian, where the two forms exist, evrei is official while zhid is more popular, and the latter has acquired a derogatory connotation probably because of its association with the name Judas, so distasteful to Christians. However, in languages where there is only one designation for Jews, Sion finds "no reason why the [common] people and the writers should change their language for our whim." In the same way that there is no reason for Germans to abandon Jude, Frenchmen to give up juif or Poles to proscribe zyd, Sion maintained that to demand that "Little Russians change the name zhyd is also void of any foundation." On the terminological issue Sion was ready to give Osnova the benefit of the doubt: "As long as the editors [of Osnova] maintain that there is nothing insolent in the word zhyd and that in the South Russian dialect [narechie] it should not be changed by any other, there is no reason at all not to agree with them." Furthermore, Sion found it degrading and insulting when Christians forced themselves to avoid the term zhid in conversations with Jews and suppressed any reference to national shortcomings of the Jewish people. In this way Christians betray that they actually have a low opinion of the Jews and only hide it for the sake of politeness.
Roman Serbyn, The Sion-Osnova Controversy of 1861-1862, in Howard Aster and Peter J. Potichnyj (editors), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1990, ISBN 0-920862-53-5, pp. 90-91.