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When one should use the first or the second? Is вождь a direct equivalent to English headman?

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Originally, the word вождь meant "a leader of a tribe", "a chieftain." After the October revolution, however, the word became popular as a political term. Lenin and Trotsky were sometimes referred to as вожди революции ("leaders of the revolution"), Stalin was later called вождь народов ("the leader of the peoples"), and so on. Nowadays, вождь is pretty much reserved to the Communist leaders (of North Korea, for example). It can also be used in an ironical way to call the President, or other leaders, hinting on the their authoritarian style. This has to do both with the Communist tradition to call leaders вожди and with the fact that вождизм means "the cult of the leader."

Лидер, on the other hand, is a completely neutral word. It can be applied to leaders of countries, political parties, a race or a championship, etc.

Both words are best translated as "leader", except for situations when вождь actually means "a leader of a tribe" (in which case "chief" would be more appropriate.)

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  • 1
    I like the answer, but I don't agree with the last words — "вождь" preserves its meaning the best when translated as "chief", because it's far more often used in the "tribe" context than in the "communist revolution" context.
    – Dan Ganiev
    Dec 13 '12 at 17:22
  • Should Hitler be called "вождь" or "лидер"?
    – Anixx
    Dec 13 '12 at 20:16
  • Can Ghaddafi be called "вождь ливийской революции"? What about other revolutionary leaders?
    – Anixx
    Dec 13 '12 at 20:18
  • 4
    @Anixx, Hitler is commonly referred as "фюрер" which is a transliteration of a German word "Führer". You, of course, can call him вождь, but it is quite unusual. As for your other questions, you can of course say вождь французской/американской/какой угодно революции. Dec 13 '12 at 21:30
  • 1
    @Anixx both Hitler and Gaddafi can be called "вождь" as well as "лидер". As for other revolutions, I would suggest using "лидер" as the default one. "Вожди американской революции" sounds strange to my ear, because traditionally this word implies a very strict personalized power and is associated with authoritarian regimes. "Вождь" rarely steps down after a democratic election. Dec 13 '12 at 21:58
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'Вождь' usually means 'Tribal chief'. It can be used to mark headmen in some closely tied group or movement, and they probably will understand you, but this is not right.

'Лидер' has two meanings. The first one is simply 'the (currently) first one' in some competition. The second meaning is 'informal authority figure'. 'Лидер' is one who decides, but his authority is informal, based on charisma, tradition, or unchallenged claim.

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Вождь — это обычно вождь племени. Также Ленина называли вождь мирового пролетариата, Сталина — вождь народов, вообще руководителей коммунистического движения часто называют вождями (в т.ч. имея в виду Китай, С.Корею). Слово лидер вошло в обиход сравнительно недавно, употребляется, например, в таких случаях: лидер политической партии, лидеры стран Большой Восьмёрки, лидер атак (в спортивных репортажах), лидер чемпионата. Лидер наиболее часто применяется для обозначения человека, способного увлечь своими идеями большие массы людей и возглавить их, в таком случае говорят, что "человек обладает лидерскими качествами". Про успешную организацию можно сказать, что она "занимает лидерские позиции". Что касается эквивалента 'headman', то тут скорее будет уместно слово глава, например, глава государства, глава правительства, глава администрации, глава организации.

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