I’m currently on a Russian literature kick—I finished Crime and Punishment this weekend and just started War and Peace via audiobook. There’s so much about classic Russian literature I love, but the names drive me crazy. Each character seems to have five different names, and the narrator changes which name he uses depending on the situation. Multiply this by 30+ characters in each novel, and you’ve got some very confused foreigners (like myself) trying to understand the story.
So I did a little research, and I think I now have it straight. Here’s how Russian names work.
(Side note: Even if you don’t spend much time with Russian literature, this knowledge can come in handy if you ever meet or work with a Russian, watch the new BBC War and Peace, or even just watch Russians compete against Americans in the Olympics.)
Like Americans, each person has three names: a given name, a patronym, and a family name. Also like us, the given name is often shortened into a nickname (but more on that later). Unlike us, the middle name is a patronym, which comes from the father’s name. This is pretty easy to keep track of, however. Male patronyms end in -ovich or -evich, and female patronyms end in -ovna or -evna.
So, for example, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov and Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov are both the sons of Fyodor.
The family name (or surname) works like our last name, except that there are male and female versions. This sounds more complicated than it is—mostly, you just add an -a or an -ia to the end of the female’s surname. So Pulkhería Raskólnikova has a daughter with the surname Raskólnikova, but her son’s surname is Raskólnikov.
In this way, it’s fairly easy to keep track of family relations. People with the same patronym and surname are siblings, but those with the same surname and different patronyms are either half siblings or cousins.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Nicknames don’t always look or sound (to our non-Russian ears) like they go with the full name. For example, “Vanya” and “Vanka” are both nicknames for “Ivan”—they capitalize on “van” and leave the “I” alone. If you think about it, though, we have similarly confusing nicknames in English: Victoria can become Tori, and Robert can become anything from Rob to Bobbie. The trick here is to look for the similar phrase or syllable that goes with the full name: Alesandr becomes Sasha, Agraféna becomes Grúshenka, Nadezhda becomes Nadia.
The other problem with a few of these nicknames is their quantity. One of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Alexei, goes not only by his full name, but by Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka. Confused yet? Thankfully, Dostoyevsky is a talented writer, and even without the nicknames memorized, you can decipher who he’s talking about through the character’s personality.
If you get stuck on a nickname, say it out loud. Chances are, you’ll figure out who it goes to, especially as the spelling can change without a significant variation in the pronunciation (Dostoyevskii versus Dostoyevsky, for example).
Names in Social Settings
The last bit of knowledge that will help you decipher Russian names is knowing how they work in social settings. Basically, the more formal the setting, the longer the name.
In many Western languages, to address someone politely, we add a personal title: Miss, Mr., Senõra, Monsieur, Frau, etc. In Russian, the patronym takes the place of the personal title.
For example, the main character in Crime and Punishment is Rodión Románovich Raskólnikov. In formal settings, or when speaking to distant acquaintances, characters call him Rodión Románovich. However, his close friends, sister and mother call him Rodia.
Rodia’s sister, Avdótya Románovna Raskólnikova, is called Avdótya Románovna in formal settings, but her family calls her Dunia.
All these distinctions, while seemingly confusing, will actually help you learn the particulars of Russian society—everything from family and friend relations to when a setting is formal or casual. So good luck reading (or watching)!