What's in a (Russian) Name?

Here's the lowdown on nicknames, patronymics, and family names

Russian names can be confusing to English speakers. If you are planning a trip to Russia, spend time with Russians, read Russian literature, or watch Russian movies, your mind might be boggled by how many names one person can be called. For example, you may know your friend's name is Alexandra, but her friends call her “Sasha,” and her mother calls her “Sashenka.” You may call your Russian-born professor Dr. Tolstoy, but when you hear other Russians address him, they call him “Boris Stepanovich.”

It makes a trip to a foreign country more enlightening and memorable if you make a few local friends while you're there. But you want to be sure and know how to deal with Russian names so you aren't confused or call your newfound friends by the wrong name; you need to know what to call whom and when you should do so.

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    Did you know that Vova and Vladimir is the same person? How about Sasha and Alexandra? They are the same person, too.

    Russian first names are often shortened to a short form or a diminutive. Sometimes these names sound nothing like the names from which they were derived. 

    A woman named Maria might also be called Masha by acquaintances, Mashenka by her best friend, or Mashunechka by her sweetheart. Other nicknames you will commonly hear in Russia are Dima for Dmitri, Misha for Mikhail, and Vova for Vladimir.

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    Russian middle names, or patronymics, are taken from the father's first name. The patronymic is one of the most confusing aspects of the Russian naming system, but the explanation for how they work is really quite simple.

    The patronymic is formed by the father's first name and different suffixes depending on gender. Men have patronymics that end in ovich or evich. Women's patronymics end in ovna or evna.

    So if a pair of siblings of the opposite gender has a father named Mikhail, for example. the male sibling's patronymic would be Mikhailovich, and his sister would have Mikhailova as a patronymic, or middle name.

    Patronymics in Russia are used as middle names are in English and are part of a person's legal name, likely to appear on documents. But unlike common practice in the United States, colleagues and others who are not close friends or family are likely to call a person by both their first name and their patronymic. 

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    Russian last names are similar to last names in English, but there are male forms and female forms of Russian last names, with female forms generally adding an "a." For example, a man and a woman with the same last name of Pushkin would be properly Pushkin for the man and Pushkina for the woman.

    The most common Russian last names you are likely to encounter on a trip to Russia (in the male form) are Ivanov, Smirnov, Kuznetsov, Popov, Vasiliev, Petrov, Sokolov, Mikhailov, Federov, and Morozov.

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    Some Russians celebrate a name day that corresponds with the saint whose name they share. Historically, name days were significant but fell out of favor and use during the Communist era of the Soviet Union.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, some Russians have begun to turn back toward the church, and because of that more children have been named for saints. And this has led to the resurgence among some groups of these name-day celebrations, which might include a church observance and a family party.