Russian names

As anyone who has ever read Russian literature can attest, names in Russian can be extremely confusing, because one person often seems to have multiple names. I’m happy to report now, however, that I understand the Russian naming system and explain it all to you.

A Russian name has three parts, just like an English one. Let’s look at a famous name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Just like in English, the given name ‘Vladimir’ comes first and the surname ‘Putin’ comes last. What we would call the middle name is actually a patronymic, meaning it comes from the father’s name. So in this case ‘Vladimirovich’ shows that Putin’s father’s name was also Vladimir. The patronymic for men is almost always formed by adding ‘ovich’ to the end of the father’s name. If your father was Kirill, your patronymic is Kirillovich. Ivan would be Ivanovich. And so on. If you’re a woman, your patronymic is formed by adding ‘-ovna’. So for a woman they would be Vladimirovna, Kirillovna, and Ivanovna, respectively. So for example in Anna Karenina, there are the siblings Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky and Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (who is married and has taken her husband’s surname). You can see that their father’s name is Arkady even though the patronymics are different since one is a man and the other is a woman.

Russian doesn’t have an equivalent to Mr./Ms./Mrs. so when you need to talk to someone who is above you socially like your boss, you call them by their given name and patronymic. So for example, you would you say Vladimir Vladimirovich if you needed to talk about ‘Mr. Putin’. That’s one of the things I found odd about teaching here at the beginning; my students simply call me by my first name. It turns out that Russian students are used to calling their teacher by Name Patronymic, but since we teach English we don’t want our students to use the Russian system. And apparently, many Russian surnames are long and difficult so the school doesn’t want to make the youngest students say them so instead we just go by our first names.

Futhermore, each Russian given name has a short form that you can use if you know the person at least a little bit. Some of them are fairly obvious like Maria becomes Masha, or Anastasia becomes Nastya, or Ksenia becomes Ksusha. Some of them aren’t as obvious like Alexandr becomes Sasha,  or Stanislav becomes Stas. And some are just annoying like Anna becomes Anya, or Lev becomes Lyova. How are those shorter? Also, each name has only one short form without overlapping. Vyecheslav becomes Slava, but don’t call Vladislav that! Vladislav is Vlad. And don’t call Vladimir Vlad! Vladimir’s short form is Vova.

If you are very familiar with someone, you can make a diminutive form of the short form of their name, similar to the suffix ‘-ito/-ita’ in Spanish. In Russian it’s ‘-echk-‘. So for example Anna becomes Anya becomes Anyechka. But it can also be seen as highly disrespectful if you don’t know the person well enough. One of my students was telling us about her friend told her off for calling another student ‘Slavechk’ because it was too familiar. A more modern version of the diminutive is also just adding ‘-k-‘ to a name. For example, my flatmate calls her boyfriend ‘Sashka’.

So in the end, there are a number of names you can call a Russian person depending on how well you know them. If you met Anna Karenina, for example, and she’s older than you or your boss or above you somehow, you should call her ‘Anna Arkadyevna’. But if you meet her and you are peers, then you can just call her ‘Anna’. After you’ve known her for a little while you can start calling her ‘Anya’. Once you are really, really close, like best friends or dating, you could call her ‘Anyechka’.


One thought on “Russian names

  1. That’s very confusing! I would be afraid I would call your flatmate’s boyfriend Sashka just because I heard her call him that and would think that’s his name since it’s not a generic term of affection like “honey.” That could be embarrassing… 🙂


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