Demystifying Russian Names

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If your clients or partners have Russian names, you may be unsure why there are multiple forms of the name or why the middle name is so long. Russian naming conventions may be confusing to people outside the region, and this gets compounded when people bearing these names come to the US. In this post, I will look at some sources of potential misunderstanding arising from the use of names in the Russian language—in but not limited to the country of Russia and by but not limited to ethnic Russians.

A full Russian name consists of three parts:

  1. First or given name (imya)
  2. Patronymic (otchestvo, more on that below)
  3. Last or family name (familiya)

An example would be Yelena Sergeevna Malysheva. On official documents and in formal introductions, these parts may be listed as “last name—first name—patronymic (optional): Malysheva Yelena Sergeevna or Malysheva Yelena.

Full Names Vs Nicknames

The first name listed on a person’s documents will be the “full,” official form: Aleksandr, Yevgeniya, Irina, Natalya, Sergey, Ivan, etc. Unofficially, many “full” names will have at least one established corresponding pet name (think Sam for Samuel). Most speakers of Russian will know the pet equivalent for the full name or can “restore” the full name from hearing the nickname without being told explicitly. Some common pairs are given below:

  • Irina—Ira
  • Yekaterina—Katya
  • Mariya—Masha
  • Anna—Anya
  • Yelena—Lena (or sometimes Alyona)
  • Anastasiya—Nastya
  • Tatyana—Tanya
  • Natalya—Natasha
  • Darya—Dasha
  • Nadezhda—Nadya
  • Mikhail—Misha
  • Sergey—Seryozha
  • Vladimir—Volodya
  • Stanislav—Stas
  • Ivan—Vanya
  • Nikolay—Kolya
  • Aleksey—Alyosha or Lyosha
  • Pavel—Pasha
  • Vyacheslav—Slava
  • both Aleksandr and Aleksandra—Sasha
  • both Yevgeniy and Yevgeniya—Zhenya

In practice, a person normally has their formal name listed on their paperwork, and all their friends, relatives, and superiors will know their pet name and use that. When this person moves to an English-speaking country, however, that correspondence is not so obvious anymore. People have chosen to deal with that in different ways. Some go by their full, “formal” name, including with their friends, as I have done. Others adopt their pet name as their professional or even legal name, like the journalist Masha Gessen or sports writer Slava Malamud. A third group may pick an English name, like Katie instead of Yekaterina (Katya).

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Patronymics

The second part of a typical Russian name is derived from the person’s father’s name and means “son of” or “daughter of.” Examples include Sergeevich (son of Sergey) or Andreevna (daughter of Andrey). If the father is unknown or estranged, a stepfather’s, grandfather’s, or another male figure’s name may be used. There have been cases of people using matronyms (forms derived from the mother’s name), but this practice remains uncommon.

Together, a person’s given name and patronymic serve as a polite way of addressing someone, similar to the English “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Patel,” e.g. Yelena Andreevna or Nikolay Sergeevich. While some immigrants do retain their patronymic as their middle name, it is not truly equivalent to one in function. While a Rebecca Grace Peterson may choose to go by Grace, a Petr Ivanovich Sokolov wouldn’t normally go by Ivanovich alone (although standalone patronymics may be used as an affectionate nickname among co-workers or in rural areas).

Gendered Last Names

Many Russian last names are originally possessive adjectives derived from names of occupations, cities, animals, people, etc. As such, they have a masculine and feminine form. For example, a man’s last name is Ivanov, but the women in his family will have the last name Ivanova. This correspondence is automatic, so if, upon marrying a man called Ivan Spassky, a woman decided to take that man’s last name, her last name would become Spasskaya, not Spassky. (As far as I know, there is no established practice for non-binary people. Luckily, some last names, like mine, are “unisex” and do not have separate gendered forms.)

Of course, this Russian convention may create some issues in English-speaking countries when you have family members whose last name is a few letters off. For instance, the men of the family could have the surname Grigoryev, while the women might be Grigoryeva. I once witnessed an insurance company reject a claim because the “masculine” form of the name was listed on the paperwork for a patient who had the “feminine” form of that same name. To avoid this, some immigrant families may adopt a single spelling of their surname—usually the “masculine” form—so Anna Osetinskaya may become Anna Osetinsky. However, that’s not usually an option for visitors, students, or temporary workers, who have to keep the legal name listed in their documents.

Now you know why Natalya and Natasha are the same name to Russian ears, why related men and women have “different” last names, and why Russian “middle names” can be so long. I hope this post has helped you demystify some idiosyncrasies around Russian names.

Published by Maria

Russian health and human services translator based in Rochester, New York

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