A guide to Russian names for English-speaking writers

This text has been sitting on my hard drive in numerous iterations for years. Some early iterations have even been published, but never actually achieved any widespread circulation. I’m not a linguist, but, well, people say I have a talent for explaining things.

Well, maybe a repeat will be better received…

I’m really fed up with you, ladies and gentlemen, and yes, that includes George Lucas as recently as 2007, so listen up. When you want to have a character with a Russian name in your work, there are rules you must follow.

Rule 1: All Russian full names are gender-specific

Forgetting that produces names which sound extremely silly more than anything else. Unlike, say, Japanese, where it’s possible to speak and be referred to without defining your gender ever, especially if you have a non-gender-locked first name, or English, where you can avoid defining your gender for extended periods, in Russian it is impossible to be introduced by full name, or even by most forms of partial name, without defining your gender. It is almost impossible to speak Russian without defining your gender it for longer than a paragraph — there is no gender-neutral way to refer to yourself unless you are particularly crafty with grammar.

The gender-based grammatical transformations affect all possible components of a full Russian name – Name, Patronymic, Lastname and Diminuitive1 and the patronymic, and all first names used in Russian that are not gender-locked (“Александр”) have separate male and female forms (“Александр – Александра"). Most first names are gender locked at that, a girl named “Nikita” is an outright nonsense. Double and triple check the name you wish to use before taking it.

Rule 2: A full name is always Name Patronymic Lastname

Except for foreigners, which in most cases are not referred to by patronymic. Western writers for some silly reason often think that Russian characters should pester their foreign acquaintances for a patronymic and use it, but this is normally not done, unless the said person has seriously gone native. The respectful form of address to superiors and elders is Name Patronymic, which frequently throws foreign writers off when they think Patronymic was the last name and then decide to swipe it. That’s why there’s so many people named ‘-ovich’ in Western fiction — it’s a standard patronymic suffix. This is only amusing the first five times you see it or so, then it becomes really annoying. In very recent years, mostly under the influence of Western books on management, patronymics are getting excised from business practice, but they’re very far from gone.

A patronymic is always the name of the father2 with an extra suffix. It is always ‘-вич’ for a man and ‘-вна’ for a woman, which vowel depends on what kind of vowel was the last in the father’s name according to rules of vowel contraction. (‘Андрей’ is the name of my father, and my patronymic is ‘Андреевич’. If I had a sister, her patronymic would be ‘Андреевна’) The most practical way to construct one from a father’s name is to google for how it is actually used to do so. People with an unknown father will typically have a patronymic randomly assigned when creating their birth records, but it’s pretty much impossible not to have one at all.

Rule 3: Russian last names are grammatically altered depending on the gender of the wearer

“Медведев” and “Медведева” are not two different last names, but the same one. While certain Western cultures allow a “Mrs. John Doe”, this cannot be correctly translated into Russian — while the wife will commonly (but not necessarily) take the female version of the husband’s last name upon marriage, in public she’s her own person. A woman with the last name “Медведев” is possible, but only in a situation when her last name actually transited out of Russia, got locked in the non-mutilated form, and then came back as a foreign one.3 For most (but not all) last names, the change to female from the default male form is affected by adding ‘-а’. Foreign last names and certain natively Russian last names will not be altered. (‘Гоголь’, ‘Левада’, etc.) It’s hard to tell whether any specific last name should or shouldn’t do that, (even natives at times make mistakes) but a good rule of thumb is that last names ending in ‘-в’ in default male form always have the female form of ‘-ва’, names ending in ‘-ский’ in default male form will have the female form of ‘-ская’, last names ending in ‘-ко’ don’t change, last names ending in a vowel in male form don’t change.

Rule 4: Proper usage of Russian names is nontrivial

The full Name Patronymic Lastname triad is only ever used during introductions, once, and on official documents, in the same manner. When written as initials for a signature, both name and patronymic must be initialized: N.P. Lastname. Once introduced, it’s a mess of status nuances:

  • Equals in a formal setting address each other by Name Patronymic and will try to avoid using their last names, unless the number of attendees of a gathering is large. Then, when addressing a person, Name Patronymic will be used if known, but when referring to a person, Mr. Lastname is more likely to be used instead.
  • A superior or elder will be addressed by Name Patronymic by conversation partners who wish to denote respect, even if that superior him/herself uses a diminutive in turn.
  • Despite the aforementioned influence of the Western translated books on management, which insist that you address people by first name for extra familiarity, that never quite took root. The most common situation where this happens is when you didn’t give your patronymic while the situation calls for using Name Patronymic, extended use will usually get people to explicitly ask for a patronymic. If they do not, they will never degrade into using a diminutive.
  • Close or moderately close company will use diminutives, nicknames or last names, sometimes interchangeably during the same conversation, but avoid using patronymics as such, unless the sole patronymic graduates into a nickname. Name Patronymic combo will be studiously avoided unless a minority of the participants is much older or much higher in status than everyone else.
  • People below about 15, i.e. children, will almost never be addressed or referred to by Name Patronymic by anyone, including each other. Instead, Diminutive Lastname or simply Lastname or Diminutive alone will be used — Diminutive for addressing them, Lastname or Diminutive Lastname for referring to them. Using a Name Patronymic for them denotes special elevation of status or humor, depending on who does it.

Beside the names, there are also two words in Russian for ‘you’ — ‘ты’ and ‘вы’, like in French. Just like in French, the former is far more familiar than the latter. Switching between them is roughly equivalent to ‘first name basis’ elsewhere, but it is legit to use ‘ты’ towards unfamiliar inferiors, particularly children. When translating to Russian, it is an ongoing problem which to use when. Using ‘ты’ with the Name Patronymic denotes slight irony. It is normal (but not grammatically necessary) to use ‘ты’ towards random people which you definitely don’t wish to denote respect to, like when threatening to smash their faces in, but not otherwise. Children will never use ‘вы’ between themselves but will use it towards unfamiliar adults.

Rule 5: In daily life, diminutive forms of names are commonly used

Most native Russian first names have a base diminutive form, which is often standardized and archaic (i.e. nobody remembers why it is like that) and produces further, more familiar diminutives by adding extra suffixes. First name of non-Russian origin may have a base diminutive, but fail to produce an extra range of diminutives, (because the suffixes don’t stick) or not have a diminutive at all. For names applicable to both genders, the base diminutive will usually be the same for both. Many base diminutives have no visible relation to their root names, i.e. the base diminutive for ‘Евгений’ is ‘Женя’, which sounds nothing like it. Another example is ‘Георгий’, which produces a base diminutive ‘Жора’, to which suffixes don’t stick well. Certain base diminutives are implied, but don’t actually exist, for example, ‘Сергей’ will produce the range of diminutives ‘Сережа’, ‘Сережка’, etc, but the base to construct them (which would be ‘Сер’) is never ever used on its own. Certain names, like ‘Дмитрий’, will produce more than one base diminutive — ‘Дима’ and ‘Митя’ are what happens when you shorten it from either end.

For example, ‘Александр’ is the base male name. ‘Александра’ is its female version. For both, the base diminutive is a gender-neutral ‘Саша’, produced by chopping syllables from the front, which produces a range of further diminutives by adding suffixes — ‘Саш-ка’, ‘Саш-енька’, etc, with different thin shades of meaning and usage. Typically, the more suffixes get tacked on, the more familiar and endearing it gets, to the point of being embarrassing in public.

Since usage of diminutives implies that a full version of a name always exists, they never graduate to names of their own, i.e. it is impossible for a full name to be ‘Саша Patronymic Lastname’ — when the parents tell the records officials they want to name their child ‘Саша’, ‘Александр’ or ‘Александра’ will be written into the paperwork instead, without anyone thinking it could be otherwise even for a moment. A woman is more likely to use ‘Саша’ most of the time than a man, but women generally use diminutives more often than men in the first place.

Rule 6: You’re wrong about the commonality of Russian names, period

Western writers usually have very odd ideas about the commonality of Russian names, be they first or last. “Иван” is not a very common first name, and in fact hadn’t been for fifty years. “Иванов” is still a common last name, but the combination “Иван Иванов” has been practically extinct for a hundred years. Any last name belonging to a Russian writer, composer, a character from a work of fiction written before the October Revolution, or pretty much anyone famous born before the XX century is very likely to be currently extinct, or so rare, that it’s immediately obvious that the writer didn’t do their research.

  1. With the exception of last names of non-Russian origin, as these often don’t have the requisite suffixes. ↩︎

  2. A female name used to construct a patronymic is always a deliberate joke, or looks like one to a Russian reader. ↩︎

  3. Which is what happened to “Maslow” whenever his pyramid is mentioned in Russian textbooks. ↩︎