Monday, March 14, 2011

The Name Game

The genesis of my whole Russia obsession occurred back in 2001, when I read the "Royal Diary" of Anastasia Romanov and instantly fell in love with all things Russian.

One of those things was the name Tatiana, who was one of Anastasia's sisters. It just seemed to me to be the epitome of a "princess" name - graceful, beautiful, ballerina-esque, exotic. I still love it!

I actually love all Russian names, yes, even the clunkers that Western tongues stumble over like Oksana, Svetlana, and Olga (hint: these names are not actually pronounced as harshly as foreigners tend to think; Olga is actually the lovely Ol'ya, and Svetlana is usually shortened to the softer Svyeta).

The Russian naming system is unique. A baby is given a first name, a patronymic (from the father's name), and a last name that reflects their gender. For example, the daughter of Ivan Uvarov would be Katerina Ivanovna Uvarova (Katerina, daughter of Ivan), whereas the son would be Alexei Ivanovich Uvarov ( Alexei, son of Ivan). In formal documents and when they grew older, they would be addressed as Katerina Ivanovna and Alexei Ivanovich (in lieu of Miss Uvarova or Mr. Uvarov), but the majority of the time they would be called by their dimunitives. Katerina would be Katya, Katushka, or Katinka, and Alexei would be Alyosha.

Russians LOVE their dimunitives and there are a lot of cute ones (but beware, this can get confusing, especially when you're reading Tolstoy and each person has like five different names they're known by! I kept a list for reference).

Here are some of the most common names I've come across while living here:

- Aleksandr = Sasha. There are literally THREE Sashas in my one class of six adults. And of course they all sit beside each other in a row. I've just started referring to them as "the Sashas." Sasha is probably the most common male name in Russia, based purely on the number of Sashas enrolled at Language Link.
- Andrei = Andrusha.
- Alexei = Alyosha.
- Boris (pronounced ba-REES)
- Dimitri = Dima, or Mitya.
- Evgeni = Zhenya
- Ilya
- Ivan = Vanya
- Maksim = Maks
- Konstantin = Kostya
- Nikolai = Kolya
- Nikita - according to my Russian friend Natasha, Nikita is a VERY trendy and stylish name for boys right now. It's also the name of my best Russian friend back in Canada!
- Mikhail = Misha
- Oleg (pronounced ah-LYEK)
- Pavel = Pasha
- Vadim
- Vladimir = Volodya

- Anastasia (pronounced ah-na-sta-SI-ya) = Nastya, Anya
- Ekaterina = Katya, Katinka, Katusha, Katya
- Maria = Masha
- Larisa = Lara
- Nadia = Nadezhda
- Natalia = Talia, Tasha, Natasha (probably the most common girls' name here)
- Irina
- Lubov (the only girls' name we could think of that doesn't end in a -ya or -a, although the dimunitive is Luba, and the name itself means love)
- Tatiana = Tanya
- Elena

One thing that is very popular and trendy at the school here is for students to Anglicize their names. Many students prefer to be called by the English variant of their name. I teach an Elena who signs everything Helen, a Yulia who likes to be called Julie, and a Sonya who likes the French Sophie. Ironically, almost all the Katyas I teach insist on being "Kate" or "Katie", whereas I'm a Katie and I prefer Katya - it sounds so much more elegant! But I guess the grass is always greener, right?


  1. As a person in love you are especialy vulenrable to a hurt inflicted by the oject of your love.
    So please keep in mind, that the Russia of your love, the Russia of Tolstoy and Romanovs and the country you are living now - are two different countries. Well, maybe you are already discovered that :) Just not everybody understand how utterly old Russia was.. all but killed in feb. 1917.

  2. First, thanks for the blog -- I came across it in an Aeroflot magazine and it turned out interesting to read.

    It's curious to realize how puzzling Russian naming can be for the foreigners!

    A few potentially helpful additions: Boris -- Borya, Vladimir -- Vova; Anastasya -- Njuta, Irina -- Ira, Elena -- Lena. Also, you've switched places for Nadiya and Nadezhda :) And I've never heard an Anastasya to be called Anya.


  3. thanks for the additions and correction! Glad you like the blog :)