Friday, 23 July 2010

A note on Russian names

Russians traditionally have three names; for example, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, or Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The first is the personal name; usually a traditional Slavic name or the Russian form of a saint’s name: examples being Yuri, Vladislav, Ivan (=John), Pavel (=Paul), Pyotr (=Peter); or for girls, Olga, Ludmila, Yelena (=Helen), Yekaterina (=Catherine), etc.
      The third name is the surname, which in Russian frequently ends in “ov”, “sky” or “in”. (I was once told that all surnames ending “in” were originally nicknames, which is also common in English: think of “Long”, “Brown” etc). But a girl always takes a feminine form of her father’s surname, ending in an “a”. So for a girl, “Andropov” would become “Andropova”, “Tomsky” would become “Tomskaya” and “Voronin” would become “Voronina”.
     The middle name, which has no equivalent in English, is called the “patronymic”. This is the personal name of one’s father, with the ending “ovich” (= “son of”) for boys and “ovna” (= “daughter of”) for girls. (Sometimes these are adapted slightly to make them easier to pronounce)
     Thus, a son of Boris Andropov would be called Pavel Borisovich Andropov, and a daughter would be called Tatiana Borisovna Andropova. If Pavel then had a son, the boy would be called Andrei Pavlovich Andropov, and so forth.

So: Test! What were the names of the father of the tennis star Maria Yurievna Sharapova, and of the gymnast Ludmila Ivanovna Turischeva? (obviously you won’t know the fathers' patronymics!) Answers at the end!

The traditional way to address a Russian was by personal name and patronymic: thus Lenin would be addressed not as “Mr. Lenin” but as “Vladimir Ilyich” (in fact, his wife called him simply “Ilyich”!), and Khrushchev would be “Nikita Sergeivich”.

Almost half the population of the old Tsarist Empire, and later of the Soviet Union, were not ethnic Russians, and these other races often had quite distinctive surnames which did not take a feminine form. I used to report on international gymnastics tournaments, and it was very noticeable from the names that whereas some members of the Soviet women’s team were ethnic Russians: e.g. Filatova, Mukhina and Kuchinskaya, many others were not: e.g. Korbut (Belarussian), Yurchenko (Ukrainian), Sikharulidze (Georgian), Koschel (Jewish), Saadi (Uzbek) and Kim (Korean). Non-Russians could still have a patronymic: e.g. Olga Valentinovna Korbut.
     In the Communist governments of the Soviet Union before the Second World War many of the leaders had names that clearly showed their non-Russian origins; examples being Mikoyan (Armenian), Beria (Mingrelian), Kaganovich (Jewish), Ordzhonikidze (Georgian) and Dzerzhinsky (Polish). Others had taken revolutionary aliases that concealed their non-Russian ethnicity, the most famous examples being Stalin (real name: Djugashvili, ~ Georgian) and Trotsky (real name: Bronstein, ~ Jewish). Nor was a Russian-sounding name any guarantee of ethnicity: Lenin’s real surname was Ulyanov, which might sound Russian, but in ethnic terms Lenin was appparently three-quarters Tartar and a quarter German-Jewish. A modern example would be Roman Arkedyevich Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, who is often referred to as being Russian, but his surname (= “son of Abraham”) clearly indicates Jewish origins.


(Answers: Yuri Sharapov and Ivan Turischev)

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