A Guide to Russian Naming Customs
When you were born, you were probably given a first name, a middle name (maybe two or three), and a surname. You may have a parent’s name or a nickname, but it is most likely personal to the family. The Russian naming customs are a part of the language itself. They are very structured, and a necessity to learn if studying Russian or planning to visit the country.
Every Russian child is given a name, a form of their father’s name, and a surname.
Имя (imya, name) Отчество (otchestvo, patronymic) Фамилия (familiya, surname)
For example, let’s look at the famous Russian author:
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
Just by looking at Pushkin’s name, we know that his father is Sergey. Now let’s look at his wife:
Natalia Nikolayevna Pushkina
We can see that her father is Nikolay. Do you notice anything else different? Her surname ends in an “a”. This is another rule. There are a few exceptions, but almost all female surnames end in an “a”. Also her patronymic ends in “evna” instead of “vich”. This is custom with all patronymics. If Natalia Nikolayevna was a boy, her patronymic would be Nikolayevich. You can take all Russian male names and add either “evna” for a girl or “vich” for a boy to make the patronymic.
When to use the patronymic?
Now let’s talk about when you use a person’s patronymic. If you have read any articles or stories about Pushkin, you’ve probably never seen him addressed as simply Alexander (or Sasha). This would be far too simple and not respectful considering the context. You probably saw Alexander Sergeyevich or A.S. Pushkin or simply Pushkin. When we are talking to an older person or someone that we want to show respect to, we address them by their name followed by their patronymic.
Nicknames or informal name
Did you see how I said, Sasha? Why would Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin be called Sasha? Traditional Russian names all have nicknames or “informal names”. Some are intuitive and others are not. I suggest reviewing the tables below of common Russian nicknames and trying to remember them. We use these nicknames when speaking with children, friends, and family. If you are at a bank and the teller’s name is Mariya, an elderly person may address her by the name Masha because there is an age gap. However, if you are around her age or younger, it is best to address her by her formal name, Mariya.
As you can see, Russian nicknames are not personal, they are a part of the culture. Everyone knows them, and they carry meaning. With that said, there are different forms of a name or informal name that you can use. Let’s look at the nickname Sasha:
These are all popular variations of Russian names and there are slight nuances to them. The ending “ka” is normal when talking to a child, but can be offensive if addressing a peer or adult. The ending “ulia” is very sweet. This is often used when addressing grandparents or people you dearly love. The ending “inka” is also sweet. It is commonly used with friends and family. The more you listen to the Russian language, the more you’ll pick up on these forms that add more emotion to the name.
Here are a couple of tables to help you get familiarized with common Russian names and nicknames.
I hope you found this guide to Russian naming customs helpful!