Russian naming conventions (along with the conventions of the neighboring East Slavic countries and the non-Slavic peoples of the ex-USSR) and your quick and easy guide to diminutives.
You're reading a Russian-written and/or set novel in which there's a hot Soviet spy
(with blonde highlights, natch) called Ekaterina Ivanovna Smirnova. She hangs around Moscow and goes to Moscow Centre to do her work, where she's called Major Smirnova or Ekaterina Ivanovna. Then she goes to visit her friends, who start calling her Katya. Then she visits her parents at their dacha
(they're senior CPSU members, so they have a dacha) and they call her Katen'ka
No, you haven't gone mad. Nor has the author engaged in a stunning display of inconsistency. You've just entered the world of the Russian diminutive.
Russian diminutives are kind of like standardised nicknames in English-speaking countries, where a character called Joseph would often be called "Joe". Except there's three different types of them:
- The regular one, in this case "Katya" (Kate). Used among friends and work colleagues. It is worth stressing that in Russian-speaking countries people are almost never given the diminutive names officially (and even then they are only names that have their Western counterparts, like "Max" or "Alex"). So, even if two friends call themselves "Fyedya" and "Vanya", they will be invariably called "Fyodor" and "Ivan" by anyone else.
- The intimate one, in this case "Katen'ka" (roughly equal to the Japanese "-chan" honorific, or the English "-kin" or "-kins" suffix, so "Katen'ka" would be roughly "Katiekins"). Used by close family members, very close friends and lovers, for small children, and generally a suffix to indicate something the user finds 'cute', or again, is speaking to a small child. In the neighboring East Slavic countries the Russian version is used along with local diminutives; Irina Farion, a quack Ukrainian nationalist politico, once became infamous for her xenophobic rants against the Russian diminutives addressed at Ukrainian children.
- The derogatory one, in this case "Kat'ka" (basically "This Kate chick"). Used when you're being insulting or for nonchalant familiarity, whether in actual display thereof or to take someone who obviously doesn't apply down a notch or two. Except in some contexts this form isn't offensive (most often, if the person who accepts it is trying to present hirself as simple, down-to-earth person). Or sometimes Russians use this form when talking about themselves, ironically.
(She could also be called "Katyusha"- Katie, a name best known since it was applied to truck-mounted rocket launchers used by the Red Army during the Second World War
and still used today).
There are other, non-standardized forms of Russian names, often occurring in slang and among the gopniki
. They are not described here
There are examples for virtually every common Russian name. No, they aren't predictable. Note that unlike in the West, dimunitive names are never used in formal situations — only full ones.
So we're back to our hot female spy. Her full name is Ekaterina Ivanovna Smirnova. Her first name is obvious- the Russian form of Katherine. But what about the other two:
- Ivanovna means "daughter of Ivan". The male version is "Ivanovich"- "son of Ivan". The technical term is Patronymic.
- Smirnova is the feminine form of Smirnov, a very common Russian surname. For all surnames of native Russian origin there is a masculine and a feminine form. More on this in the Surnames section.
Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian surnames have a variety of different types, usually tallying with ethnic origin. The Russian ones:
- -sky/skaya: More of a Jewish or Polish name today, but before 1917, there were many noble (comital or princely) Russian families with names like this, mainly because a lot of them were of Polish or Belorussian origin.
- Plus there's the whole "add a -ski and it's Russian" thing for nicknames (not Reporting Names), for Soviet/Russian military tech. '-ski' is usually added to the ends of objects or places.
- -iy/aya: Also in Ukraine.
Ukrainian ones, no gender changes here:
- -uk, -chuk
- This one is often of Belarusian origin, where it is rendered as -ich.
- Names that are just nouns without familial endings are more common among Ukrainians and Belarusians than Russians. E.g. Koval (smith), Shpak (starling), Kuchma (woolly hat)note (all Ukrainian), Filin (owl), Moroz (frost) (more likely to be Belarusian), etc.
Many surnames are derived from animal names. For example, Dmitry Medvedev (get used to that name since he is in control of Mnogo Nukes
) has a surname that means "Bear's Son"
. Others derive from professions, i.e. Kuznetsov, "Smith's Son".
When the Soviet Union took over Central Asia, the Muslim Turkic and Persian locals generally adapted their names (which already used Patronymics
) to the Russian system. Thus you get lots of people with Arabic, Turkic, or Persian names attached to "-ov(a)," etc., like the Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov ("karīm" being Arabic for "generous") and his Vice-President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ("mirza" meaning "child of the prince" in Persian). A peculiar example would be Azeris, who actually managed to introduce their patronymic
system into the Russian language, so Azeri patronymics would be written not in the Russian way, but with native Azeri suffixes "-ogly" ("son of") or "-kyzy" ("daughter of"). Most of these people use first names of Arabic, Turkish, or Persian origin - unlike ethnic Russians, women from these groups frequently have given names ending in consonants.
Siberian and Altaic peoples (Buryats, Tuvans, etc.) often add "-ov(a)"/ or "-ev(a)" to their names, such as Buryat singer Namgar Lhasaranova
. But not always, such as the unappended Tuvan Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Emergency Situations and now Defense.note
Some Christianized Siberian peoples, like Yakuts, for example, use Russian names almost exclusively, but keep a distinctly archaic set of popular names, which sometimes might be confusing, especially given that Yakuts have particularly Asian features.
have One Name Only
, which for census purposes can be used as a last name, in which case they will attach Russian first names and Patronymics
. Examples: Tenevil, (Yuri Sergeyevich) Rytkheu, (Antonina Alexandrovna) Kytymval, and Ergyron
members (Vasily) Kevkey, (Anastasia) Keytuk, (Denis) Kymylkut, (Regina) Tagrytval, etc. There is also a practice of giving boys female names and girls male names
to confuse evil spirits.
Some of the most common Russian surnames: Ivanov, Smirnov, Kuznetsov, Petrov, Sidorov
What follows is a list of first names commonly found in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (with added English equivalents where they exist).
- Aleksey/Alexei (Alexis)
- The basic diminutive for this name is "Lyosha". Not to be confused with "Alexandr" below.
- Aleksandr/Alexander (Alex)
- The basic diminutive for this name is "Sasha". Has an equally popular female version - "Aleksandra" which diminutes to "Sasha" as well. Sometimes gets shortened to "Alex" just as "Aleksey" above.
- The gender of Heavy's main weapon is, therefore, still up in the air.
- Thus is explained the stage name of welsh trance producer Alexander Coe, DJ Sasha.
- Sasha Alexander, from NCIS, is in fact using a stage name.
- The Ukrainian diminutives for these names are "Lesik" for a boy and "Lesia" for a girl, which also happen to be names in their own right. "Olesik"/"Olesya" is another variant.
- Another common diminutive is "Shura" or "Shurik". The latter is male-only (i.e. Aleksandr) and is also a popular Soviet comical stock character - an awkward and clumsy Soviet student, reeking of geekiness and intelligentsya.
- "Alik" is another popular nickname for Aleksandr, and also serves as a nickname for other, rarer names that start with "Al-" (including foreign names such as Albert).
- Some other variations include "Sanya", "San" or "San" - the latter is even commonly used for abbreviating "Alexandr Aleksandrovich" to the more diminutive-sounding form "San Sanych".
- Anatoly (in France, Anatole)
- Diminutives include "Tolya" and "Tolik".
- Andrey/Andrei (Andrew)
- Anton (Anthony)
- Diminutive is "Antosha," hence Anton Chekhov using the pseudonym "Antosha".
- Arkady (Greek: Arkadios)
- Artyom started out as a diminutive of Artemiy (Artemus, as in Artemus Gordon). Both are now considered full forms of the same name, though Artemiy is rarer.
- "Tyoma" and "Tyomik" are the diminutives for both variations. (Their equivalent in English would be "Artie".)
- Arthur (Celtic name only recently introduced in Russia)
- Arseny (Greek: Arsenios)
- Boris, a pre-Christian diminutive of Borislav- "Fighter for Glory", but now a full first name.
- The diminutive is "Borya". For some reasons the name, while undeniably Slavic in origin, is now perceived as mostly Jewish, probably because it always was more popular in Western Russia, in the Pale, and many Ashkenazi Jews adopted it.
- Denis (Dennis)
- Dmitry (Demetrius)
- Has two diminutive forms : "Dima" and "Mitya"
- Daniil/Danila (Daniel)
- Eduard (Edward)
- Emil (Rare. Probably imported from the West during the XIX century.)
- Diminutive : "Milya"
- A fictional bearer of the name would be Emil Blonsky, aka The Abomination, from The Incredible Hulk.
- Evgeny/Yevgeny (Eugene)
- The female equivalent, Evgenia/Yevgenia, is also common. Both are abbreviated to "Zhenya".
- Feodor/Fyodor (Theodore)
- Foma (Thomas)
- Diminutive: "Fomka", "Khomka"
- Gavriil (Gabriel)
- Gennadiy (Gennadius, derived from the Old Greek Gennadas, meaning "noble" or "generous")
- "Gena" and "Genya". Also has a feminine variant: "Gennadiya".
- German (from Latin germanus, meaning "brother". This is also the Russian variant of the German name Hermann)
- Grigori (Gregory)
- One possible exception is the male name "Gleb". It has no diminuitive forms, only the pet names, as this name hails from Scandinavia.
- Pet forms of it, for example, "Glebushka", or "Glebka", can only be used by the closest relatives or loved ones. Otherwise, it's pretty damn offensive.
- OTOH, another originally Scandinavian name, Oleg (a Russian form of Norse "Helgi") does have diminutives aplenty, though most of them are also pet names.
- Innokentiy (Innocent)
- Ilya (Elijah)
- Ivan (John)
- Kirill (Cyril), born by the 9th century saint who did missionary work among the Slavs with his brother, St. Methodius. It's the most commonly used form.
- "Kirya", "Kiryuha". This one is actually used in a group of school or university students/friends.
- "Kiryusha" This form is family one, for example Mother-to-Son.
- "Kir" is rarer, but is situationally neutral.
- The name is also similar to the slang verb "kiryat'", to drink heavily, so expect a lot of bad puns.
- Konstantin (Constantine)
- Lev (Leo)
- Diminutive: "Leva". Far more rarely "Lyovushka" (which is more of an affectionate pet name).
- Leo Tolstoy is by far the most famous bearer of the name, outside of Russian Orthodox patriachs.
- Maksim (Max) - originally just a diminutive of Maksimilian (Maximillian), but now a given name in its own right.
- "Max" is nowadays sometimes encountered as a name on its own.
- Matvey (Matthew)
- A bunch of recurrent "-slavs". (all of pre-Christian Slavic origin. Note that other Slavic peoples may have their own -slav names, for example, Bronislav is a Polish name).
- Stanislav (originally a Polish name too, but now common in Russia as well. Diminutive is Stas)
- Vyacheslav (Best know for being the name of Joseph Stalin's Dragon - A.K.A. the man for whom the Molotov Cocktail is named)
- Most of the -slav names can be diminutized to "Slava".
- The name "Izyaslav" ("the glory taker") is joked to be especially convenient, as to one bunch of friends you could be Izyanote , and Slava to another.
- Leonid (Leonidas, a Greek name known to Westerners thanks to 300, but which was also borne by several saints)
- The common diminutive is "Lyonya". A possessive case of this name would be "Lyonin" ("Лёнин"), which is just one diaeresis away from "Ленин" ("Lenin"). Cue the jokes about Leonid Brezhnev being seen around Lenin's Mausoleum with a folding bed or jar of paint — the hint to the Brezhnev's Personality Cult-lite that started to grow during his late life.
- Mikhail (Michael)
- Also, Nikita. Yes, it is a boy's name. Just ask Mr. Khrushchev.
- Nikolai/Mykola (Nicholas)
- Basic diminutive is "Kolya". "Nikolasha" is a more intimate form. "Nika" is a babyish version of this name. "Kolyan" is a slang form used by male friends.
- Oleg (Like Gleb, an import from medieval Scandinavia, this is a non-Slavic, non-Biblical name)
- Diminutive: "Lyokha", "Olezha"
- Pavel/Pavlo (Paul)
- Pyotr (Peter)
- The diminutive is "Petya".
- In colloquial Ukrainian (especialy western Ukrainian dialects), it can often appear as "Petro".
- This is the given name of Colossus from X-Men.
- Diminutive: "Rodya"
- This is the given name of Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the famous novel Crime and Punishment
- Sergei (Serge)
- Diminutive: "Seryozha"
- A very common slang diminutive is "Seriy", literally meaning "Gray".
- Semyon (Simon)
- Sevastyan (Sebastian)
- "Seva" (note that Sevastyan shares this diminutive with the name Vsevolod), "Sevik"
- Stepan (Stephen/Stefan)
- Diminutives are Vadik and (less commonly) Dima. Note that while the stress in "Vadim" is on the second syllable, it is on the first one in both diminutives.
- Vasily (Basil, from the Greek 'basileus' - "king")
- Vladimir/Volodymyr: "The Lord of the World", or "Owner of Peace," another pre-Christian name. Its English equivalent is Walter. This name was also Germanized as "Waldemar".
- The diminutive can be either "Vova" or "Volodya", but never "Vlad" - Russians associate that diminutive with other names, like "Vladislav" or "Vladilen" (an abbreviation of "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin").
- Yakov (Jacob/James)
- Yuri (George)
- As in Yuri Dolgoruki, aka George I, a Grand Prince of Moscow and name of the new Russian boomer, first of the "Borey" class.
- Note that there are actually as many as three different forms of "George" in Russian: Georgi, Yuri, and Yegor.
- Diminutives are Yura (for Yuri) and Zhora (for Georgi). Yegor is its own diminutive (the unbearably cutesy "Yegorek"\"Igorek" is actually a diminutive of Igor, used by close friends and relatives).
- They almost all end in a
(which is a compound letter):
- Agrafena (Russian variant of the ancient Roman name Agrippina, borne by the wife and niece [same person] of the Emperor Claudius)
- "Sasha", "Lesia", "Olesia", "Shura"
- Anastasia (read Uh-nuh-stuh-see ya). A Greek name meaning "resurrection".
- Unique in having complete sets of diminutives formed from three alternative roots: Asya, Nastya, Stasya
- Probably the best-known in the West is Russian-American Olympic gymnast Anastasia Valeryevna "Nastia" Liukin (born in Russia, raised in Texas).
- Anna (notice its diminutives are separate from those of Anastasia, above)
- "Anya", "Nyura", "Annichka"
- Anzhela (Angela)
- Elena, alternatively Yelena (Helen)
- A number of successful Soviet and Russian gymnasts have had this name; among the most famous are Davydova, Shushunova, Mukhina, Naimushina, Zamolodchikova, and Produnova.
- Irina (Irene). A Greek name meaning "peace".
- "Ira", "Irishka"
- Irina Derevko from Alias.
- Karina (Karen)
- Kseniya/Xenia. A Greek name meaning "foreigner".
- Lyubov (meaning "love", this is the third in a trio of female names (Vera, Nadezhda, and Lyubov) based on Christian virtues; this is one of the rare Russian female names that doesn't end in an 'a' or 'ya')
- Lyudmila (a Slavic name meaning "nice to people")
- Marina. From the Latin marinus, "of the sea".
- Mariya (Mary)
- "Masha", "Marya", "Marusya", "Manya"
- Nadezhda (meaning "hope", this is the second in a trio of female names (Vera, Nadezhda, and Lyubov) based on Christian virtues)
- Natalia (Natalie). This is from the Latin natalia, Christmas Day.
- Note that "Natalia" and "Natalya" are usually considered legally different forms of the same name, like Yuri and Georgi, and a typo in your ID can make it invalid. "Natalya" is more common than "Natalia"; both abbreviate to "Natasha".
- Marvel's Black Widow is a Natalya/Natasha.
- Polina (Paulina)
- Polya might also be the diminutive of Praskovya. When the latter name became perceived as too rustic and old-fashioned a lot of Praskovyas became Polinas.
- Svetlana/Svitlana (although it looks like a pre-Christian Slavic name, it was actually invented in the early 1800s, and was popularized by a ballad. It means "clear" or "one of light")
- Yekaterina, alternatively romanized Ekaterina (Catherine)
- Tatyana. From the Latin family name Tatius.
- Varvara (Barbara)
- Vera (meaning "faith", this is the first in a trio of female names (Vera, Nadezhda, and Lyubov) based on Christian virtues).
- Yevdokiya (Eudocia/Eudokia, a female name of Greek origin that means approximately "one with good sense")
- "Dunya", one of the more irregular diminutive forms of a given name.
- Yuliya (Julia)
- Zinaida. A Greek name referring to the god Zeus.
Trope Son of Trope
What to call Russians.
In Russia, when you're referring to someone in a formal setting, you don't just use their first name, but their first name and patronymic, i.e. "Ekaterina Ivanovna" or their diminutive. ("Ivan Ilyich" is a name familiar to Tolstoy wonks, who will tell you that that's not the character's full name; Soviet history buffs will tell you the same about Ivan Denisovich
Oddly, even though addressing a person by the first name and patronymic is very formal, addressing them with the patronymic alone is seen as highly informal, even less formal than First Name Basis
. In this informal usage male patronymics usually get shortened by removing the "ov/ev" (e.g. Ivanovich becomes Ivanych, Sergeyevich - Sergeich, etc.), unless that syllable is stressed (e.g. Petrovich). In addition, some names have completely idiosyncratic short forms (e.g. Pavlovich - Palych, Dmitriyevich - Mitrich, etc.) As a way of emphasising his closeness to the people, Lenin was often referred to simply as "Ilyich" in speeches and Soviet media. In contrast, no one ever (except maybe general Vlasik
— they were reportedly quite close) referred to his successor as "Vissarionych"
When it comes to name orders, Russian does not stick to just one, unlike English or Japanese. The most formal order is family name first, followed by given name, followed by patronymic (e.g. Ivanov Ivan Ivanovich). However, this order is only used on official documents and when introducing or referring to people in a very formal setting (for instance, dinner at the Kremlin or a courtroom in session), never as a direct form of address. This does not differ too much from the equivalent Western usage; think of the situations someone might use the phrasing "Smith, John Michael," and you have a rough (but hardly complete) idea when "Ivanov Ivan Ivanovich" might be used in Russia. The more Western order of given name-patronymic-family name (Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov) is a less official, but more commonly used way of giving someone's full name. When the patronymic is left out both the Western (Ivan Ivanov) and Eastern (Ivanov Ivan) orders are acceptable. The media nowadays uses the Western order almost exclusively (which also means that most official anime dubs reverse the Japanese names, just like they do in the West), while in schools and colleges the Eastern order is generally preferred. The only strict rule in Russian naming orders is that the patronymic can only be placed immediately after the given name (so "Ivan Ivanov Ivanovich" is always unacceptable). The surname alone is used in some formal situations as surname and first letters of name and patronymic in many documents. It assumes authority of the caller, such as of teacher in a class or a drill sergeant before a rank of enlisted men.
The Russian equivalents to Mr. and Mrs. aren't really used save in older literature. Lack of an easy pronoun to call someone actually became a problem a few years ago. "Gospodin" or "gospozha" (equivalents to Mr. and Mrs. respectively) were only recently
returned to use and are used mostly by businessmen or civil servants to address each other, very formally. (Don't call a Russian the equivalent of "citizen"; that's how cops address a perp
, so it sounds offensive.) The address "comrade" (historically rendered tovarishch
) is used only in the army
and in the Communist Party, which is removed from power and is slowly dying out. The most common forms of address between common people are the Russian equivalents of "man", "young man", "woman" or "girl". Note that "girl" ("devushka") is MUCH more preferable then "woman" ("zhenshina") as the latter may and frequently will be interpreted as connoting significant age and thus offensive
(in this sense, it's a lot like Ma'am for people residing outside of the Deep South
). Children mostly address unfamiliar adults as "dyadya/dyadenka" and "tyotya/tyotenka". These words literally mean "uncle" and "aunt", but they do not imply family ties in this case. Similarly, in the predominately Muslim regions of Russia and the former USSR it may be customary for young and middle-aged people to address all elderly people as "father" and "mother", saying either "otets" and "mat'" in Russian, or a corresponding term in the local language.
In Soviet times, tovarisch
("comrade") was more or less universal, but depending on its mode of usage, it could be more or less a honorific. Simply "comrade", as in "sir" or "madam", was considered polite address fitting for any honest Soviet citizen; criminals and enemies of the people, however, were forbidden both to be called comrades and call anyone comrades. That's why they were addressed grazhdanin
("citizen") and how that word became offensive (another honorific, grazhdanin nachalnik
"citizen boss" or "citizen master" was reserved for non-comrades to address policemen and prison guards). The form "comrade + Name" (as in "Mr. Name") was more of a honorific, used to address important people. Its most formal usage was dorogoy tovarisch
When writing full Russian names in English, you either skip the patronymic, initial both names, or do it in full. Usually. Some people get the "Name Patronymic-initial Surname" treatment, most famously Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
, frequently called "Vladimir V. Putin" in the Western press.
Ancient Slavic Names
Before the Christian era, the Slavic peoples inhabiting what is now Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. gave their children a wide variety of names of native origin, most of which were nature names (ie Zima, winter
) or names reflecting personal attributes that the parent presumably hoped the child would have. A few are still used to this day, while many others fell by the wayside.
- Mal (small one)
- Volk (wolf)
The Old Slavic names that are in use to this day and spring to mind when you say "Old Slavic name" (both native, like Boris, Vladimir, Svyatoslav, and Scandinavian loan-names such as Oleg, Igor and Gleb) were, in fact, princely
names used by the feudal nobility. The common folk used more obscure names which right now are long-antiquated. The reason for that is that Christianization of the Rus started from the aristocracy, and it were the princes who became the first native saints (thus legalizing their Old Slavic names as Christian names).