Russian names

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«Не верьте слезам женщины, Алексей Федорович» or «Do not trust the tears of a woman, Aleksey Fyodorovich» is a famous statement from the work of Dostoevski. I don't quote this to initiate a discussion on the veracity of the message - I have three sisters, I wouldn't dare. But I do it because of the form of address. It's an excerpt from a conversation between Ivan Fyodorovich and Aleksey Fyodorovich. Two brothers, clearly. However... their surname is not Fyodorovich, but Karamazov. Fyodorovich is their отчество [otchestvo] or patronymic, since their father's name was Fyodor.

In Russian, the complete name of a person consists of an имя [(imya], the  christian name or first name, an отчество [otchestvo], the father's name or patronymic and a фамилия [familiya], the family name or surname.

The first name is given by the parents at birth, and finds it origin in Christianity or in Russian tradition, sometimes in Judaism. Examples of the first are Ivan, Maria or Konstantin, examples of the second are Oleg, Igor and Olga. Popular Jewish first names are Anna, Mikhail, Lev and David. In the Soviet era new names were sometimes invented to show the parents' loyalty to the party. Stalina or Lenina, for example. Or Vladlena, derived from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The use of a father's name or patronymic dates from the Middle Ages. It was one of the earliest means to distinguish one person from the other. Someone was called «first name, son of...» or «first name, daughter of...».

One can suppose that the patronymic is just the genitive of the father's name, but the rules aren't that simple. The father's name of a man often ends with -ev, -ov, or -vich, although the latter was from the 16th to the 17th century in Moscow  reserved for the upperclass. For women was generally added an -a. For example: Aleksey Ivanov or Aleksey Ivanovich is Aleksey, «son of Ivan». And Olga Ivanova is Olga, «daughter of Ivan».

It is still common practice, especially in the polite form of address, to call someone by the first name and the patronymic in Russian. «Здравствуйте, Владимир Иванович», means «Good day, Vladimir Ivanovich», with the verb in the second person and in plural, like the French polite form «vous».

The family name was introduced later, when registers and official archives were used, especially since the census of 1897. The family name was introduced to indicate a longer  lineage. Because, if the above-mentioned Aleksey Ivanov had a son named Igor, this Igor would not be called Igor Ivanov, but Igor Alekseev of Igor Alekseevich, «son of Aleksey», with no more link to Aleksey's ancestry. So family names started being used, but the patronymicum did not disappear. If Aleksey Ivanov had two sons, Igor and Vasily, they would be called, in full, Igor Alekseevitch Ivanov and Vasily Alekseevitch Ivanov. And if he had a daughter called Yelena, she would be Yelena Alekseeva Ivanova.

A Russian family name often finds its origin in a patronymic, but it could also be a distorted nickname, indicating a profession, or a toponym (place-name). But that's not different from other languages. The name Johnson is an old patronymicum, and the origin of names like Carpenter and Churchill is also easy to discover.

The family names of women are still treated in a rather conservative and paternalistic way in today's Russia. Different from in Belgium, a Russian woman often changes names when she gets married, although this is not a legal obligation. According to the law, spouses can, as in Belgium, use each other's names, but they don't have to, and a Russian women will often adopt the name of her husband, with an -a after.

I don't know any example of a man who adopted his wife's name, though. To be honest, it isn't common practice here neither, of course, but the male chauvinist tradition in Russia is more stubborn than here. It still lives in old sayings like: «A chicken is not a bird, and a woman is not a person», or in wisecracks like «I thought I saw two people walking, but it were just a man and his wife».

To conclude, a special characteristic of the Russian naming is the use of a wide variety of derived first names, which can express all kinds of emotions. Maria will be called Maria  by unknown persons or in formal relations, but friends will call her Masha, or Mashenka when they really like her. More intimate is Mashuneshka, Marusha or Mashunya. Mashka is rather rude, but can be used in the family or by adults towards children. For the bosom friends: this article is signed Яанушка (Yanushka).

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