Oh, Those Names! or How to Read a Russian Novel


I love Russian novels but why do Russians have all those names?  How do I keep them straight in my mind?

The first question is easy--why.  In the old days, people didn't have last names. In the village, you'd have a first name, and then you'd be referred to as your father’s son or daughter. Olga, Boris' daughter.  Not the other Olga, Ivan's daughter.

So Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, is Marina, Dmitry’s daughter (evna or ova for women, ovitch or evitch for men), Makarov.  (If you’re a woman you end your last name with an a.)

That father-name is called a patronymic. Or you can think of it as a middle name. You see it mostly when it’s a matter of respect for an older person. We use the first and patronymic, Vera Borisovna, the same way we would call an older person Mrs. Smith instead of Deborah or god forbid, Debby.

Only older people who command respect are called by first and patronymic. It’s a clue as to the relationship that person has to the speaker. Thus, when Marina’s school friend Varvara calls Marina’s dignified father Dmitry  instead of Dmitry Ivanovitch, she's being purposely rude. 

When someone calls a young person by first and patronymic, there's a touch of mockery there--or a parent speaking sternly.  

If someone's referred to by patronymic alone, that’s a slight to-not-so-slight put-down.

But then there's all the other ones--Ivan and Vanya and Vanka and Vanushka... can't they just pick one?

The Russians love nicknames — called diminutives,  meaning “making little”.  These nicknames aren’t the name-calling type (Squinty, Shorty etc.). It’s the John, Johnny, Jojo variety.

Each name’s got a standard nickname or two—Ivan becomes Vanya. Nikolai becomes Kolya.  Sergei becomes Seryozha, and so on. In my novel I"m careful to stick to one. Although Marina's older brother is Vladimir, I never call him that, only Volodya. He's always Volodya.

There’s rougher nickname, with a slight rascally edge  — Vanka. That Ka… What boys will call other boys, criminals and so on.

The enkas and ushkas, that’s babytalk  — affectionate, in-the-family stuff. Marina’s old nanny is the only one who calls her Marinoushka. It’s funny that the more affectionate the diminutive becomes, the longer get gets. Seryozhenka gets the same treatment.

I can never pronounce them, so I always just think of them as Var... R. or Vera B. 

Nothing wrong with that.  But here's a bit of a Russian pronunciation guide for my book if you're the kind of person who has to know how they sound.

Generally, you stress the second syllable of a Russian name. Not always, but generally. So you get Na-BO-kov, and Tol-STOY. Akh-MA-tova. Tsve-TA-eva. Na-TA-sha. TurGENyev. (hard G).

Exceptions are pretty common: May-a-KOV-sky, KHLEB-nikov, GO-gol, GOR-ky. NI-kolai. Akh-ma-du-LI-na Note that Russian words get only one stress, no matter how long they are. Do-sto-YEV-sky. BRODsky.  

My character's name is Ma-RI-na Ma-KAR-ova. Like driving a KAR.

Her father is DmI-try I-VAN-ovitch Ma-KAR-ov. Her mother is VE-ra Bo-RI-sovna Ma-KAR-ova.  Her brother is Ser-YO-zha. The other one is Vo-LO-dya.  Her boyfriends are KOlya and GENya (with a hard G.)

Her friends are MI-na Kat-SE-va and Var-VAR-a Raz-ru-SHEN-skaya (but you can just think of her as R.) 

The crime boss is ArKAdy von PRINcip. 

If you have trouble with names, mine or anyone else's, feel free to write in the comments section and I'll let you know how they're pronounced.

And while we're talking, what about dates? Why is it called the "February Revolution" when it happened in March? And the "October Revolution" broke out in November.

As with most weird things in human culture, the reason's historical.  Russia’s calendar was the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar, at the beginning of the Roman Empire. In 1582, the West replaced it with the more accurate Gregorian calendar.

But the Russian Orthodox Church, the dominant influence in Russian culture, stuck to its traditions.   It was only in 1918 that the Bolsheviks brought Russia up two weeks and into line with the rest of the world.

So the October Revolution began on October 25 Old Style, The February Revolution on Feb. 23 Old Style. In my book, I use old style until the time they changed it, because the characters had no idea there would be a New Style.

Janet FitchComment