This post is part of a series of 10 posts about the British Community in Russia. You can read the complete series HERE
Researching Russian Surnames
When researching European families it is sometimes much easier to focus on the surname of the family or the place the family lived. The first broad piece of research I recommend, is to visit a surname distribution mapping site, which is the first link below, (in fact I recommend that for all surnames):
Surnames in Russia have a format of three components which is quite tricky to understand. Firstly there is a first name, then a middle name or Patronymic name and then finally a surname. The full name is used in formal situations, especially when in written form. We will come back to Patronymic names later on, in this post.
Surnames came to Russia late when compared to the majority of Europe. The Russian Census of 1897 showed that 75% of the Russian Empire did not have surnames. After the Revolution in 1917 people were to take surnames.
Agricultural Russia existed until 1861 with peasant Serfs. These were labourers who very few rights and they were obligated to work on their Lord’s fields and lands. They paid a monthly fee for wheat and other commodities. As Lord’s sold their land, so too could the serfs. When serfdom was abolished in 1861, these peasants become free and the majority of these did not have surnames. Should they need official documents, all they needed to do was to provide the name of their village, or the name of the Lord, their name along with their occupation.
The Aristocracy in Russia had surnames around 14-15th Century. In the 17-18th Century those Russians that did have surnames,a did not inherit them from earlier generations of the family in the way we might be used to. The surnames, by and large were based on Patronymically, but they only lasted the life time of the individual.
For those that did not have surname based upon Patronymics, they likely had surnames based on nicknames, based on dwellings, physically and occupation. Surnames in Russia have a suffix of either ov, ev or in, which one is used, is dependent on the ending of the surname – does it end in a vowel or a consonant?
In Russia, women typically take the name of their husband, although since 1918 there has been no legal requirement to do so. In the modern era, women are marrying later in life and therefore retaining their maiden name.
Some surnames are descriptive of Russian wildlife, plants, places and geographical features such as church names or the names of Saints. Some surnames are reflective of the old Pagan Slavic names of the period prior to 10th Century. Names were often “negative” in characteristic, so not to tempt fate, for example the name of Stupid would be used, therefore not tempting fate of being smart.
Surnames of those that once resided in parts of Russia or the Soviet Union will have their surnames recorded in that fashion, as recorded by the 19th and 20th Century Russian civil servants. There are some examples of foreign surnames in Russia, from Germany, Poland, France, Ukraine, Armenian and even names from Britain.
Russian Given Names
Given names are usually traditional from the Bible or perhaps Greek, Latin or Slavic with some names applying to both male and female, with the ending of the name indicative of the gender.
Many names are diminutive, perhaps, but not always, that the name could be shorter, but the name is reflective of the emotional link between people – Pavel could become Pav – in the right setting, friends might use this format, but if Pavel was someone, with whom you had a professional relationship, it would be inappropriate.
The middle name, is based on the male Patronymic name with the addition of Ovich or Evich for male and Ovna or Evna for female. Those from other nations are typically exempt from using the three name structure, which is outlined above.
For those whose father in not know then the middle name might be the name of the Grandfather or other significant individual. Some might have different cultural emphasis on the naming structure – perhaps for a child of a French & Russian couple, the first name might be a French name with the Patronymic name representing the name of the mother or father plus the surname.
There are also options too should the name not liked, with the name being changed at the Russian passport office or a male, taking the name of his bride, rather than the other way around.
I am indebted to Pavel for his assistance and clarity in this final part of the series. You can read the complete series, of the British Community in Russia HERE.