Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why do Russians have these long first-second names?

I've heard that Russians often address to each other not by their first name but by a long hard to pronounce names, which apparently is not their last name. Why is that?
Asked by Nicolas, Paris

This strange long name is probably what is called in Russian "OTCHESTVO" (so called patronymic name) As you can see from the link this name is not used in Europe, but is part of Russian identity.


Regardless of gender, religion or origin Russians never have several first names but just one first name and one second before their last name. Unlike surname it's not connected with various nicknames and defined strictly by the name of the father. As a matter of fact it reflected genetic communication through the father with all his descendants.

The patronymic name as well as the last name always testified the fact that certain person belongs to a certain family (kin). It's literate translation mean: "Child of (the first name of the father)"

(Remember Vladimir Vladimirovich?)

Historically patronymic names were established in the upper Russian nobility, members of the Royal court. That fact testifies the value of a patronymic name as a sign of big respect of the personal merits. The first such person was, of cause, Russian Tsar and his family members.

(Remember last misfortune Russian Tsar's wife Alexandra Fedorovna?)

And it was only in 1610 when the right to be called by his first and patronymic name was granted to not a high noble person. This lucky person was a merchant with a known lastname - Stroganoff who by a special Imperial decree was granted such permission "for his great merits in the protection of Russian land". (Everyone can mention at least oen merit of this family which deserves a prize. Remember boeuf Stroganoff?)

Thus, except for genetic and information loading the patronymic name also bore expressed sign of social respect for the person who was addressed by his patronymic.

Gradually, in XVIII and XIX centuries in Russia the reference by the patronymic name began to spred not only among Russian nobility and officials, but also among intellectual, cultural and spiritual elite.

The reference by a patronymic name became an integral part of person's identity in Russia. Therefore patronymic name was extended to all parts of Russian society as expression of respect and a reminder of the origins.

After Russian Revolution in 1917, the patronymic name was gradually extended among other nations of the Russian state, regardless of the nation

(Remember Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin? )


Now after this historical info I want to specify that there are some other rules which go together with Russian patronymic name:

- You always address to older Russians by the full name : first+ patronymic. Noone will dare to call their teacher (Maria Dmitrievna Ivanova, for example) by her last name (Ms. Ivanova), or by her first name (Maria). She is for everyone: Maria Dmitrievna

- This applies to any kind of official relationship (doctor/teacher/ legal appointment) regardless of age of any party...even if there is a major age difference.

- You also never address to someone calling them by their first+ patronymic names and use the form "you/tu (in French)". Using patronymic name shows that there is a distance between two parties. I remember that I was shocked to be called by my full patronymic name as a freshman in my university.

-Patronymic name is a must. So if the child is born by a single mom, she has a right to give her baby her father's first name as a patronimyc name or the one of his biological father or any patronymic name she'd like, regardless of the opinion of this man.


So, as was explained in one the text books for Russian philology students : "When one is called by his patronymic name, it actually reminds him of his father. Thus normal intellectually developed person subconsciously feels hidden presence of his father, genetic and spiritual communication with him and through it feels respect not only for him, but also for the whole kin".

1 comment:

  1. Conserning politeness, I haven't heard of such a rule, but as my children grow abroad and often use foreign constructions of sentences when speaking Russian, I started to notice they make one and the same mistake. In Russian speaking with a third party, you can't call someone "he/she" in the presence of the person you are talking about. It's very impolite. You should use the first name of that person or first name+patronimic.
    Living abroad made me wonder more about my own language.

    Russian children born abroad are not always allowed to keep their patronimic, due to the lack of the graph for it in foreign birth certificates. It puzzles Russians who haven't come across such phenomenon. If the children keep Russian citizenship, they are allowed to write any patronimic they want when getting their own passport.

    About the length of Russian first names... Most of the names which are popular in Russia are not originnaly Russian. There are lots of Greek, Roman, Scandinavian ones. And those which are originally Russian have some meaning in it, like Vera (Faith), Nadezhda (Hope) or Lubov' (Love). More complicated Slavic girl names are not that popular nowadays. Men's Slavic first names are usually longer due to combining two words, like Vladimir (owning the peace), Svyatoslav (sacrid fame), Vyacheslav (most famous).