(This is the full length of the post I’d originally had scheduled for May.)
I’ve long been a name nerd, but before the advent of the Internet, I was pretty limited in the places I could find interesting, unique, lesser-used names. I also wasn’t helped by how my family’s encyclopedia were from 1965 and extremely out of date. Even the “updated” yearbooks we had with that set only went up to the very early Seventies. And factor in how I was the classic kid who read too much and understood too little.
Case in point: Since I’d read a lot about the Romanovs and the closely-related other Russian royals and nobility, I knew that many of them went by Western versions of their names. Thus, it followed that I believed it would be perfectly normal and historically and culturally accurate for some non-royal Russians to also prefer the Western versions of their own names. As such a passionate Russophile, I’m rather shocked it took me till last year to finally realize how silly that was. Even an upper-middle-class Russian who was fairly Westernized would still have had a normal Russian name, unless there were some extraordinary, compelling reason to use a foreign version of his or her name.
At first it was difficult, after my find/changes, to get used to seeing and thinking of my offending characters as Lyubov (Lyuba), Katariina (Katrin), Pyotr, and Eliisabet, instead of Amy, Catherine, Peter, and Elizabeth. Even Lyuba’s lovely aunt Margaret finally had her name changed to Margarita. In my earliest period of working on the book, in fact, I was even worse. Nikolas was called Nicholas (changed to Nickolas during the transitional period of writing supplemental stories in a notebook), Nikolay was Nikolai, Tatyana was Tatiana, Alya (Aleksandra) was Al, and Ivan’s mother (who becomes the mother-in-law from Hell in the sequel) was Anne.
Now I can’t think of them as anything but. The only characters who got to keep their non-Russian names were Nikolas and Lyuba’s cousin Ginny. Now it’s explained that Nikolas, a head in the clouds intellectual who prefers reading philosophy books to social events and sporting, has been going by the Greek form of his real name Nikolay since he was 12 years old and fell in love with the ancient Greek philosophers. (Yes, I know the real Greek form is actually Nikolaos, but even Nikolas isn’t that out of touch with reality!) And his nickname went from Nicky to Kolya. For Ginny, whose real name has always been Mikhail, it was explained that it was his childish mispronunciation of his parents’ baby nickname for him, Genie.
Other characters who changed their names were Malchen (Amalia) von Hinderburg, Julie Spirnak (now Laska), and Elizabeth Roblenska. The fourth-oldest Roblensky sibling is still called Elizabeth, and has been since she came to America in 1945, but in the scenes set in Europe during the war, I’m slowly changing her name to the real Polish form, Elzbieta. She’ll definitely be called Elzbieta and only Elzbieta during the book I’m going to write about her experiences during the war in Poland, Denmark, and Sweden, Righteous Unorthodoxy.
Malchen was originally called Honey, and her and Lazarus’s surname was Gray. Um, what? At least their friends the Brandts have the excuse of changing their surname to Small temporarily to avoid anti-German sentiments in their new country during wartime! And as I discovered while going through the miraculously resurrected file of the first part of the discontinued first draft of Adicia’s story, my sweet little Julie was originally called Karin. I didn’t even remember her having a name, or if I’d planned to use her after her initial, typically over the top, Grimm’s fairytale on acid-like scene. When I was renaming her and getting plans in my head to make her into an important secondary character, the name Julie just came to me. Names usually don’t just pop into my head and seem that perfect.
And in my future third Russian novel and the as-yet-mostly-unplotted fourth volume, the names of some of Tatyana and Nikolay’s children will have to change. Back in ’93, I wrote some scene set in 1991, of a very elderly Lyuba and Ivan coming back home and seeing a young couple who remind them of themselves during the Civil War. It’s mentioned that Tatyana and Nikolay have 7 kids, Yelena, Vera, Shura, Vova, Valya, Iosif, and Nadezhda.
Now I can’t use Yelena, Vera, and Nadezhda, since those are two of Lyuba’s dear stepsisters and her dear stepcousin. Their family also has a dear friend who lives in Toronto named Lena. I don’t like duplicating names within the same family. Way too confusing. I of course wrote that long before those characters were a gleam in my eye. But it’s a lovely tribute to older/deceased relatives to use the names Shura, Vova, and Iosif. Tatyana’s biological paternal grandma is named Aleksandriya and called Shura, Lyuba’s maternal grandfather was Iosif, and Nikolay’s paternal grandfather was Vladimir (Vova).