I hear a lot of non-Russophile Westerners complaining that Russian names are too complicated, long, or confusing for them. I’ve never felt confused or annoyed by Russian naming customs, but then again, I’ve been reading Russian literature since I was a teen. I immediately got the hang of patronymics and nicknames, and that it’s common for one person to be called by multiple names.
Russian surnames differ by the sex of the bearer. A woman’s name will end in -a where the man’s name doesn’t, and -skiy will become -skaya for a woman. Occasionally, you’ll see a surname that doesn’t end in the common -ov(a), -(y)ev(a), -in(a), or -skiy/skaya. These tend to be imports from neighboring cultures that assimilated into Russian families through marriage, such as names of German or Ukrainian origin. If you see a name that ends in -enko, you’ll know it’s Ukrainian. There are also a few Russian surnames that look like patronymics, such as Kuzmich.
The patronymic is derived from one’s father’s name. If it ends in a consonant, like Ivan, Fyodor, or Boris, the ending will be -ovna/ovich. If it ends in Y, like Nikolay, Vasiliy, or Valeriy, the ending is -yevna/yevich. A few names take differing forms when made into patronymics. For example:
Pyotr—Petrovich and Petrovna
Pavel—Pavlovich and Pavlovna
Lev—L’vovich and L’vovna
Mikhail—Mikhaylovich and Mikhaylovna
The rare Russian male name that ends in a vowel will have its own set of rules for patronymics. Examples:
Ilya—Ilyich and Ilyinichna
Kuzma—Kuzmich and Kuzminichna
Sometimes a man (usually older) will be called by his patronymic alone, or a shortened form of it (e.g., Ivanovich becomes Ivanych, Andreyevich becomes Andrych). However, this takes years (often decades) of friendship, and conveys respect, affection, and playfulness. It’s not a form of address you’d ever use with someone you’ve just met.
You always call someone by his or her first name and patronymic, never the first name alone, unless you’re addressing a child, or perhaps you’re at a social event with people of your same age. After you know the person well enough, you may be invited to switch to first names only. A nickname is never used with a patronymic.
Often, you can tell what the root of a basic nickname form is if you know Russian names well, but others aren’t so easy to decipher. Generally, part of the name has -sha or -ya added to the end of it, or sometimes -(y)ushka, -ochka, or -ik. Occasionally, an E will become a YO in a nickname, and visa versa. And if a name ends in -slav(a), like Rostislav, Miroslava, Mstislav, or Yaroslava, one of the nicknames will be Slava.
If you know a person very well, it’s okay to use a superdiminutive form, like -(y)echka, -(y)enka, -yushenka, -(y)ulya, or -onka. However, you never use a very familiar nickname with someone you don’t know very well, not even with a child. With a child, you should start out using the common nickname.
You also want to tread carefully with the -ka ending, since it implies different things depending on your relationship. If Vasiliy’s wife or mother calls him Vaska, it’s assumed to be in a loving way. If someone he doesn’t know or like very well calls him Vaska, it’s usually meant disrespectfully.
Common nicknames include:
Aleksey—Alyosha, Lyosha, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Lyoshenka, Lyoshechka
Aleksandr—Sasha, Sanya, Shura, Sashenka, Sashechka, Sanyechka, Sanyenka, Sashura
Boris—Borya, Boryusha, Boryenka, Boryushenka, Boryushechka
Dmitriy—Dima, Mitya, Dimochka, Mityenka, Mityushka, Mityushenka, Mityushechka
Fyodor—Fedya, Fedyushka, Fedyushechka, Fedyushenka
Grigoriy—Grisha, Grishenka, Grishechka
Georgiy—Zhora, Gosha, Goshenka, Goshechka
Ivan—Vanya, Vanyechka, Vanyushka, Vanyushenka, Vanyushechka
Ilya—Ilyusha, Ilyushenka, Ilyushechka
Konstantin—Kostya, Kostyechka, Kostyenka
Leonid, Leontiy—Lyonya, Lyonyechka
Mikhail—Misha, Mishenka, Mishechka
Nikolay—Kolya, Kolyechka, Kolyenka
Pavel—Pasha, Pashenka, Pashechka, Pavlik
Pyotr—Petya, Petrusha, Petrushka, Petrushenka, Petrushechka, Petyechka, Petyenka
Rodion—Rodya, Rodyenka, Rodyechka
Sergey—Seryozha (can’t see or hear this name now without hearing it being squawked by the Harpy from Hell, aka so-called boyfriend’s overbearing mother), Seryozhenka, Seryozhechka
Vadim—Vadya, Vadik, Vadyechka, Vadyenka
Vasiliy—Vasya, Vasyenka, Vasyechka
Vsevolod—Seva, Sevochka, Sevoshechka
Yuriy—Yura, Yuryechka, Yuryenka
Anna—Anya, Annuta, Anyechka, Annushka
Aleksandra—Sasha, Shura, Sashura, Sashenka, Sashechka, Alya, Alyechka
Anastasiya—Nastya, Stasya, Asya, Nastyenka, Nastulya, Nastyechka, Asyenka, Asyechka
Darya—Dasha, Dashenka, Dashechka
Kseniya—Ksyusha, Ksyushenka, Ksyushechka
Lyubov—Lyuba, Lyubonka, Lyubochka, Lyubashechka, Lyubashka
Lyudmila—Lyuda, Lyudochka, Lyudenka, Lyudechka
Mariya—Manya, Masha, Mashenka, Mashechka, Manyechka, Manyenka
Matryona/Matrona—Motya, Motyenka, Motyechka
Nadezhda—Nadya, Nadyenka, Nadyechka, Nadyushka, Nadyushenka, Nadyushechka
Natalya—Natasha, Nastashenka, Natashechka, Alya, Alyechka
Nina—Ninenka, Ninochka, Ninusha, Ninushenka, Ninushechka
Olga—Olya, Olyechka, Olyenka
Platonida—Platosha, Platoshenka, Platoshechka
Raisa—Raya, Rayechka, Rayenka
Sofya—Sonya, Sonyechka, Sonyenka, Sonyushka
Tatyana—Tanya, Tanyechka, Tanyushka, Tanyushechka
Valentina—Valya, Valentulya, Valochka, Valyechka, Valyushka
Yekaterina, Katerina—Katya, Katyenka, Katyusha, Katyushenka, Katyushechka
Yelena—Lena, Lenochka, Lyolya
Yelizaveta, Lizaveta—Liza, Lizochka
Yuliya/Yuliana—Yulya, Yulyechka, Yulyenka
Zinaida—Zina, Zinulya, Ida
Russian names generally fall into the following categories:
Native Slavic names, such as Rostislav, Vyacheslav, Vsevolod, Svetlana, Radoslava, and Lyubov.
Names adapted from Greek and Russianized, due to the original union of Orthodox Christianity, such as Spiridon, Dmitriy, Pelageya, and Yevpraksiya.
Names adopted from surrounding cultures and Russianized, such as Karla, Klara, and Klarisa.
The invented names most popular in the first decades of the Soviet Union, such as Melor, Novomira, Dotnara, Vilen, Vladlena, and Ninel.