Posted in Names, Third Russian novel, Word Count, Writing

ROW80 Update—Pondering Surname Switching


I’m working on Chapter 22 of my third Russian novel, and am up to about 172,600 words so far. I’m writing to a general outline/timeline of events, but I still write organically. My original plan, for over a decade, was to have most of the Soviet characters arrested separately, or at least by household, during the Great Terror in 1937.

As I was writing, things developed that scumbag Misha Godunov, one of the villains of the first book, was denounced by his former young protégé Aleksandr Shepilov. That made his downfall even more perfect and sweeter. This guy had it coming to him for a long time. He loses not only his brothel, but is also imprisoned and tortured in Butyrskaya prison and eventually will get 25 years of hard labor. On his way to prison with his prostitutes and their clients, Misha was thinking of people he didn’t like whom he could denounce in exchange for a lessened term or freedom, but Aleksandr (who’s been arrested for selling foreign books in his store) already beat him to the punch.

I’ve had a gut feeling for a long time now that I might need to switch some of the characters’ surnames. When I was starting the book back in ’93, I was just randomly taking names from my dad’s old 1965 encyclopedia. I didn’t really know or care how famous, rare, or un-Russian some of those names might be. At the time, I also didn’t know about feminine endings or patronymics, and thought Russians had Western-style middle names. I was the same genius who had a Russian character called Amy.

Some of the surnames have belonged to famous individuals, but are still common enough to not only have that association. Others are what I’d consider mid-level famous, like Zhukov(a) and Malenkov(a). Some of the names I gave to characters who were created during my second major writing phase are famous, but were chosen deliberately for symbolic reasons, in honor of their bearers. And I felt that having the names Gorbachëva and Yeltsina only in feminine forms didn’t make them seem so in-your-face famous.

I’m most bothered by the surnames Herzen(a), Stalin(a), and Trotskiy/Trotskaya. The first name is real, but it belonged to a Russian of German origin. Yes, my Herzens spent much of their lives in East Prussia and even gave their son a real middle name, but they’re still 100% Russian. Trotskiy is also a real name, but it appears to be of Polish origin, and come on, do you really think of anyone but THE Trotskiy when you hear that name?

At least Trotskiy took his name from a real person, even if it’s not a very common name. My research indicates that Stalin just made his name up entirely. I can’t find any records of Stalin(a) as a family name before him. Their famous name has been played up sometimes, when they insist they’re not related to that Georgian nobody in politics, whom they never liked. But it just sounds stupid and silly to have a name THAT famous. It’s not a name like Lennon, Washington, or Kevorkian, which is famous but still very common. The name Stalin really only has that one association, and it’s not a good one.

I’m not 13 anymore, and I know a lot more about Russian names than I did 20 years ago. I think I should change their name to Savvin(a), which has a very similar sound and the same amount of syllables. It won’t be a huge adjustment, like if I changed their name to Dragumirov(a) or Polishchuk.