Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals

From late ’96 on, any well-known Russian surnames I’ve chosen for characters have been intentional. Not all of these famous names belong to laudatory people, but it’s unrealistic for every single character in any book to have a name untainted by any negative namesakes or associations.

One could read the choice of some of these names on some of these characters as a political allegory of sorts, but that wasn’t really my intention. Certain were chosen in the context of the late Nineties.

Apart from Ivan’s uncle by marriage, Grigoriy Golitsyn, all my former princes’ and nobles’ names  (e.g., Orlov, Obolensky) were deliberately chosen.

Boris N. Yeltsin (1931–2007), http://state.kremlin.ru/president/allbio

Yeltsina, one of my main families, introduced with 13-year-old third sister Lena in 1920. Matriarch Mrs. Yeltsina, who’s run boardinghouses almost her entire adult life, is my oldest character in these books, born in 1866. Lena and her little sister Natalya are an entire generation apart from older sisters Valya and Zina. I have very mixed feelings about their namesake, but ultimately feel he was a decent person who started out trying to do the right thing.

Gorbachëva, Lena’s surrogate mother Sonya, and Sonya’s younger daughter Karla, whom she’s separated from in 1919 and doesn’t see again till 1953. After Karla is separated from her cousin Naina and their friend Katya, she’s adopted by Leonid Savvin and convinced her birth family are enemies of the people. She falls deeply under Stalin’s spell. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachëv is one of my heroes.

Gennadiy A. Zyuganov (born 1944) 

Zyuganov(a), one of my main families, introduced through 10-year-old orphanage girl Inessa in December 1919. Her Dyadya (Uncle) Dima adopts her and five of her friends, after already having 27 of his own children. Some of the family later escapes Minsk to begin new lives in the West, but they remain committed Communists and atheists.

Gennadiy Andreyevich Zyuganov came in second in both the 1996 presidential election, and the run-off. If he’d won, Putin (who was left in charge by Yeltsin) might never have come to power, but no, the West just had to meddle and pull Yeltsin’s ratings out of the toilet. God forbid a Communist become president! The current Communist Party of Russia is NOT one and the same as the old one!

Vladimir V. Zhirinovskiy (born 1946), duma.gov.ru

Zhirinovskiy/skaya, Inessa’s dear friend Inna, who becomes co-director of their Kyiv orphanage as an adult, and later defects to Iran along with forty children, ten employees, and the elderly director. Inna’s little brother Vitya becomes Inessa’s second husband. Their namesake runs the arch-conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which is neither liberal nor democratic. 

Chernomyrdina, Naina’s best friend Katya, four years her senior, also the daughter of Sonya’s own best friend. She’s sometimes called Older Katya, to distinguish her from Lyuba and Ivan’s daughter Katya. Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin (1938–2010) was Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and famous for his malapropisms.

Yezhova, fiesty orphanage girl Naina, who totes a handgun her father gave her before she was taken away. She uses that gun to protect the citrine necklace her mother gave her. She and Katya defect in 1927, and join Sonya in Toronto several months later. Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov was a total scumbag who played a major role in the Great Terror. Karma came calling when the same fate was delivered to him!

Khrushchëva, orphanage girl Svetlana, who appears in the first two books. Obviously named after Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchëv.

Lebedev(a), one of the main families, introduced through 17-year-old orphaned Nadezhda in 1919. Her uncle Ilya later becomes Lyuba’s stepfather, after several years of having a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Mr. Lebedev has ten daughters by his first marriage. General Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed (whose surname means “swan”) was the candidate I supported in the 1996 presidential election. He came in third. I was so sad when he was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002!

General Lebed (1950–2002), photo by Mikhail A. Yevstafyev

Kosygina, a teacher at Aleksandrovskiy Gymnasium in the first book and future second prequel. Aleksey Nikolayevich Kosygin was a prominent politician under Khrushchëv and Brezhnev.

To be continued.

Riverdale, Toronto

Aerial shot of Riverdale, 31 December 1941

Riverdale is a large neighbourhood of Toronto. Its boundaries are Lake Shore Blvd. (south), the Don River Valley (west), Greektown and Danforth Ave. (north), and the Jones Ave. section of the Canadian National Railway and GO Transit tracks in Leslieville (east).

It was annexed to Toronto in 1884, and has long been known as very multicultural. This was a neighbourhood many immigrants came to—Irish, Greek, Russian, Italian, German, Polish, Finnish, Ukrainian, British, Chinese.

Many Riverdale houses are Victorian and Edwardian, having started life as boarding houses for the proletariat in the 19th century. Sadly, since gentrification has struck, many long-time residents have been priced out and replaced by hipsters and the bourgeoisie.

Lower Riverdale contains the neighbourhood’s six original houses on the west end of Simpson Ave. They’re known as The Six Sisters.

29 July 1931, looking north on Carlaw Ave. at Gerrard St.

18 October 1912, Danforth Ave. at Don Mills Rd. (now Broadview Ave.), looking west

7 July 1913, northwest corner of Danforth Ave. and Don Mills Rd. (now Broadview Ave.)

Riverdale contains many sub-neighbourhoods:

Lower Riverdale (the oldest section, with many original houses)
Upper Riverdale (most likely to have modern, renovated houses)
East Chinatown (Toronto’s next-largest Chinatown)
Badgerow (contains a Sikh temple, the legendary Maple Leaf tavern, a Jewish cemetery, Gerrard Square’s shopping mall, and a Turkish cultural centre)
Studio District (southern area of South Riverdale, with many vintage Victorian houses; a major film, TV, and arts district)
Riverside (a.k.a. Queen Broadview Village) (in South Riverdale, with many historic buildings and cultural landmarks; now undergoing gentrification and becoming known as a district of restaurants, food and furniture retailers, and independent designers)
Blake-Jones (houses built from the 1870s–1930s, rather affordable but seeing an uptick in crime and unemployment)
The Pocket (located within Blake-Jones; said to feel like a village, and undergoing more gentrification)

29 February 1932, Danforth Ave. at Logan Ave., looking east

1 January 1930, southwest corner of Danforth Ave. and Logan Ave., Tony Greco and mother’s fruit stand

Riverdale contains many schools, including Riverdale Collegiate Institute, a high school founded in 1907 as Riverdale Technical School. Another historic school is Holy Name Catholic School, founded in 1913 by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Parks include Withrow Park (with an ice rink, soccer field, and two baseball diamonds); Riverdale Park (with a running track, ice rink, swimming pool, three baseball diamonds, and tennis courts); Jimmy Simpson Park (with a community centre and tennis courts); the Royal Canadian Curling Club; Hubbard Park; and Kempton Howard Park (formerly East View Park).

Riverdale Park, looking south, Copyright Inkey

Detail of reconstructed Broadview Hotel, Copyright JasonParis; Source

Broadview Hotel in 1945

Other landmarks include The Opera House (opened 1909); Bridgepoint Health (founded 1875 and  going through many names); the Ralph Thornton Community Centre (opened 1913); Don Jail (opened 1864); the Cranfield House (built 1902); and St. John’s Presbyterian Church.

Don Jail, Copyright Nadiatalent

My characters Lena Yeltsina and Antonina Petrova settle in Riverdale with their newfound surrogate mother Sonya Gorbachëva when they escape Russia in 1920. Lena is soon reunited with her young son Yuriy, who’s been languishing in a Manhattan orphanage, and takes him back to Toronto under the ruse of Sonya being the mother.

In 1921, Lena’s little sister Natalya comes to America, and joins her in Canada as soon as possible. When their mother and two much-older sisters arrive in New York in January 1924, Lena explains their life is in Canada now, and that after so many years of separation, Natalya doesn’t know them.

Lena and Natalya stay in close touch with their mother and older sisters, and create a very happy life in Toronto. In 1927, they’re joined by Sonya’s niece, Naina Yezhova, and her best friend Katya Chernomyrdina, the daughter of Sonya’s own best friend.

Naina and Katya in North America (News Gothic)

Font: News Gothic

Year created: 1908

Chapter: “Naina and Katya in North America”

Book: The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks

Written: 3-11 September 2011

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

This is Chapter 29 of my second Russian historical novel, starring two of my favorite secondary characters. Since their introduction in December 1919, Yekaterina Karlovna Chernomyrdina and Naina Antonovna Yezhova have been among the principal orphanage girls. Now their particular story finally links up with the characters in New York. They got permission to leave the Soviet Union in late 1926, but decided to wait out the winter in Yalta. Sadly, they became separated from Naina’s younger cousin Karla on their train away from the orphanage.

In April 1927, they went to Bulgaria on the pretext of taking an approved cruise, and met up with a man who arranged for their passage to America with a dance troupe. At Ellis Island in June, they met Katrin’s husband Sandros, one of the immigration workers, and he took pity on them and sponsored them. At the time, he didn’t realize these were old friends of Lyuba’s youngest stepsisters. Over the summer, they vacationed with Lyuba’s friends and family on Coney Island and Long Island, till early September. Naina’s aunt Sonya was then contacted, and the girls began a new life in Toronto.

Some highlights:

They stand and gape when they see a woman with blonde hair cut as short as a man’s.  They’ve known bobbed hair is in fashion for women, but not that women in North America are allowed to get away with cutting it even shorter.  The second thing they notice is the woman with dark brown skin.  Neither of them has ever seen anyone with such dark skin before, except in pictures.  Naína represses the urge to wonder out loud if she and Kátya might be suffering from consumption, since their skin is so pale in comparison to the servant’s healthy dark skin.

“I can’t believe you have a real butler!” Naína says. “Just like in all the old British books!”

“The only other language we know is Ukrainian,” Kátya says. “But we’re not stupid.  We’ll work very hard to learn English.  Does your maid ever speak her African language?”

“You’re allowed to be sterilized in this country without a medical emergency?” Kátya asks. “This is like a science fiction story come to life!”

Naína and Kátya get up to gather shells with the children.  Lyuba doesn’t know whether to find it more refreshing to see teenagers doing an activity with children or depressing to see girls so old reacting to everything as though they’re children themselves.  They’re not even attempting to hide their delight at collecting shells, going on rides, swimming in the ocean, or building sandcastles for the very first time.  As upset as she is at being stuck in the city for so long, at least her own children are having a somewhat normal childhood and aren’t being deprived of simple joys and bombarded with political propaganda in a state-run orphanage.


Kátya and Naína drop their suitcases as soon as they’re shown into the room, putting Kárla’s little suitcase into the closet.  After throwing their travel clothes on the floor and pulling on their new nightgowns Katrin bought to replace their ugly orphanage-regulation ones, they climb into bed and look up at the stars through their window.

“It’s been a long way from Russia to Toronto,” Kátya says. “Perhaps somewhere out there, our Kárlochka is looking up at the same stars and being looked after by decent people.”

“Perhaps.  We found Sónya and our old friends the Lebedevas after so many years.  I guess some miracles aren’t supposed to happen overnight, since we might not appreciate them as much.”

The Importance of Character Names

I’ve been a name nerd for a long time, and have only become even more of a name nerd since the ascendance of the Internet. It’s so much easier to find a plethora of names these days. Gone are the days I had to find foreign names in my dad’s old 1965 set of encyclopedia or look in a pamphlet of baby names my mother had when she was pregnant with me in 1979 (many of them with erroneous meanings).

If you’re a writer, it’s very important to pick the right names for your characters. Personally, my taste in names strongly tends towards the classical eccentric and classical unusual, but I like to vary it up. It wouldn’t be believable if all of my characters had names in the lower reaches of the Top 1000. However, it also wouldn’t make for a very believable (or well-dated) book if most of the characters have very common, popular, trendy names.

One of the pieces of advice in the late Olga Litowinsky’s Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s was to name your characters after your friends’ children, and to use popular names from that generation. I couldn’t disagree more. First, that assumes you’re writing in a contemporary, American setting, and second, that’s a surefire way to make your book feel dated in another generation.

Won’t a reader be more likely to remember a character with a name like Justine, Octavia, Felix, or Wolfram than Jack, Chris, Caitlin, or Hannah? There’s nothing wrong with those names, but for an important character, I feel it’s important to have a name that’s more than just “there.” It’s why I changed the name of the protagonist of my hiatused soft sci-fi Bildungsroman from Casey to Arcadia, and why I’m going to change the name of the protagonist of my hiatused speculative fiction/dystopia-esque book from Terri.

Few things pull me out of a book (or movie or tv show) faster than a writer who tried to predate naming trends. It’s important to look at name popularity charts, so you don’t have a character born in, say, 1995 with a name that didn’t start seriously charting till 2005, or give a character’s parent a name that only appeared in this generation. For historical, it’s doubly-important you don’t try to predate naming trends. I can’t take you seriously if you’re giving your 19th century characters 21st century trend names like Ayden, Jaden, Nevaeh, and Hailey.

If you’re writing about a different culture and/or country, you can still use lesser-used names, but at the same time, you shouldn’t pick names that look too foreign to a Westerner. If your novel is set in Poland, that doesn’t mean you have to give your characters names that look hard to pronounce for the average non-Pole, like Lucjusz or Wojciecha.

As I’ve spoken about before, I accidentally used some anachronistic names in my first Russian novel. Some of the names I used were only invented after the October Revolution. Thankfully, the only important character affected was one of Lyuba’s stepsisters, and the invented name Dinera is very close to the real (albeit rarely-used) name Dinara. I recently found a wonderful Russian-language naming site (way more extensive than Behind the Name), and it specifies which names are old and which are new.

Some of the “new” names I recognize as the bizarre invented early Soviet-era names, while others I recognize as names imported from neighboring republics (like Bagrat), and others still I recognize as names that existed in Russian but just weren’t so common till the 20th century (like Alina and Alisa). And then there are a few names that are obvious Russianized versions of Anglo names, which wouldn’t have been used till very recently.

Finally, if your character does have a name that’s a little unusual for his or her era or culture, you should make clear why, and not make it so out of the pale of plausibility. For example, this is the explanation given by my important secondary character Sonya for her older daughter’s name:

“Yes, her full name’s Mikhaíla.  I know it’s a very unusual name in our language, but my husband really wanted his brother Mikhaíl to have a namesake.”

But if you find a name wouldn’t be plausible, beyond being just rare or outside of a given culture, sometimes you just have to change it. I had two minor characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books, before I realized that name was male-only in the 1930s, when these characters would’ve been born. I’ve also since written in that my Cinnimin’s hated older sister Stacy’s real name is Eustacia, after a great-grandmother, to explain why a girl born in 1928 would have a name that wasn’t given to girls for a few more decades.