Most people reading this article are probably already familiar with the concept of given names and surnames. They communicate a lot about a person and their background – where their family comes from, what their ancestors did for a living, or even what kind of person their parents hoped they would become.
Russia is a country with a rich naming culture, with many Russian families carrying surnames that trace back centuries. But there are also a lot of things that make Russian names unique.
Why do Russian last names so closely resemble Russian given names? Why do members of the same family not have the same middle name? And what do some of the most common Russian surnames tell us about the country’s history? Keep reading to find out!
In Russia, as well as other countries that used to be part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, people have three names: the given name, the surname, and a special middle name called the patronymic name.
Patronyms are names that are derived from the first name of a person’s father, usually ending in –ovich/-yevich/-ich for sons, or in –ovna/-yevna/-ichna for daughters. For example, Ivan’s son would be Dimitry Ivanovich, while his daughter would be Natalia Ivanovna.
These names are treated as part of a person’s full name and used in official documents and formal settings. Historically, this made it easier to differentiate one person from another. Many patronymic names eventually went on to be surnames, i.e. a last name that gets passed down from one generation to the next.
The structure of a Russian family name is relatively straightforward. Like patronyms, a Russian last name can have a masculine or feminine form. For men, it commonly ends in –ov/-ev/-in/-iy, while for women, it ends with –ova/-eva/-ina/-aya. For instance, a man could have the last name Nikiforov, while his sister’s last name would be Nikiforova.
In the early period of Russian history, people only had given names without any identifiers that would mark them as part of a clan or family. It wasn’t until the 10th century that the patronymic name was added.
With the adoption of Christianity in 988, Russians also took Christian names usually from the Bible. During this time, Russianshad three names: their Christian name, their “Old Russian” name that they often used in everyday life, and their patronymic name.
By the Middle Ages, surnames were still not common, even though they were already in use by the people of the Novgorod Republic as early as the 13th century. In the 15th to 16th centuries, it was possible for a member of a noble family to carry a last name.
Most peasants, however, still did not have family names. It was only when serfdom was abolished in the 19th century that having a last name became common in Russia. Many former serfs chose to adopt their patronymic name as their family name. Adopting a patronymic surname was so commonplace in Russia that a non-patronymic last name is thought to be of Belarusian or Ukrainian origin.
Now that we know a little more about the structure and history of Russian surnames, let’s get down to meanings. Although many Russian surnames are based on patronyms, there are tons of other sources for family names.
The first Russian last names were Slavic in origin, often describing a trait or characteristic of the person. These were thought to be derived from a person’s nickname, pre-dating even the usage of Christian names.
Examples of such Russian last names that originate from nicknames include Zhdanov, which comes from Zhdan (meaning “waited for”), and Liubimov, which comes from Liubim (meaning “beloved”). Sometimes, origins can be mixed or muddied – Babin is a patronymic surname, meaning “son of an old woman”, but it is also a nickname used to describe a fussy man.
One could also carry an occupational surname. An occupational surname refers to a surname derived from the profession or job of one’s ancestor. Rybakov, for example, originates from the word rybak, meaning “fisherman”; and Kuznetsov, a common Russian surname, comes from the word kuznets, meaning “smith”.
Similarly, Chugunov is an occupational name carried by descendants of ironworkers. Molotov is another occupational surname, meaning “hammer”. Balabanov is an interesting Russian surname derived from the Greek word for “tame bear”. In Russian, however, it is an occupational surname that means “falconer” or “hawker”.
Many Russian last names also come from nature, especially animals. Medvedev comes from medved, the Russian word for “bear”, and Borovkov from borov, meaning “little boar”.
Surnames can also be based on where somebody is from. Habitational surnames usually have the suffix –ski/-sky, which is usually used to form adjectives from place names. An example of a habitational surname is Belsky, which is used for people who come from the city of Bielsk. Bugrov is another habitational surname that comes from the Russian word for “hill”.
There are other sources of Russian last names. Some are based on religious festivals or saints, and some are even based on foreign words. Chernoff, for example, is a Russian surname of Jewish origin, meaning “black”. Andreyev, meaning “son of Andrey”, comes from the Greek name Andrew, which means “manly”. Abramov is a patronymic surname meaning “son of Abram”, where Abram is a Hebrew name meaning “high father”.
Some other interesting Russian surnames include Kiselyov, which has its origin from a Russian traditional fruit drink; Balandin, which describes “a small crater located on the moon”; and Morozov, coming from the Russian word for the bitter cold – the same basis for the name of Ded Moroz or “Grandpa Christmas,” the Slavic version of Santa Claus.
Now that we know more about the context and history of surnames in Russia, let’s learn more about some of the most popular Russian surnames and their meanings:
In any list of the most common surnames in Russia, you will surely encounter the surname Ivanov. It is a patronymic Russian last name that means “son of Ivan”. For centuries, Ivan was a very common name, especially among the peasant class. Russians often use the expression “Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov” to describe an average person. Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is also a Russian placeholder name, like the English John Doe. While not the most common surname in Russia, it is widely used.
Although the most common surname in Russia is widely thought to be Ivanov, it is actually Smirnov. While Ivanovs make up 1.3 percent of the total population in Russia, Smirnovs account for 1.8 percent. Smirnov comes from the word smirny, which means “meek” or “calm”. It was a name often given to the quiet child in a Russian family. It is also the 9th most popular surname in the world, with over 2.5 million people called Smirnov.
This is a common Russian family name meaning “son of Petr”. In Greek, it means “stone” or “cliff” and would also be commonly recognized as the name of one of Christ’s apostles, Peter.
This is a Russian surname meaning “son of Sidor”.
This is a last name that means “the son of a priest or pope”. While not everyone who bears this surname is descended from a clergyman, this Russian surname refers to people who served in the Church. It is one of the most common last names in the northern part of Russia.
Whether your surname appears in the list above or not, it’s always great to trace back your roots. And you don’t need to look far to get a glimpse of your heritage!
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