Vova, Vladimir, Vladimir Vladimirovich: What do Russian names mean

Click to enlarge the cartoon. Drawing by Niyaz Karim

From a foreigner’s point of view, the most “Russian” male name is Ivan. This name has been popular for many centuries among all social strata. It was loved by everyone, from the common peasant to the royal family (a good example being the famous Ivan the Terrible). It was also the name’s ubiquitous nature that eventually hampered its popularity.

In folk tales, the most prominent character is Ivanushka–durachok. This diminutive of Ivan–durak means Ivan, the fool. He is a fool at the beginning of the story, but he emerges victorious in the end.

In the 20th Century, the name Ivan became less popular and was often associated with someone with poor education, low intellectual ambitions and idle habits. However, closer to the end of the Soviet period, it became fashionable among the intelligentsia and the creative classes to choose for their children old-fashioned names that used to be popular among the common people. There are a lot of Ivans in the current generation, including Russia’s most famous TV host, Ivan Urgant. And vice versa, names that used to be considered aristocratic or foreign (like Robert, Albert, Eduard, Elvira, Kristina) today remain popular only in the provinces or among the nouveau riche, while the educated classes dismiss them as tacky.

According to official records, from 2012 to 2013 the most popular names in Russia were: for boys – Alexander, Maxim, Dmitry, Artem, Nikita, and Ivan; and for girls – Anastasia, Maria, Darya, Sofia, Elizaveta, and Anna. Interestingly, previously the list of most popular girls’ names used to feature Vera, Nadezhda and Lyubov (which in Russian mean faith, hope and love), but not any more.

Most Russian names (with a rare exception, like Maxim, Nikita, Vera, or Nina) have a diminutive. It is formed by adding a -sha ending to the first syllable in a name. Mikhail is Misha, Pavel is Pasha, Maria-Mashha, Darya-Dasha, and Pavel – Pasha are all examples. There are also other methods for producing diminutives. For example, Pyotr is Petya. Lyubov, Lyuba and Nadezhda are Nadya. Sometimes it is the beginning, not the ending of a full name that is dropped to make a diminutive (e.g. Ivan can become Vanya or both. Alexander becomes Sasha. Sometimes, these two mechanisms can produce two diminutives of the same name (e.g. Dmitry may be shortened as Dima or Mitya. For some popular names, the diminutives are further transformed to produce even more informal versions of the same name: in the chain Alexander – Sasha – Sashura – Shura, the final names seems to have nothing in common with the original and yet every Russian speaker knows that Shura is a diminutive of Alexander.

Full names are used in official papers and in formal communication, while at home and among friends Russians are usually known under their diminutives. To express even closer relations and affection, pet names are used, which are usually formed by adding a particular suffix to the diminutive, e.g. Vanya is Vanechka, Sasha-Sashenka and Masha-Mashenka are all variations of Vanya. These names are used affectionately, by parents in relation to their children or by people who are in love. A shorter version of the suffixes can be used, such as: Vanka, Sashka and Mashka are all informal names that border on the vulgar.

During the first years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist authorities actively promoted new names that reflected the arrival of a new era. Usually, they were formed by abbreviating the names of the leaders of the revolution (e.g. Vilen was formed on the basis of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, or Melor, which was formed from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and October Revolution; or a girl’s name Ninel, which was Lenin read backwards). Perhaps the most bizarre of those new formations was the female name Dazdraperma, an abbreviation of the Russian phrase for “long live May Day.” There were also some rather strange sounding names inspired by advances in science and technology, e.g. Elektron or Industri, while the female name Domna, which in Russian means a blast furnace, turned out to be an ancient Roman name.

Some curious things emerge around foreign names. Some of them stop being proper names and turn into common nouns. For example, in the West all Russians are known as Ivans, while in Russia all Germans become Fritzes, just as in Turkey all Russian women are called Natashas. The diminutive of the Russian name Tatiana is Tanya, which in Polish means cheap. While the current American president’s first name means a hut in Russian.

Speaking of presidents, the old Russian name Vladimir is formed from two words and literally means “one who rules the world.” It can be reduced to Volodya, Vova (which may sound a little too familiar), and Vovochka (which has been closely associated with a long-running joke series featuring a mean schoolboy). Whereas the full name Vladimir Vladimirovich reminds many Russians of a famous early 20th century poet, Mayakovsky.

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