OT, but funny: Russian names

The Roundabout Theater Company is doing a Broadway production of The Cherry Orchard with Diane Lane this season (before having read Love, Love, Love, I was hoping this was the Roundabout play that Richard Armitage was doing), so they’ve kindly published a guide to understanding Russian names. This should be taped into the front of every Russian novel published in the U.S. When I was a kid and trying to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, figuring out which nickname corresponded to which name was a major obstacle — there are always a lot of characters in Russian novels anyway but my ignorance of how naming worked probably multiplied them by a factor of four or six.


Richard Armitage as Leonid and Joanna van Kampen as Lyubov in The Cherry Orchard, while at LAMDA (between 1996-98). Tweeted by van Kampen in 2014.

~ by Servetus on August 26, 2016.

7 Responses to “OT, but funny: Russian names”

  1. I tried reading War and Peace when I was a teenager and even tried making a bloody flowchart for the names of characters..it didn’t seem to help, I gave up. I had more luck with Anna Karenina.

    • Exactly the same here. At the age of 47 after multiple attempts I have STILL never finished reading War and Peace.

  2. OMG, yes. Did a staged reading of “A Month in Country” about a year and a half ago. Audience feedback: “It was funnier than I thought it would be, but I needed the characters to have their names on their shirts.”

    Almost universally.

    • It would save on expensive period costumes in a real production. Just get each character a t-shirt with all his/her nicknames on it.

  3. ‘War and Peace’ is the epic, the history novel. There is a huge number of characters , both historical and fictional in it. There is no more such grandiose novels in Russian literature.
    I’ve read it in a secondary school and even being a native speaker I should back sometimes to the previous chapters to remind myself who’s that character and what happened with him earlier. But most annoying thing for me was to read the battle scenes descriptions and dialogues in French.

    As for the guide RTC published. Very kind of them indeed to do it.
    Just to add – the first name alone in regular speech is normal in Russia even in formal situation. There is no need to be an intimate friend or family member to address to somebody by the first name only.
    By the way the most of the first Russian names are Roman, often in their russified variant, and there are their analogue names used in West Europe and North America, for example Foma=Thomas, Mikhail=Michael, Ivan=John, Lev=Leo, Grigoriy=Gregory, Andrey=Andrew.

    • Can I confess that I am relieved that a native speaker has problems with War and Peace as well? Makes me feel not so incompetent.

      I think what’s confusing is not so much the names per se, but the nicknames that come out of them. It took me years to figure out that Sasha is a nickname for Alexander (and now I am amused by how many American girls are named Sasha). It wouldn’t be completely obvious to an American that “Lyuba” is a nickname for “Lyubov” or “Lyonya” is a nickname for “Leonid.” Not that that is the fault of Russian writers or speakers. We’re just ignorant.

      • Well, there is even not one nickname that comes out of the name but several. For example, for Alexander(m)/ Alexandra (f) the nicknames besides Sasha are: Shura and Sanya apart from their diminutive variations (Shurochka, Sanechka, Sashenka)🙂 No wonder that not native speakers have problems with it.

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