Soviet Ethnic Surnames

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 141, July 1993

In an earlier article I discussed the structure of the Russian name, covering the functions of the three basic parts (forename, patronymic and surname). However while all citizens of the Soviet Union have a name with these three basic parts on their official doccuments, not all Soviet citizens are ethnic Russians. There are fifteen major nationalities in the Soviet Union, as well as countless minor ones without sufficient population to form a union republic. And each of these nationalities have their own cultural traditions, which include naming practices. These include peculiar given names and diminutives of other common names, but show up most strongly in the forms of surnames.

Most ethnic Russian surnames end in either -ov or -in, and some end in -sky (-skii in strict Library of Congress transliteration). But most names ending in -sky are of Polish origin, and are spelled -ski in the original Polish. An example of this may be found in the Soviet marshal of Polish origin by the name of Rokossovsky. While he was working in Poland, his name was spelled Rokossowski by the Poles.

Another non-Russian Slavic people who form a substantial proportion of the Soviet population are the Ukrainians. The characteristic endings of Ukrainian names are -ko or -enko. Examples of Ukrainian names include Gromyko, Chernenko and Timoshenko (a marshal during WWII).

Among the non-Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union, a few nationalities in particular have very striking and recognizable names. The first of these groups are the Georgians, who live in the Transcaucasus region along the shores of the Black Sea. Characteristic endings of Georgian names are -dze and -vili. The current Soviet Foriegn Minister, Shevardnadze, is an example of the first, while Stalin's birth-name, Dzhugashvili, is an example of the second.

The Armenians, neighbors of the Georgians, are another nationality whose prominence is far greater then mere numbers would predict. Their names bear the characteristic ending -ian, which can be found in Mikoyan, one of Stalin's cronies, and former NY Public librarian Gregorian.

The Moldavians are a people closely related to the Rumanians, and like them bear the characteristic name-ending -escu, which can be found in such names as Romanescu and Ilescu. In transliteration from the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, -escu takes the form -esku. Antoher group of Rumanian/ Moldavian names end in -u. Names such as Dimitriu and Vasiliu fall into this class.

There are many other nationalities in the Soviet Union, each with their own distinctive name forms. For those wishing a fuller treatment than can be given here, an extensive discussion of the linguistics of names in the Soviet Union may be found in Russian Surnames by B. O. Unbegaun (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972). In conclusion, it becomes obvious that in creating characters from the Soviet Union, one must be careful to mind the question of nationalities, particularly when naming them.

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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