[Note: this article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, May 5, 2008
The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders
(In Honor of the New “Bear President”)
We can learn a lot about Russian realities by taking a look at Russian last names. My information for this article comes, largely, from the wonderful book by Boris Unbegaun, Russian Surnames (Oxford University Press, 1972). All page citations below are from the Russian translation, Russkie familii, edited by B.A. Uspenskij and translated by L.V. Kurkina, V.P. Neroznak, and E. R. Skvajrs [Squires?] (Moscow: Progress Publications, 1989).
Surnames came late in human history to the world at large. They did not exist before the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
is no exception. In fact the very word for “surname” in Russian, familija, was borrowed from the West only
in the seventeenth century, and a lot of Russian peasants did not have surnames
right up to the day of the emancipation of serfs in 1861.[i] As you
would expect, the upper aristocracy was the first social class to adopt surnames.
They were based, for the most part on toponyms (place names). In other words, a
prince whose domain encompassed the Vjaz’ma area became Prince Vjazemskij (most
of these earliest surnames have adjectival type endings in -skij or –skoj).
Among other names in this category are Obolenskij, Volkonskij, Trubetskoj,
Meshcherskij, Kurbskij (Unbegaun intro, p. 20). To this very day Russians
recognize these names as indicative of the origins of a person at the highest
levels of the aristocracy in pre-Soviet Russia. It is noteworthy that two
members of the Decembrists, who, in 1825, mounted an unsuccessful attempt to
overthrow the government and introduce liberal reforms inspired by the West,
were Prince Evgenij Obolenskij and Prince S.P. Trubetskoj.
As is common throughout much of the world, Russian surnames were derived, in large part, from (1) patronymics (father names, as Johnson or Jackson in English, formed by adding an ending to a given [baptismal] name) (2) names of professions or trades ( Smith, Cooper or Baker in English) (3) toponyms (see above) or (4) nicknames. Although this does not always work, there is a kind of rough class gradation involved. At the highest level (a very small category) are the aristocrats with the princely –skij/skoj names just mentioned (there is another large category of –skij/skoj names that are not of princely derivation—they are primarily of non-Russian origin: Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Jewish). Next come those whose names are derived by using the patronymic suffixes (-ov, -ev, or the slightly less common –in). These names make up the most widespread category to the present day. After that come the less prestigious, lower-class names that originate in trades or nicknames. Over the course of centuries, however, these two latter categories also have frequently adopted the standard patronymic endings. For example, Tkach (‘weaver’) or Rybak (‘fisherman’) became Tkachev and Rybakov, and Medved’ (‘bear,’ nickname for a clumsy, burly type) became Medvedev (the name that Hillary Clinton recently had trouble pronouncing).
Now we can take a look at the surnames of some of the most important Russian political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, establish their derivation, and see if any conclusions are apparent.
(1) Lenin. According to Unbegaun (p. 83-4), this name falls into the category of “surnames formed from given (baptismal) names.” The relevant name here is Aleksandr, from which come, among others, the surnames Aleksandrov, Alenin, and Lenin. But in the case of the man once known as “The Great Ilich,” none of this information is relevant, since for him Lenin is a nom de guerre; Lenin’s real name was Ul’janov (‘Julianson’), which fits into the common category of patronymic names (“surnames derived from baptismal names”—p. 45). As for Lenin, apparently inspired by classical writers who named their characters after rivers (Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin), he named himself after the
Lena River in Siberia.[ii] The
name Ilich, is not a surname, so we
will not get into that here.
(2) Stalin. Here we have another nom de guerre, meaning “Man of Steel.” His real surname, Dzhugashvili, was a Georgian name of Ossetian provenance. It came from the word dzhukha, meaning ‘garbage,’ ‘offal,’ or ‘dregs’ (p. 186): ‘Man of Offal’ or ‘Offalman.’
(3) Khrushchev (‘Maybeetleman’) is derived from the name of an insect, the May beetle, or khrushch (p. 24). It fits into the category “surnames derived from nicknames,” in a subcategory including animal names and still another subcategory, “surnames derived from names of insects.” Two very common surnames from this subcategory (p. 151) are Zhukov (‘Beetleman’) and Komarov (‘Mosquitoman’). We may pause here to wonder what one of Premier Khrushchev’s ancestors did to deserve being nicknamed after the May beetle. Or a better question: what did the May beetle do that would suggest a resemblance to human behavior? While pollinating flowers, did he, e.g., take off his shoe and pound it on the petals?
(4) Brezhnev (p. 224). This is a name of Ukrainian origin and, apparently, it is also in the nickname category—from berezhnyj (‘cautious,’ ‘solicitous’).
(5) Gorbachev (p. 129, 224). Another nickname name, from gorbach (‘hunchback’).
(6) El’tsin. This name is not listed in Unbegaun’s book, but a similar name, El’tsov (p. 151) comes from ‘a fish of the carp family’ (another nickname surname).
(7) Putin. Also not listed. It would seem, logically, to come from put’ (‘path,’ ‘way,’ ‘road’), and it may have been, originally, a nickname: ‘Wanderer,’ or ‘Wayfarer’ (see end of this article for a different take on Putin’s name).
(8) Medvedev (‘Bearman’—p. 146, 150). Obviously another surname derived from a nickname. There must have been a lot of clumsy, shaggy peasants nicknamed ‘bear’ all over
Russia in the past, since
Medvedev is a common name in present-day Russia. Unbegaun mentions two other
Russian ‘bear names,’ Medvednikov or Medvezhnikov (p. 93), which may be traced
back to ‘a bear hunter’ or ‘a trader in bear hides.’
The original word, medved’, with no patronymic ending added, is still used as a surname in
Russia (p. 19,
29, 30, 161). These bare (no pun intended) nicknames as surnames (unlike in
English and in other Slavic languages), just as trade names with no endings (Tkach, ‘Weaver’), are relatively rare
today. See also Zhuk (‘Beetle’) and Sokol (‘Falcon’).
Russians are somehow uncomfortable with un-suffixed straight nicknames as surnames; one thing that makes for confusion is the problem of differentiating such surnames in conversation from the actual name of the animal or trade. You can’t say, e.g., “We were there with the Medveds,” if you are referring to a family named Medved’, because this sounds exactly like “We were there with the bears” (p. 29-30). For Russians the un-suffixed nickname as last name often sounds somewhat “low class” as well, probably because peasants were the last social class to acquire surnames, and, possibly, those peasants who were left with just the nickname (for their surname) were the poorest and least prestigious persons in the whole society.
Unbegaun cites an example (p. 346) indicating that the name Medvedev was more prestigious than Medved’. In 1689 the well-known Orthodox church figure, scholar and literary man, Sylvester Medvedev (1641-1691), who had become involved in a political plot, was defrocked and renamed Senka Medved’. Part of his punishment and disgrace, therefore, involved converting his surname into a nickname, which was in tune with his lowered social status. Ultimately, he was executed.[iii]
The most remarkable thing about the above information is that most recent Russian leaders have names that derive originally from nicknames. This proves that their ancestors were common folk, not members of the gentry (dvorjanstvo) or aristocracy. One might (dangerously) speculate that the country may well have been directed onto a Western, democratic path, had there been rulers with higher-class names in power. After all, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the two/three percent of Russians who belonged to the gentry were among the most progressive and liberal. Russians with folk backgrounds haul with them through life a huge load of psychic baggage that is, basically, undemocratic and non-progressive--reeking in fatalism, superstition and irrationality. Anti-democratic tendencies are not “in the blood” or “in the genotype,” as Russians are so fond of repeating, but they are present in the hardened stereotypes of cultural mores.
Folk mores die out very slowly; they are passed on from generation to generation. If your name is Medvedev (or even Medved’), that does not stop you from getting a good education. You may listen to Western rock music and be fascinated by the Internet, but you still have (at least subconsciously) all the detritus of your ancestors, the Medvedevs, piled up in your psyche. Can you overcome this? Maybe. Would the Meshcherskijs and the Obolenskijs (and various other people with “princely” names—the Golytsins, Sheremetevs, Vorontsovs or Yelagins) have had a better chance at throwing off the yoke of the “peasant/Asian” Russian mindset and setting off on more progressive paths? Maybe. But then again, that mindset is such a mighty source for Russian obscuritanism that even the most educated people and those with the most “high class” names often get themselves immersed in it. I have known a lot of Russians with candidate degrees (rough equivalent of the PhD), and most of these persons believe in the “Evil Eye.”
Another sad truth: Catherine the Great (whose background was far from peasant
with the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, but she did not direct Russia onto the
path taken by Western democracies. One final example: I have never met a
Golytsin or an Obolenskij with a candidate degree, but I have met (in U.S.
emigration) a family of Trubetskoys whose way of thinking and behaving could
serve as an exemplar for restructuring the reactionary Russian mentality and
overcoming the thousand-year-old burden of stereotypical thinking. If only we
could convince these Trubetskoys to return to Russia and set about propagating
their mindset to the Russian masses and the new oligarchs and the ruling elite!
When I suggested this to the patriarch of the family and asked him why he did
not wish to repatriate himself, he answered in one word: mental’nost’ (‘the mentality’). “What, exactly, do you mean by
that?” I asked, and he answered with that one word again, pounding lightly with
his fist on the table: mental’nost’.
In closing we might mention one other (rare) type of Russian surname (see p. 182). In the eighteenth century certain Russian aristocrats began naming their illegitimate children by dropping the beginning syllables of their names and creating new, truncated names. Among the most famous of these are (1) Pnin-- surname of the writer I.P. Pnin (1775-1805), illegitimate son of Prince Repnin (later Vladimir Nabokov used the name for the bungling old émigré professor in his eponymous novel) (2) Betskoj--surname of the famous political figure and educator under Catherine the Great, I.I. Betskoj (1704-1795), illegitimate son of Prince Trubetskoj.
This practice has recently inspired a creative (and irreverent) Russian blogger to come up with ideas about the derivation of other surnames. According to this blogger (we will not disclose his moniker here—he probably has troubles enough already), Lenin was the illegitimate son of a certain Alenin, a swineherd who lived in a village near Simbirsk. This Alenin himself, by some skewed logic, was, ostensibly, the illegitimate son of Pushkin’s fictional character, Graf Nulin (Count Zilch). As for Stalin (Dzhugashvili), he descended (illegitimately, of course) from a certain Graf Dermóstalin, whom Peter the Great had brought to
Russia from Georgia. After
beginning his career as a collector of offal, this Dzhugashvili performed in
the dwarf retinue of the tsar, and was, subsequently, rewarded with a new name,
an estate, and a title in the nobility (“Count Krápstalin”).
Finally, Vladimir Putin, according to this anonymous Internet wag (and this is why the Russian Internet will soon be censored or closed down), is the illegitimate son of Gregory Rasputin, who did not die after all in 1916, but crawled out from beneath the ice of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, brushed himself off, and made his way, on foot, back to his native village in Siberia, where he lived on into his nineties, siring sixteen children--the thirteenth of which was Vovochka Putin.
More Russians with a sense of humor, by the way, have already assigned the new “bear president” a different nickname. He is ironically and affectionately called medvezhonok: ‘Baby Bear.’
[i] See Uspenskij’s afterword (which, in typical Russian fashion, he calls “In Lieu of an Afterword”), p. 359, and Unbegaun’s introduction, p. 16.
[ii] For more detail and further speculation on this, see p. 186 and 334. One theory about why Lenin took this name is that he was inspired by G.V. Plekhanov, the “father of Russian social democracy” and a hard-line orthodox Marxist (whose surname comes from a nickname, ‘pleshivyj’=’baldy’—p. 127). Plekhanov had named himself after the
[iii] None of this is to suggest that someone with a plebeian nickname surname has no chance to achieve success in modern-day
Russia. For example, Aleksandr
Vasilievich Medved’ (born 1937) is a famous Russian athlete, who won medals at
the Olympic Games three times (1964, 1968, 1972).