Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Nikolai

Nikolai is the Russian (and Slavic) form of Nicholas which is an Anglicization of the Greek name “Nikolaos”. The Greek Nikolaos is derived from the elements “nikē” (meaning “victory”) and “laos” (meaning “people”). Therefore Nikolai essentially means “people of victory” or “victory of the people”. The name became widespread in the Middle Ages due to the growing cult surrounding a 4th century saint, St. Nicholas. Particularly venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) known for his religious zeal and extraordinary kindness. Although little is factually known, as with many early saints, Nicholas’s legends grew and he became one of the most beloved saints ever. His piety was exemplified, for instance, in the story of a poor man who, without dowry for his three daughters, was preparing to give them over to prostitution. On three different occasions, each while disguised by the darkness of night, St. Nicholas threw a bag of gold through a window and into the man’s house (three bags of gold for each of the three daughter’s necessary dowries so they could be married and saved from prostitution). St. Nicholas’s cult arguably had the largest following of any other saint between both Eastern and Western Europe in medieval times; it is said artists were inspired by his image second only to the Blessed Mother. In the East, Nicholas was invoked by sailors for safe travels (“May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”). In the West, Nicholas was believed to watch over children (stemming from a legend that he resurrected three small children from the dead after they were killed for food during a famine). The legend of St. Nicholas also developed from the Dutch figure of “Sinterklaas”, a magician-like character who left gifts for children around St. Nicholas’s Feast Day (December 6), inspired by the saint’s reputation for secret gift-giving and for his patronage of children. The early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (America) brought this concept to the New World colonies. The relics of St. Nicholas are housed at Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Obviously it’s clear that St. Nicholas was/is one of the most beloved and venerated saints ever, but nowhere, arguably, is St. Nikolai more popular than in Russia. Along with St. Andrei (Andrew), Saint Nikolai of Myra is the national patron saint of Russia. A very important figure within the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s no wonder that Nikolai has become one of the most successful Russian masculine names in history (and born by two Russian Emperors). In Russia, the diminutive of Nikolai is Kolya (a darling nickname).

All About the Baby Name – Nikolai



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The Russian Nikolai only just appeared on the American male naming charts for the first time in 2007 and so far the name is managing pretty well. Especially considering how much competition he has from the various other forms of the name Nicholas (currently the 42nd most popular name in the United States). Due to the popularity of St. Nicholas throughout the ages, this name has so many different formations in all the various languages. So many to choose from! But we must say there’s something about our little Russian Nikolai that we like best. This one has an exotic Russian/Slavic quality, and we absolutely love the Russian diminutive Kolya.

Quick Facts













People of Victory










Cultural References to the Baby Name – Nikolai

Literary Characters


Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a character in Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons. He is a good and gentle man, a widower who adores his son, Arkady, and strives to understand the young man’s recent adoption of the philosophy of nihilism. Nikolai, remembering his own youth and rebellion against an older generation, does not wish to repeat the mistakes of the elders. Poor Nikolai is so intent on understanding and pleasing others, he neglects his own right to happiness. He caters to his son and his friend and to his more powerful brother, Pavel. Having lost his wife, he is wracked with guilt over the pleasure he takes in his house-servant mistress and their son. Trying to adjust to the growing wave of liberalism in the country, he is ineffective at disciplining his servants, and the estate suffers from his mismanagement. With all these strikes against him, and being the creation of a Russian novelist, it is amazing that our Nikolai enjoys a happy ending, but he does – and so do we!

Kolya Krasotkin is a character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Nikolai is a young schoolboy and a natural leader of others. Nikolai is charming; he is very intelligent, and likes to spout off his childish opinions on life and philosophy. He is at first a sort of “big brother” to Ilyusha, but casts him off after witnessing what he considers the latter’s over-sentimental reaction to the death of a dog. Not so fast – Ilyusha later stabs Nikolai in the leg, thus, however, increasing Nikolai’s stock-in-trade with the other boys. When Ilyusha falls mortally ill, the monk, Alyosha Karamazov, steps in and reconciles the other boys to him. Eventually, Nikolai, too, visits Ilyusha. In so doing, he comes in contact with the almost saintly Alyosha, and is won over to his gentle ways and beliefs, himself embracing the healthy strain of sentimentality that had lain dormant beneath his brash schoolboy demeanor.

Kolya Vdovushkin is a character in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel that takes us through one day in a Soviet labor camp. Alas, our Nikolai is perhaps not the most sympathetic of characters, being used as he is by Solzhenitsyn as a representation of the uselessness of literary poseurs in the face of brutish reality. Nikolai has an easy job in the labor camp; he is a medical orderly. The only problem is that he hasn’t any medical experience. What Nikolai wants is to be a poet, and the patronage of the camp’s medical doctor encourages him in this endeavor. It is the likes of Ivan Denisovich who suffer from the natural outcome of such favoritism. On the outside, Nikolai would probably be an acceptable person; in the camps, he’s a disaster.

Nikolai Rostov is the eldest Rostov son in Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece, War and Peace, about the French invasion of Russia and its aftermath, as experienced by five upper-class families. The Rostov family is property rich and cash poor, a close-knit and affectionately loyal unit. Young Nikolai is a happy natured person, a young student whose spare time is spent hunting, dallying with his penniless cousin, Sonya and avoiding his mother’s exhortations to find a rich wife. In a burst of patriotic zeal, Nikolai leaves university to join the military and fight against Napoleon. After being wounded in battle, when Nikolai returns home, it is to a changed environment. It is now that the latent virtues he possesses come into play. With his father’s death and the family’s declining fortune, Nikolai becomes a “grown-up”. He takes over the management of the estate and struggles to pay off the accumulated debt. He accedes to his mother’s wishes and marries the handy heiress. He takes the bereft Sonya into his home and provides for her, as well as for his mother. Indeed, the consequences of assuming his responsibilities include a long and happy marriage, blessed with children, so we are not to feel sorry for Nikolai at all.

Childrens Books


We cannot find any childrens books with the first name Nikolai

Popular Songs


We cannot find any popular or well-known songs with the name of Nikolai

Famous People


Nikolai I of Russia (Emperor of Russia)
Nikolai II of Russia (last Emperor of Russia)
Nikolai Antropov (ice hockey player)
Nikolay Davydenko (Russian tennis player)
Nikolai Gogol (Russian dramatist/novelist)
Nikolai Khabibulin (ice hockey player)
Prince Nikolai of Denmark (Danish royalty)
Nikolai Lobachevsky (Russian mathematician)
Nicholai Olivia "Nicky" Hilton (socialite)

Children of Famous People


We cannot find any children of famous people with the first name Nikolai

Historic Figures


As the third born son of Pavel (Paul) I, Nikolai ascended the Russian throne quite by happenstance. His eldest brother, Aleksandr I, died childless and his second brother (Konstantin) secretly abdicated his rights after marrying a Polish princess. And so Nikolai Pavlovich became a part of Russian history when he became Emperor of Russia in 1825 amidst the Decembrist Revolution (a military protest against Nikolai’s ascension). Nikolai quickly (and brutally) quashed the revolt; but it obviously left a lasting impression. Nikolai I hated uprising, and feared rebellion. It was for these reasons that he placed a high value on order and discipline through military power and intimidation. During his reign (1825-1855) Nikolai I was the most notorious autocratic leader in all of Europe. His fears of rebellion led to censorship and persecution of liberal intellectuals. However it is when intellectual expression is subjugated that genius emerges, so it’s no accident that the golden age of Russian literature began in such an atmosphere under the influences of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Lermontov. Nikolai I's reign was oppressive and tyrannical and therefore ultimately inadequate. He brutally crushed an uprising in Poland and aided the Austrians to put down a Hungarian revolt. He bullied his way into the collapsing Ottoman Empire to seize a position on the Black Sea and set in motion the devastating Crimean War. To his credit, the man did love Russia and believed he was doing what was best for the Russian people; it’s just that his efforts were misguided. His lasting legacy is that of the archetypal autocrat. And nobody likes an autocrat.

Nikolai II holds the distinction of being the last Tsar and Emperor of Russia, but let it be said, he would have preferred not to have had that distinction. Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov was about 26 years old when he ascended the throne after the unexpected death of his father, Alexander III; and he was ill-prepared for the job (as evidenced by his prophetic statement to one of his cousins: “What is going to happen to me and all of Russia?"). Oh, Nikolai, if you only knew… After becoming Tsar, Nikolai II took a page out of Nikolai I’s Handbook of Autocratic Control. Such autocratic styles of government generally lead to the continued suppression of intellectual liberal ideals, the execution of political opponents and the persecution of religious minorities (especially Russian Jews). Underground revolutionary movements began to take root in reaction to the Russian people’s extreme discontent. Then Nikolai II’s eastern expansionist policies instigated the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) with disastrous results (let’s just say the Japanese kicked a little Russian Black Sea Fleet booty). Back in homeland Russia, the 1905 Revolution and “Bloody Sunday” led to the formation of a legislative assembly (the Duma). Just when things couldn’t get worse domestically for Nikolai II, he decided to single handedly take control of the Russian Army during World War I (a war which took 3.3 million Russian lives). Russia had basically lost all of its prestige and power on the world stage and the Romanov Dynasty was left in tatters. Nikolai was forced to abdicate in March 1917 after yet another one of those revolutions Russian people are so fond of. The Bolsheviks killed the entire Romanov family: Nikolai II, Alexandra his wife, and their five children, daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and son Alexei. A horrible end to a dreadful reign. The family have since become honored as Christian martyrs inside and out of Russia.