We all know Russia as the geographically largest nation on earth, but how did it get that way? The development of Russia as we know it started out in circa 862 A.D. when a Viking from the Baltic region named Rurik came down into the territory we now know as Russia, built a settlement in Novgorod which sits on the all-important Volga River, and started the first Russian dynasty. Before and after Rurik laid claim to Rus’, other Scandinavian tribes were already mixing with the native Slavic people by as they migrated to this area, forming communities along the main waterways from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea (particularly along the Dnieper River).  These Norse traders made their way south to Constantinople (Byzantine Empire) and established a prosperous trade relationship. The Scandinavians were militarily superior to the Slavs, so they freely intruded upon this Slavic land apparently without fear. However, they were the minority, so they eventually co-mingled with the Slavs. At the end of the day, Russia is a Slavic nation with a Slavic language but Nordic settlers and rulers came to play a huge role in the formation of Russia. It’s interesting to note that it was the Scandinavians and not the Slavs who established the first kingdom of Russia (Rus’ was named by the Nordic people, taken from the Greek word for red, in reference to the many red-headed Scandinavian traders).
After Rurik’s death in 879, his heirs moved the center of power to Kiev and the growing state of Russia came to be known as Kievan Rus’. Due to the flourishing trade between the Baltic and Black Seas, Kiev was a booming city. As a result, the Russian people became heavily exposed to Christianity in a significant way thanks to the visiting traders from Constantinople (seat of the Byzantium Empire). By the 10th century, Christianity had so infiltrated Kievan Rus’ there was no ignoring its dominating presence. In fact, legend has it that the apostle Andrew came to the region where Kiev now sits in the first century and foretold the establishment of a great Christian city. It is for this reason that St. Andrew is one of the patron saints of Russia.  Princess Olga of Kiev was the first Kievan Rus’ (regent) ruler to convert to Christianity (mid-tenth century) and her grandson Vladimir the Great would make Christianity the official religion of his empire by the end of the century, forcing widespread baptisms. Vladimir apparently chose Orthodox Christianity for three primary reasons: 1) Islam was out of the question since they forbade alcohol; 2) Roman Catholicism was out of the question because Vladimir didn’t like the sort of papal control he saw in Poland; and 3) he was impressed with the splendor and majesty of Eastern Orthodox Church services.  The eleventh century saw fragmentation of power and disastrous in-fighting among ruling family members. One of the Grand Dukes left to establish Moscow. In the mid-thirteenth century the Mongols surprised the collapsing empire and destroyed almost every important city (except Novgorod). During the Mongol occupation (which lasted over two centuries), Kiev never recovered, but Moscow cooperated with the Mongols demands and flourished as a Grand Duchy.   The presence of the Mongols delayed the social, economic and cultural developments taking place in Western Europe from hitting Russia, which is why Russia remained in an archaic medieval state long after the Western World entered the Modern Era.
By the mid-fifteenth century the Mongols were losing their power, and Moscow was gaining it. Ivan the Great quickly laid the foundation for the new Russian state; he is sometimes referred to as the “gatherer of Russian lands.” Nearly a century later, Ivan the Terrible moved Russia toward an empire by conquering more territory east to Siberia and south to where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea. He was the first to be crowned Tsar (Caesar) of all of Russia. Lacking a strong leader after Ivan’s death, Russia fell into “Times of Trouble” until the Romanov Dynasty took power in the early seventeenth century. The early eighteenth century brought in Peter the Great who would finally bring Russia into modern times, transforming the old medieval system into one more in line with Europe – politically, culturally, economically and scientifically. Catherine the Great came during the Age of Enlightenment and continued Peter’s work making Russia a major European power to be reckoned with (especially militaristically). Russia’s one glaring, unavoidable problem was serfdom. The complexity of Russian history cannot be placed in a nutshell, but suffice it to say when nearly half the population is oppressed and ill-treated, rebellion and revolution are sure to follow. Serfdom was not abolished in Russia until (gasp) the nineteenth century. The early 20th century saw the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet state which lasted for 70 years.  After the fall of communism at the end of the twentieth century, Russia has slowly (and painfully) transformed into a capitalistic society. They are well on their way to becoming an economic giant once again.
But what about Russian baby-naming conventions and practices?
Prior to Christianity becoming the official state religion of Kievan Rus’, naming practices centered on paganism and the Old East Slavs (ancestors of modern day Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians). Old Slavonic names were almost exclusively given to children.  Familiar examples, updated to more medieval Slavic renderings, are Stanislav (Russian: Станислав, from Slavic meaning “stand for glory”); Radomir (Russian: Радомир meaning “caring, peaceful”); Vladimir (Russian: Владимир, meaning “to rule with greatness”); and Dobromila (Russian: Добромила meaning “good, kind, dear”).  As with many other ancient pagan tribes, how parents named their children reflected their cultural values and beliefs. Names came from words defining the seasons, animals and plants, from admired behavior or personality traits parents wish upon their child, and feelings reflecting the parent’s attitude regarding the child’s birth (welcome, desired, gift of god, suddenly). Names were also pragmatic in nature, such as birth order or physical characteristics of the baby. Aside from names of Slavic origin, Old Norse, Scandinavian and/or names of Germanic in origin were also prevalent thanks to the Rurik Dynasty. Olga, for instance, is Russian for Scandinavian Helga, from the Old Norse “heilagr” meaning ‘holy, blessed’ and Igor, another Scandinavian name meaning ‘warrior god’.
The adoption and spread of Christianity brought about a fundamental shift in how babies were henceforth named in Kievan Rus’ and the subsequent Russian Empire.  It became largely mandatory that parents named their sons and daughters after saints recognized by the Orthodox Church, and so given names abruptly changed from Slavic origins to Greek.  Suddenly Russians were expected to use foreign names, the sounds of which were strange to their Slavic ears and not easily adopted by the illiterate. To combat this problem, Orthodox Churches around the empire maintained a pictorial calendar of saints with their corresponding Feast Days. Some obvious ones for boys are Ivan (John); Mikhail (Michael); Andrey (Andrew); Dmitry (Saint Demetrius) and Kirill (Saint Cyril). For girls: Mariya (Mary); Yelizaveta (Elizabeth); and Anastasiya (Saint Anastasia of Dalmatia was a 4th century saint particularly important to the Eastern Church). Polina is a female name which has been used to commemorate Saint Paul, Sofiya is in recognition to St. Sophia another much-admired early saint, and finally there’s Yekaterina (Catherine) not only an early popular saint, but the namesake of two Russian Empresses.  The overwhelming majority of the Russian citizens today still have given names that come from the Church approved saint names.
Enter the October Revolution of 1917. You gotta hand it to the Russians. When they change something, boy do they make a sweeping effort at it. The Soviet Revolution had a profound impact on the Russian personal name and ushered in a new modern-era of names.  For one, the complete separation of Church and State dictated that parents were not tied to saint names (just as it was no longer mandatory for them to baptize their children); in fact, they were free to call their baby anything they wanted.  Names from the Old Slavic pagan days were welcomed back, names were borrowed from other European counties and eastern languages, and Soviet-inspired new name creations even came into mild vogue for a short period. Examples of this would include Ninel (Russian: Нинель) which is Lenin spelled backwards; or Melor (Russian: Мэлор) an acronym for Marx, Engels, Lenin, October, Revolution to commemorate the creation of the Soviet State. Atheism became the state “religion” and social stigmas on Orthodox names slowly gave way to more widespread changes in Russian naming conventions. Some of the more prominent Soviet leaders took charge of this new trend and named their children Timur (a Turkic name Temür meaning "iron"); Svet (from a Slavic word meaning “light, world); and Volga, after the longest European river which runs through Russia to the Caspian Sea.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Russian names have returned to modern normalcy and are quite reflective of any other first world nation. Judeo-Christian names from the Bible are still very prevalent, as are names of Greek and Latin origin which gave both to the familiar names of early saint. Alexander and Maxim are extremely popular today in honor of “great” ancient leaders. Artyom which is the Russian masculine form of the Greek Artemis (god of the hunt and moon) is also a Top 10 favorite in Russia today.  For girls Viktoriya is popular (inspired long ago by the English Queen Victoria who was connected by blood to some of the Romanovs) and Alisa (from the Germanic Adelaide). Russians, like many citizens of the Western World today, following modern naming trends wherein fashions of the day rule. It’s no longer about what’s “mandatory” as much as it’s about what parents simply prefer.

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