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Making sense of old handwriting

Naming Practices for Countries Formerly in the Russian Empire and USSR

While much of the vocabulary in historical documents is repetitive and formulaic in nature, names can present a particular challenge to a researcher. The sheer amount of name options—especially unfamiliar names from a different place or culture—can be overwhelming when you are trying to make out what was written. This page is designed to help you to 1) understand the naming conventions common in former Russian Empire and USSR countries, 2) familiarize yourself with some of the most common names you may encounter in Russian language documents, and 3) recognize additional clues provided through the naming processes common in those records.

Click on one of the links below to explore glossary pages for each of the listed name types:

Masculine Names

Feminine Names


Russian/All Names

Given Names (Имя)

A variety of given names are used throughout the Russian Empire, especially among different cultural or ethnic groups. Where ethnic Russian names are concerned especially, there are some names that appear in both masculine and feminine forms. Here are a few examples:

Masculine VersionFeminine Version

Note that the feminine versions of the names all end in the “ah” sound (using either -а or -я). While not every feminine name ends that way (for example, Любовь) and some masculine names do have the typical feminine ending (such as Фома), the majority follow the pattern shown in the examples above.

However, be aware that grammatical changes may make names deceptive in their appearance. In paragraph-form documents, you may encounter the names of the principal person’s parents in genitive case (for more details on cases, visit the language and grammar page of this tutorial). Genitive case endings add -а/-я to masculine names and change feminine name endings to -ы/-и, as is shown below:

Masculine Name (Nominative Case)Masculine Name (Genitive Case)Feminine Name (Nominative Case)Feminine Name (Genitive Case)

Be sure to watch for key terms marking who is who in the document so these ending changes don’t confuse you. To learn words and phrases that will help you in that process, visit the Genealogical Glossary page of this tutorial.

Patronymic Middle Names (Отчество)

Patronymics are names derived from a person’s parents’ names. In the former Russian Empire, USSR, and the modern countries in those areas today, patronymics are a standard part of many people’s names. They are generally used as middle names and come from the name of the individual’s father. There are two different forms of each patronymic, one masculine and one feminine. In many historical records, you will find that masculine patronymics ended in -овь/-евь and feminine patronymics in -ова/-ева, as shown below:

Father's NameMasculine PatronymicFeminine Patronymic

Another set of endings, the masculine -ович/-евич and the feminine -овна/-евна, rose in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century. These endings are more commonly used for patronymics today. They are added to the father’s name just as the other endings previously shown, as can be seen in the examples below:

Father's NameMasculine PatronymicFeminine Patronymic

Surnames (Фамилия)

Like patronymics, most Russian surnames have both a masculine and feminine form. Many surnames follow the same ending patterns as patronymics do in the examples shown above and carry the same meaning (“son of” or “daughter of”). Other Russian language surnames come from descriptions of the people they originally named, including traits, features, places of origin, and occupations. For example, Иванов/Иванова ("son/daughter of Ivan"), Смирнов/Смирнова ("meek"), and Медников/Медникова (“coppersmith") have been used as surnames.

Surnames are generally much more varied than given names in the countries formerly part of the Russian Empire and USSR because of the many sources of surnames, as well as the influence of other languages on the surnames chosen. For an extensive surname dictionary, visit Толовые Словари webpage.

Name-Changing Ancestors

In the name glossaries on this tutorial, a transliteration and English equivalent of each name are given. The reason why those different versions of each name are provided is the possibility that your ancestor may have gone by different names throughout their life. A common example of this is when an immigrant chose to go by a different name in their new home than in their original homeland. They might have done so to make pronunciation easier for others or to make their name sound less "foreign." Such name changes are not always consistent; while sometimes a Надежда may have switched to the English equivalent of her name, Hope, in the United States, she also might have gone by something that sounded similar to the Russian version of her name, like Nadine. On the other hand, she may have chosen to use a different name entirely. Surnames were also changed in many cases, adding another layer of complexity. Analyzing every available document—especially immigration and naturalization records—may provide further insights into what name your ancestor used before immigrating.

Russian/Jewish Immigrants
"A man stands next to orphaned Russian Jews upon immigration to the U.S." New York, July 1919. Public Domain.

Once you discover the name your ancestor used in their former home, it is important to recognize that the name provided in an English language document may not be a perfect representation of the original name. Sometimes this happens because the scribe mishears the name provided, while in other cases a name simply does not convert well from Cyrillic spelling conventions to Latin spelling. Whatever the case, be open to variant spellings or forms of names in the records you explore. Avoid the temptation to accept only one version of the name you are looking for so you don’t miss some of the clues you could otherwise use!

This tutorial does not include the various nicknames used in the former Russian Empire or USSR (such as Настя as a diminutive for Анастасия), as official religious or civil records will almost always use the complete form of a person’s name. If you are using family records, you might consider using the resources below to learn more about the alternate names you could find written in Russian in less-official document types.

Additional Resources

Given the variation of ethnic groups in the area, this is just a brief overview of the naming practices common throughout the former Russian Empire and USSR. For more information about specific groups/countries and their naming practices, explore the following articles on the FamilySearch Research Wiki:

Another helpful resource is Behind the Name, an online name database that offers information about the origins of various names and their equivalents in other languages.


Paleography Introduction