On Russian Names

Alexsander Topolski was 16 years old and living in his native Poland when the war broke out in 1939. He quickly ended up in the Soviet penal system, where he spent three years. After the war he moved to Britain and later Canada, where he lived near Ottawa, working as an architect for Public Works Canada. In 2000 he published a memoir of his war years, called “Without Vodka” (from the Russian saying “Without vodka you can’t figure it out”).

As a Pole imprisoned in various Soviet work camps and other prisons, he faced a number of challenges and prejudices. Russians generally did not like Poles, and the language and cultural barriers made a bad thing worse. Among the many things he had to learn in order to survive were the intricacies of Russian names.

We were only beginning to learn the complexities and varieties of the diminutives of Russian names. Shura was a diminutive of Aleksandr (…), but to our amazement so were Sasha, Sashka, Sashenka, Shurka and Sania. All these nicknames could also apply to Aleksandra, the feminine form of Aleksandr. The polite form of address would be to use the first name Aleksandr and add to it the patronymic derived from his father’s first name. Shura’s father’s first name also happened to be Aleksandr, and his surname Aleksandrov (quite a common one). To add to our confusion, surnames came first. Thus, formally, Shura should have been addressed as Aleksandrov Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. It took a while to get used to it. It’s no wonder that for a long time, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, we Westerners referred to him simply as “that Russian prick.”

From Without Vodka, by Aleksander Topolski (published 2000).

Published in: on January 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm  Leave a Comment