To begin at the beginning, Russians have three names-a first name, a patronymic, and a family name. Let’s take them in order.
A Russian’s first name is usually the name of a saint in the Orthodox Church, and this is the case with Putin, who was baptized at a time when it was very dangerous for parents to have their children baptized. His first name is Vladimir, pronounced vlah-DEE-meer, so it rhymes with “redeemer.” Women’s first names are usually the names of saints, too, as is the case with opera singer Anna Netrebko, whose first name is the variant of “Ann” that is used in the Orthodox calendar.
That brings us to the second name, the patronymic. As the name suggests, it is a name based on the father’s first name. In this case, Russian practice is just another version of something that is common in the rest of Europe. (If you want to find out more about patronymics in Western Europe, go here.) Did you know, for example, that “McDonald” is a patronymic? It’s a Scottish form, and means simply “son of Donald.”
Putin’s father’s name was also Vladimir, so his patronymic is “Vladimirovich,” or “son of Vladimir.” A man’s patronymic usually ends in -ovich or -evich. If, for example, Putin’s father’s name had been Sergey, a common man’s name in Russian, his patronymic would have been “Sergeyevich.” This was the patronymic of former Soviet lead Nikita Khrushchev, for example. (Incidentally, in conversation the “ov” or “ev” is often omitted in conversation, so that “Sergeyevich” comes out as “Sergeich.”)
Women’s patronymics usually end in either “ovna” or “evna.” Thus, Putin’s mother was Mariya Ivanovna. So her father’s name was Ivan, the Russian version of John. In the case of Anna Netrebko, her father’s name was Yury, one of the Russian versions of George, so her patronymic is “Yuryevna.”
To understand surnames in Russian, you have to understand Russian is a highly inflected language. That means that nouns and adjectives take endings that indicate their function in a sentence. If a noun is the direct object of a verb, for example, it takes a certain ending, but takes a different ending if it is the indirect object. This matter of endings is relevant to Russian surnames because they are usually either nouns or adjectives.
Russian masculine nouns usually have what is called “zero ending,” or no ending at all. Thus, Putin’s name has no ending at all. On the other hand, if a woman’s surname is a noun, it usually takes the ending “a.” Surnames ending in “-ko” are indeclinable, so Anna Netrebko’s surname doesn’t take an ending , and neither does “Zacharenko,” which was the surname of movie star Natalie Wood, who had Russian parents. However, Helen Mirren, another movie star with a Russian background does have a name that provides a convenient example.
MIrren is the granddaughter of a Russian aristocrat who was stranded in England during the Russian revolution in 1917. Her grandfather’s name, and her father’s name, was Mironov, with no ending. Since she is a woman, her Russian name, and the name by which she was addressed when she went to Russia a couple of years ago, was “MIronova.”
Her full name in Russian “Yelena Vasilyevna Mironova.” Thus, “Yelena” is the Russian version of Helen, and “Vasilyevna” is of course her patronymic, which means that her father’s name was “Vasily.” And since she is a woman, her surname takes the feminine ending “a.”
On formal occasions, Russians will usually address each other by both first name and patronymic. However, good friends and family members address each other by a shortened version of the first name, just as they do in English. A man named John might be addressed as “Johnny,” for example. The equivalent for Vladimir Putin would be “Volodya.” But don’t expect anybody to address him as “Volodya” on tv!
So there you have it. Russian names do have a logic, and when you understand it, they make a lot of sense.