In ancient times, most societies only required a person to have a first name. Surnames were not necessary, because the populations of even large cities were small compared to what they are today. As the centuries marched on, populations rose, to the billions of people in the world we have today. It didn’t take reaching billions of people on the planet before there were enough humans that surnames were required to differentiate people of the same first name from one another. Russia was no different.
If you have a Russian surname in your family tree, you should know that the surname can tell you a lot about that particular branch of your family, some of which may be information that is not available in the printed or written records. It can also tell you quite a bit about the original ancient person who took on the surname. Here is a little bit on the history of surnames in Russia, and their meanings, to help you get to know your Russian ancestors better.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Russia adopted surnames relatively recently. This is because serfdom, which was abolished in the 12th and 13th centuries in most of the rest of Europe was not officially abolished in Russia until the late 19th century. Russian upper class, noble, and royal families adopted surnames in the 16th century, but the rest of the country waited another four hundred years to do it.
As with most other places in the world, the first surnames among any class in Russia were patronymic ones. These were names that told someone whose son or daughter another person was. Russian surnames that end in “ov,” “in,” or “ev” mean “son of.” So, someone with the last name Petrov would be the son of Peter (or Pyoter, in Russian). Nickolai Petrov would be “Nicholas, son of Peter.”
However, it wasn’t quite that simple in Russia, as it was in other parts of Europe. When people began using patronymic surnames, those names eventually stayed the same after a few generations (rather than changing with each generation, as new people were born with new names of their fathers), and the patronymic surname became the family surname. However, the patronymic for that generation was still used in the name, as well. This resulted in kind of a two-part surname. Nickolai Alexovich Petrov would be Nickolai the son of Alexander of the Petrov family. Naturally, the middle patronymic part of the surname changed with each generation, but the established third part, which was considered the family surname, remained the same with each generation.
In modern times, the middle patronymic name has fallen from popular use but has not been abandoned altogether. While most modern Russians just have the family name as a surname, you will still find those who use the patronymic before the surname. Because it was a popular and common method of naming people in Russia for so long, it is important to keep it in mind when doing Russian genealogy research.
The three most popular surnames in Russia today are patronymic surnames: Smirnov (meaning “meek”), Ivanov, and Petrov.
Unlike other parts of Europe, where the occupations of ancient people became the second most common type of surname, this method of choosing surnames did not become popular in Russia. There are a few, like Plotnikov (based on plotnik, which means carpenter), Rybakov (based on rybak, which means fisherman), Kuznetsov (based on kuznets, which means smith), and Meknikov (based on melnik, which means miller). However, this type of surname is unusual in Russia.
Also unlike other parts of Europe, surnames based on the names of wild and domesticated animals were and are common in Russia. Surnames based on types of birds are especially common among the animal surnames in Russia. Surnames meaning ram, wolf, bear, sable, beaver, bull, cat, and dog are among the most popular animal surnames in Russia that are not bird-based (with Kotov and Koshkin, meaning cat being far more common than Sobakin, meaning dog).
Bird-based surnames found often in early and modern Russia include those meaning Falcon, Pigeon, Sparrow, Eagle, Magpie, Crane, Cockerel, Thrush, Goose, and Duck.
Russian surnames may also be feminized when they belong to a woman. Ending a surname in “a” makes a surname feminine, and suitable to be used by a woman. A sister and brother may have Ivanov as a surname, but the sister will use the feminized version, Ivanova. This is not a universal usage in Russia, but it is still pretty common, even in modern day Russia, to feminize surnames for women.
Russian surnames ending in “ich” and “ko” are gender neutral and are most common in the Ukraine area of Russia. Women in Ukraine do not feminize their surnames.
Because there are different ethnic groups present in Russia, surnames tend to adapt to the language and customs of a particular ethnicity. As an example, surnames in Latvia all end in the letter “s,” even if their origin was Russian (which it usually was). This means in Latvia, Petrov becomes Petrovs, and so on with all other surnames. Surnames from the Asian part of Russia, like Rakhmon and Ali, usually became “Russianized” over the generations, to become names such as Rakhmonov and Aliyev.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well-known public figures typically took on pseudonyms that reflected characteristics or traits they wanted to be associated with them by the public. A good example of this is Vladimir Ulyanov, who later took on the pseudonym Lenin, named after the river Lena in Siberia. He is still known today as Vladimir Lenin.
Vladimir was not the only public figure or political leader in Russia to do this. Joseph Dzhugashvili took on the pseudonym Stalin (after stal, the Russian word for steel, Vyacheslay Skryabin became known as Vyacheslay Molotov (after molot, the Russian word for hammer), and Lev Rozenfeld became known as Lev Kamanev (after kamen, the Russian word for stone). Their chosen surnames reflected well the personality traits by which they came to be known.