How to address a Russian?

What could be so difficult about assigning labels (a.k.a. names) to people and using them? Here is how people in the UK think of names:

Name = \(f(\text{person})\)

Here is how Russians think names should work instead:

Name = \(f(\text{person, social setting, mood, attitude, age})\)

Most interesting aspect of Russian names

Russian, like many other Slavonic languages, has a flexible word formation. Using the root of a word one can create words, just like do, undo or redo. But we have many more suffixes and prefixes to make it happen. The suffixes and prefixes are often used to convey emotion. Somewhat like re-fucking-do.

Same thing applies to names. Friends and family take it upon themselves to invent names for you:

“Hello, my name is Artiom!”

“No, your name is whatever I can derive from the root of your name within the rules of Russian grammar.”

I arrived at a summer camp once and said my name was Artiom. “We will call you Tiomych”, they said. And I became Tiomych (Тёмыч) for a couple of weeks.

The supervisors still called me Artiom. The truth is Artiom doesn’t quite have an official short name. The most commonly used shorthand is Tioma, but it’s not quite the same as, say, Aleksandr - Sasha pair. The latter is universally accepted as a neutral shorthand: teachers can use it too. The Artiom

The people at the summer camp knew the Artiom - Tioma (Артём - Тёма) correspondence, but they took it a bit further and derived Tiomych from it. The emotion behind this derivation is quite subtle and is open for interpretations. I see this derivation as friendly: it’s as if an old acquaintance who’s always been there and so he became known as “Tiomych”.

My grandmother would sometimes call me “Tiomushka” (Тёмушка). The diminutive unambiguously displays affection.

“Artemon” (Артемон), I hear my uncle say. He was the only person who’d ever call me that. I suspect he was trying to be affectionate, but his derivation tries to be cool. It was a bit too feminine for him to use the diminutive.

Girls at school could sometimes call me Tiomka (Тёмка) or Artiomka (Артёмка). Somewhat playful yet an innocent way to address me.

Andrei (Андрей) at my school was always “Driusha” (Дрюша), despite the fact that Andrei, like my name, doesn’t have an official shorthand. Driusha is a bit cheeky since it’s on the boundary between friendliness and teasing. Another Andrei at a different school was known as “Dron” (Дрон). Dron is definitely a stab at sounding cool and I admit it sounds a bit cool. We had 3 Aleksandrs in my class and one was always “Sanya” (Саня). Calling Sasha Sanya is cordial and highlights somewhat that you’ve known him for a long time.

This is the most interesting aspect of Russian names which just follows from the grammar. If I was forced to pick just one name for myself I’d probably stick to Tioma, but Tioma doesn’t map to English phonetics well, so I decided to become Tom.

The full set of rules of how Russians address each other is much more convoluted and it’s not something I miss. But I am adding it for completeness anyway.

Russian full names

The full official name is Surname - First Name - Patronymic (name based on one’s father). This is reserved for documents and certificates and is not used verbally. Simples.

Name-Patronymic pair

Like many languages we still keep a distinction between plural-you (vy/вы) and singular-you (ty/ты). While vy is slowing growing out of fashion, there’s a few places where it’s firmly in place:

When people refer to each other using plural vy, the (First Name, Patronymic) pair is often used for addressing. The Name-Patronymic is the most official and respectful way to address a person. “Vy” and Name-Patronymic can be asymmetric: whilst children use it on teachers, teachers never use them on children and senior people don’t use them on younger people. Name-Patronymic is still a common way to address colleagues and show respect: my mom would use Name-Patronymic to address her mother-in-law but the mother-in-law would just use my mom’s short name and “ty”.


Teachers don’t use Name-Patronymic on children. They don’t use plural-you either.

This brings us to surnames. When I imagine a situation when a teacher calls out my name it is always my surname which is going through my head. Like thunder, it’s loud and it sends a shiver down my spine: it’s usually bad news: keep your voice down or stop laughing.

It is somewhat like hearing a loud “oi mate” behind your back: your immediate and undivided attention is desired. But with “oi mate” there is hope it’s not your attention that is solicited, but with the surname there’s none.

However, being addressed by the surname is not always bad news: teachers often go though a list of classmates routinely checking attendance or asking everyone’s answer. Surnames are still used but there is no chilling effect since it’s anticipated.

Anyhow, head-to-head teachers would just use the first name.

Surname is also what defines your work and, ultimately, you. Famous people are known by their surnames. Surnames are not abbreviated in the initials, Name-Patronymic is abbreviated on the other hand. A person’s signature is often just his/her surname with an abbreviated name: Fiodorov A.

Teachers and managers refer to students and employees by surnames: Where is Sidorov today? Ivanov just called. Kozlov will be promoted next month.

So surnames are for calling out and referring, first names are for addressing? Let’s continue.

First Name

Almost every Russian name has a short principal version:

Some names just don’t have a short principal version, e.g. Andrei and Artiom.

The short principal version is analogous to Christopher - Chris, Oliver - Olly pairs. This version is very common and a lot of people use the short version when they introduce themselves.

When people are on singular-you terms they are implicitly permitted to just use the short principal version. This short version is neutral and carries no significance. However, people on plural-you terms are not permitted to just use the short name: they are supposed to use Name-Patronymic or the full first name. Plural-you and short name is contradictory, it’s against the rules, it’s like tea without milk. Not acceptable.

This doesn’t quite work with children since it’s a bit much for them to learn Name-Patronymic pair for all parents’ acquaintances, but they are taught to use vy. The following hack was created: prefix each first name with “uncle” or “aunt” and use vy: Uncle Sasha, children say, or Aunt Ira. The people referenced are usually not uncles and aunts, it works for everyone.

When children grow up they drop “uncle”, “aunt” prefixes and just use the full first name, unless the people are actual uncles and aunts, in which case they keep using “uncle”/”aunt” + short first name.

Name-Patronymic revisited

Sometimes colleagues drop the Name- part of the Name-Patronymic pair. Moreover, colloquially they mangle the patronymic slightly:

“Michaliovich” to “Michalych”, throwing away a syllabus from the patronymic because it is just too long.

So had I stayed in Russian-speaking environment a bit longer, I could have become “Vadimych” for the rest of my life. And I thought my name was Artiom.


I am not even sure Russians have names anymore in a conventional sense. It’s just a big set of words which may have an empty phonetic intersection. Thanks for reading anyway.

А. В. Фёдоров