A BOY NAMED SUE Moscow News Jan ‘94 by Michael Hammerschlag
Along with a shortage of many products, Russia seems to suffer from a shortage of first names: it seems 60% of the country is composed of Sergei's, Oleg's, Natasha's, and Lena's; throw in Dima's, Alexie's, Vladimir's, Irina's, Olga's, Svieta's, and Katya's and you are talking maybe 95% of the country.
Keeping the blizzards of Sergei's, Natasha's, Oleg's, and Lena's straight can be difficult. Asking someone's last name doesn't help-- Russians don't use them, they use the father's first name (patronymic) as a designated last name, not much help for Oleg Sergeyevich or Lena Olegevna, so I came up with a practical and humane solution--I assigned all my Sergei's, Oleg's, Natasha's, and Lena's numbers, like the Soviets did with cities (Tomsk-7, Chelyabinsk-30).
"HI, THIS IS SERGEI." "Sergei who?" "SERGEI ALEXEIVICH" "No, no, what number?" "OH, SERGEI-14". I got into the 30's and 40's in all Big-4 names before I abandoned the system: I could no longer remember just who Sergei-31 was, and my friends would forget their number.
Statistics are hard to come by: according to Valentina Dimitrievna of ZAGS, the birth/death/marriage registry, the information is secret and against the law to divulge, part of the problem. In a 1980 Moscow district's birth statistics, Natasha (meaning "of nature"), Lena ("solar"), and Olga ("sacred") are almost tied for the lead with 426, 402, and 391 respectively, followed by Irena ("peace"-342), Anna ("mercy"-204), and Svetlana ("luminous"-172). In men Sergei (403) was first, but the ubiquitous Oleg was only 6th (117), after Alexei ("protector"-351), Alexander ("protector of people"-312), Andre ("couragous"-236), and Vladimir ("possessing the world"-124). The order is the same for 1975, except that Oleg is 5th.
Stalin's massive purges convinced many to avoid ethnic, foreign, or unusual names--sticking to solid Russian Orthodox Saints, sometimes to the point of absurdity; the worst example being my friend Sergei-11, who if his father had also been Sergei, would be Sergei Sergeyevich Sergeyev, and so redundant as to be unnecessary. They weren't always so unimaginative--the 1917 revolution brought a welter of new monikers, often assembled in fine Soviet style, from pieces of other words: Maya (1st of May), Vladlena (Vladimir Lenin), Donara (daughter of the people), Lutzia (revo/lution), and Kim (KIM, Communist International Youth). With the massive industrial projects of the 30's some Party faithful, overcome by patriotism, saddled their lucky babies with Electrificatsia (electrification), Militsia (police), and my favorite... Tractor. Like a "Boy named Sue" (Johnny Cash song-1966?), "their fists got hard and their wits got keen and they roamed from town to town to hide their shame" (if they had a propiska). Of course, a boy named Sue might not have any problem in Russia: Sasha's can be either male or female (Alexander, or Alexandra), as can Zhenia's (Yegeny, Yevgenia). Tractor's must have taken a little ribbing, though.
Different names enjoyed fadish popularity in different decades: Zoya, Dima, Oleg, Katya. In a Slavic anomaly, Russian nicknames are sometimes longer than the original name: Sergei's is Ser-i-ozh-a, almost the same as "seriously" in Russian, which can lead one to mouth convolutions like "But seriously, seriously." Other examples are Anniochka for Anna, or Andriushka for Andrei. Some common names are already nicknames: Natasha is the familiar for Natalia, Lena comes from Elena. No matter what the name, a foreigner will always accent it differently than a Russian: I-gor, rather than iGOR, which can lead to 1-2 minutes of confusion on the phone as Russian's play the "torture the stupid foreigner" game. "WHO do you want???" Some pronunciations are simply bizarre: Oleg is pronounced almost like Alec; if you say Oh-leg, many people won't understand.
With the new freedoms of the last few years, people can call their kids anything they want. Unfortunately, that means there will be poor maladjusted children going through life called "Voucher", "Gaidar", or "Mafia".
"Some gal would giggle and I'd get red, some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head. I'll tell you- life ain't easy for a boy named Sue."--Johnny Cash
Michael Hammerschlag is a commentator in Moscow who has written for Columbia Journalism Review, Providence Journal, Seattle Times, and Moscow Guardian, Tribune, and News.