It’s hard to resist the websites that sell histories of Russian and Ukrainian surnames. Hardly any of the English language websites for surname histories have anything for Russian and Ukrainian surnames.
I paid for three surname histories from a Russian website. It was cheap -$10 American dollars each- because $1 American dollar equals 30 rubles. Spending money on the surname histories was a waste after I learned from a Russian friend that the website used too much space on the general history of Russia and granting of surnames.
But you can avoid my mistake and get most of the same information for free. The Dictionary of Russian Surnames is the best website for learning origins and significance of your ancestor’s surnames. The list of surnames covered is impressive. This website gives the meanings, different spellings over time and areas of Russia where the surnames are common.
Genway.ru’s directory of names also gives similar information, but the directory also includes percentage breakdowns for slavic ancestry of surnames.
The best print version of surname histories is Russian Heraldry and Nobility by Donald R. Mandich and Joseph A. Placek. The English language book is expensive at $135, but some library reference areas will have this book. The authors provide information on Russian surnames that were recognized for nobility. The book gives information on the first people known to carry the surname, different spellings over time and its meaning and provides an image and description of the coat of arms.
Similar information on coat of arms for Russian noble families- those families who were recognized for their service to the czars- can be found at gerbovnik.ru. The information is provided through scanned documents so Google Translate cannot be used to read the documents in English.
Another great website for surname histories is surnameindex.info. This website has an index of surnames mentioned in the Book of Boyars from the 17th century. The boyars were high-ranking men during feudal times. Learn more about boyars here. Surnameindex.info provides free scans from the Book of Boyars.
Surnameindex.info sent me scans of the listings for two surnames from my mother’s side. The book of Boyars listed Andrey Elyseev Trunov as a royal table servant and Gregory Mokeev Tyunin as a nobleman.
In Russia, surnames became a custom at the end of the 15th century, first among the princes and boyars, then the nobility. Surnames began to be given to the peasants after the abolition of serfdom in early 19th century.
With all the information provided on the above websites and Russian Heraldry and Nobility, you can write your own surname histories for free. Wikipedia has a page on some Russian surnames here in Russian and English that can help you find the cyrillic spellings of your family’s surnames.