Guide for spelling Russian and Ukrainian names to break those solid brickwalls

It gets exciting to discover an unknown Russian or Ukrainian relative but then the excitement turns into frustration when more information can’t be found.

The back of a photo may identify a man as Valya but trying to find information on Valya turns into a search into a man who doesn’t appear to ever have existed.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the differences between Russian and Ukrainian first names and nicknames.

This Useful English webpage gives a great list for spelling Russian first names with nicknames in English and Russian. The list starts at the middle of the page.

For those researching Ukrainian first names, try this website. Ukrainians and Russians have similar first names so make sure to also check out the Russian lists.

The challenge with Russian names continues when “middle names” are considered. Seeing a photo of a man identified as Valya Ivanovich doesn’t mean that is his full name. Ivanovich is a patronymic name, which is derived from the father’s first name, so his father was Ivan.

Useful English gives some examples of patronymic names under the men’s first names. It is very important to not confuse patronymic names with last names. Also,  sons and daughters have patronymic names that are spelled differently, for example Nikolaevich for men and Nikolaevna for women.

Then when it comes to last names, the spellings in English can be complicated from translations of the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets.

Here are useful lists of Russian last names and Ukrainian last names from Wikipedia.

The largest Russian genealogy website also has an extensive list of Russian surnames here in English and Russian. Each letter in English is linked to a page of surnames.

The link for each surname has posts for people searching for relatives. This is how I had found my distant cousins from several family lines. (The Russian text for the posts can be easily copied and pasted into Google Translate for English translations.)

Once the proper spellings of names can be determined, doors really open in Russian and Ukrainian genealogy. It can be challenging but the results from making the effort can be amazing.

Related posts:
Guide to finding family in Ukraine like a native expert
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (with a video guide)
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Anyone researching their Russian and Ukrainian roots can make a major mistake when putting together their family tree.

So let me test you. This name- Svetlana Vladimirovna Krasnikova- is written on a document. What is Svetlana’s maiden name?

If you guessed Vladimirovna, you are wrong.

This is the easiest mistake that could make your family tree a pile of shallow branches that will collapse onto themselves. Vladimirovna is Svetlana’s patronymic name.

What is a patronymic name? This is something I had to learn when I was a teenager and had to give my full name to work for the first time. Thanks to being born to former USSR citizens, I have a patronymic name after my first name.

So, now you have guessed this is a “middle name”. It is special middle name that isn’t picked from a book nor given in honor of a favorite relative or friend. My middle name- Nikolaevna- tells people that I am daughter of Nikolai.

I still get too excited at times that I have found maiden names to add to my family tree. It takes time to understand the difference between patronymic names and surnames.

Just a few years ago, I had to call my mother to ask her whether my great-grandmother’s middle name on the back of a professional photo was her patronymic or maiden name.

It’s hard to contain the excitement that you’ve found a maiden name in Russian or Ukrainian records. Too many times on church records women are only identified by given and patronymic names. So finding maiden names is quite the thrill.

Here are the main rules for identifying patronymic names. For women, the name ends with evna, yevna,  ovna or ichna. For men, the name finishes off with ovich, yevich or yich, according to Wikipedia’s page on patronymic names.

The difference between surnames and patronymic names also can be seen in these examples: Ivanovna (female patronymic) and Ivanova (female surname), Matveyevna (female patronymic) and Matveyeva (female surname), and Nikolayevich (male patronymic) and Nikolayev (male surname).

I have learned over the years about the perks of having patronymic names even when surnames are missing. A crafty Russian researcher found my great-grandmother’s maiden just on her given and patronymic names. That resulted in a Moscow man finding me on Russian forums and confirming us as relatives through a great-great-grandfather.

A patronymic name is not as great as a surname on the family tree but the gift of this unique name is knowing the father’s name just from a “middle name”.