Alex(ei) at The Russian Dilettante has an interesting question:

…the names of a few major Russian authors are clearly non-Russian in origin, so that transliterating them from Russian into English mechanically, according to the standard rules (assuming their existence), does not seem the best method. Should we write Gertsen or Hertzen; Fet or Foeth; Khodasevich or Chodasiewicz; Blok or Bloch; Mandelshtam or Mandelstam; Shvarts or Schwartz?

I’ll add Gippius or Hippius, Veller or Weller, Dombrovski or Dabrowski (which should have an ogonek on the a to make it nasal), and Okudzhava or Okujava. Personally, I use the Russianized forms (though I sometimes slip and write Mandelstam), but I welcome all ideas on the subject.
And while we’re on Russian names, let me mention the hypothesis that Putin is a byform of the ancient aristocratic name Putyatin of the Tver district (like Pnin of Repnin); in the words of Pravda, “this means that Vladimir Putin is related to nearly all the royal families of Europe.”


  1. The word ogonek is a Polish diminutive. It means little tail or the stem of an apple.
    I suppose this should be on the list of Russian-Polish false friends, then. Was racking the old brains trying to think what огонь had to do with anything nasal.

  2. As indeed are we all.
    Btw here’s something else in the words of Pravda.
    Isn’t freedom wonderful? 😉

  3. “The president-s family tree is not traced before Putin-s grandfather Spiridon Putin, who left Tver for St. Petersburg at the age of 15. Vladimir Putin-s grandfather was a serious, reserved man of immaculate honesty. Spiridon Putin became a good cook. He worked in fancy restaurants in St.Petersburg before the revolution of 1917. Later, he was invited to cook for Lenin himself. When Lenin passed away, Spiridon Putin started working at one of Stalin-s dachas. Putin-s grandfather managed to survive this horrid period of the Soviet history. When he retired, he lived and cooked at a holiday camp of the Communist Party. Vladimir Putin describes his grandfather as a man who liked remaining silent most of the time.”
    News to me. My own great-grandfather made pretty much the same career — from a peasant boy in the Yaroslavl area to an apprentice and the cook at a wealthy Moscow aristocrat’s mansion to a cook and (unconfirmed) the chef at the Metropol hotel where Lenin & Co. dined after their move to Moscow in 1918. Some time in the early 1930s, he suddenly left Moscow for a much smaller town — a smart move, all things considered, or he might have been accused of poisoning some party boss.
    The facts that Putin’s grandfather was a cook and his family tree can’t be traced further only prove that he is of humble, non-aristocratic origin. Even if his name can be traced to Putyatin, it doesn’t mean much — serfs were sometimes given their masters’ surnames. The most famous example is Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

  4. I have a hazy remembrance that Blok was a pen-name, anyone know?

  5. Nope: “His father, A.L. Blok, was a scholar and professor of law at Warsaw University, his mother, Aleksandra Beketova, was a translator and the daughter of the rector of the University of St. Petersburg.”

  6. Actually, I have no idea how Blok’s paternal ancestors spelled their name — Blok or Block or Bloch or otherwise; I have not found much about his father besides what Blok himself says in his autobiography. His distant ancestor, a native of Mecklenburg, was a doctor at Alexei Mikhailovich’s court; a more recent one, Ivan Blok, a surgeon at Pavel I’s court, was knighted; his grandfather was still a Lutheran.
    Going back to the transliteration “problem”, I’d rather use standard rules for all proper names unless there is a good reason to deviate from them. Otherwise we could go too far in tracing the roots of surnames — e.g., Bryusov would become Bruce-ov, since his name is obviously related to a Scot called Bruce, perhaps even the most famous of them, Bruce the Sorcerer, an associate of Peter the Great. On the other hand, Hertzen, for one, is an artificial derivative from Hertz that his father gave his illegitimate but loved son for a last name. Similarly, I prefer Waginov to Vaginov not only because it eliminates an unwanted association with vagina (a strictly medical term in Russian, by the way) but because it came into being when the poet’s father, gendarmerie colonel Wagenheim, Russified his name in 1914 or 1915.

  7. Bryusov would become Bruce-ov
    And Lermontov would have to be Learmontov for the same reason. I agree about the standard rules, and disagree about Vaginov: the association may be unfortunate, but it makes no sense to import a W from a vaguely similar German name (and besides, it introduces an entirely pointless uncertainty as to how to pronounce the name).
    Oh, and by the way, it’s Herz and Herzen (no -t-).

  8. Shame on me! I’ve made this mistake before and has been corrected, so it must be a personalized case of the intrusive ‘t’.

  9. Hi – can someone out there please tell me how my name would be spelt in Russian cyrillic??
    Very many thanks to anyone who can.
    (Ms) Monika Fisher

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