Names in Old Moscow.

I’m still slowly making my way through Martin’s Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1855 (see this post), and I’ve come to a very interesting passage on names that I’ll quote below (the “Volkov” he refers to is Dmitrii Volkov, a “skilled, peripatetic goldsmith” with some education who kept a record of his employment in a notebook during the 1820s):

Names, and how they were recorded, were markers of identity. They show how cultural patterns shifted over time and spread from one estate to another.

The significance of a name for one’s identity is apparent from Volkov’s copybook. He wrote out his name repeatedly and in different forms: Dmitrii Stepanych Volkov; Dmitrei Stepanov Volkov; Dmitrei Stepanov; Dmitrei Volkov. According to Ivan Belousov, who grew up in a Moscow tailor’s family in the 1860s and 1870s, apprentices were called only by a nickname, which was derived from their looks, place of origin, or some other characteristic. At the end of their apprenticeship, in an important rite of passage, they bought drinks for everyone in the shop and were henceforth addressed by their name and patronymic. When Volkov wrote his name in its full, formal form, he was affirming his social position as an adult craftsman.

Volkov’s experimentation with the form of his patronymic likewise suggests an interest in the linkage between name and status. In everyday interactions, Russians expressed respect by addressing people with their first name and full patronymic (Stepanovich or Stepanych). However, in official documents, this usage was reserved for holders of the top five government ranks, whereas persons of lower status had to be content with the “half patronymic”: Stepanov or Stepanov syn (Stepan’s son). In his notes in the copybook, Volkov’s friend Arstov played with these nuances by addressing him reverentially as “Mr Dmitrii Stepanovich, master of the gold trade,” while humbly calling himself “Ivan Stepanov syn Arstov.” Using the European form of one’s name was especially refined. Arstov made ironic allusion to this, too, when he signed his name in Latin, the international language of scholars, as “Johannes natus, Arstoff vocatus.”

Surnames were rare in Volkov’s time, and even people who had one did not consistently use it. Since surnames helped locate individuals within extended networks, they were useful to the bureaucracy and to families with a prestigious pedigree or far-flung relations, but they were of little utility in small-scale communities where life required only a given name, perhaps a sobriquet to differentiate people who shared a name, and a patronymic to identify one’s parentage. The clergy, who decided how a person appeared in the confessional registers, likewise showed little interest in surnames; what mattered to them were given names, which honored a saint, were assigned at baptism, and were often recorded in their Church Slavonic form. All these tendencies show up in the database of confessional registers. […]

In other ways, naming practices were growing more standardized. The rule that the Orthodox should choose a saint’s name for their children had gained broad acceptance in the eighteenth century, so pre-Christian Slavic names had largely disappeared. Moreover, confessional registers were required to record the formal form of one’s given name—no more nicknames as in earlier times—plus one patronymic and, optionally, a surname. One townswoman’s name was recorded in 1711 as “Mavra Mitropolova, daughter of Ivan, wife of Efrem’s son Mikhail” (Mavra Ivanova doch’ Mikhailovskaia zhena Efremova syna Mitropolova). Had she come back to life in 1829, she would have been listed simply as Mavra Ivanova Mitropolova. […]

Bearing an obscure Byzantine saint’s name, of which there were many, suggested that one was either a captive to religious or familial tradition or else socially under the thumb of the parish clergy. In Gogol’s tale “The Overcoat,” the church calendar at the ill-starred hero’s baptism suggests names that ring preposterous and archaic: Mokkii, Sossii, Khozdazat, Trifilii, Dula, Varakhasii, Pavsikakhii, Vakhtisii. Rather than subject her little boy to any of these, the mother reluctantly gives him his father’s only marginally less awful name, the vaguely scatological-sounding Akakii. This (fictional) mother was a minor noble and hence had a degree of social authority. People of lesser status were more easily bullied. Looking back in the 1920s on late imperial Moscow, Ivan Belousov recalled a merchant’s daughter named Khavron’ia, which sounds like the word for “sow.” Her parents had failed to bribe the priest, so he retaliated by giving her a humiliating name. Such conduct by priests was common enough that the church explicitly forbade it.

The evidence from the database suggests that these literary portrayals mix reality with satire. Except for Mokkii, the names cited by Gogol and Belousov never occur in the database. In fact, most of the 2,000 or so names in the church calendar, which include such gems as Gugstsiatazad and Teklagavvaraiat, are not known ever to have been given to anyone in all of Russian history. The database contains one Izot, one Kharlampii, one Filadel’f, and one Makrida, but such names were increasingly rare.

Evidently, parents exercised growing autonomy in choosing names. A comparison of two sets of townsmen—males born before 1780 versus after 1814, with 70 to 80 individuals in each group—illustrates this development. In the grandfathers’ generation, one in every three had a name that occurred only once in that cohort. Among the grandsons, it was only one in thirteen. Among male peasants and serfs of those same age groups, the younger cohort was about 50 percent larger than the older, yet the older group had slightly more different names. […]

A study by Vladimir Nikonov suggests that distinct naming traditions emerged among peasant, merchant, and noble girls in the late eighteenth century. His evidence for noble names comes from the students of the Smol’nyi Institute, These were all hereditary nobles, hence a narrower stratum than my database’s mix of hereditary and personal nobles. Nikonov also notes that the Moscow merchantry, the wealthier kin of the townspeople under discussion here, began in the period between 1801 and 1818 to adopt names similar to those of Smol’nyi students born in the second half of the eighteenth century, and that in general, the Moscow merchantry was closer to the nobility in its naming preferences than were provincial nobles, not to mention the peasants.

I presume Dmitrei is an end-stressed variant of Dmitrii; cf. Sergei/Sergii and Marei/Marii.

And speaking of names, I’m reading my newly arrived copy of Godard’s Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (now on sale at Caboose Books — any Godard fans in the US, shipping to which is relatively cheap, should consider taking advantage of it), and one of the many things I’ve learned so far is that the learnèd adjective for André Malraux is the very unexpected Malrucian.


  1. I presume Akakii is the same as აკაკი (ak’ak’i) in Georgian? Perhaps it got more adoption in Georgia for not having scatological associations.

    Teklagavvaraiat gives off a Sámi vibe, though I assume it’s not. Can anyone shed more light on this one?

  2. Teklagavvaraiat must have been Ethiopian: Tekle-Hawariat or Teklehawariat. Gugstsiatazad was a Persian martyr.

    “The database contains one Izot, one Kharlampii…” On the other hand, Izotov is a relatively common surname. Kharlamov less so, perhaps, but hardly exotic.

    Khavron’ya is a corruption of Fevroniya, Theuronia. It’s true that khavron’ya or sometimes Khavron’ya Ivanovna is a somewhat dated synonym for “pig” or “untidy person.” But priests were supposed to stick to the Book of Saints in the XIX century.

  3. Gugstsiatazad, too. Is that a nickname?

  4. John Cowan says
  5. “ГУГСЦИАТАЗАД. мч. Гадиабский – см. Хусдазад.”

    “Gugstsiatazad, martyr of Hadiab – see Khusdazad.” Must be the same as Gogol’s Khozdazat.

  6. allows searching huge volumes of XIX c church records.
    Say Харлампий in Moscow archives returns over 8000 hits while Февронья, about 5,000.
    This compares to 25K instances of Дмитрей, 270K for Дмитрий, and 320K for the more Slavonic-traditional Димитрий (but, interestingly, most of the latter spelling’s usages are for the clergy),
    One can subdivide further by record type and year.

  7. Thanks for that, and it’s nice to hear from МОСКВА himself!

  8. There is an article in French on Guhištāzād (Гугсциатазад, Хусдазад, etc.) here (P. Peeters (1910) “St. Eleutherios–Guhištazad”, Analecta Bollandiana 29, p. 151ff).

    Kmoskó Mihály, “S. Simeon bar Sabba‘e: Martyrium et narratio”, Patrologia Syriaca vol. I/2, p. 659–1055, edited the Syriac account of the martyrdom of Shemon Bar Sabbae under Shapur II. The contents of this text are described here in English. The part of the text that deals with the story of Guhištāzād, §§ 26-34, p. 749ff, is here in the edition (with translation in Latin). The Syriac text itself offers an interpretation of the name, saying that in the court of Shapur II, there was an old eunuch

    ܪܫܡܗ ܗܘܐ ܓܘܗܫܬܐܙܕ ܕܡܬܬܪܓܡ ܒܪ ܚܐܪܐ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ

    da-šmeh-wā guhištāzād d-mettargam bar hêrē d-malkutā

    whose name was Guhištāzād, which being translated means “Noble/free man of the kingdom”

    The name looks like a reflex of an Old Iranian compound *Vahištāzāta, made up of vahišta- “best” and *āzāta- ‘noble, free’. Guhištāzād’s name was apparently rendered in Greek as Οὐσθαζάδης by Sozomen and as Οὐσταξάδης by Theophanes the Confessor in his Chronicle.

    Teklagavvaraiat looks like Ge’ez ተክለ ሐዋርያት Takla ḥawārǝyāt “Plant of the Apostles”, formed in a naming tradition using Ge’ez takl “plant, tree, plantation” that seems based on phraseology such as that found in Jubilees 21:24:

    ወያነሥእ ፡ እምኔከ ፡ ተክለ ፡ ጽድቅ ፡ በኵሉ ፡ ምድር ፡ በኵሉ ፡ ትውልደ ፡ ምድር

    wa-yānaśśəʾ ʾəmənneka takla ṣədq bakʷǝllu mədr bakʷǝllu təwlədda mədr

    He will raise from you a plant of truth in all the earth throughout the generations of the earth.

    And similarly 1 Enoch 10:16:

    ἀναφανήτω τὸ φυτὸν τῆς δικαιοσύνης καὶ τῆς ἀληθείας

    let the plant of righteousness and truth appear

    (And Ge’ez ተክለ ፡ ጽድቅ ፡ ወርትዕ takla ṣədq wa-rətʿ.)

    Compare these to the account of the awakening of St. Takla Hāymānot from p. 289 of Getatchew Haile “Täklä Haymanot”, which is chapter 27 of The Orthodox Christian World (2012), edited by Augustine Casiday:

    Feśśeḥa Ṣeyon’s transformation into Täklä Haymanot occurred when he was out on a hunting trip with his servants. During this trip, the Archangel Michael appeared to him and told him thus: “Fear not, O plant of Yoḥannes (or John), for thou art the plant of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As of now let thy name be ‘Plant of Faith’ (Täklä Haymanot). The Lord has granted thee the power to raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. As a priest, thou art not to hunt animals. From now on thou shall be hunter of people for the Lord.”

    I would love to learn more about this naming tradition.

  9. There’s a wonderful analysis of Gogol’s story about Bashmachkin’s naming (proving, with the calendar Gogol refers to in hand, that none of what he says about it is actually true) in Samouil Lurie’s “Разговоры в пользу мертвых” (Talks for the Benefit of the Dead?). And it’s only one of many spectacular gems in this book.

  10. Great, it’s online at ImWerden — I love Lurie!

  11. Old Iranian compound *Vahištāzāta, made up of vahišta- “best” and *āzāta- ‘noble, free’.

    Cf. וַיְזָתָא wayzāṯā, Haman’s youngest son in the book of Esther, wahya-zāta ‘better-born’.

  12. January First-of-May says

    Say Харлампий in Moscow archives returns over 8000 hits

    My favorite example of a rare name that nevertheless must have been extant is Onfim – that is, Anthemius (a name most famously that of the Western Roman emperor from 467-472, though presumably the relevant saint was a different person).

    The famous Onfim is of course known from his birch bark drawings; there is at least one other Onfim in the birch bark corpus, in Pskov (the addressee of letter #142, from the same general area of Novgorod as the drawings, could in principle be the same boy 60ish years later, but the Pskov guy is about two decades too early), but I’m not aware of any other person named Onfim, from a non-birch-bark context.
    For the expected-in-Moscow spelling Anfim, Russian Wikipedia lists about two dozen people, all bishops or above (i.e. in roles where AFAIK they would have been expected to change their name to something more bishoply-sounding) except one early saint and, erm, one (early 9th century) duke of Naples.

    Apparently the duke of Naples is Anthimus in English, which… might have been the same name as Anthemius? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know remotely enough Greek to tell for sure one way or the other.

    Anyway, there’s just one Onfim in that database, but there are apparently 1500 results for Anfim. I guess it wasn’t that rare of a name. (With a name this short there are probably also a few scannos, though.)

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m going to guess that the Ur-Onfim/Anfim in terms of being an undisputed saint rather than merely some ecclesiastical personage or emperor was this fellow:

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