Last October during our church’s missions festival we had a guest pastor in from Russia with whom we have been working. His name was Peter. Well that is what I called him, but every time I turned around someone else seemed to be calling him a somewhat different version of “Peter.” I asked him why people around here, who have known him for much longer than I have, seem to call him by so many different names. However, communication was difficult, so he just said for me to call him whatever I wanted. I did not understand.
Maybe now I do.
In The Penguin Classic Baby Name Book, Grace Hamlin writes regarding Russian names;
It’s difficult to keep the names straight in a sprawling novel like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina even without the added unfamiliarity of Russian names. Compounding the problem is the Russian system of using a first name and a patronymic. Most confusing of all is the fact that Russians are constantly playing with names, creating a string of nicknames from a mere pair of syllables. Finally, a Russian character in high society is likely to bear a French name, owing to the aristocratic affection for Western European habits.
The combination of first name and patronymic is used politely, by acquaintances, so upon meeting someone named Pyotr Ivanovich Lupachkin one might address him as “Pyotr Ivanovich.” (Not all translator render name thus, however.) In a ballroom, he might be know as “Pierre.” And his family might call him, variously, Petya, Petrushka, Petr, or Petinka.
After reading that, I better understand why my Russian friend Peter might be known by so many variations of his name. However, I now feel impoverished because my own family only refers to me by two names, “Kevin” and “Hey, you.”