Kit Plunkett wrote today about a problem many non-Russian readers of Russian novels run into.
Kit wrote: “Hello! I am currently reading “Dr. Zhivago” and I am struck with the ending ‘vich’ at the end of proper names. My question is: What does it mean? Is it as simple as a common ending of a name, a ‘traditional’ form of saying “of” (as in the Irish ‘O’, ‘Mc’, ‘Mac’ meanig “Of”) or a term of endearment by gender? I’ve researched different sites on the Web and can’t seem to find any answer. Thanks in advance for insight you may have.“
Kit, you are on the right track. These names are always middle names or “patronymics”. Russians are given only their first name. Their second name is the first name of their father plus the suffix -ovich (sometimes -evich) if they are males and -ovna (sometimes -evna) if they are female. Boris Ivanovich is Boris, the son of Ivan, and Marisa Borisovna is Marisa, the daughter of Boris.
Now, since their last name is the last name of their fathers, they are only given their first name. However, Russians who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even choose their first name. The Church publishes a calendar on which each day is associated with two or more saints (minimally one male and one female). If you are a true believer (and orthodox means “true belief”), your first name will be that of a saint associated with the day you were born.
Up until World War II, Russian Christians celebrated their “Name Day” rather than birthday, since they day of the birth gave them their name. Some Russians still refer to their birthday as their “name day”.
The suffixes -ovich and -ovna are combinations of -ov “of” (as you surmised) plus a suffix indicating something little, hence Ivan Borisovich would have meant centuries ago, Ivan the little one of Boris”. Today, no one has any sense of the historical meaning of these suffixes. In fact, the -ov- is seldom even pronounced. Ivan Borisovich is pronounced Ivan Borisich.