Russian Personal Names:
Name Frequency in the Novgorod Birch-Bark Letters

By Masha Gedilaghine Holl (Predslava Vydrina)

© 1997 by Masha Gedilaghine Holl; all rghts reserved.

This article is not intended as a replacement for a dictionary of names, but as a guide containing examples of names frequently encountered in certain period documents. Specifically, this is a survey based on the corpus of Novgorod Birch-Bark Letters, a collection of various private, handwritten documents unearthed during archeological excavations in the northern Russian city of Novgorod. The material used, and the writing technique, made it possible for us to read these letters: parchment or paper would have decayed and ink would have faded or been dissolved in the bog-like soil, but the notes, scratched out on birch bark with a stylus, survived.

Of course, because of the random nature of the finds, it is impossible to establish with certainty which names were used most (and least), as we might have with systematic records. So I can only offer a list of names most frequently encountered in the Novgorod Birch-Bark Letters. On the other hand, because of the sheer number of Birch-Bark Letters found (over 700 as of the latest publication, and over 1300 name entries), where name frequency can be established, it will be indicative enough of preferences and trends. In addition, the Birch-Bark Letters offer a source unlike any other in that it is a collection of mostly informal notes and correspondence, sometimes written by the hand of a professional scribe, sometimes by a barely literate person, occasionally by a recognizable historical figure. This means, to us, that the names found in the Birch-Bark Letters are not just those of high personages, but also of ordinary citizens, so the list of names we derive from this source is socially varied.

I must also add that non-Russian names appearing in the Birch-Bark Letters have not been included in this study. Because of Novgorod's wide-ranging commercial relations, and of the size of its dependent lands, both the population of Novgorod, and the people with whom Novgorodians were in contact, included Scandinavians, Germans, Finnic peoples, Tartars, Bulgars,1 Greeks, etc.

The names found in the Birch-Bark Letters have been divided into five categories: women's Christian names, women's Old-Russian names, men's Christian names, and men's Old-Russian names. The fifth category comprises women's names derived from men's names and signifying "wife of XX," where "XX" is a man's name (given name or patronymic). These documents cover a period from the XI to the XV centuries (from archeological expeditions between 1951 and 1993). It is impossible to determine trends and preferences in chronological perspective on the basis of these documents alone because of their random nature.


  1. Definition: Christian (canonical) names.
  2. Definition: Old Russian (non-canonical) names.
  3. Usage of canonical and non-canonical names.
  4. Origin of canonical and non-canonical names.
  5. Women's names: Christian names.
  6. Women's names: Old Russian names.
  7. "Wife of..." forms based on Christian names.
  8. "Wife of..." forms based on Old Russian names.
  9. Men's names: Christian names.
        Men's names: Patronymics based on Christian names.
  10. Men's names: Old Russian names.
  11. Conclusion
  12. Notes
  13. Bibliography

The terms "Christian" and "Old-Russian," as pertaining to names used in Russia in period, require a comment. Even though the religion of a person (or persona) has no bearing on the registration of a name with the College of Arms, or with its documentation to period, it has much to do with understanding the naming practices of Russians in medieval Russia (and therefore with persona development). "Christian" names are "canonical" (to this day), that is, they have been recognized and accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church as those of saints worthy of veneration. When Russia was first being Christianized, the list of venerated saints was that of the Greek Byzantine Church. Little by little, the Russian Church acquired independence from Byzantium, and compiled its own list of saints (without excluding Byzantine names, necessarily). For example, Vladimir I, Grand Prince of Kiev (died 1015), was probably canonised in the mid-XIII century (recognized as saint and included in the official list of those worthy of veneration by the Church). His sons Boris and Gleb were canonised earlier, a mere decade after their deaths in 1015. But although Vladimir was baptized as Vasilii, he is venerated as Vladimir: sometime in the mid-XIII century, Vladimir became a Russian Orthodox Christian canonical name, and people from then on could choose it as their baptismal name. Similarly, Boris and Gleb are commemorated under their non-canonical names, not their baptismal names (which are Roman and David, respectively). After the canonization of the princes, the names Boris and Gleb became Russian canonical names, as distinct both from Byzantine canonical names and from non-canonical names. Before their canonization, these names, of course, were not Christian, a detail worth remembering for persona development.

Non-canonical names, or Old-Russian names, are non-baptismal names. They are based mostly on Russian roots and they are nickname-like. They were true "given names" early on, but beginning in the XIII century, when the number of Christian and non-Christian given names became about equal, the popularity of Old-Russian names began to decline, and they progressively became nicknames or secondary names (bynames).2 However, the use of non-canonical Old-Russian names persisted into the XVII century, and even nobles continued to use them as "everyday" names (i.e. they were addressed and referred to by their Old-Russian names), although it is almost certain that they were baptized under a Christian name.

As Wickenden explains (p. xv in the Dictionary of Period Russian Names), persons with a double given name received the Old-Russian (non-canonical) name at birth, and the Christian name at baptism. However, especially early on (XII century and before), a person's only name may very well have been an Old-Russian name. It can be stated with almost complete certainty that by the XIV century, a Russian called only by his or her Old-Russian name also had a Christian name.

The sources for each category of names (Christian and Old-Russian) define and limit their number and variety. Christian names were originally, as we said, Byzantine canonical names, that is, of saints recognized by the Greek Byzantine Church, and therefore the list is, and always was, limited. These names were of varied linguistic origins, and non-Greek names had undergone a transformation into a Greek Byzantine form before they reached Russia. In Russia, they underwent yet another transformation into a Russianized form. Later, Russian names were added to the list of Russian canonical names, as we have shown with the example of the canonization of Vladimir I and his sons Boris and Gleb.

Old-Russian names, on the other hand, could be based on just about any Russian word:

- Nouns: Drozd ("thrush" or "blackbird"), Birch-Bark Letter 526, late XI c.

- Verbs: Zhdan (from Old-Russian "zhdati," "to wait," therefore "the awaited [one]"), Birch-Bark Letter 447, end XIV.

- Adjectives: Mal ("small, short [of stature]"), Birch-Bark Letter 348, second half XIII, and so forth.

Therefore the number of possible Old-Russian names, unlike that of Christian names, is immense and the variety is astounding. Of course, documenting names based on every single word in Old-Russian is impossible, but the likelihood of such an occurrence exists. I must caution, however, against the compulsion to seize any Russian dictionary or textbook or literary work, choose a word more or less at random and thus name oneself. Like every other language, Russian has changed over the years, many words have disappeared from the vocabulary, while many others have been introduced, and some modern words are look-alikes of Old-Russian words, yet have a different meaning. But if you insist, then look at the "Dictionary of Name Roots," compiled by Wickenden, p.xxvii in his Dictionary of Period Russian Names, and you can create a name with a little work.

In the tables below, the names are followed by a date and a reference to the number of the earliest birch-bark letter ("BBL") where they apprear. Since the birch-bark letters cannot be dated to a specific year, only to an approximate time period, the date is a century, not a year. For Old Russian names, the meaning of the name also follows, where possible. A ? indicates a guess. The names are included here in their standard form. For variants, and other sources, I refer you to Wickenden's Dictionary.


  1. Introduction.
  2. Definition: Christian (canonical) names.
  3. Definition: Old Russian (non-canonical) names.
  4. Usage of canonical and non-canonical names.
  5. Origin of canonical and non-canonical names.
  6. Women's names: Christian names.
  7. Women's names: Old Russian names.
  8. "Wife of..." forms based on Christian names.
  9. "Wife of..." forms based on Old Russian names.
  10. Men's names: Christian names.
        Men's names: Patronymics based on Christian names.
  11. Men's names: Old Russian names.
  12. Conclusion
  13. Notes
  14. Bibliography

Editted and published by Arval Benicoeur