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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Rebirth of Pre-Soviet Names

Like hemlines, names come and go in cycles: timeless classics give way to short-lived crazes, with the occasional outrageous improvisation along the way.


According to the people who should know, Moscow is leaning toward the classics this season. The consensus among three municipal registries is that Russia's next wave of toddlers will be populated with Anastasias, Alexanders and Alexeis -- noble, ancient names that hark back far beyond the Revolution to Byzantium.


"Today there are many pure Russian names from our history," said Zinaida Shkolnikova, who works full-time registering births, deaths and marriages at the Levoberzhy municipal registry.


More and more newborn girls are being called simply "Maria."


Galina Stepanova, of the Babushkinsky Municipal Registry, thinks she knows why. "Some days we get a lot of Marias," Stepanova said. "If a girl watched the television series 'Simply Maria' and didn't have anything better to do she might name her girl Maria after the show."


But Irina, 22, a bookkeeper who had just given birth at the Krupskaya birthing house in central Moscow, said she decided to call her newborn Maria for a more traditional reason. In prerevolutionary times, most parents named their children after the saint associated with the day of birth -- a custom that has come back in vogue with the reemergence of Orthodoxy.


So Irina just cross-referenced her newborn with the Orthodox book of saints. She was not alone, she said: "Half of the women in the birthing house have named their girls Maria."


As in many cultures, trends in names have changed with the times.


During the years after the revolution, children's names were pledges of allegiance to the Party -- Roblen, for instance, is a compound of "rodilsya byit Leninitsom," or "born to be a Leninist."


Another, Lorikerik, is made up from the words "Lenin, October Revolution, industrialization, collectivization, electrification, 'radiofication' and communism." Some enthusiastic parents called their children "tractor," "combine" or "nail." The writer Mikhail Bulgakov sent up this trend in "Heart of a Dog," where a character, in a burst of revolutionary fervor, named himself Polygraph Polygraphovich. During the breathless days after the 1991 coup, some wryly speculated that somewhere out there, a baby is growing up with the name "Yebeldos" -- or "Yeltsin-White House-Freedom."


After World War II, the fashion was foreign-sounding names -- Elvira, Albina, Alyevtina -- that fell pretentiously on the Russian ear.


A spate of Yuris appeared after cosmonaut-hero Yuri Gagarin's historic 1961 flight, and the '60s brought a return to old, deeply Russian names like Kirill and Alyona.


In Russian literature, names are frequently a play on words. In "Crime and Punishment," Dostoevsky's character Raskolnikov has a surname which means "split." Boris Pasternak's Zhivago derives his name from the Russian word for "life."


Russians also boast a patronymic. According to Nikandr Petrovsky's "Dictionary of Russian Personal Names," the patronymic appeared in the 11th century as a symbol of social status, with only the tsar and boyars allowed to use the "vich" suffix. Surnames were also a privilege. Peasants -- the bulk of the population through the 19th century -- almost always took the last name of their masters. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, non-elite surnames begin to evolve.