For the most popular Russian names, there are parallels throughout Europe, where every language has its own variations of Maria, Elena or Anna. Russia has some native names as well, like Lyudmila or Svetlana. So what makes a name special? It’s not only its origin; it’s exactly how the name is used and what associations it evokes.
When you meet a girl called Ekaterina, would you guess her friends call her Katya and her granny Katyusha? Or that Alyona is the same name as Elena? Or that, for most people, the form Alyona is immediately associated with fairy tales?
This wikipedia article will tell you about some of the most widespread female Russian names, their different forms, as well as some legends, literary characters and cultural myths that most Russian people would recognize. For each name, I will give you the short form and the endearing diminutive form.
Feel free to use the short form if you are friends with someone or just want to chat informally. However, it’s better to use endearments like Anechka and Mashenka only if you are really close.
Short form: Anya (Аня)
Endearing diminutive: Anyechka (Анечка), Anyta (Анюта)
By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Public domain)
Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina.
My grandmother, who is herself called Anna, has always liked this saying: Анн[ов] да Иванов как грибов поганых, literary meaning, “There are as many Annas and Ivans as poisonous/inedible mushrooms.” Nowadays, these two names are among the most widely used in Russia. Despite the apparent rudeness of the saying, it sounds quite sympathetic, with that earthy sense of humour typical of the Russian countryside. There are more poetic traditional references to the name as well. For example, violet is in Russia sometimes called Анютины глазки, which can be translated as “Anyuta's little eyes” or “Anyuta's pretty eyes.”
In Russian literature, the most recognized “Anna” is, hands down, Anna Karenina, the tragic protagonist of Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same name. Tolstoy is no easy reading for a beginner in Russian, but you may have watched the movie starring Keira Knightley. Anna Karenina has also been recently adapted into a very expressive modern ballet on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's music. If you fancy seeing Russian ballet other than Swan Lake, Anna Karenina is a great choice!
Short form: Masha (Маша)
Endearing diminutive: Mashenka (Машенька)
By Christian Fisher (CC by 3.0)
Melampyrum Nemorosum, in Russia popularly known as Иван-да-Марья (Ivan and Marya).
Even today, Maria (slightly colloquial Marya) is a very popular name, but in the past it was unbeatable. The popularity of given names Ivan and Maria is reflected in the Russian common name of cow-wheat: Иван-да-марья, “Ivan and Marya.” A legend explains the name of this flower, which is coloured very distinctively yellow and purple.
According to the tale, Ivan and Marya loved each other dearly and got married, but they didn't know they were really brother and sister. When they discovered this horrible fact, they were stricken by grief, but could still not be separated from each other, so they turned into a single flower. I have always liked to think Marya is yellow and Ivan is purple, but the legend doesn't make it clear.
Because of the popularity of the name, Marya Ivanovna is an ironic name for a conservative school teacher, and Masha Ivanova for a random generic girl, similar to Ivan Petrov or John Smith (there are, or course, many real people called Masha Ivanova).
The short form Masha is often the name of folktale heroines, most notably Маша и медведь (Masha and the Bear), which recently has been loosely adapted into a popular animated comedy for children.
Short form: Olya (Оля)
Endearing diminutive: Olechka (Олечка), Olenka (Оленька)
By Nikolay Bruni (Public domain)
The great holy princess Olga
The most famous Olga in history must be Olga of Kiev, who ruled Russia in the late 10th century. She may have been originally called Helga because of her Scandinavian descent. A regent to her three-year-old son Svyatoslav, Olga soon established herself as a strong and ruthless ruler who had her enemies, the Drevlians, burned alive in a bathhouse as an act of vengeance for her husband Igor.
The chronicle also relates how Olga demanded from the Drevlians 'three pigeons and three sparrows from each house” as tribute, only to attach burning sulfur to the birds and have them set the houses on fire. Today this makes people spark jokes like 'Princess Olga played Angry Birds before it was mainstream.”
Such stories may be uncomfortable to think of in modern times, but morals were quite different in the early Medieval period, especially before the spread of Christianity. Olga was actually the first Russian ruler to become Christian, as well as the first Russian saint, while the state remained pagan until the reign of Olga's grandson, Vladimir the Great. Princess Olga's Christian name was Elena, speaking of which:
Yelena / Elena (Елена)
Short form: Lena (Лена), Alyona (Алёна)
Endearing diminutive: Lenochka (Леночка), Alyonushka (Алёнушка)
By Viktor Vasnetsov (Public domain)
Alyonushka (an illustration to the folktale Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka)
A Russian variation of Helen, this name is extremely popular in the country today. Upon entering a school class, you are very likely to meet at least two, or more likely, three or four Lenas. There seems to be no more famous women called Yelena these days.
Yelena Välbe is a cross-country skier who thrice won the Olympic gold; Yelena Obraztsova is a world-famous opera singer; and Yelena Kondakova is the first woman to make a long-duration spaceflight.
In the past, the short form Alyona (Алёна) was in use, with the endearment Alyonushka (Алёнушка). Alyonushka is the protagonist's name in many Russian folktales, most famously Сестрица Алёнушка и братец Иванушка (Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka). Now that you know the –shka 'endearing' suffix, you can easily tell what is the full name of Alyona's brother in this folktale!
Short form: Natasha (Наташа)
Endearing diminutive: Natashenka (Наташенька)
By Leonid Pasternak (Public domain)
Natasha Rostova's first ball
Thanks to the early 20th century spy movies, Natasha must be the most renown female Russian names outside of Russia. Modern popular culture keeps up with the tradition, most famously the videogame Red Alert and Marvel Comics, where the antagonist/superhero Black Widow is not only originally called Natalia, she also shares her surname with some Russian Tsars! Moreover, she is believed to have been a ballerina. Looks like Marvel wanted to combine all the stereotypes about Russians in one character.
In Russia, however, the name is simply so widespread that it never evokes the spy associations. If anyone ever remembers a fictional Natasha, that would be Natasha Rostova from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace -- a novel read in every school, which ensures that the main protagonists are known even to those who never finished the 1500 pages epic.
Short form: Tanya (Таня)
Endearing diminutive: Tanechka (Танечка)
By Vasily Helmersen (Public domain)
Tatiana is one of the main characters in Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Kind and innocent, Tatiana falls in love with Eugene. For many people, Tatiana, with her belief in magic and love of winter, is the embodiment of Russia's mystical, spiritual and utterly non-European side:
Татьяна (русская душою,
Сама не зная почему)
С ее холодною красою
Любила русскую зимý
In an operatic adaptation of Eugene Onegin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky emphasizes the passionate, deeply romantic side of Tatiana's character, her Letter Scene becoming an iconic depiction of pure yet overwhelming love. Here you can watch the aria with English surtitles on Metropolitan Opera's official channel.
Short form: Nastya (Настя)
Endearing diminutive: Nastenka (Настенька), Nastysha (Настюша)
By unknown photographer (Public domain)
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
In animation, there are at least two famous Anastasias. If you are not from Russia, you are more likely to know the 1997 animated musical Anastasia by 20th Century Fox. The historical Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the last Tsar Nicholas II, was most likely executed by Bolshevik Secret Police when she was only 17. The musical, however, is much more optimistic; it’s based on the numerous rumours and legends claiming that the young princess managed to escape. After many adventures, the cartoon has Anastasia reunite with her relatives in Paris and, of course, find her true love. Even though historically Anastasia is a mess, with the Bolshevik Revolution worked up by an evil wizard, it is great fun to watch. It's a pity that the historical princess wasn't that lucky!
I watched Anastasia as I teenager and absolutely loved it, but the main heroine wasn't the Anastasia I grew up with. That was Nastenka, the main heroine of Аленький цветочек (Little Scarlet Flower), the Russian equivalent of Beauty and the Beast. In 1952, Soyuzmultfilm studio adapted the folktale into a cartoon which is now considered a classic of Soviet animation. Very different from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, it is much more slow-paced (albeit shorter), serious and heartwarming at the same time, focused on sheer beauty more than on action. For the early fifties, the quality of animation is stunning. Now that Soyuzmultfilm has uploaded the Soviet classics to their official Youtube channel, you can watch Little Scarlet Flower with English, Spanish or French subtitles.
Yekaterina / Ekaterina (Екатерина)
Short form: Katya (Катя)
Endearing diminutive: Katenka (Катенька), Катюша (Katyusha)
Katyusha rocket launcher
The most famous Yekaterina in Russia was Empress Catherine II the Great (Екатерина Великая). Rising to power through a coup d'état, she reigned for 34 years of what is often called Russia's Golden Age. Catherine was an enlightened despot, having unlimited power, yet willing to give some rights to her subjects, at least to the nobility. Bloody suppression of the Pugachev Revolt took place during Catherine's reign, but she also established the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, and was a correspondent of Voltaire.
The endearing form Katyusha immediately evokes the name of a Russian wartime song. Katyusha is there a girl waiting for her beloved, who is gone to military service. During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) this song was extremely popular, and even now virtually every Russian is likely to know the lyrics by heart. The song inspired the nickname of BM-13, BM-8 and BM-31 rocket launchers that were also unofficially called Katyusha. This, of course, gave the song the ironic-optimistic overtones it lacked before as it grew to symbolize Russian victory over the Nazi army. You can listen to the song and read the lyrics here.
Hero Image (Hitchhiking in Russia’s Extreme North) by Christiaan Triebert (CC by 2.0)