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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski is a masterpiece of world literature, appreciated all around the globe. Notwithstanding its universality, the novel is Russian to its core. Like many other nineteenth-century Russian novels, it is strongly connected to a rich Russian culture, tradition, and customs. As also with many other Russian masterpieces, understanding the plot might be a bit complicated for foreigners—at first—because of the confusing way the narrator names characters, as well as how characters themselves refer to each other in dialogues.

The book begins, “Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov,” but soon the characters appear described shortly as Pyotr Alexandrovich, Fyodor Pavlovich, Adelaïda Ivanovna, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, etc., leaving us desperately trying to remember the structure of the family tree.

The Russian way of naming seems strange and confusing for anyone accustomed to being called by first and/or last name. But the Russian custom of using otchestvo after a first name is not so foreign when better understood. A Russian otchestvo is a “patronymic” or “patronym,” a name coming after the first name which is a form of the first name of the father, but with a suffix. It is not a surname, but rather like a generation-specific second name for children of one father.

The custom of naming people with a form of their father’s name has been around for centuries. We can see, for example, the common use of patronymics in the British Isles. The meaning and origin of names like Johnson (John’s son) and Williamson (William’s son) is clear, and it’s simply that at a particular moment in history the patronymic turned into stable family name inherited by subsequent generations. The Scottish and Irish (Gaelic) Mac-, Mc-, and M’- work similarly, serving as a prefix for the father’s name: MacDonald (son of Donald), McWilliam (son of William), etc. O’- names were a patronymic tying the descendent to a grandfather or earlier ancestor. Names of Norman-French origin can have the prefix Fitz-, as in French: fils (son)—names like Fitzpatrick (son of Patrick), etc.

For centuries in many countries, especially in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, patronymics were the standard way of naming. For example, in Sweden in a three-generation family with grandfather Carl, son Sven, and grandson Olof, the son would be officially known as Sven Carlson and the grandson as Olof Svenson. Every new generation would take a patronymic after their father, and no stable family name was inherited from generation to generation. The same was true for women who would use -dotter (daughter) instead of -son as a suffix in their patronymic. This method of naming was dominant not only in Sweden (especially in rural areas) and Denmark up to the end of the eighteenth century, but it persisted in Norway even longer. The practice was also widespread in the Netherlands, and thus in early New York under the Dutch rule.

Unlike other Scandinavian countries, Iceland never abandoned the use of patronymics, still employing them officially, instead of using stable last names. Thus one notes that these names are changing with every generation, and no stable name is inherited. Icelandic phonebooks and similar lists are ordered by first names, followed by patronymics and other data, like the person’s profession. Patronymics are not used in conversation, but are used almost exclusively in official situations.

If we return to our original names quoted from The Brothers Karamazov (“Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov,” “Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov,” “Pyotr Alexandrovich,” “Adelaïda Ivanovna,” “Dmitri Fyodorovitch,” etc.), we see that all of these names possess a “patronymic,” indicating who the character’s father is. Alexey is the son of Fyodor, Fyodor is the son of Pavel, and Pyotr is the son of Alexander. Adelaïda is the daughter of Ivan, and Dmitri the son of Fyodor. Still, to some of these names is added the stable family name of “Karamazov,” inherited from generation to generation by men. “Karamazova” was the feminine form of this family name for unmarried women from the Karamazov family, and for women who married into the Karamazov family.

Unlike Icelanders, Russians (who now all have inherited family names) use both first name and the patronymic (but not the family name) in most of daily life. In very few formal situations and in official documents, the Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians use all three names (given name, patronymic, and inherited family name), the patronymic (Russian: otchestvo) serving as a middle name, since it is obligatorily assigned at birth. To the given first name, like “Dmitri,” the changing patronymic is added as a combination of the father’s name (Fyodor) and the suffix –vich: “Dmitri Fyodorovich.” The feminine suffix is -vna as in “Anna Fyodorovna.” It’s worth noting that the use of otchestvo, especially in -vich/-vna form, though originally reserved for the highest ranks of Russian aristocracy, was eventually extended down throughout the ages to the nobility, merchants, officers, and eventually to the entire Russian nation.

Today, the first name and patronymic are used especially in conversational situations. It is a common way of politely addressing someone whom is known to one, but without too much familiarity. A person’s full name, like “Dmitri Fyodorovitch Karamazov,” would be used in official documents and a few very formal occasions; “Dmitri Fyodorovitch” would be a more commonly-used form among acquaintances, colleagues, and people who just know each others’ names. Using only the first name, for example, “Dmitri,” has become more popular in recent decades. In a family circle or among friends, different diminutives of the first name like “Mitia” and “Dima” would be used for “Dmitri.” Calling someone by just first and last name (Dmitri Karamazov) seems rather strange for Russians, just as their use of patronymics might be strange for most foreigners.