May 27, 2024 | History, Research

Why do Ukrainians use patronymic names?

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The patronymic name in my Ukrainian passport is “Zinoviyovych” which means “son of Zinoviy”. My grandfather born in Galicia before WWII started using his patronymic only after the Soviets came to western Ukraine. To me, it feels like a relic of the soviet time and I prefer addressing people as Pan (Mr.) or Pani (Mrs.) + their first name.

So, is it a Soviet or Russian tradition indeed? What is the root of the patronymics? I am often asked about the patronymic names and I have found some interesting information to share with you. 

Patronymic names arose when Christianity was introduced in Kyivan Rus in 988, according to researchers. Until that time, people were pagans and had many names. They were rarely repeated, says Iryna Yefymenko, candidate of philological sciences from the Institute of the Ukrainian Language.

However, with the advent of Christianity, children began to be baptized and priests gave them the names that were usually the names of the saint on whose name day the child was born. There were not so many saints, so the list of names became limited. This is how the names Oleksiy, Ivan, Petro, and Mykhailo appeared.

There could be five Ivans in the same village, and there was a need to distinguish children by their father’s name. The father was respected and known, and this is how the patronymic appeared. Patronymic names ending with -ich, -ovych, -yevich were used even more often than first names in the ancient chronicles, the scientist says, and they appeared long before Moscow was founded. They gradually spread among the Ukrainian nobility and reached the peasants too.

Surnames appeared much later than patronymic names. Many surnames, which later spread, arose during the times of the Cossacks. There were 40,000 people in Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s register of Cossacks, and almost all of them had surnames.

After the decline of Kyivan Rus, Ukrainian lands passed from one state to another. And there were own customs in each of them. There was no such tradition in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, so in the 18th century, patronymic names began to disappear. In Russia, which occupied part of Ukraine for several centuries, peasants were forbidden to have patronymic names. Catherine II decreed that only the upper classes could have a patronymic name. In Russian documents of that time, peasants signed “Ivan son of Petro”, but not Ivan Petrovych, Mr. Skopnenko, a candidate of philological sciences from the Oleksandr Potebnia Institute of Linguistics says.

Therefore, having lost independence, Ukrainians both in Russia and Poland also lost the tradition of using the patronymic name for several centuries. Things started changing during the Soviet times. The patronymics were returned and are still used in independent Ukraine.

Calls to abandon the patronymic have been heard more and more frequently in Ukraine in recent years. Such trends are noted in the leading universities of the country and discussed in social networks.

What an irony of fate: they (Russians) took our tradition, deprived us of it, and then introduced it back, and because of that we want to give it up,” says Mr. Skopnenko.


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