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Understanding Russian-Language Naming Conventions to Enhance Investigations

Investigations into companies operating within the former Soviet Union frequently involve members of the subject’s family appearing in directorship or shareholding roles. To achieve a comprehensive view into these networks, it is vital to have an understanding of local naming conventions. This article specifically focuses on Russian-language naming conventions.

Russian-language naming conventions tell us a great deal of personally identifiable information (PII). Oftentimes, with little else to go on, names throughout the former Soviet Union can help map out both an individual’s immediate and extended family.

How Russian-Language Names Break Down

Russian-language names typically comprise three parts:

  • given name
  • patronymic
  • surname

In Russian documents, these three parts are most often presented in the following order: last name, first name, patronymic. This means that Igor Ivanovich Sechin would appear on official documentation as Sechin Igor Ivanovich.

 

Surnames

Many surnames change depending on the gender of the person. This is especially true for surnames ending in v (Russian letter в) and n (Russian letter н). For these names, typically, the feminine form is the same as the male form but has an additional a at the end.

Some surnames, such as those ending with the popular Ukrainian ending -enko, do not change based on gender. This means the patronymic will determine whether a person is identified as male or female on official documents (see below). The Ukrainian parliamentarian Yulia Timoshenko and her husband Oleksandr, for example, share the same surname.

Suffixes that do not change based on gender include:

  • -ko (-ко)
  • -la (-ла)
  • -lo (-ло)
  • -uk (-ук)
  • -iv (-ив)
  • -ich (-ич)
  • -ykh (-ых)

 

Patronymics

The patronymic is formed by adding a suffix to the father’s given name. These suffixes are also gendered and take different forms for men (meaning “son of”) and women (meaning “daughter of”).

For men, common patronymic suffixes include:

  • -ovich (-ович)
  • -evich (-евич)
  • -ich (-ич) 

And for women:

  • -ovna (-овна)
  • -evna (-евна)
  • -ichna (-ична)
  • -inichna (-инична)

Consider, for example, a woman named Inga Igorevna Sechina. Inga is the woman’s given name. The second name, Igorevna, is the patronymic. We can tell from this name that her father’s name is Igor. Sechina is her last name. Note the “a” at the end of the surname. This indicates that she is female. We can therefore deduce that her father’s full name is Igor Sechin (Igorevna, minus the -evna suffix; Sechina, minus the -a suffix). Inga is in fact the daughter of the Treasury-sanctioned head of Rosneft, Igor Ivanovich Sechin. Applying these same rules to Igor Sechin’s name, we know that his father’s name was Ivan Sechin, who was Inga’s grandfather. We know that Inga has a brother named Ivan. His full name is Ivan Igorevich Sechin.

When women marry, they customarily retain their given name and patronymic but adopt the surname of their spouse (although not always). For example, when Inga married Dmitriy Vladimirovich Ustinov, her name changed to Inga Igorevna Ustinova. She has since divorced Dmitriy and married Timerbulat Olegovich Karimov; her name is now Inga Igorevna Karimova.

Figuring Out a Family Tree with Russian-Language Naming Conventions

Russian-language naming conventions help confirm the existence and nature of relationships between individuals. For example, if it is known that two or more people are related, but the nature of that relationship is unknown, patronymics occasionally answer this question.

Let’s consider the family of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic who was sanctioned in 2017 under the Magnitsky Act. By examining the names of some of his family members, it is possible to figure out how they are related to him.

  • Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov
  • Aishat Ramzanovna Kadyrova
  • Zelimkhan Akhmatovich Kadyrov
  • Zelimkhan Ramzanovich Kadyrov
  • Medni Musaevna Kadyrova

Obviously, the first name is our subject, Ramzan Kadyrov. We can immediately identify his father as Akhmad Kadyrov based on his patronymic.

The second name, Aishat Kadyrova has the patronymic Ramzanovna, which suggests that it belongs to one of Ramzan’s children. The last name and patronymic endings tell us that it is likely to be Ramzan’s daughter.

The list of names features two individuals with the name Zelimkhan Kadyrov. The first bears the same patronymic as Ramzan, Akhmatovich, meaning that this is likely his brother. The second bears the patronymic Ramzanovich, which tells us this is likely Ramzan’s son.

The final name on this list, Medni Kadyrova, bears the patronymic Musaeva. This patronymic does not match any of the known family patriarchs we examined, so we can assume it is either someone’s wife (the -a suffix reveals that this individual is a woman), or a more distant relative.

Of course, another possibility is that she is not related at all. It is important to remember that this method is not absolute. Just as with Western names, there can be people with the same surname, given name, and patronymic. It is crucial to supplement any claims derived from Russian-language naming conventions with strong supporting evidence. Media reports tell us that Medni Kadyrova is in fact Ramzan Kadyrov’s wife.

Understanding Russian-language naming conventions greatly enhances the power of corporate, financial, and social media research and shines a light on what would otherwise be restricted PII. Compared to other jurisdictions, naming conventions in the former Soviet Union provide a significant advantage when it comes to understanding a target’s familial relationships.

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