Religious, Patriotic, and Ethnic Factors
Involved with Names and Naming
in Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan

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Religious, Patriotic, and Ethnic Factors Involved
with Names and Naming in Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan

Edwin D. Lawson, State University of New York at Fredonia

Reprinted by permission from Novi te ex nomine: estudos filolóxicos ofrecidos ao Prof. Dr. Dieter Kremer, A Coruña [Spain]: Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, 2004, Ana Isabel Boullón Agrelo, editor. This book can be purchased at

ABSTRACT: The period of the past one hundred years has seen a great deal of turmoil and change in Russia and the countries that it controlled from the Czarist period until 1990. This investigation integrates findings from four investigations in Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan to determine whether there were similar patterns of religious and patriotic names. Results indicate that there was a decline in religious names for both sexes from the Czarist period to the end of the interviewing period (1990) except in the case of Latvia where men showed an increase. Patriotic names were at relatively low levels during the Czarist period except for the Latvians who were a bit higher. The Baltic countries had a rise in patriotic names during their period of independence but rose to a much higher level with Russian occupation. Russia, itself, showed an increase in patriotic names after the Revolution. Azerbaijan, under the Czars had no patriotic names but showed a steady increase after the communists took over in 1920.

     Political and religious events are not strangers to the onomastic scene. Of course, periods of war and change had major effects on the social and political life of the people involved. Did these turbulent periods also influence the naming of children? There are a few investigations that seem to show this.

     In Finland, Kiviniemi (1998) showed that during the period of intense Finnish nationalism (1880-1917) there was a rise in the percentage of Finnish names. Finland had been an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire but became an independent republic in 1917. At that time, and for a few years after that, Finnish names were at their highest percentage (about 30%). Kiviniemi interprets the rise in popularity of Finnish names as reflecting the historical developments that led to Finnish independence.

     Kostantinov (1995) has described the name behavior of the Bulgarian Muslim (Pomak) group who were subjected to governmental renaming campaigns that resulted in a massive exodus to Turkey in 1989. This was an example of naming laws being used to oppress a religious and ethnic minority group.

     In South Africa, Herbert (1998) has shown how members of different African tribes (Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, and others have carried political feelings to the naming of children. Thus, we can see that naming of children has been a political weapon.

     Finally, in China, Li and Lawson (2002), looked at what happened with generation names. Generation names, an additional name to the family name and first name for males, had been repressed under Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. Li and Lawson were able to show that the end of the Mao era, that there is what appears to be the beginning of a recovery of generation names.

     While many onomastic investigations have been done in the West, relatively little had been done in the Soviet Union and in the countries that it had dominated. This presentation will try to summarize and integrate some of the results found in the Soviet Union and some of the countries it controlled. For our investigations, we selected two cities in Russia, St. Petersburg and Moscow, two Baltic countries, and one country in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, to see if we could identify an overall pattern. The goal was to examine the patterns of religious and patriotic naming to see whether there were consistencies in the patterns from country to country.


     To get a picture of the naming patterns in different countries, we (Lawson & Balode, 1998; Lawson & Butkus, 1998-1999, Lawson, Glushkovskaya, & Sheil, 2002; Lawson & Alakbarov, 2001) developed a questionnaire that was administered in home interviews to a total sample representing 3163 individuals. The design of the project was to interview representatives of 100 families over three generations in each of the two Russian cities, each of the Baltics, and Azerbaijan (only 50 of the Azeri families have been included in this tabulation). Information was gathered on the members of the family over three generations, that is, grandparents, parents and children. The items asked information for each family member on first names, the reason(s) for selecting the names, their meaning, nicknames, the language(s) spoken at home, birth year, community or region where born, occupation, religion, level of religious observance, and ethnic identity.


The composition of the samples is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Composition of the samples.
    Men Women Total Families
Latvia   314 353 667 100
Lithuania   323 329 652 100
St. Petersburg
  362 363 725 100
Russia: Moscow   327 373 700 100
Azerbaijan   209 196 405 50
Totals   1535 1614 3149 450

     Preliminary examination of the data made it apparent that analysis should be broken down by time periods. Although the original analyses for all four of the samples had six periods, it became apparent that there were really three major periods. Some short periods when governments were changing were dropped from analysis because fewer individuals were named during these periods. For Latvia and Lithuania, the three periods worked out approximately to: (1) Under Czarist Rule (until 1917), (2) Independence (1918-1939/1940), and (3) under Russian Occupation (1944-1990). For the Russian sample, periods were somewhat similar: (1) Under Czarist Rule (until 1917), (2) Communist Period (1921-1941), (3) Post-War (1946-1990). For Azerbaijan, the periods were: (1) Under Czarist Rule (until 1917), (2) Soviet Period (1920-1940, and (3) Post-War Soviet Period (1946-1991).

Socio-Economic Status

     The occupations of the respondents were classified in a way similar to that used by the United States Bureau of the Census. The breakdown for each of the samples is shown in the original studies and each appears to be representative of the population being investigated.

Religious Names

     At the time of World War I, religion had a strong influence on the naming of children in many parts of the world. In Latvia, the population was divided approximately between Catholics and Lutherans. One of the questions asked dealt with whether the name chosen was from the Bible, the Church, or the Church Calendar. Figure 1 shows the result. Women had the highest percentage during the Czarist Period (37%) followed by a decline in the following periods. The men began at a lower rate (13%) but during the period of Russian Occupation were actually slightly higher than the women 24% v. 18%.

Figure 1: Latvian Religious Names

Figure 2: Lithuanian Religios Names

Figure 3: Russian Religious Names

Figure 4: Azeri Religious Names

     In Lithuania, predominately Lutheran, about 32% of the men during the Czarist Period had religious names, the women, about 22%. These percentages dropped during the Independence period and even further during Russian Occupation period dropping to an average of 5%.

     Russia, at the time of the Revolution, was largely Orthodox. About a third of our sample reported being named in accordance with Church influence. However, decline began during the communist period and dropped to half of what it had been during the Czarist period. By the Post-War period, the percentage dropped to an average of 2% for both sexes.

     Azerbaijan, at the time of the Revolution, was a Muslim country in contrast with the other Christian countries. It, too, had been under Czarist rule and religious influence was strong. Forty percent of the men born in the Czarist period had religious names with 11% for the women. Similar to the Lithuanian and Russian samples, these percentages dropped off during periods of Soviet rule, dropping to 7% for men and zero for women.


Patriotic Names

     Now, we can turn to the other significant pattern of change, that of names identified with heroes of the country. In Latvia, this type of naming even during the Czarist period averaged 20% and went up during the Independence and even more during the period of Soviet occupation. In Lithuania, the same trend occurred but the patriotic names were at a lower percentage in the Czarist period but rose to an even higher level than the Latvians during the period of Russian occupation.

Figure 5: Latvian Patriotic Names

Figure 6: Lithuanian Patriotic Names

Figure 7: Russian Patriotic Names

Figure 8: Azeri Patriotic Names

     In Russia, the patriotic names were at a modest level during the Czarist period and rose significantly after the Revolution and stayed at relatively the same level after WWII.

     Azerbaijan had no patriotic names during the Czarist period. Patriotic names developed to about 10% for both men and women during the period of Soviet occupation from 1918-1940. The level for men rose slightly after WWII but declined for women.


     Now, it is time to return to the original question about the effects of upheavals on naming patterns. Examination of Figures 1-4 shows that all four of the populations showed declines in religious naming over the three periods except for Latvian men. The Latvian male sample, but not the female, was an exception to the general pattern. Latvian men actually showed an increase in religious names. The Lithuanian, Russian, and Azeri groups for both sexes showed a striking decline.

     All of the groups showed an increase in patriotic names over the Czarist period. What is significant to point out that in all four groups the patriotic responses were higher in the third period than the religious responses.

     We can attribute the decline in religious naming to the force of anti-religious communism but what about the rise of patriotic names? In Latvia, even during the Czarist period, there was a significant number of patriotic names and they increased during the period of independence. One speculation might be that the independence period from 1920-1940 encouraged patriotic names. Why did the use of patriotic names rise during the period of Russian occupation? Here the speculation might be that this was the only way open to Latvians who wanted to show opposition to communism, that they wished to assert their own national identity.

     The other Baltic country, Lithuania, has a slightly different pattern during the Czarist period. Patriotic names were lower than in Latvia. However, during the Post-War period of Russian occupation, the use of patriotic names was even more than Latvia. Again, we can suggest an attempt to assert a national identity.

     In Russia, there were some patriotic names during the Czarist period. They increased after the Revolution. This increase can be understood as an accompaniment of revolutionary fervor and perhaps an attempt to supplant bourgeois European names. The level of patriotic names did not increase further in the third period, after WWII.

     In Azerbaijan, there were no patriotic names in Czarist period. However, there was a clear increase as soon as it began its communist period. Again, we can offer the explanation that Azeris wanted to assert their own national identity.


     This investigation has attempted to integrate four separate studies to identify meaningful patterns that were shown during the rise of communism in Russia and the nations it controlled. Under the Czars, there were many names inspired by religious values. After communism took over, there was a steady decline in religious names for both men and women except in Poland. Patriotic names, which might also be viewed as nationalistic rose in all four countries (even in Latvia, the percentages of patriotic names for men was much higher than for religious naming). The decline of religious naming can be understood as the result of communist anti-religious pressure. The increase in patriotic naming is a bit different. In Russia itself, patriotic names had the approval of the government. In the two Baltic countries and Azerbaijan, patriotic names going back to pre-Soviet times hardly had clear approval from the Soviets. It can be suggested that the selection of national heroes as models for names was one way, perhaps the only way in some circumstances for parents to assert their country’s national identity. Thus, it can be seen that communism was a very powerful force in naming. It brought about the decline in religious names and the rise in patriotic names.


     I wish to express my deep appreciation to Richard F. Sheil, Professor Emeritus of Music, State University College at Fredonia, for assistance in the data analysis and the figures.


Herbert, Robert K. (1998). Names as protest: Changing patterns in South Africa. Paper read at the meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names Ottawa, May 29-30, 1998.

Kiviniemi, Eero. (1998). History of first names of Finnish origin. Latvian naming patterns, 1880-1991. Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, Aberdeen, Scotland, August 4-11, 1996. Volume 3, pp. 212-217.

Konstantinov, Yulian & Alhaug, Gulbrand. (1995). Names, ethnicity, and politics: Islamic names in Bulgaria 1912-1992, Tromsø Studies in Linguistics 13. Oslo: Novus Press.

Lawson, Edwin D., & Balode, Laimute. (1998). Latvian naming patterns, 1880-1991. Proceedings of the19th International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, Aberdeen, Scotland, August 4-11, 1996. Volume 3, pp. 244-249. The complete report is available from ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 424 771.

Lawson, Edwin D., & Butkus, Alvydas. (1999). Lithuanian patriotic names, 1878-1991. Onoma, 34, 249-263.

Lawson, Edwin D., Alakbarov, Farid & Sheil, Richard F. (2002). Azeri naming patterns, 1900-2001: A preliminary report. Paper presented at the meeting of the Canadian Society for the Studies of Names, Toronto, May 25, 2002.

Lawson, Edwin D., Glushkovskaya, Irina, & Sheil, Richard F. (2002). Russian naming patterns, 1874-1900. Paper presented at the International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, August 19, 2002.

Li, Zhonghua & Lawson, Edwin D. (2002). Generation names in China: Past present, and future. Names, 50(3), 163-172.

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