The brave readers who venture into the daunting world of Russian novels soon complain about the complexity of Russian names.
It's really not that bad.
In the hope of easing the strain on the intrepid reader, I offer below a chart that should help explain the fine points of the Russian naming tradition.
In spite of appearances, Russians do not have middle names. The traditional, three-part name often encountered in nineteenth-century novels consists in fact of:
The first name
The family name.
The first name is what you see at first glance when you load the page. The patronymic is a derivation of the father's first name, a special form which means either "son of..." or "daughter of...". The family name... is the family name, i.e. the last name, the surname, the name you're listed under in the phone book.
Things become complicated indeed when first names mutate. And they mutate quite significantly in Russian. They do so in English as well, but not in as dramatic a manner. For instance, James can become Jim or Jimmy. Alexandra can become Sandy or Alex or Lexa. To see just how crazy and wild these nicknames can become in Russian, click on the names in the table. The cascading folders will reveal the common diminutives (hypociristic forms, as linguists like to say) in progressive order: from the more ordinary to the more intimate. This is where readers are often lost in Russian novels: characters may have several different nicknames and still be the same person. The trick is to know the system. Because there is one. Nicknames (diminutives) go with specific full names. You don't just pull a name out of a hat.
In addition, either in novels or in real life, while all of a person's friends might call her or him by a nickname (say Kolya or Katia), he or she is more likely to introduce him or herself for the first time by the full name (in this case Nikolay or Ekaterina). Note that this still doesn't give a person a middle name. Just a slightly more complex way of looking at full names, nicknames, and the use thereof.
The masculine names in the tables will also reveal the patronymic forms that correspond to them (these are only derived from men's names).
PS:If there are more men's names than women's names in the table, don't blame me, blame usage. I can only include what exists. The pool of women's names is more limited than that of men's names. On the other hand, the possibilities for diminutives are much more varied. So much so that I could not include all of the variants in the table.
[Click on the names in the table]
Note: The table looks a little tidier in IE.
But it works in most browsers.