The Importance of Getting (Russian) Names Right

Aleksei Navalny

We’re very casual with names in America. Sure, sometimes we get annoyed, or even upset, when people keep getting our names wrong, but it’s never more than personal.

It doesn’t ever become an affair of State.

I mean, George W. Bush was “Dubya” to some, and Donald Trump is “The Donald” to others. And others yet made a point of calling Barack Obama by his middle name, Hussein. Our presidents don’t waste time on it.

Not so in Russia.

Back in 2013, Dmitiry Medvedev’s spokesperson, Natalya Timakova, got very upset by an internet meme.

Dmitry Medvedev

 

What was it all about? Well, Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev has the reputation of having (let’s be kind) a child-like personality. So much so, that the Internet started calling him by his childhood nickname, Dimon (dee-MOHN).

How did he get that nickname? Actually, Dima is a standard diminutive (nickname) for Dmitry, and Dimon isn’t all that strange as derivatives go. And it has nothing to do with demons or diamonds.

However, Ms. Spokesperson stated that it was “inappropriate” to address the Prime Minister in such a familiar and cavalier manner. That the full formal address of first name and patronymic, Dmitry Anatolievich, without cutesy nicknames, should be used when referring to him, due to his important position in the government.

The fact that Russian provides a pithy expression for “who are you to call him Dimon” (“Он вам не Димон”) only helped the composition of the captions.

“He’s no Dimon to me”

Of course, the outburst by Natalya Timakova only fueled the Internet fires, and the meme war exploded. A quick scan of the visual “Dimon” memes on the theme reveals that a good portion uses vulgar language, and most are plays on words. The motif is the same: a mutually contradictory statement between the image and the caption demonstrating that indeed Dmitry Medvedev is an overgrown child.

Incidentally, the documentary by Aleksei Navalny, «Он вам не Димон», uses the same expression but with a different meaning (in Russian too, from “who are you to call him Dimon”, the emphasis becomes “he’s no Dimon” – i.e. he’s not what he seems). Navalny’s contention is that no indeed, Medvedev is not “Dimon”, not the child-like character, but a greedy and savvy corrupt politician.

What can we learn from this name game?

  1. That the proper use of names, and the proper address, is still important. It is a resilient facet of Russian culture. Russians who conduct business with Americans often tend to introduce themselves by their first name (usually a simple form, whether it’s a nickname or a full name), but that is more for their business partners’ convenience than because of a cultural shift.
  2. That among themselves, Russians use full names, diminutives, and (less frequently) last names to express the relationship between persons.

Once you know the rules, it’s always better to err on the side of too much formality (which will be viewed as an effort to show appreciation for the Russian culture and respect) than too much familiarity (which can be viewed as a foreigner’s ignorant rudeness).

Confused by Russian names? I’ve got a FREE course for that.