Many Western people have been confused by the inevitably strange and long Russian names, when picking up, for instance, a volume of Chekhov or Tolstoy. Yuri Mikhailovich, Olga Nikolaevna, Ivan Alexandrovich, Elena Sergueievna... did you ever try to read and pronounce these Russian words yourself? What is the origin of all these strange sets of characters?
The whole thing starts with birth. Russian names (we are talking about first names) are given to children like they are in other cultures. Russian children are also given a middle names, but this way it differs from the Western countries - there, if the middle names is given at all, is very often similar to a family name or a first name - and middle Russian names are the special form of the father's first name. This is often referred to as "patronymic" or "otchestvo" in Russian.
To take it short, Ivan Anatolyevich means - Ivan, son of Anatoliy. If we talk about a baby girl, she receives a first name (let's take Olga), and she will be then known as Olga Anatolievna (Olga, daughter of Anatoliy). Male middle Russian names are created by attaching "ovich" or "evich" to the father's first name, and female middle Russian names are formed through attaching "ovna" or "evna" to the father's first name.
In Western countries, if a boy is named after his father, he is often referred to as "Junior". Well, there is no such practice with Russian names. For example, if a boy is named after his father Dmitriy, then he will be Dmitriy Dmitrievich, or Dmitriy, son of Dmitriy. You may run across Oleg Olegovich, Vladimir Vladimirovich, Vyacheslav Vyacheslavovich and many, many more.
Many foreigners ask the following question: "Do Russian really use those terribly long and uncomfortable names?" Yes, they do. However it depends on circumstances and on a person. If people are friends, or relatives, they often call each other by the first names only. But if it is the formal relationship, for example employee/employer, both first and middle Russian names are used in conversation and upon greeting. Both first and patronymic names are used together to mark affection or respect.
Sometimes a person may be referred to only by their patronymic. This is particularly often with the old and respected people. For example, a respectable and wise man may be called by his younger counterparts as "Ivanovich" (son of Ivan).
Russian names are often shortened if the relationship is informal and the conversation takes place between close friends and relatives. This is what they do with their first names particularly. For instance, they may use "Tolya" for "Anatoliy", "Vasya" for "Vasiliy", "Vova" for "Vladimir" and so on.
In order to read and pronounce Russian names properly, one should be familiar with the Russian alphabet and rules of reading Russian words. They may seem to be a bit more difficult than those in English, but some practice will shortly prove there is nothing impossible.
If you plan traveling to Russia, it would be wise for you to remember all these things considering Russian names, so you never find yourself in the situation, where you do not know how to interpret someone's name in the right way. Besides, you may surprise many Russians if you show you know their names perfectly and are able to pronounce them correctly.