- What to Name the Children? Oral Histories of Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Kazakhstan and Tajikistan
When Rustam Iskandarov’s son was born in 1984, Rustam, a man of mixed Tajik and Russian descent living in Tajikistan, thought carefully about what to name him. It was important that the child’s first name match the other parts of his name, Rustam explained. A Russian first name would not go well with a Tajik patronynic and surname, and the “wrong” first name could cause lifelong social problems for the boy. Ultimately, Rustam and his wife (a woman of mixed Tajik-Tatar descent) chose the name Timur for their son. Rustam explained their reasoning: “My main concern was to make sure that he would have an easier life. Because, for example, his patronymic is Rustamovich, and his last name is Iskandarov. All right, let’s say I were to give him the name Vasilii, for instance: how does Vasilii Rustamovich sound?1 That’s why I picked a neutral name like Timur. Timur is a common name here and in Russia. So, Timur Rustamovich is a synthesis and a more agreeable combination.”2
Rustam’s story illustrates the challenges faced by ethnically mixed couples in Soviet Central Asia as they chose names for their children. In every society, personal names signal individual identity and reflect community values, while also serving as “powerful determinants of inclusion and exclusion.”3
In multiethnic societies, a first name can be an important signal of the future identity and community the parents envision for their child. Bestowing a name, moreover, is a low-cost yet clear way of declaring one’s desired ethnic [End Page 269] affiliation. Unlike acquiring a new language or adopting new customs, which require a certain investment of time and energy, naming is easy and free.4 For mixed families, however, this decision was far from clear-cut; should the child have a name from the mother’s culture or the father’s? From both or from neither? What if the parents themselves were ethnically mixed, as in Rustam’s case?
Among mixed families in Central Asia, whether a child was given a Turkic or Persian name, a Muslim name of Arabic origin, a Russian name, or some other sort of name revealed something of the parents’ preferences and allegiances. Yet mixed families were signaling more than just ethnic and religious identity in the names they chose for their children. In this article, I draw on oral history interviews to investigate the process of choosing names for children in Soviet-era mixed families in order to gain insight into the motivations for bestowing particular names and the experiences of the people who bear these names.5 Oral history is virtually the only source available for understanding how the process of naming worked in the past, since few people document their reasons for this decision. The process of choosing a name for a child, moreover, is so fraught with significance that it is often indelibly stamped in the memory of the parents, making it a particularly fruitful area of inquiry for the oral historian.6
This article is part of a broader project using oral history to investigate mixed marriages and ethnic identity in the late Soviet period. The research is based on more than 80 in-depth interviews conducted in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan with men and women of different ages and from a variety of regional, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. All the interviewees were participants (or former participants) in ethnically mixed marriages or the offspring of such marriages. These marriages came in a variety of different mixtures: Kazakh-Russian, Kazakh-Tatar, Russian-Tajik, Uzbek-Tajik, Russian-Korean, Kazakh-Korean, Russian-Armenian, and a number of others. I chose Kazakhstan and Tajikistan as the primary venues for this research because these two former Soviet republics represent opposing poles on the [End Page 270] spectrum of ethnicity and nationality in Soviet Central Asia. Kazakhstan, with its extremely diverse population and high rates of interethnic interaction, offered fertile ground for ethnic mixing. Tajikistan, more socially and religiously conservative and ostensibly more ethnically homogenous (even though “Tajik” as a nationality formed only in...