My Russian and Ukrainian Name

Four letters and a lot of history

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Ivan Plis
What's In A Name

This is a story about how to say my name. You’re probably reading it with your eyes, which isn’t the same as hearing it with your ears or saying it with your mouth. I’m sorry about that.

My father was born in Russia’s Ural mountains, to one parent from eastern Ukraine and another parent of mixed Russian and Tatar ancestry. My last name, Plis, comes from that Ukrainian side.

Most people with our name can trace their ancestry to a town that, today, is some 60 miles from the territory that Vladimir Putin claims is independent of Ukraine, and within earshot of the rockets that his troops are firing at buses and kindergartens. Both my parents were only children, which means I have zero aunts, uncles, or first cousins. But when I woke up on February 24 to my wife telling me that Russia had invaded, my first thought was to ask my dad if he’d heard from his cousin in Kharkiv.

Plis was an odd name to have. It doesn’t mark gender like most Russian names, where your sons’ names end with -ov or -in or -skiy and your daughters’ match them with -ova or -ina or -skaya. Russians come from many places, and ours wasn’t the only name like this — my mom’s childhood neighbors included a Kim family with relatives in Korea — but it stood out. Plis has a drawn-out ee sound in Russian: if you type it into a Russian search engine, you’ll find teenagers writing it to spell the English word please.

The name Plis was distinctive and memorable when my father went to Leningrad to study shipbuilding, and it’s what many of his friends there would call him. One of those shipbuilders, who after reconnecting with him online decades later is now my beloved stepmother, still just calls him Plis. Hearing her try to get his attention, you’re not always sure if she’s saying his name in Russian or begging him — please! — for a favor in English.

Our name also stood out when, a few months after I was born, we came to America, and a few months after that, we found ourselves not Soviet citizens, but Russians. Speaking Russian at home and English at preschool, I was vehement that I wasn’t EYE-van, like the bad guys in the action movies, but ee-VAHN, like the tall and gentle war hero who raised my grandmother alone after his wife skipped town. But I also learned to take it easy on those silly American grown-ups, and let them pronounce Plis however they liked. And so, through everything that middle school could throw at me, and beyond, my last name would remain one letter away from piss.

I’m still not completely comfortable with my last name. For just four letters, it makes a lot of trouble — Ivan is clearly a person from Russia, but Plis doesn’t look like anything in particular. In an American mouth, it’s a dull smear of consonants around a weak vowel. And in print, the L and the I can be hard to tell apart, so sometimes I become a mid-range craft beer called Ivan Pils.

Once I’ve taught someone how to say my first name, the next part of the conversation is clumsy and never satisfies. Having understood from my extremely Russian first name that I’m extremely Russian, they then turn to my last name, and I feel like I have to explain three generations of my family tree. Other times, someone will introduce me grandly as Ivan Plees, and the stranger will be charmed and intrigued — until I dutifully explain that it’s Ukrainian, and also that in America we usually just say Plis, and we’re back where we started.

For just four letters, it makes a lot of trouble — Ivan is clearly a person from Russia, but Plis doesn’t look like anything in particular.

Lately, though, I’ve been reconsidering. As I signed up to volunteer as an interpreter, hoping to serve the refugees fleeing from a war they didn’t ask for, I lamented that I knew no Ukrainian. I heard President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing his people in a language that even he was new to; when he was growing up, Russian was the language for people who wanted to get ahead, and Ukrainian was for farmers, radical separatists, and your distant cousins in Saskatchewan. But the sonorous vowels of even a relatively fresh speaker’s Ukrainian beguiled. It was close enough for a Russian speaker to get the gist, but had surprises around every corner: “to see” was not videt’ but bachyty, “language” was not yazyk but mova, and even a word as stolid as “citizen” was not grazhdanin but the somehow more charming hromadyanin.

I thought about my Ukrainian grandfather, whom I’d only ever known as a retired engineer in the Urals, many time zones away from his hometown. I didn’t even know if he had spoken any Ukrainian — as we’re seeing now, even if Russian is your first language, being Ukrainian can exert a powerful magnetic pull. I spent most of my teenage years filing successive rounds of paperwork to renounce my Russian citizenship, so that on my next visit to my grandparents, I wouldn’t be detained at the airport and conscripted into the military that I was evading overseas. Suddenly, I was watching people I sort of belonged to, but didn’t really know, fighting for a country and a future they believed in. I even found myself wondering whether my grandfather’s birthplace entitled me to a Ukrainian passport.

There’s a sound that new students of Russian dread. It’s usually represented with an English y, but it’s the sound you make when you’re punched in the stomach without warning. It’s deep and cavernous and mysterious, and as I watched the news, I had the impression that it was everywhere in Ukrainian too. But the more I listened, the more I realized that I was listening with Russian ears. For Russians, stereotypes about Ukrainians and their language are about a kind of unrefined earthiness, a simple, bumpkinish easygoingness. It can be romantic, in a back-to-the-land kind of way, but it’s also belittling — a people who should know their place as Russia’s eternal little brother, speaking a kind of country Russian full of funny words and defective pronunciations.

The more I listened, the more I could mentally separate the sound of the two languages. Even when a word was the same in both languages (like mylo for “soap”), that particular vowel in the middle was different. In Russian, it was that beautiful dark hollow sound that my American-born wife likes to gently mock in imitation of a groaning old man. But in Ukrainian, it was something more melodic: a muted, unobtrusive sound with the mouth almost closed. It wasn’t a sound I was used to hearing, and when Ukrainians spoke, I had been hearing without listening.

Because this is what I do, I started to read. I was in the middle of a detailed account of the Ukrainian vowel system, and the mismatched correspondence between one Ukrainian letter and its Russian twin, when an unbelievable truth punched me in the gut. The name that in Russian had always been a bright and sharp Plees, that had given me so much embarrassment as a flat American Plis, was, for a Ukrainian speaker, pronounced exactly as I do in English. In all my years of thinking my dull English Plis was a way of running, ashamed, from my true self, I had never thought that I would bump into another self, just as true, with the same thick eyebrows and honest oval face, or that this self would be Ukrainian. He was already at home, patiently waiting for me to find him.

My name is Ivan Plis. That’s ee-VAHN, like countless other men in my family across many centuries, before we could write down our names. And that’s Plis, like miss or bliss, with a relaxed, neutral vowel in the middle of the mouth. I’m an American who was born in Russia, but my family has roots in many places. It’s good to be here.

Ivan Plis lives and works in Washington, DC.