On Immigrants Changing Russian Names

Fellow Russian Jewish immigrant Alina Simone recently wrote a New York Times op ed about her decision to change her last name from the original “Vilenkin,” which she considered to be a liability for an “aspiring indie rock singer.” Historically, it is not unusual for immigrant actors and other performers to change foreign-sounding names that are difficult for English-speakers to pronounce. On the other hand, it has become far less common for ordinary immigrants to change their names merely to seem more assimilated, as was common in the early twentieth century.

In my case, the name “Somin” has actually been a slight advantage in my career. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and also distinctive. That makes it more likely that academics and other readers of my work will remember my name, and less likely that they will confuse me with anyone else. There are a few other Somins in the United States who are not related to me, and more in Russia. But the name (which derives from the town of Somino in present-day Belarus) is uncommon even Russia. And there are no other Somins in the American academic world, as far as I know.