We are continuing our discussion from last week about things to keep in mind if you plan to feature Russia or Russians in your creative work.
History and Governance
Mixing Up Historical Periods
The territory that is now Russia (and the neighboring territories that are not) has undergone many transformations in terms of its national, social, and ethnic makeup. Whatever period your story is set in, make sure you research the social and political situation of that time. If you are talking about the 1990s and your character comes from Russia, it is silly to have them talk about things “in the USSR” (СССР)– unless they are reminiscing about the past.
Because Russia has such a strong association with communism (коммунизм) through much of the 20th century (двадцатый век), laypeople tend to use this term indiscriminately to refer to any abuse, human rights violation, and pretty much any form of political or economic oppression that takes or took place in Russia. However, the word “communism” has a very specific meaning and does not encompass all of these things. Look up any political terms in the language you are writing in and make sure you use them appropriately. It may put off your audience if you call your Russian tycoon (магнат) character who manipulates the market for his own profit a communist.
Another commonly perpetuated stereotype is the cold weather in Russia. This may well be true depending on the time of the year and region. If you need to depict a specific place in Russia, it will not be difficult to look up temperature averages for any season for it.
In addition, make sure you know where things are and what region they are traditionally considered a part of. If you need to include a Russian place name in your writing, check if it is a city, region, or a sovereign country. Even reputable publications, like The Guardian, will sometimes write “countries as diverse as Cambodia, Siberia, Rwanda and India.” Finally, not everything east of Moscow is Siberia (Сибирь)! For instance, the city of Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбург) is normally considered part of the Urals (Урал), although it is sometimes called a Siberian city in Anglophone writing.
Calling Everyone Russian
This brings me to my next point. Having done your historical and geographic research, you should be able to determine the country of your character’s residence or national origin. Not everything on the territory of the former Soviet Union is Russia. Although many people in countries other than Russia speak Russian, you don’t want to call other countries, such as Ukraine or Belarus, “Russia.” Moreover, a lot of Russian speakers do not identify as Russian, so don’t refer to them as such. Something I found very frustrating about the otherwise well-done show Orange Is The New Black is that it used Russia and Ukraine interchangeably.
Several commentators on the first part of this post recommended going to Russia to learn what you need to know for your writing. While it may not always be feasible, if you plan to feature more than a minor Russian character/setting in your writing, you should at least run the final product by someone from the area. There are things you simply will not know unless you’ve been to the region.
For example, do you know the staple thriller scene with someone dropping a hair dryer (фен) into a bathtub (ванна) with another person in it in order to electrocute that person? Well, in Russia you could not do that — unless you got an extension cord, which would make this highly suspicious. For safety reasons, there are no electrical outlets (розетки) in your typical Russian bathroom.
This applies to countless other things where you cannot rely on your experience or “common sense” to get an accurate picture — from living spaces to sickness treatments to spatial etiquette. Perhaps our readers will come up with more examples of gaffes in writing about Russia and how they could be avoided?