Writing about Russia for Dummies – Part II

Posted on 20. Nov, 2014 by in General reference article, Literature


Image by fdecomite on flickr.com

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.

Political Clichés

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.


Regional Confusion

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.

Reality Check

hairdryer in the bathroom

Image by Matt Koval on flickr.com

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?

Why Some Men Want to Marry Russian Women

Posted on 19. Nov, 2014 by in Culture, History

What makes Russian women desirable to so many men around the world? Sure, some possess the type of beauty that could make even supermodels jealous. They are typically very fashion-conscious and strive to look great even when going to the grocery store. Like with women everywhere, some have great personalities, some do not. Well, there certainly are plenty of beautiful women with great personalities here in the US. Why then would you want a wife from Russia instead? In order to get some answers, I consulted a few American men I know who are married to them.

Not too many years ago, American men did not really have access to Russian women so this made them a rarer breed. Unlike most other races and nationalities, you didn’t see many Russians in America because they weren’t allowed to leave their own country. Once the “Iron Curtain” fell, many of Russia’s once-trapped female population burst out of the country as fast as they could. Nowadays, you find Russian people all over the place.

Could part of the reason be the “mysterious Russian soul,” a popular literary cliche and the way many Russians truly feel about themselves? In my opinion, the “mysterious Russian soul” really boils down to the vast amounts of cultural wealth that is not easily translated into other languages or understood by other cultures. However, that is to be expected with any other culture that has been around for ages. I frequently feel as though the value of the “mysterious Russian soul” has been greatly exaggerated.

The key to this puzzle could be in the fact that part of this “soul” is filled with very traditional family values – similar to those found in America before the whole Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s. We put family a bit higher on the list of priorities and we learn how to perform those roles from our mothers – though I doubt this is always true. Russia is still largely a patriarchal society, although the new generation of women are behaving more and more like the women in the west.

Another part of this “mysterious soul” is that of not being caught up in “keeping up with the Joneses.” Many believe us to not be as materialistic as other women. In all fairness, growing up poor, as many of us did, we learned early on that it is hard to have “champagne taste on a beer budget.” My understanding is that some men think that they can save money dating a Russian woman because they won’t have to lavish her with expensive gifts or that even little gifts seem like great ones because she is used to having so little. I can see where some may believe this but it is not always the case. Sometimes, after you’ve been deprived for so long and you finally have a chance to have things you’ve never thought possible, you end up wanting to make up for lost time :-) .

I believe Russian women want the same things in a relationship: honesty, trust, understanding, they want to be loved and respected, sometimes spoiled, and made to feel as though they are the center of their husband’s universe. I have met American men who unwisely think that all we need is a roof over our head to make us happy. I have also met men who think that we ought to be satisfied with less because we are used to having less. All of that is only partly true and largely depends on your relationship; I have been through many ups and downs with my husband and I believe it definitely made our relationship stronger. In the end, don’t be fooled by thinking you will get a lot for a little. If you treat your wife like a queen, she will hopefully treat you like a king – no matter what country she comes from :-)


Writing about Russia for Dummies – Part I

Posted on 13. Nov, 2014 by in General reference article

Image by Kaushik Narasimhan on flickr.com

Image by Kaushik Narasimhan on flickr.com

Disclaimer: This post is English-heavy. It is directed at people who do not have a strong background in the Russian language or culture. If you like seeing more Russian in posts, you probably already know most of what I am going to say.

Read Part II here.

Say you are fascinated with Russia and would like to make it the setting of the novel you are writing. Or maybe you don’t particularly care for Russia, but you have a few Russian characters in your story. Perhaps Russia doesn’t even feature in your writing, but another country from the region does.

Gone are the days when writers and viewers could get away with “branchy cranberries” (развесистая клюква) — stereotypes betraying ignorance of all things Russian. Books and shows are exported internationally. The world is becoming more interconnected. Populations are increasingly mobile. My point is that these days you are much more likely to be called out on not doing your research if you make a blunder in your writing about Russia.


If your writing features Russian characters (персонажи), one of the first things we learn is their name. For that matter, many neighboring countries either have similar naming conventions to begin with or have developed similar conventions under Russian (the country’s and the language’s) influence. I would like to point out a few typical gaffes (ляпы) that betray an author unfamiliar with their subject matter.

Made Up Names

If you need to come up with a name for your Russian character, you may want to look up names of real people from news stories or history books. If you have not spent a long time in Russia and cannot rely on your memory to provide a name, don’t try to make one up based on what “sounds” Russian. Even popular, big audience productions like Orange Is The New Black will sometimes have a Russian character named Pavla (not a Russian name). Also, slapping an -ov to a random combination of alternating consonants and vowels does not make a real family name.

Ignorance of Nickname vs Full Name

If your character actually resides in Russia, as opposed to in Western Europe/Anglo-American world, they will not go by their pet name. No Russian lawyer will be professionally known as Natasha. Her name will be Natalya. Performing artists and writers are one possible exception. You could use Wikipedia to vet your proposed name and see if it is a full name or a diminutive. Russian people living abroad are a different story. They can adopt a nickname as their full or legal name for the ease of others. This irreverent but informative blog post provides a useful overview of Russian name use.

Ignorance of Female Surnames

Most Russian last names have a different male and female form. That means that men and women in the same family will have different last names. If his last name is Alekseyev (Алексеев), hers is Alekseyeva (Алексеева). Other pairs are Fyodorov (Фёдоров) – Fyodorova (Фёдорова – remember, ё is always stressed, so it doesn’t rhyme with supernova), Belsky (Бельский) – Belskaya (Бельская), Potanin (Потанин) – Potanina (Потанина). Some surnames will be the same for men and women — I’m not talking about declensions here; we assume you are writing in English or a language that does not decline. These are names ending in a consonant other than as part of -ov or -in, ending in -o or -a (Христенко, Больших, Ковальчук, Брага) or any non-Slavic names (Смит – Smith).


 Cyrillic script

Hollywood movies are infamous for typing up Russian words with Latin characters, having random letter jumbles in lieu of Russian signs, or having someone who obviously cannot read Russian try to replicate Russian words in writing. If you want to feature the Cyrillic script in your work (this is more likely for visual than written media, although who knows?), make sure you have someone who knows Russian enter or proofread it.

You will need to have the Russian keyboard layout (раскладка клавиатуры) installed. Transparent Language Online can teach you how to type in Russian. As with any non-Latin script, you need to be mindful of fonts (шрифт) and character encoding (кодировка) to make sure the text is displayed properly. Have a Russian speaker proofread it before it goes to print/production.

Language Awareness 

It is true that Russian is spoken outside Russia. That means that a character in/from Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan could ostensibly speak Russian as their first language. What it does not mean is that Russian is the sole or even primary language spoken in these countries. Even if this particular character speaks Russian, the people around them may not, and the signs, newspapers, and TV announcements may be in a different language. I will talk about this in greater detail when we talk about geography.

I will continue this topic next time. What would you recommend to people writing about Russia/Russians?