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Russian Characters in Orange Is The New Black Posted by on Jun 23, 2014 in Culture, Russian movies, video

If you are watched at least one episode of Orange Is the New Black, you will have seen its Russian characters. For those who don’t know, Orange Is the new Black (OITBN) is the highly successful Netflix original series (сериал) set in a women’s prison. I’ll try not to spoil too much for those who haven’t watched the show.

OITNB is fairly unique in that it features Russian characters throughout the series as something other than the “bad guys” or sleeper agents. I can’t think of another recent show that would have a Russian feature as a part of the main character cast. Perhaps you were watching the show and wondering how realistic the Russian elements are. After all, it is made with the US audience in mind. Here are my observations on the matter.

Russian Characters

One of the show’s heroines, Galina “Red” Reznikov, is a middle-aged Russian woman who used to run a grocery store with her husband on the outside. It seems like she got involved with her husband’s mob associates and that’s probably what landed her in prison (we don’t know yet). Red’s husband and his associates are also Russian-speaking.

There is another secondary Russophone character — the prison counselor’s wife Katya Healy. She is your stereotypical mail-order bride, who married her husband to get a US citizenship. There is some confusion as to where Katya is actually from, as Russia and Ukraine are mentioned interchangeably (which is probably typical of the American characters depicted). Her husband, Sam Healy is shown to have a Ukrainian dictionary on his desk, although all Katya is ever heard speak is Russian. Katya is reluctant to speak English or spend time with her husband. Her mother Pavla encourages her to be nice to her husband until she receives her green card.

Watch Kate Mulgrew talk about her character, Red:

Casting

Most of the actors playing the Russian characters are not native or proficient Russian speakers. This stands in stark contrast to the casting for the Spanish characters, where most actors are actually Spanish speakers. Perhaps this has to do with the wider prevalence of Spanish-speaking actors in the US.

The prison kitchen matriarch Red is portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, who some may remember from Star Trek. As you can see from the interview above, the show’s creator considered using a Russian actor for the role, but Mulgrew was so convincing that she was chosen. Katya Healy is played by the Croatian-American actress Sanja Danilović, and her mother is played by the Polish-born Laryssa Lauret, whom some will remember from Everything Is Illuminated.

There are, however, native Russian speakers in some of the supporting roles, such as the mob goons and their wives. Red’s husband Dmitry is played by the Russian-born US comedian Gregory Korostishevsky (Григорий Коростышевский).

Names

Red’s name is Galina Reznikov. You may recognize that Reznikov (Резников) is a male last name; the corresponding female last name would be Reznikova (Резникова; does not rhyme with supernova!). Therefore, Red’s Russian name is likely Галина Резникова. Does that mean that the male last name in the show is a goof? Not necessarily. A lot of immigrants moving to the US, Israel, and other countries that don’t have separate male and female last names adopt the male form of the name, so everyone in the family has the same name and so that local people – and authorities! – don’t get confused. Think of the US gymnast Nastia Liukin, daughter of the male gymnast Valeri Liukin. Her Russian last name would be Liukina (Люкина).

Counselor Healy’s wife’s name is Katya (Катя), which is the short for Yekaterina (Екатерина). The use of a nickname as the principle name is not unheard of for immigrants from Russia, and many choose to go by their nicknames for the sake of simplicity. I know plenty of Marias who go by Masha — but for the fear of being called Marsha, I would consider it. But I digress.

Written Russian

We get glimpses of written Russian throughout the show. From Red’s store in Brooklyn, to the oatmeal cookies (овсяное печенье) Healy brings to his counseling sessions, the Russian in the show in authentic. This is reassuring compared to what US productions used to do with the Russian script a few years ago.

Spoken Russian

As I mentioned above, few of the Russian characters and none of the main cast are actual native speakers of Russian. Then how is their spoken Russian? I would say it varies. I must say counselor Healy, who is a learner of Russian in the series, does a fine job with saying his few lines in Russian. Kudos to the Russian coach on the set!

In terms of pronunciation, it looks like the non-Russian-speaking cast made an effort to say things right, with various degrees of success. I admit, sometimes I have to read the English subtitles to understand what the Russian was supposed to say. A large part of this is the word stress. For example, Red mentions her mamochka (мамочка, mommy), but because she stresses the second syllable instead of the first, that word is almost unrecognizable. It’s really a shame, given Kate Mulgrew’s otherwise really convincing portrayal of Red — I wish the show’s producers would hire Russian consultants.

Another problem is that the script for the Russian dialog must have been written in English at first and translated pretty unscrupulously. For example, Katya’s mother tells her to bear with Sam until she gets her зелёная карта (literally “green card”). The US permanent resident green card is normally referred to by its English name – гринкард, so this literal translation sounds bizarre.

All in all, Orange Is The New Black makes an effort to make all characters compelling, including the Russian ones, but I wish they would have someone check their Russian. It would help us Russian speakers suspend our disbelief and make the show more authentic. It was largely done with the Spanish, so let’s take Russian to that level, too. Maybe in season 3.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Sarah:

    Хах прикольно. An excellent show! & yes, Healy’s home life is pretty interesting. I hope to see more of him & Katya…next year((

    • Maria:

      @Sarah Hi Sarah, спасибо за комментарий. Yes, I wonder if they will show more of her and what happens. She seems to be a minor character so far.

  2. Nina:

    То, что теща говорит “зеленая карта”, по-моему, как раз-таки не удивительно. Если бы она сказала “гринкард”, то Хилли бы напрягся, все же слово знакомое 🙂

    • Maria:

      @Nina Нина, в этом смысле, конечно, согласна. Я бы всё равно сказала “вид на жительство” или что-нибудь в этом роде.

      • Katya:

        @Maria Можно было просто сказать “подожди пока получишь гражданство” или что то в этом духе. Хотя какая разница – они так отвратно по русски говорят, что это мне кажется, не самое главное если речь идет об аутеничности русских героев.

        • Maria:

          @Katya Согласна, звучало бы гораздо естественней, хотя формально гринкарта и гражданство не одно и то же. Думаю, кривой русский связан с тем, что сериал создавался под американскую публику, а о тех, кто понимает русский, не подумали.

  3. Mica:

    Great info. Regarding the use of green card in Russian, the mother would probably avoid saying the English name because the husband would have recognized it and become even more suspicious of their conversation. I agree, it’s a shame they’re not using Russian actors. Can’t believe there aren’t a plethora of them in the US. It would really lend more authenticity to the series.

  4. Fenn:

    There are tons of Russian actors in the US! Academy award nominated ones! But very few of them end up cast as Russian characters. I think it says more about or interest and acceptance of the culture than anything. We still have an incredible amount of ethnic prejudice and ignorance in this country that we are willing to confront and tackle when it comes to Hispanics, but not quite there yet when it comes to the Russian people.

  5. bienemaia:

    I have absolutely the same opinion about the Russian language here…
    I don’t like actress that plays “Katya”. I think she wasn’t casted well. Her pronunciation is terrible… Жаль

  6. Kris:

    Super interesting post! Thank you. I often wondered how Kate Mulgrew’s Russian was on OITNB. Now I know!