Writing about Russia for Dummies – Part I Posted by Maria on Nov 13, 2014 in Uncategorized
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).
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.
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?
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