Russian Language Blog

Writing about Russia for Dummies – Part I Posted by 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).


 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?

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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 in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    I’m wondering how you feel (and how Russians feel in general) about the way we pronounce Russian Names incorrectly in English. i.e. VLADimir instead of “VlaDEEEEEmir.” Or I-van instead of eeeVAHN? Do you think that radio announcers on classical music programs should use the Russian pronunciation and emphasis or use the “Anglicized” pronunciation.

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Moonyeen, I do find it annoying, but I also understand that I can’t expect people who do not speak Russian to pronounce Russian names as a Russian speaker would. If it’s an established English pronunciation, like Boris with the stress on the first syllable, so be it. When they take that pronunciation and use it when actually speaking Russian, however, that’s a whole other story… I think I used this example before — I wouldn’t say VushinkTAWN instead of Washington when speaking English, although that is the established Russian pronunciation. By the same token, learners of Russian should not rely on their first language to pronounce things in Russian.

  2. Jörg:

    I would recommend people writing about Russia to go there and spend some time in the country if somehow possible. You get an entirely different picture of Russian people and the Russian culture when you actually live there for some time. It’s a great country with well-educated, hospitable people.

    • Maria:

      @Jörg Jörg, that would, of course, be ideal. At the same time, I realize a screenwriter hammering out the next TV blockbuster may not have the time/resources to go to every country their characters hail from. I still expect them to do a minimal amount of research and vetting and not just rely on stereotypes — that’s just part of good writing.

  3. Mike Warren:

    Moonyeen: In the 1990s I spoke with a young pianist backstage after a recital. Although born and trained in Moscow, he lived and worked in the USA. When I asked him why he mispronounced his own surname, he said he quickly tired of correcting people and just went with the American mis-pronunciation. Easier and less confusing in the long run. I hesitate to give his name, suffice it to say the three-syllable name should be accented on the ending -ьёв . And at this point, I can’t recall on which of the first two syllables Americans placed the accent.

    • Maria:

      @Mike Warren Mike, excellent point! Yes, any name with ё is likely to be mispronounced, especially it it was transliterated using the letter “e” in English — think of Khruschev (actually pronounced closer to HrooSHÖV in Russian). I have definitely run across people with non-English names, for example, Latino immigrants, adopt an anglicized pronunciation of their surname.

  4. Kelly:

    This is soooo helpful! I’m currently doing research, because I’m writing a novel and the main character+many supporting characters are Russian. My Ukranian friends are very helpful when it comes to the language but I’m totally at a loss for the culture. This blog is literally a life saver. 🙂

    • Maria:

      @Kelly Thank you, Kelly! Glad you found this blog helpful.