Russian Language Blog

Writing about Russia for Dummies – Part II Posted by on Nov 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

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

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?

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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. Daniel:

    What many western writers get horribly wrong is the relative importance of various holidays in Russia.

    For example, even if they do bother to look up that Russian Christmas is in early January, they typically miss out on the fact that it is a strictly religious holiday for observant orthodox Christians and has nothing to do with the consumerist orgy that accompanies it in the West. That happens for New Year’s and also comes with its distinct set of customs and traditions. Furthermore, Santa Claus’ Russian cousin wears blue clothing more often than red.

    I would advise Western writers to do a thorough research on what people in Russia or in other splinters of the Empire celebrate and how before putting pen to paper (or bits to files). Also, as you write, there are huge regional and ethno-religious differences in the relative importance of various holidays. E.g. Spring Equinox (March 21, Навруз, Наурыз, Новруз, etc.) is a big deal in most of Central Asia and among people from there, but goes virtually unacknowledged by others, while International Women’s Day (March 8, Международный Женский День) is celebrated universally in the Russian-speaking world and is a much-much bigger deal than in the West (somewhat similar to Mothers’ Day in America, though).

  2. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    I think Putin is a little confused about Russia and Ukraine, too.

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht It is, indeed, a common meme among some Russians (including but not limited to imperial-minded ones) that the countries of the near abroad (ближнее зарубежье), especially the other “Slavic” ones, are very close to Russia, that the people are brothers, and they should not be their own country. Apart from the chauvinism, which I don’t think requires an explanation, I think a lot of these people just long for the days of their youth when they could live and travel within the USSR.
      Which makes a non-Russian using Russia and Ukraine (and sometimes Russia and Kazakhstan, etc.) interchangeably so much more ironic in that it seems to imply an outlook that person probably does not share.