Five things that Foreign Writers get wrong when they write about Russia

Five things that Foreign Writers get wrong when they write about Russia

This blog post was born in trauma. Never miss an opportunity to write for money, they said. So when an assignment came out of the blue to read through a newly-written novel set in Russia and makes corrections on authenticity for a fee of £2000 – a fee, I quickly calculated, of roughly £400 per hour – I agreed.

Blyakha mukha, in the quaint Russian folk saying that means ‘gosh’ (roughly). It was bad. Really bad. I’m not going to name the novel in question, firstly because they haven’t paid me yet (just checked account specially) and second because that way I can be really rude about it without fear that I will one day meet the author in person socially, or ever need a favour from them. Suffice it so say that this internationally bestselling historical fiction author decided to turn their hand to Russia – and the results were tragicomic.

I do get why Russia is a endlessly fascinating place for Western authors to set thrillers and murder mysteries. It’s a location that promises just enough dis-location to disturb and excite but not too much to be utterly alienating. Moscow is sufficiently European to be recognizable, but on the principle that a slight distortion is more disturbing than a radical one, it works better as a background than, say Mogadishu or Ho Chi Minh City. Add to that the fact that Russia has been the gift they keeps on giving in terms of bad guys (and girls), from the Cold War through to today. Oh, those Russians – they are just such perfect villains, from Rasputin to Rosa Klebb and beyond.

But back to the terrible book I had to read. One of the many reasons it was terrible was that the author blundered into every possible mistake that foreign authors habitually make when writing about Russia. Which has moved me, as an act of public service, to compile a small list of the more egregious mistakes.

  1. “Comrade.” In the Soviet Union, nobody addressed anybody as just “Comrade” in the course of normal life. “Comrade,” on its own, was a peculiar form of address used only in Communist Party meetings. Comrade with a surname – e.g. Comrade Petrov – is fine, though its sounds rather officious, and the polite form is to use a person’s first name and patronymic (see below). Conversely, the plural “Comrades” was a fairly common way to address groups of people, for example “Comrades, move down inside the car please.” And Comrade with a military rank – e.g. Comrade Major/Colonel/Lieutenant – is actually universal. Indeed this usage oddly enough outlived Communism and still persists today in all branches of the military and police (the pre-Revolutionary version being Gospodin or Master, which just sounds weird). Even the super-authentic HBO series Chernobyl, widely and justly praised for its painstaking verisimilitude, falls into the “Yes, comrade” trap all too often.
  1. Snow. There is indeed a lot of this about in Russia. However, for precisely this reason the Russians have really nailed the art of clearing it up, with an extraordinary efficiency not seen in many other aspects of Russian/Soviet life. So the idea of characters struggling though snowdrifts on the pavement (as in Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 – though impressively researched in most ways), pushing open doors of apartment buildings blocked with drifting snow (Robert Harris’ Archangel) and the life just doesn’t happen. Until 1861, Russia was a slave-owning society; for the entire Soviet period every citizen had by law to be employed. Clearing snow is the perfect make-work; in every Russian city snowy pavements are as carefully tended as American suburban lawns.
  1. Vodka. Indeed, Russians drink a lot of vodka. But at the same time there’s a stigma attached to drinking outside the confines of the social ritual. In Chernobyl, a Party boss is shown knocking back a glass of vodka contemptuously as he dresses down a subordinate who quakes in front of his desk. Would never happen. For all of its moral corruption, the most pervasive factor in Soviet social life was an almost prissy sense of prilichiye – decency and kulturnost – civilized behaviour. Persons of rank in Russia (and these are the kinds of people whom we thriller writers most often takeoff our heroes and villains) would be very wary of drinking or being drunk in front go their juniors (who could denounce them anonymously to the Party, by the way). More, the Russian way to drink vodka, formally at a table or informally with friends, is to knock back a glass to the bottom and then chase it with a snack. Breaking glasses on the floor is a dramatic gesture reserved for sealing a pact that that been celebrated with a toast. It’s not the same as Greeks and smashing plates.
  1. Patronymics. It’s a bit complicated – but not that complicated. Russians all have three names. First name, patronymic and family name. Patronymic is your father’s name with -ich or -ovna at the end depending on your gender. Russians habitually address each other in formal settings by their name and patronymic, not ‘Mister’ and their surname. Ivan Skavinsky Skavar, the hero of a rude 19th century Russian music hall ballad, is not a possible Russian name. Ivan Ivanovich Skavinsky is. Skavar could be the name of a Russia-based character, but it sounds Bulgarian or Ukrainian to the Russian ear.
  1. Russian and non-Russian Names. Which brings us to a major problem – the cultural freight of names. One of the biggest problems in the unmentionable book was that almost every name the author had come up with was simply not Russian at all. Rani, Yerik, Kur, Kir, Gita – all these may sound Russian to non-Russian ears, but they aren’t. Russians don’t really do unusual names, and the vast majority of Russians have Biblical names. You need to be aware that many names carry very specific cultural baggage – for instance a character called Sara, David or Samuil is definitely Jewish, Rafael and Eduard probably Armenian, and so on. If you mean to have those character to have those ethnicities – and be the brunt of corresponding Soviet racism – fine. But if you want a character to be Russian, use a common Russian name.

Another thing to avoid is that adult Russians never – ever – use the short version of their names unless they are trying to be deliberately very friendly and informal. Thus a badass boss-type character cannot introduce herself as “Tonetchka Ivanovna”. She’s Antonina Ivanovna – Tonetchka to her friends, or to her subordinates but only behind her back. That’s Ivanovna as in daughter of Ivan – as distinct from Ivanova, which could be a surname but not a patronymic.

OK, fine. It’s complicated.

Owen Matthews has a Russian mother and has been visiting the Motherland since 1976. He was Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek Magazine and is the author of Stalin’s Children, a bestselling family memoir published in 28 languages. His latest book, Black Sun, is a thriller set in a secret city in the USSR in 1961 among a community of scientists who are building the largest nuclear bomb in history – it’s based on a true story recounted in the memoirs of Nobel prize winning nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov.

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