I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, practically since the beginning of 2014. In this particularly long-winded opinion piece, I’ll be addressing ten common tropes or memes employed by writers and publishers when dealing with modern Russia that probably shouldn’t be used. Some are borne of cultural stereotypes and stuff left over from the Soviet Union. Others are borne of mainstream thinking about contemporary Russia. All of them annoy me, and you might find some of them annoying too. So without further ado, here are the 7(+3) Deadly Sins of writing Russia books.
#1: Using faux-cyrillic.
Both writers and publishers are guilty of this. While using faux-cyrillic may have the benefit of instant recognition (show anyone that ‘backwards r’ and they’ll know the book’s about Russia), some of us (actually, 160 million+ of us) can actually read Russian. At best, it can make your book look cheesy; at worst, it can make your book look completely unreadable.
#2: Coloring everything red and yellow
What? You mean to tell me you thought Russia was still flying the red-and-yellow flag of the USSR? Writers/publishers, do you watch the news? Surely you’ve seen the red, white, and blue Russian flag being held by a demonstrator; in an infographic; or on display behind Putin as he gives a speech? At the least, you could look up the flag on Google before designing the book cover.
#3: Whitewashing the 90s/Gorby/Yeltsin
A popular part of mainstream thinking on Russia is that the 1980s and 1990s were bright periods in Russia’s history because of the “great progress toward democracy” that was made during those decades. Perhaps they were bright periods for the entrepreneurial class, but take a look at the effects of “democratic” reforms and shock therapy on the average Russian, and you will likely get a very different picture. The 90s in Russia, like transitional periods in general, were rough. And Boris Yeltsin remains one of the most unpopular Russian leaders of all time–more unpopular than Stalin and Lenin.
#4: Putin fixation
The fixation on and demonization of Russian president Vladimir Putin has reached fever pitch since 2014, it seems. In both articles and books, it’s all Putin, Putin, Putin. Putin’s jailing his opponents and weaponizing…everything, really. Putin’s eyeing up the Baltics. Putin’s the richest man in Europe. Putin’s sleeping with this Olympic gymnast, he’s showing off his muscles in that photo-op, he’s fending off impending overthrow by those ministers. Putin’s a thuggish, kleptocratic KGB communazi czar. It doesn’t stop there. There’s a long line of pundits, analysts, and even academics who “personalize” Russian domestic and foreign policymaking. They assert that everything that happens in Russia is because of Putin’s whims and mood: he is the world’s greatest micromanager, sitting in the Kremlin interfering with every aspect of the daily lives of his 145 million
Putinoid slaves citizens.
I think I know who’s really in the thrall of the “personality cult”.
Unfortunately for those trying to capitalize on the “Big Bad Vlad” meme, it may be more “Russia’s Putin” than “Putin’s Russia”. I’m not even going to address the aforementioned rumors precisely because they’re just rumors, backed by little concrete evidence. While presidential power in Russia is substantial, Putin is constrained by the bureaucracy and must moderate between different group interests within the government. And while it’s fair to call power in Russia personalized, Putin did not come up with the idea to annex the Crimea, crack down on opposition or create the National Guard over his bowl of breakfast kasha one morning.
Other Putin memes:
- Comparing Putin with Hitler. I should probably give you fair warning that argumentum ad hitlerum is a logical fallacy and makes one’s argument incredibly weak. If you’re going to do a hatchet job, do it properly. But attacking the person, rather than his policies or actions, doesn’t make your argument a sound one. Has Putin conducted ethnic cleansing and killed six million of his own people? Is he trying to invade other countries to claim more land for Russia? Is he really a bonafide fascist dictator? If there is even a shadow of reasonable doubt, then you probably shouldn’t be using the Putler analogy.
- Comparing Putin with Stalin. Ditto, only with Stalin-y characteristics.
- Conversely, treating Putin as if he’s the best thing to ever happen to Russia. He’s not. Every statesman has strengths and serious flaws.
- Shirtless Putin photos. Enough is enough. That iconic photo of shirtless Putin on horseback was part of a single photo set taken on a single trip to Tuva in 2007. It never happened again. Yet it captivated us in the West and since then it’s been hard to think of any other visual depiction of the Russian leader. Or perhaps we just created the myth that shirtless Putin with a rifle on horseback is how he’s regularly presented to the Russian public, and then started to believe our own nonsense. Either way, unless you are writing specifically about Putin’s role as a celebrity or cultural icon – or even better, about the PR stunts themselves – better leave the pec pics out of your book.
In conclusion, my advice is not to buy into the Putin craze. There are more factors shaping Russia than just the personality of Putin, and they deserve to be written about too.
#5: Putting hammer and sickle everywhere
This is totally fine if you’re writing about the USSR. But my guess is, you’re not.
Fun fact: That book on the far right takes place in the modern day!
#6: Starting history at the fall of the Soviet Union
This tells me you are likely stuck in a Cold War mentality and are bringing nothing new to the table for discussion. Don’t do this unless you’re writing a history book.
#7: Klyukva never dies
This is fine if you’re writing specifically about Russian culture, or if the particular cultural symbol appears in the actual text. Maybe an excuse can be made for using one or two items. But I shouldn’t see the entire klyukva kollection of bears, vodka, ushankas, red stars, hammer-and-sickles, matryoshkas, propaganda font, snow, Stalin and St. Basil’s Cathedral crammed onto one cover. A quick look at the title or description of your book should be enough to tell your readers that you’re dealing with Russia. In my opinion, there’s really no need to rely on these familiar symbols to sell a good book. It’s okay to get creative with your book cover!
#8: The cowed Russian sheeple
One trend in Russia writing which has really bothered me – and has only seemed to become more commonplace after the start of the Ukraine crisis – is the portrayal of all the people living in Russia (who haven’t left the country like the young, hip, skilled creative class) as being zombified by state propaganda, too cowed and oppressed by the state to think independently. If only that propaganda were to be overcome and the people given democratic choice, the thinking goes, they would instantly reject Putin and all he represents. If only they knew. But until the Russian people stop trying to avoid long-term responsibility for their own lives, all we Westerners can expect from them is slavish support for their government’s imperial actions, even while the country’s being pillaged, isolated, declining, etc.
Not only is this view of an entire nation condescending, but it also has little basis in reality. One poll suggests only around one third of Russians trust the media. Any Russian with access to a computer or smartphone has the ability to access Western points of view like the BBC, Reuters, and CNN if they really want to. Civil society, though maybe not as developed or prominent as in Western countries, does exist and does make progress. And for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, government policies reflect the attitudes and opinions of the conservative majority rather than a Westernizing, neo-liberal elite. State-society relations in Russia can’t be simplified to “One nation, under Putin, divided, in search of liberty and justice“. Perhaps if some authors relied upon more than just liberal, cosmopolitan, anglophone or anti-government sources for their information, they would see that.
Remember, Russians are NOT lemmings, though some lemmings are Russian.
#9: Naming your chapters Crimea river, Georgia on my mind, From Russia with Love, etc.
Using these, or variations of them, as your title or chapter titles will likely not tell your readers anything about the book’s content. On the other hand, it might tell your readers that you don’t know much about Russia or the FSU so you have borrow Western cultural references that have little to nothing to do with Russia or the FSU. The James Bond title, while indeed having to do with Russia, is so trite and overused that you should probably leave it alone.
#10: Not researching or checking your facts
This is especially pertinent if your name is Masha Gessen, Ed Lucas, Luke Harding, or Garry Kasparov, but even if you are not one of those people, you should make sure to do your research for your book. Try not to rely on rehashed claims. The more in-depth the research and diverse the sources are, the better. Don’t think that only ignorant people will read your book and will take every word you write as truth… or that your readers aren’t armed with an internet connection and Google.
It’s not easy to write about Russia, and many good writers have committed many of these sins at one time or another. I know I’ve committed #4 myself. But I think it’s about time to put a stop to all these mistakes if we want to have any meaningful debate about Russia. Don’t you?