Three weeks ago, I published a post on what I called the “7 (+3) Deadly Sins of Russia writing”: common tropes that were either factually incorrect, biased or just inappropriate for sound analysis. It was only after writing that post that I realized there were more sins than just ten and I’d need to write an additional post to accommodate them. While the tropes of the previous piece were egregious, here they’re mostly just…irritating. These seven sins won’t take you all the way to Russia Book Hell, but they’re deadly nonetheless.
#11: Russia’s exceptionally intellectual and spiritual.
Just a variation of the “mystical/oriental Russia” meme (see below). I’ve seen this meme pop up again and again (mostly in pro-Kremlin works) with little evidence to support its assertion. Does Russia have a long and strong Orthodox Christian tradition? Yes. Has Russia produced its share of notable philosophers, writers and scientists? Yes. But how does this translate to Russia being an intellectual and spiritual authority over Western countries, some of which have their own spiritual traditions and have contributed no less to modern thought, literature, and the sciences?
How is this any different from the arrogant and much-bemoaned “American exceptionalism”?
Is there any proof that this contention is anything more than an excuse used by certain groups within Russia to assert supposed Russian “cultural superiority” and justify certain policies?
You know, just wondering.
#12: Mystical, Oriental, wild Russia
To quote Daniel Treisman, a scholar on Russia, there are two main methods of writing about Russia in the West: “to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity”, or “to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic”. Foreign visitors to Russia have relied on the “mystical and wild” trope to describe the country for centuries…even unto today. Take this book, for example. (No, it doesn’t reduce Russian women to hypersexual and dangerous creatures, Russian men to ugly, dumb brutes, or the entire country to a backward land waiting to be
enlightened democratized. But it does focus a little too much on witches, religious sects, magic hypno-magnetic cylinders and UFOs to escape the “Wild Russia book” label.)
All nations are unique. Some writers are quick to label Russia as “non-Western”, but they almost never explain why they don’t do the same for Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Serbia, Greece, or some of the other FSU countries. I’d challenge in particular that group of people who enthusiastically label Ukraine a “European” country and then contrast it with “wild” Russia. Both countries suffer from very similar social problems and some people of both nationalities share a similar mentality.
Others claim that Russia is distinctly “Eastern” because of the centuries of Mongol rule, its language and its religion. To which I’d say that:
- The Ottomans (another people of the steppes) ruled in the Balkans,
- Russian is an Indo-European language, and
- Russia is Orthodox Christian – “Eastern” Orthodox, but doesn’t all Christianity originate in Palestine and Judaism?
So, why do expat writers and extreme travel journalists still cling to the “Russia’s unique and mystical” cliche? I believe it’s because they want to look more hardcore and rugged to their audiences back home in the West. Clearly though, these writers haven’t seen China or India yet.
#13: Lionize the opposition
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the demonization of Vladimir Putin is an all-too-common problem in Russia writing. But the other side to that black-and-white political coin is that members of the Russian opposition are by default the heroes of the modern age. Books and articles portray the opposition (non-systemic, especially) as being heavily repressed but resilient, the the true voice of the oppressed Russian people and the guarantor of Russia’s bright and democratic future. Anyone who is against Putin is a democrat and deserves to be lionized. Never mind that the Russian people only favor him or her with single-digit approval ratings, and that he/she may not represent the interests and sentiment of the population at large. Never mind that to the people, some of these folks seem to be promoting a Western agenda over a Russian one (and the photos alongside U.S. officials certainly don’t help).
It doesn’t matter that the anti-corruption blogger Navalny is prone to racist remarks; that liberal journalist Latynina doesn’t think the poor should have voting rights; that Khodorkovsky is a crook even according to the European Court of Human Rights; that nationalists and commies – not liberals – made up the bulk of demonstrators at Bolotnaya; that some of the P**** Riot girls, before their “performance” in St. Mary’s cathedral, performed pornographic acts in public; that the opposition suffers as much from its unwavering faith in street protest as it does from state repression; that the friggin’ Communist Party is currently the largest group in opposition to Putin. These are all unimportant details that will detract from the simplistic, good-guys-vs-bad-guys message you’re trying to deliver.
That’s not to say that the opposition doesn’t have legitimate grievances against the Russian government that should be addressed. Quite the opposite. But we don’t need to paint them as saints in order to address those grievances.
#14: Writing for sexpats (warning: might be NSFW)
I haven’t really seen this appear in nonfiction Russia books, this is more of an issue specific to travelogues, memoirs and expat lit.
Few things in the world irritate me more than the so-called “sexpat” – a foreigner (usually male) who doesn’t go to Russia for business or educational reasons, and who has little interest in understanding or learning about the country, but moves to Russia with the sole intent of getting a beautiful Russian bride. The kind of Western man that feeds the Russian mail order bride industry (which irritates me in equal measure – but that may be a rant for another time).
Most expat/travelogue writers try to distance themselves from sexpats. However, there’s an easy way to determine whether the book you’re reading was intended for sexpats or even written by a sexpat himself.
- If a travelogue about Russia is heavily focused on sex workers, the mail-order bride business, foreigners hunting for women, or the author hunting for would-be-brides, it’s probably for sexpats.
- If an expat story tries to teach you what to say to your Russian lover, how to date Russian women, where to find women, etc., it’s probably for sexpats.
- If a travelogue’s writing reduces Slavic women to helpless damsels-in-distress or gives them descriptions more befitting an object or a thoroughbred horse than a human being, it’s probably for sexpats.
Take for example this passage from Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia by Mark Jenkins.
A girl. Everything round her was out of focus but she was clean and clear and right beside me. Her head down and hair in her face. Her small breasts, nipples like buttons, poking out from a flat chest. […] I saw her legs again. Legs so long. A woman’s legs strong and velvety hooked to a high, tight curved bottom. I saw she didn’t know this. Her entire body was tight and smooth and she didn’t know it. […] She was curved over her craft, her small breasts pointing down. Her fingers squeezing the handlebars. […] Her face was flushed. We were in faultless harmony, air rushing around us as if we were one.
This is a description of a 13-year-old Russian biker the author encountered near Birobidzhan.
Writing like this encourages would-be sexpats. No doubt every description of the sexiness/innocence/femininity of Russian women that appears in a travelogue pushes them one step closer to getting their online TEFL certificate so they can move to Moscow and then try to take advantage of endemic corruption and economic hardship for the sake of some pleasure. And we have to ask ourselves: do we really want more of that happening?
WE GET IT. RUSSIAN WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL. But if you’re going to make them central to your expat story, please portray them in all of their intelligence and strength, rather than just as commodities for Western consumption.
#15: The weak and declining existential threat
Another meme persistent in Russia writing is that Russia is simultaneously weak and in decline, a “mafia state” of “rusting tanks” where “no one wants to live” and which “acts out of weakness” [thanks Obama – J.T.] and a threat to the West so strong and terrifying that it makes the Islamic State look like a kid in a Halloween costume by comparison. Don’t get it twisted – I’m not saying Russia doesn’t have a myriad of serious social and economic problems or that it doesn’t have the ability to compromise Western plans in the Middle East and elsewhere. But the presence of those problems doesn’t mean it will necessarily result in regime change/collapse, and it’s important we don’t confuse the ability to do something with the willingness to do it.
On the existential threat BS: let’s be real here. Russia only possesses a population of 144 million. It is not about to invade a European (and likely also NATO) country and risk war with an alliance that possesses a combined population of nearly nine hundred million, is built around the superior military power of the United States, and has access to the industrial capabilities of both Europe and North America. Yes, Russia has nukes, but it’s not the country with military bases situated in almost every region of the world.
Also, if Russia is so weak and feeble, then how is it able to weaponize all these things, as reported by the truthful and objective MSM?
Unfortunately it seems it’s much easier for Russia journalists and writers to learn to suppress any cognitive dissonance they might get from arguing that Russia is really weak and in a state of seemingly perpetual collapse, but at the same time a dire threat to Western security and civilization itself.
#16: Innocent Russia
The mirror image of the “Russia can do no good” narrative is that Russia can do no harm. Followers of this narrative believe that Russia has played a purely positive role on the world stage and that all of Russia’s problems – endemic corruption, weak rule of law, economic downturn, international “isolation”, poor relations with neighboring states, political uncertainty – are solely the result of perverse foreign interference.
So, corruption didn’t really exist in Russia prior to the Western-backed shock therapy policies and oligarch-led ransacking of the state’s assets? Seizure of property in Crimea was a perfectly legal thing to do? Russian airstrikes in Syria haven’t destroyed a single civilian dwelling?
This is incorrect for the same reason “Russia can do no good” is incorrect. Quit begging the question and provide concrete evidence if you think Russia is innocent on all accounts.
#17: Screwing up Russian character names
So you want to write a Russian character into your story. That’s really cool, but there are a few pitfalls to avoid in the process.
When creating such a character, it’s important that you do your research on the country and its people to avoid excessive stereotyping and portray a Russian with authenticity. And please, get the Russian names right.
Compared to other prominent memes like not actually researching Russia and simplifying Russian characters as either “evil Rooskies”, “drunk Rooskies”, “sexy Rooskies” or “crazy Rooskies”, this qualm may seem petty. But it’s appeared in enough historical fiction and s****y spy novels for me to rail against it anyway. Screwed up character names are nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying for a person who can actually read Russian.
J.T.’s crash course in [traditional] Russian names
The first name is a given name. Every Russian name has a variety of forms which can express all kinds of emotions, but it’s important to establish the full name (not the nicknames) as the character’s name. Maria is a Russian first name. Masha, Mashenka, and Mashka aren’t; they are diminutives (nicknames). Vladimir is a Russian first name. Vova, Volodya, Voloda, and Volodka aren’t. Pay attention to spelling as well. Oleg is a first name; Orleg IS NOT. And who has even heard of Akilina?
The second name is a patronymic. The Russian patronymic is a name derived from the father’s first name by adding -ovich/-evich for men and -ovna/-evna for women. For example, if Maria’s father is Vasily, her patronymic would be Vasilievna. And if Vladimir’s father is Spiridon, his patronymic is Spiridonovich. A patronymic is not a last name (yeah, I’m looking at you, aforementioned Akilina Petrovna!), but under formal circumstances Russians may address each other using first name + patronymic. Again, it’s something you should probably make clear in your character’s interactions.
Finally, there is the last name or surname. This is where novels tend to screw up. Traditional Russian surnames typically end in -ov, -ev, -yov, -in, -y or oy (oi) with women’s surnames taking on a feminine ending (ex. Filotov – Filotova; Kiselyov – Kiselyova; Goretoy – Goretaya; Gubin – Gubina; Kritsky – Kritskaya). Don’t forget other cultural influences: -enko and -yuk are Ukrainian, I believe; -yan (-ian) is Armenian, and there are many Jewish surnames. But Drago is not a realistic Russian surname; nor is Onatopp, Ksenik, Borisovna, Gennadyov, Sovietovich, or KGByevin. Haven’t heard of many Dankos or Vankos either. It’s not correct for a woman to have a surname without the feminine ending (ex. Maria Ostrov, Ksenia Kritsky) – with the exception of names ending in -ich. And please, try to resist naming your characters after famous Russian leaders. Spare us readers from the Stalinskayas and Putinovoys!
This site has a pretty good breakdown of how Russian names are structured, and it even has lists of example male and female first names. You can also check books and reputable internet sources. Most helpful of all is consulting with people who have studied/lived/worked in Russia, especially actual Russians. When in doubt, just ask.
And if you find you cannot be bothered to do the research required to accurately portray Russians in your novel, then…