July/August 2017 Current Moscow Time: 09:37:45
26 July 2017


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Our Transcription System

Transcription and Dates

The Russian-to English transcription system used by Russian Life presupposes no knowledge of Russian and is oriented to (1) readability (meaning: if a transcribed word is read by a native English speaker, the word should sound as close as possible to the Russian) and (2) consistency. We have settled on a transcription system that also allows speakers of Russian to decipher from transcribed words their true Russian spelling, while avoiding all use of diacritics or accent marks. But there are important exceptions and we try not to be over-rigid in our application of this system.

The system is as follows:

This system is only a guide, however, and pronunciation and ease of reading rules overrule this system in the following cases:

1. We maintain a loathing for the transcription of the masculine genitive adjective ending of -ogo and never use this. The proper ending is -ovo.

2. We transcribe both of the nominative masculine adjectival endings as -y. Thus, Sovietsky and not Sovietskij or Sovietskii.

3. We do not transcribe hard or soft signs with diacritics.

4. The transcription of the Russian "E" as E is conditional. At the beginning of words, YE is used (Yeltsin, Yevgeny, Yegorov, Yesenin). Following other vowels, YE is also used (i.e. Mendeleyev, not Mendeleev). Note, we do not transcribe "E" as YE following soft consonants (it is Sheremetyevo, not Shyeryemyetyevo or Sheremetievo – note, it is “yevo” because there is a soft-sign after the “t”). In the case of a vowel such as the Russian soft "E" following a hard or soft sign, we transcribe it as YE (obyekhat).

5. We do not in any way indicate the existence of the soft sign at the end of words (feminine nouns and verb infinitives).

6. Exceptions. There are many words which have commonly accepted spellings in English, spelling which contravene what our transcription system might deliver. A sample listing of the accepted spelling of a few of these is:

Soviet, Bolshoi Theater, perestroika, nyet, pelmeni, Marc Chagall, Mikhail Gorbachev...

Accepted spellings of personal names which may have other spellings:

Anatoly, Gennady, Nikolai, Sergei, Andrei, Georgy, Grigory, Alexei, Alexander, Dmitry, Vasily, Yevgeny, Peter, Vyacheslav, Mikhail, Fyodor, Pavel, Yuri, Sonia, Catherine, Evdokia, Elizabeth, Anastasia, Lyubov, Yekaterina

There will also be cases when we write about a published Russian author, performer, public figure or other individual who has a particular spelling of his name which is in wide usage. In that case, we use the accepted wide usage if it differs from our own rule. For example: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Evgeny Plyushenko.

Our Dating System

The other knotty problem that bedevils publishers when dealing with Russia is calendar dates.

Up until the end of the 1400s, Russian New Year was on March 1, and years were counted from the biblically calculated beginning of the world (then thought to be 5509 B.C.).

In 1700, Peter the Great made January 1 the beginning of the year, and in 1709 Russia first printed the Julian Calendar, despite the fact that the more accurate Gregorian Calendar had been in use in the rest of Europe for over 125 years. There were attempts to move Russia to the Gregorian standard as early as the first half of the 19th century, but it was not until 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, that Lenin decreed the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

As an interesting sidenote, Russia actually had a bizarre "Eternal Calendar" from 1929 to 1940, purportedly more logical and worker-friendly (with, among other things, six-day weeks and 12 months of 30 days each), but that is a subject for another time and does not impinge on our discussion here.

By the time Soviet Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1918, the Julian Calendar was running 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, so that, when it was January 31, 1918 in Russia, it was February 13 in the West. So, for Russia to make the leap to synchronize with the West, 13 days had to disappear. Thus, Russians went to sleep onn January 31 and woke up on February 14.

Historians who write about Russia deal with this 13 day gap in a variety of ways, sometimes writing dates followed by a parenthetical: January 24 (new style), or by writing both dates: January 12/25, or even by changing all pre-1918 dates into "new style dates" by addding 13 days to them (or fewer, as the gap was smaller in earlier centuries).

Our policy is to try to avoid the "new style/old style" dichotomy and, as much as possible, state dates when things happened as the original date upon which they occurred, not on a modified version of this date. Thus, if someone was born on January 14, 1918, we indicate that date, not January 27.

But of course there are exceptions in line with exceptional spellings of personal names above. If a modified date has come into common usage, we use that rather than the original date. Thus, we note the celebration of the October Revolution on November 7, not October 25, when it actually happened. Further complicating this issue is that many individuals born early in the 20th century took to celebrating their birthdays not on the actual day they were born, but on that day +13. And it is not always clear whether the birthday stated is an original or modified date.

When it is relevant or will help clear up confusion, we will indicate whether the date we are using is "new style" or "old style." And we freely admit that this is not an easy issue to be wholly consistent about.

Consider the following conundrums:

  • Recall that in the 1600s, Russia's calendar year began on March 1. So, if something happened on January 5, 1645, that was toward the end of that calendar year. Which meant March 1 was March 1, 1646, right? But now when we look back, do we say that this event happened on 1/5/1645 or 1/5/1646?
  • In the time of the Soviet Eternal Calendar, there were just 30 days in a month, 12 months in a year, and 5 floating holidays. Does this mean that no historical events were recorded for the 31st of any month and what date do we now say things happened on if, during real time, they happened on February 30?
  • Russian sailors and traders were required, by imperial decree, to keep two calendars in their logs, one synched with Western practice, the other with Russian practice. So, when they visited a port (or fought a battle) on the local date of March 12 and it was actually, say, March 24 back home, when did that event or battle actually occur?