One of the problems I had when writing ‘Ghost Love’ was how to handle Russian names and pronouns.

One idiosyncrasy of the Russian naming system is that the surname of females comes with an added ‘a’: a father/husband might be named ‘Petrov’ but his wife/daughter would be ‘Petrova’. This was a convention I used in the early iterations of ‘Ghost Love’ but the editor thought it confusing for non-Russian readers (the husbands and wives having surnames spelt differently) so the ‘a’ suffix was deleted. By the way, in Polish we have a similar thing: he is Brodski, she is Brodska, he is Galecki (would be pronounced as Galetski), she is Galecka and so on.

But this wasn’t the only problem with names. In Russia how people address one another is a very subtle process and one which is nigh-on impossible to replicate in an English novel without the reader becoming mystified about who is who. For example:

All Russians take a patronymic as their middle name and when being addressed formally the first name and the patronymic – the middle name of a Russian is always formed from that of their father – are used: a Russian meeting me for the first time would address me as ‘Nelli Vitalievna’ (my father’s name is Vitali so my patronymic is Vitalievna). Tonia always addresses her teacher respectfully as ‘Zoya Mikhailovna’. In the book I avoided Tonia being referred to as ‘Antonina Alexandrovna’ (her father’s name was ‘Alexander’) in order to keep things simple. When I needed a more formal form of address – for instance when Tonia is being addressed by the KGB agent) I got around this by having him call her ‘Citizen Voronina’.

I had similar problems with diminutives. The majority of Russian names have diminutives (like the English William becoming Bill): Alexander becomes Sasha; Pavel becomes Pasha; and Antonina becomes… Tonia. I never referred to ‘Antonina’ simply to keep things, er, simple. Unlike in English, diminutives are never used in a formal setting: they’re exclusively used by friends and family.

Translation: “This ill at ease feeling when you are not quite sure how to address the person, whether to use “ty” or “Vy”… English-speaking people, you don’t even know how lucky you are! (cartoon courtesy of

And now we come on to the reason why Russian novels translated into English are never quite right. Just as in French, Russian has a familiar ‘ty’ (equivalent to the French ‘tu’) and a polite ‘vy’ (equivalent to the French ‘vous’). Most books on the Russian language generally state that the ‘ty’ is informal form and it is used when speaking to friends, to children and to members of your family. The ‘vy’ form is more polite and is used when talking to other adults, by students addressing teachers and by children speaking to grown-ups.

Look, Medvedev, I will call you "ty" and you can call me "Vy", do you understand?
Look, Medvedev, I will call you “ty” and you can call me “Vy”, do you understand?

BUT (and this is one of the reasons why translating stories from Russian to English needs a lot of care) the use of ‘vy’ or ‘ty’ can convey subtleties in rank and in status that are impossible to convey in English. When Vladimir Putin stepped aside to allow Dmitry Medvedev to keep the Presidential seat warm for him for four years, it was generally accepted that Putin remained in power behind the throne. To demonstrate that he was the senior partner in the relationship, Putin addressed Medvedev using the familiar ‘ty’ emphasising his subordinate position while Medvedev addressed Putin using the more respectful ‘vy’. (This was picked up by The Economist (


Writing Genes

A fascinating story.

Jan Edwards

John Graham

Some time ago I tried to find information about my father’s family. As my grandfather died when my father was just eight years old – and my grandmother did not stay on contact with her in-laws – I knew nothing about them beyond that my Gr-grandfather was PC 58.G – John Graham –  and was murdered whilst on duty  on25.01.1889

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One of the chief considerations when looking for an apartment in Moscow is ‘how close is it to a Metro station?’ The Metro in Moscow is superb but unfortunately by the late 1980s Moscow had expanded beyond the reach of the Metro, leaving some of the newer suburbs Metro-less. One of these in the 1990s was Novokosino, where Rod and I had our apartment. Novokosino is in the extreme north-east of Moscow, a sort of forgotten appendage (why Rod and I ended up there I’ll explain in a later blog). Given the ridiculous hours we were working at the time relying on buses and trams to get us home was a no-no so we had to rely on taxis.

Taxi Taxi
Me and Rod (on the very right) circa 1992. I am actually trying to stop a car – reluctantly – as at the time this was something men did (there were still very few business women about). However, I had to negotiate with the driver, otherwise, as soon as they heard foreigners speaking, they would quote a ridiculously high price. (Photo courtesy of Frank Klisch)

The problem here was that ‘official’ taxis were few and far between (I suppose there was little demand; most people used the Metro) so we had to rely on ‘unofficial’ taxis. This photo shows me hailing a taxi with Rod on the right laughing as I do it. What you had to do was stand at the side of the street with your arm outstretched waiting for a car to pull up. You’d shout out your destination, if the driver was interested in the ride he’d shout back the fare, you’d haggle and then get in.

Of course, this meant the quality, the mental stability and the sobriety of the driver was down to pot luck and some of the rides we had were bloody scary. One rule Rod and I had was we wouldn’t get into a car with two men inside … that would be asking for trouble.

That’s the car similar to the one we rode in, though Rod’s recollection is different: he believes we were in a little ambulance van. But I’m pretty sure he had to lie down at the back of this Volga. 🙂

Perhaps the oddest taxi ride we had was when an ambulance pulled up. I have to admit to my Communist sensibilities having been a little affronted by the thought of using an ambulance as a taxi but as it was a very cold night I swallowed my scruples and climbed inside. I had to sit up front trying to look like a doctor (I kid you not: that’s what the ambulance driver asked me to do) while Rod rode in the back lying on a stretcher and pretending to be a patient with instructions to start moaning as though in pain if we were stopped.

The streets were crowded that night so we made slow progress and that’s when Rod had a bright idea (an English rascal as he is): he offered to double the fare if the driver put on his siren. We got home in double-quick time (so embarassing!!!) and I did give Rod a telling off for being such a hooligan.


If you are not an English native speaker then it’s difficult for you to appreciate what a tricky language it is. Even now with a Masters degree in English, with an English husband and having lived in England for sixteen years I still find myself having to analyse things that come naturally to native speakers.

Let me give you a for instance. I was on the tube the other day and a simple advert caught my eye. “Book free tickets at…” it said. Simple, eh? But the first thought that came into my head was, ‘Why would a ticket have a book with it? Do some tickets come with an accompanying book?’ My second thought was, ‘And why would this ticket be free … from this book?’ This will sound really stupid to you, but it still took me a moment to decipher that advert was actually saying, ‘Book your free tickets at…’. Mind you, it was very early in the morning!

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This is one of my “bloknots”, this must have been pre-university (early 1980s), as you can see words and expressions like “to commute”, “season ticket”, “to run on time” – easy stuff.

So for a non-native speaker you’re always learning. Just like Tonia in ‘Ghost Love’, I had numerous notebooks (in Russian these are called bloknot) where I would put down all the new words I met and leave spaces for the translations to go in later, this gleaned from my best friend and one of my most treasured possessions – even now! –  “The English-Russian Dictionary” edited by Prof. Galperin (in two huge volumes). For a linguist, this work of discovery never stops. Back in the USSR (cue for a song) the only English-language newspapers available to university students were The Moscow News and, if we got really  lucky, The Morning Star (what a boring paper that was!), so when my future husband visited Moscow, I would keep his newspapers and read them, hunting for new words and expressions.

And here is it - my Dictionary, having been with me everywhere I go.
And here is it – my Dictionary, having been with me everywhere I go.

And that’s written English. The Brits seem to have a mania for incomprehensible accents. Rod also used to bring videos with him to Moscow, the most baffling of which were the ‘Only Fools and Horses’ episodes. It took me ages to come to terms with Rodney and Del Boy’s accents and slang  (but there might be another blog post on this later)…

Guest Writer : Nelli Rees

I have been privileged to be a guest writer on Jan Edwards’ blog. Here it is and thank you so much, Jan!

Jan Edwards

DSCF8351AwebThis week’s Guest Writer is Nelli Rees;  a multi-talented person who is not only a writer but also a linguist, singer, musician and jeweller.

She has several non-fiction titles in print  and her latest publication, Ghost Love steps  into the world of fiction with a tale of supernatural romance across the iron curtain years of communist Russia.

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In my book “Ghost Love” there is an element of the supernatural: my heroine Tonia has a special place deep in the recesses of her imagination where she retreats to at the moments of extreme happiness or distress. This is her ‘Shining World’ and it’s where she interacts with the spirit world and sometimes has psychic experiences.

ELena Blavatskaya (Helena Blavatsky)

There is a strong belief in the supernatural present in all Russians. You’ve only to remember the impact Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society had at the end of the nineteenth century to realise that. Indeed the Society’s motto, “There is no Religion higher than Truth” is one all of us − scientists included – should mark. Sometimes I wonder in this oh-so-scientific age if scientists would do well to remember there might – just might – be forces and powers in the universe which transcend the rational and the measurable … that there are forces in Nature beyond our perception and the comprehension of science.

My own belief (shared by Tonia) is that science does not have a monopoly on providing answers to the important questions of human existence. There are remarkable events which are prima facie inexplicable by the use of any generally recognized scientific hypothesis. So I leave it to the reader to decide whether they buy into Tonia’s Shining World or think her slightly strange.

ImageThe idea for Tonia’s Shining world has its roots has in my childhood years. When I was very young I watched a Soviet film called “Scarlet Sails” which was the screen adaptation of a novel of the same title by Alexander Green – sometimes translated as Alexander Grin – this the pen-name of Russian writer Aleksandr Stepanovitch Grinevskii. Green was a neo-romantic writer and poet of the beginning of the 20th century. “Scarlet Sails” is a beautiful story about a young girl, an orphan, who believes that one day the man she will marry will come to her seaside town in a boat with scarlet sails … a dream which, after many trials and adventures, came true. Like many girls of my generation I fell in love with the story though it still baffles me how this film was allowed to be made in the Soviet Union. It was pure romantic fantasy written in the 1920s and the Communist Party weren’t great fans of romantic fantasy. As far as I remember, there was nothing ‘revolutionary’ about the story apart from the fact that the young girl was a pauper (played by a talented and beautiful Anastasia Vertinskaya).

I loved Green’s work and there was a lot to read. Apparently, Green had 400 works published before his death in 1932. As you might imagiImagene, it must have been unbelievably difficult for a writer of his genre to work during the years of the Russian revolution, the Civil War and the persecutions that followed. There was criticism from the officials, conflicts with publishers, cutting out of scenes from his novels. How times change: the picture shows how Green was honoured by the issuing of a stamp in 2005.

One of Green’s novellas was entitled “The Dazzling World” ‒ a neo-fantasy story, with a lot of symbolic meaning and a bold imagining of characters and events (take into account the time when it was written – 1921 – just after the post-revolution Civil War). This book, and especially the title, stuck in my memory and many years later provided the inspiration for the “Shining World” that exists in my heroine’s head, the world where everything is good, calm and beautiful. I wanted to have this “feel good” factor in my book, so that after reading it you think, something wonderful is going to happen today, I just feel it!

One other thing. When I first began writing “Ghost Love” I’d intended my lead male character ‒ Peter Monroe ‒ to be called Peter Grey, just like Grey, the lead male character in “Scarlet Sails”. You can appreciate how long “Ghost Love” was marinating in my imagination that when Fifty Shades of Grey was published I realized that I had to do some rapid re-naming (I feel heart-broken even now!).


I remember cars looming large in my life as a young girl in Moscow. For most people owning a car in the Soviet Union was just a dream: the cost was prohibitive. But my father had volunteered for a stint in Mongolia (more about that in a later blog) which because it was classified as a posting ‘abroad’ came with extra pay. So for four years we lived in the Mongolian sopkas (little hills), enduring food shortages and the absence of TV (this was before the Internet so TV was a very important means of staying in touch with the world). But at the end of his contract, my father had saved enough to buy a car when we returned to Moscow.Moscow 1

There were five main types of cars available in Russia in the 90s (and here I’m ignoring the more exotic examples of automobile that occasionally graced our streets; things like Trabants and their ilk): Lada, Zaporozhets, Moskvich, Volga and Zil.

The Ladas (Soviet name “Zhiguli”) were built by a company called AvtoVaz (more about AvtoVaz in a later blog) in Togliatti in the Volga region of Russia and they were by far the most common sight on the USSR’s roads. The car we bought was a copy of the Fiat 124 (so Rod tells me) and being so basic was perfect for the challenging conditions Russian drivers faced. My father used to say there was nothing on a Lada that couldn’t be fixed with a hammer. This is what my father’s car looked like.

The one my father bought was white (funnily enough when I think back all the Ladas seem to have been painted in pale colours: whites and tans and cyans) though my mother insisted on telling everybody that the correct name for the colour was ‘The White Nights’ – a reference to the days which stretch into the night during a St Petersburg summer. I may only have been a very young teenager but I remember finding this explanation and the fact that my mother was so willing to talk about it hilarious. The other thing I remember about the arrival of the Lada was desperately wanting my father to give the other kids in the courtyard a demonstration ride around the block – boy, would that have boosted my prestige – but he never did.

The smallest car of the five was the Zaporozhets. I suppose the nearest equivalent is the Fiat 500: two doors, four tiny seats and cheap. My abiding memory is going to the dacha at the weekends and overtaking all these Zaporozhets crammed full of a family with luggage and bits and pieces strapped to the roof and hanging out of the boot. This provided the inspiration for the scene in ‘Ghost Love’ when Aunt Irina drives around a car with a bathtub tied to the roof.

The next car up the social (or should that be the ‘socialist’ ladder) from the Lada was the Moskvich. I never heard anyone ever say anything good about Moskvichs and they certainly weren’t popular. One of the colours they came in was a very bold orange which is why I chose it to be Aunt Irina’s car in ‘Ghost Love’.

If you were a senior manager or a quite high-up member of the Communist Party you got to drive a Volga. Volgas were serious peoples’ cars, a cachet somewhat undermined by them being used as official taxis (not that there were too many of those about!). When Rod and I were travelling around Russia in the 1990s all the guys we negotiated with had Volgas and then suddenly, as if by magic, these were replaced by Mercedes. That’s the wonder of capitalism for you, I suppose.

The really big dukes – Politburo members and the like – got driven about in chauffeur-driven Zil limousines … always coloured black and always travelling in convoy. They used to drive in the middle of the roads being preceded by a police Volga with a light flashing on its roof. As a kid, when I saw one, I’d always try to see who was inside – maybe it was Brezhnev! – but the windows were always tinted black. Such a shame.