“The Game” Is On—And They Get Russian (Mostly) Right!

Dec 1, 2014 by

the-gameLong-time readers of my blog know that I tend to kvetch about the ways that Russian is represented in books and films. But I have finally found a show that I not only like, but can also praise for their remarkably well-done Russian “bits”: The Game. This fictional mini-series, set in 1972 London, depicts the Cold War-era espionage: the KGB stages a deadly plot, dubbed Operation Glass, designed to devastate Britain—and with it, the Western world—and an MI5 team is trying to figure out what that plot is and to stop it. The BBC America, which produced the show, describes it as “a suspenseful six-part, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride”. Here is (an abridged version of) their synopsis:

“With the game on and the players set, Secret Services on both sides of the Iron Curtain will exploit any weakness to further their aims. MI5 agent, Joe Lambe … is one of the best …; a handsome, enigmatic agent who is an expert at undercover work, but haunted by the loss of his lover … When he is contacted by defecting KGB officer, Arkady Malinov …, with details of the deadly scheme, his instincts tells him it’s very real. And while the threat to Britain is unclear, it is elaborate enough to cause the charismatic but paranoid Daddy to spring into action. With the Soviets waking sleeper agents across the UK, Daddy’s team must track them down, one by one, before they carry out their part in the great game.

A sexy, smart and explosive depiction of the Cold War, The Game takes viewers back to a time when the proliferation of espionage was at an all-time high. …  Those who lived through these trying times will instantly relate to the tension, uncertainty and the palpable fear that life as you knew it, could change in an instant.”

The GameWhat I can also relate to is the way that the Russian language is depicted in the show, starting with the name of the main Russian character, Arkady Malinov (depicted on the left). To begin with his first name, unlike scores of other fictional Russians, especially in American books and movies, “Arkady” is not one of the “classical” Russian names like Ivan, Pyotr, Alexander, or Boris. Given that this character, a middle-aged man in 1972, must have been born in late 1920s or early 1930s, one might expect one of the post-Revolutionary names-neologisms, which were popular at that time. Most of these new-fangled Soviet-themed names were abbreviations from different forms of Lenin’s name: for example, Vladlen (from Vladimir Lenin) and Vilen (from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin); Slyshkin cites 104 such names. Others were abbreviations from sets of revolutionary leaders’ names, such as Mèls (from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin), or slogans, such as Mèlor (from Marx, Engels, Lenin, October Revolution), Vilor (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin—Organizer of Revolution), Lestak (Lenin, Stalin, Communism), and Idlen (Ideas of Lenin). But, to my mind, such an overly Soviet name would seem odd for a character who chose to defect. Nor would a newly borrowed name, such as Artúr (from Arthur), Eduárd (from Edward) or Robert, work as such names became particularly popular in the 1960s-1970s. “Arkady”, in contrast, is a name derived from Greek and thus popular in Russia since the Middle Ages, especially among monks and priests. There is a monastery in Russia named after an eleventh-century Saint Arkady. Yet, according to the Wikipedia article, this name remained relatively little-used outside the monastic circles until the mid-1800s, when it was popularized by the great Russian writers Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Ostrovsky. (The latter in particular used several names in his plays that were rare in his day but subsequently became popular.) The name “Arkady” was never among the most popular Russian boy’s names; in its heyday, only 7 out of 1000 newborn boys received that name. Curiously, according to the naming research by Superanskaya and Suslova, reported in the Wikipedia, the popularity of “Arkady” peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, exactly the time when our hero must have been born. In the 1940s and 1950s, the frequency of the name “Arkady” dropped to 6 per 1000; in the 1960s and 1970s it declined further to 4 per 1000; and in 1980s, the name was not registered at all among the newborns. According to another study, the name “Arkady” was popular in cities but virtually unknown in rural areas. All in all, the name “Arkady” seems a perfect choice for this character in terms of its use and popularity across time.

This first name is also a great find from another angle: it works well with the character’s family name, Malinov. Again, neither an extremely popular Russian surname nor a rarity, “Malinov” is exactly the sort of inconspicuous surname one would expect a spy to have, one that blends in and does not attract too much attention to itself. (“Malinov” is also a popular Bulgarian surname.) Together, “Arkady Malinov” has a certain consonance, due to both the rhythm and the specific sounds—to a “Russian ear”, the combination “sounds nice”. The /r/ in the first name is “tempered” by the /l/ in the surname, making “Arkady Malinov” sound better than, say, “Arkady Marinin” or (even worse!) “Arkady Rykov”. Similarly, the /r/ in the first name mitigates the “softness” (not “palatalization”!) of the /l/ in the surname, making this a better combination than, say, “Leonid Malinov”. Furthermore, both the first name and the surname have three syllables, with the stress on the middle syllable, thus creating an amphibrach meter, where a stressed syllable is flanked by two unstressed syllables. This “pleasantness of sound” for the name-surname combination is something educated, city-dwelling Russian-speaking parents would intuitively pick up on. In short, “Arkady” makes a good choice for naming a boy whose surname is “Malinov”.

The choice of “Arkady” for the show’s character is advantageous from yet another perspective: it does not get botched by English-speaking actors. All of the individual sounds in “Arkady” are pronounced by English speakers as close to the original Russian as can be, unlike, for instance, “Evgeny”, which turns into Eugene (/jevgenij/ à /judžin/). In this, “Arkady” also differs even from “classical” Russian names such as “Boris”, which is typically pronounced by English speakers with the stress on the first syllable (recall how it rhymes with “Doris” in the mouths of characters in True Lies). Or consider “Alexey”, pronounced with the stress on the third syllable in Russian, and on the second syllable in English. “Arkady”, in contrast, is pronounced by English speakers with the stress on the middle syllable, exactly as it is pronounced in its original Russian form. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to the character’s last name, which is pronounced in the show with the stress on the first rather than the second syllable, thus destroying the pleasant metric quality of the name-surname combination.

The writers of The Game also did a good job in creating authentic-sounding dialogue for the characters speaking Russian. Only one word grated my ear in this respect: when one character addresses another as “comrade”. For reasons that remain mysterious for me, screenwriters in the West think that Soviet citizens addressed each other as “comrade”, which is as far from the truth as contemporary British or American men addressing each other as “gentleman” or “mister”. “Comrade” (in Russian: tovarišč) was used only in formal settings, either in combination with surname (e.g. tovarišč Malinov) or in the plural as a form of addressing a crowd (similar to “Ladies and Gentlemen”, with the only difference that it was applied regardless of gender). A male friend might be addressed as drug ‘friend’ or its more emotionally charged form družišče. More casual acquaintances were typically addressed by name or surname, and (male) strangers might be addressed as mužčina ‘man’. Ironically, the term tovarišč was used more commonly as a vocative in pre-Revolutionary Russian; cf. Alexander Pushkin’s Tovarišč, ver’, vzojdët ona, zvezda plenitel’nogo sčastja ‘Friend, believe, it will rise, the star of captivating happiness’—but here it is used in the sense of ‘friend’, not the Soviet sense of ‘comrade’. (Curiously, Google Translate renders this vocative as “comrade”, entirely inappropriately, in my opinion.)

This misuse of “comrade” in the script of The Game has been the only error I have caught so far—even the aspectual forms of the verbs, a typical pitfall for second-language learners of Russian, are selected correctly. As much as I am impressed with the screenwriters’ job in this show, I am even more awe-struck with the actors’ pronunciation of Russian which had me fooled for a few moments. Only a very slight accent reveals that Russian is not these actors’ native tongue. Particularly impressive is the Russian pronunciation of Marcel Iures, who plays “Arkady Malinov”. As can be seen from his IMDB filmography, this Romanian-born actor is not new to playing fictional Russians or starring in great spy thrillers (e.g. Cambridge Spies). Sarajevo-born Zana Marjanovic (playing “Yulia”, protagonist’s Russian girlfriend) and Croatian Goran Navojec (playing “Bogdan Rodchenko”, a Russian friend of Arkady Malinov) both speak near-impeccable Russian.

All in all, well done and a much-recommended show!



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  • Spokesrider

    I don’t know whether I’ll watch this series (probably not, if it’s a television thing) but I find your kvetching comments about Russian and its portrayal to be very informative. Thank you!

  • Ivan Derzhanski

    I beg to disagree about `friend’ being more appropriate than `comrade’ as a translation of Pushkin’s _товарищ_ in the line you quoted. This is a complex semantic field, and correspondences tend not to be 1:1, but the text is about the writer and the addressee’s shared vision of the future, and `friend’ doesn’t convey that. Perhaps `partner’ may be closer? I thought `comrade’ in English might be too strongly associated with political ideas and goals farther to the left than Pushkin or the Decembrists held (and some that hadn’t been expressed at their time), but then I remembered having encountered it in _Mara, Daughter of the Nile_, a novel by American writer Eloise Jarvis McGraw set in Ancient Egypt, where an Egyptian nobleman addresses another as `comrade’ in order to imply that they were both involved in a plot to overthrow the pharaoh.

    • We’ll have to agree to disagree 😉

      In my opinion, “comrade” has picked up so much of the Soviet connotation that it feels really odd in other contexts. But I am no native English speaker to judge. As for товарищ, it too sounds very “Soviet”, so in its old meaning of ‘deputy’ it feels quite old-fashioned (e.g. товарищ прокурора). Партнер to me is very business-like… and “partner” is more sexual than anything… It’s a difficult semantic field, especially in translation, as “friend” hardly corresponds to друг…

  • Gabriel Josset

    Thanks for this very interesting post – I might have to watch a new series!

  • John Cowan

    Russian names certainly do have a lot of aesthetic pitfalls. Consider the case of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin in Gogol’s “Overcoat”, whose mother gives him that name only because the names offered to her were even more horrible:

    Three names were offered to the happy mother for selection — Moky, Sossy, or the name of the martyr Hozdazat. “No,” thought the poor lady, “they are all such names!” To satisfy her, they opened the calendar at another place: three more names appeared — Triphily, Dula, and Varakhasy. “This is a judgment,” said the mother. “What names! I truly never heard the like. I might have put up with Varadat or Varukh, but not Triphily and Varakhasy!” They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhy and Vakhtisy. “Well, it’s plain enough that this is fate. So we’d better call him after his father. He was an Akaky, so let’s call his son Akaky as well.” And that was how he became Akaky Akakievich.

    • Great story, thanks for bringing it up. Of course, back in the day parents were “offered” names for selection, in the sense that one typically named a baby according to the church calendar: each day was associated with some names (usually saints’ names) and one named a baby based on the baby’s day of birth. That’s no longer true…

      • bigic

        My parents in Serbia thought about naming me after a saint whose day is my birthday, but they changed minds and named me after my great grandfather.