When I was sixteen and majorly getting back into my Russophilia, I developed a rather purist, some might say nit-picky, approach to transliteration. I do letter-for-letter transliteration and never “translate” personal names. I also go one step further and use accent marks when I know where the stress falls. Accents aren’t normally written outside of dictionaries and language textbooks, but I feel it’s a courtesy to provide a pronunciation guide. For example, knowing if O is stressed or unstressed impacts the pronunciation. When the accent falls on O, it’s pronounced like an English O, but when there’s no stress, it’s pronounced like a long A. For example, Boris is properly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss.
[Update: As of July 2015, I no longer use accent marks. It came to feel too pretentious and nitpicky even by my standards.]
When an accent falls on the vowels Ye, Ya, or Yu, I don’t use accents. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that might give the impression of those being separate letters in Russian, instead of one complete vowel.
My style of letter-for-letter transliteration seems to be a more modern style, whereas some of the alternate styles you might’ve seen are based in a more old-fashioned approach, of perhaps enforcing Anglo norms and expectations on Russian spellings. But for me, those older styles don’t always give the impression of the true pronunciation. For example, I originally thought Tatyana was pronounced Tat-ee-ann-a, because I’d only seen the spelling Tatiana. The more accurate Tatyana spelling suggests the true pronunciation, Taht-YAHN-ah.
The letter E is and isn’t the same as the English E. It can take the sound we expect of an E, but more often than not, it’s a YE sound. For example, Nadezhda is really pronounced Nahd-YEZH-dah, not Nad-ezh-da. When it makes sense, I render the E as Ye, so as to avoid pronunciational confusion. Why use the spelling Ekaterina when the name is really pronounced Ye-kaht-e-REEN-a?
Why have a double E or an E after another vowel? That gave me false pronunciational impressions for awhile, like with the Imperial town of Tsarskoye Selo. I thought, based on the Tsarskoe spelling, that it was pronounced Tsar-sko. I thought the Anglicized version of the Russified form of Ukraine’s capital was pronounced KEEV, based on the Kiev spelling. When my non-Ukrainian and non-Ukrainophile characters say the city’s name, it’s rendered as Kiyev. The proper Ukrainian spelling actually transliterates as Kyyiv, but that just looks confusing, so I go with their preferred transliteration of Kyiv. It’s particularly weird to see a double E, like in Gordeeva. That makes it look like the famous skater’s surname is pronounced Gor-DEEV-a, not Gor-de-YEV-a.
Look at these names, in their Russian spellings, and see the final letter they all have in common:
They all end in й, a letter which is transliterated as Y. Many times, these names are transliterated with an I on the end, though the I sound in Russian is represented by и nowadays, and used to be represented by I. If they truly ended in I, they’d be pronounced differently; e.g., Ahn-dre-ee instead of Ahn-DREY.
It seems rather old-fashioned to render Ya, the final letter of the alphabet, as IA. When I see a spelling like Daria, Katia, or Tatiana, I’m going to want to pronounce the I and A separately, whereas the YA tells me that’s just one vowel.
And look at these names, and see what final two letters they have in common:
All end in ий, IY. Most people use one or the other letter since they probably assume a spelling like Yuriy or Vasiliy looks too weird to an Anglophone, though both of those vowels are used together for a reason. They’d be pronounced a bit differently if they only ended in one or the other. And frankly, a spelling like Vitaliy or Lavrentiy looks a lot simpler and more normal than Kyyiv.
On the same note, many people choose to represent the -iya ending on certain names as just -ia, though I of course choose to use the full, letter-by-letter transliteration. Maybe some people think it looks weird, but I don’t see anything odd about spellings like Mariya, Anastasiya, Kseniya, Klavdiya, or Lidiya. It’s just how they’re written. Using the YA after the I tells me how to accurately pronounce the name. A subtle difference is still a difference.
Russian does not have a letter X. It uses the letters K and S to represent that sound. For example, Aleksandra or Kseniya, not Alexandra or Xenia. The Cyrillic letter that looks like X transliterates as KH, as in loch or Chanukah.
Finally, the letter Ë is transliterated as YO, not E or EO. What spelling of the Russian form of Theodore most accurately shows its pronunciation of FYO-dahr, Fyodor, Fedor, or Feodor? Although I do leave it as ë when it appears in a surname, like Gorbachëva or Likachëva. The alternatives look awkward, like Kyyiv. Sometimes it’s necessary to go with a simpler transliteration, even if it’s not 100% accurate.