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According to my good old Russian learning textbooks, the sound ж in Russian is retroflex (/ʐ/), that is to say it should be pronounced with the tip of the tongue pushed against the palate. Now, in my experience, I’ve noticed that most Russian speakers actually don’t pronounce it this way. For example, Putin pronounces an unequivocal voiced postalveolar fricative (/ʒ/, as in "casual" in English, or "jardin" in French).

But you do occasionally hear this retroflex ж pop up in the speech of some Russians. See, for instance, this forvo page https://forvo.com/word/%D0%B6%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C/ where the first pronunciation (RomeoWhite) is retroflex while the last one (Opndoor) is a voiced postalveolar fricative (as in "casual").

Another example there https://forvo.com/word/%D0%B6%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%BA%D0%BE/#ru where you can hear /ʒ/ in the first example (multimaxfm), but a distinct /ʐ/ in the third rendering (Cheeka).

My question is, Is this the old, traditional way of pronouncing the phoneme ж (Soviet or even pre-Soviet era)? Or is this more to do with geography, with some regions privileging one pronunciation over the other?

Despite my asking several Russian acquaintances, none of them has been able to provide a clear answer as they couldn’t hear the difference or didn’t care.

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    FWIW, OpnDoor's pronunciation doesn't sound native (read - local to where I'm from) Russian to me and, mind you, I've noticed the "from Ukraine" bit later than I marked her pronunciation as "foreign". RomeoWhite sounds close to the way I say жесть myself... – tum_ Nov 10 '19 at 15:07
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    Sorry, not sure what you're trying to figure out, exactly.... The pronunciation of ж slightly differs among Russian speakers. There is no standard. – tum_ Nov 10 '19 at 19:57
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    Trying to figure out if there are standards, and what they are... I can't imagine hearing an English speaker pronounce a /ʐ/ in "pleasure" for example. What also surprises me is that while the retroflex /ʐ/ should theoretically be the norm, you can clearly hear that it is not the case, and that such a substantial change in pronunciation appears not to be documented at all. – Stéven Morand Nov 10 '19 at 20:53
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    It's on-topic here however I suggest you to try your luck on Linguistics as well. – shabunc Nov 10 '19 at 22:51
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    as they couldn’t hear the difference or didn’t care — no-one actually cares about phonology of their native language, they just speak it. – user28434 Nov 11 '19 at 13:46
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/ʐ/ is a norm for Russian and Belarusian languages. /ʒ/ is a phonetical norm for Ukrainian language (see, for example, Украинский алфавит).

Having said this, both sounds are quite similar, and may also differ between some local dialects.

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