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Useful Notes / Russian Proverbs and Expressions

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The Russian people have a variety of interesting proverbs and expressions, many of which have equivalents in English. We'll provide English translations and the English meaning.


  • Делать из мухи слона. (Delat' iz mukhi slona.) - "To make an elephant from a fly." The English would say mountain out of mole hill.
  • Бояре дерутся – у холопов чубы трещат. (Boyare derutsya – u kholopov chuby treshchat.)- "[When] masters are fighting, [their] servants' forelocks are creaking." The common people suffer when powerful people fight.
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  • Доверяй, но проверяй (Doveryay, no proveryay) "Trust, but verify". This was a favourite phrase of Ronald Reagan, who liked Russian proverbs. See him use it here.
  • Два медведя в одной берлоге не живут. (Dva medvedya v odnoy berloge ne zhivut.) — "Two bears don't live in one lair". English version is simple: "This town ain't big enough for both of us".
    • There is a domestic variation, Две хозяйки в одном доме – как две медведицы в одной берлоге (Dve khozaiki v odnom dome – kak dve medveditsy v odnoy berloge.) — Roughly, "Two housewives in one house are like two she-bears in one lair". Two women who have to share the same kitchen will be at each other's throats.
  • Повторение — мать учения. (Povtoreniye - mat' ucheniya.) — "Repetition is the Mother of Learning". Practice makes perfect. Or, in Latin, "Repetitio est mater studiorum."
  • Одно другому не мешает (Odno drugomu ne meshayet) - "The one doesn't get in the way of the other". It means doing or being more than one thing at a time, especially if said things are believed to be mutually exclusive (for example, being a monarchist and a socialist at the same time; odno drugomu ne meshayet!). Often associated with Guilty Pleasures.
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  • Любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить. (Lyubish katat'sya, lyubi i sanochki vozit') - If you like sledging downhill, you must also enjoy sledging uphill - equals to "After dinner comes the reckoning" in its meaning.
  • Лучшее – враг хорошего (Luchshee – vrag horoshego) - "The best is an enemy of the good" - trying for perfection instead of settling for "good enough" can lead to a total mess.
    • Many people either interpret it differently or misunderstand it and use this phrase to imply the exact opposite - that you should never settle for "good enough" and that anything that is not perfect is a failure.
    • Though another variant of this proverb, От добра добра не ищут (Ot dobra dobra ne ischut) - [They] don't seek any more good from good things, is unambiguously interpreted as the former.
    • An English equivalent may be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", or in some areas "the enemy of good is better", though that one may actually be derived from the Russian.
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    • Historians of technology cite this to demonstrate that it is better, economically, to be satisfied with "good enough" instead of "perfect" because mass-produced items, although often inferior to their hand-made counterparts, will outsell them because the economy of scale means they can be produced, and thus sold, more cheaply.
  • Наш пострел везде поспел (Nash postrel vezde pospel) - Our daring one has managed to go everywhere - said about people who always happen to be in the right place in the right time.
  • Не было бы счастья, да несчастье помогло (Ne bylo by schast'ya, da neschast'ye pomoglo) - There wouldn't be fortune if only misfortune didn't help - said when one is blessed with fortune and gained something as a result of some previous ill luck.
  • Не имей сто рублей, а имей сто друзей (Ne imei sto rublei, a imei sto druzei) Don't have hundred roubles, but have hundred friends - one should be more concerned with making friends instead of making money.
    • A more exact meaning will be "If you have good friends, they can help you more than money ever will".
  • Лучше иметь синицу в руках, чем журавля в небе (Luchshe imet' sinitsu v rukakh, chem zhuravlya v nebe) - "It's better to have a titmouse in your hands than a crane in the sky". Instead of dreaming of something great, you should be happy with things you have. The English version is "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
  • Семь раз отмерь - один отрежь (Sem' raz otmer' - odin otrezh) - Measure seven times, cut once - about how any action requires precise planning and accuracy.
  • С милым рай и в шалаше (S milym raj i v shalashe) - With my darling, it's heaven even in a hovel - pretty self-explanatory.
  • Не на корову играешь (Ne na korovu igraesh') - It's not a cow at stake - used to console someone losing in a game.
  • Без труда не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда (Bez truda ne vytaschish i rybku iz pruda) - Without effort, one cannot even pull a fish out of the pond - there's no way to get anything without hard work.
  • Муж и жена - одна сатана (Muzh i zhena - odna satana) Husband and wife are one satan; latter added mostly for the sake of rhyme and is grammatically incorrect, using Satan in feminine, thus implying that it's not Satan himself mentioned, but some kind of quality - said about a family where husband and wife share a lot of personality traits, especially ones that can be envied.
  • Акуля, что шьешь не оттуля? Так я ещё, маменька, пороть буду (Akulya, shto shjesh ne ottulya? Tak ya esche, mamen'ka porot' budu) Akulina, why are you sewing in the wrong place? Mommy, I still have to tear that seam - about deliberately doing some meaningless work knowing that it has to be undone or remade later.
  • Кто рано встаёт, тому Бог подаёт (Kto rano vstayot tomu Bog podayot) - God gives to the early risers - same as English proverb about the early bird who gets the worm. Spanish has the very similar "A quien madruga Dios le ayuda". Also, there's (almost) word-for-word version of that proverb in Polish (Kto rano wstaje, temu Pan Bóg daje).
  • За двумя зайцами погонешься — ни одного не поймаешь (Za dvumya zaytsami pogoneshsya — ni odnogo ne poymayesh.) — "When you chase after two hares, you'll catch none". Trying to achieve two (or eleven) objectives at once, you'll fail at all of them.
  • Не рой другому яму: сам в неё попадёшь (Ne roi drugomy yamy: sam v neye popadyosh.) — "Don't dig a hole for someone else; you'll end up in this hole yourself." This is said when someone gets Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Нашла коса на камень (Nashla kosa na kamen') - A scythe hits a rock. Used when Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object or when two forces/people argue unnecessarily instead of settling for a compromise, and their goal is unreachable because of that.
  • Друзья познаются в беде (Druzya poznayutsa v bede) - Only when you get in trouble, you'll know if your friend is a fair-weather one or a true companion.
  • На лбу написано (Na lbu napisano) - It's written on his forehead. You can tell something (usually, unpleasant or suspicious) at first glance. "It's written on his forehead, his whole education is four years at school".
    • In Polish, the same expression is usually used in reverse: you say that someone doesn't have it written on their forehead, if you want to point out something's not obvious or visible at first glance
  • Когда рак на горе свистнет (Kogda rak na gore svistnet) - When a crawfish on top of a hill whistles. When pigs fly.

Russian proverbs as descriptions to tropes

  • From Bad to Worse: Беда никогда не приходит одна (Beda nikogda ne prikhodit odna) - Bad things never go alone.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Медвежья услуга (Medvezhya usluga) - A bear's service. To unwittingly do a disservice to someone while (and because of) trying to help. Based on Ivan Krylov's fable, where a bear tries to "help" a piligrim by swatting a fly off his head. It ends up exactly as you'd expect being hit on the head by a bear would.
  • For Want of a Nail: От маленькой искры большой пожар бывает (Ot malen'koy iskry bol'shoy pozhar byvaet) - A little spark can cause a big fire.
  • First World Problems: У кого-то жемчуг мелкий, а у кого-то щи жидкие (U kogo-to zhemchug melkiy, a u kogo-to schi zhidkie) - For one the pearls are too small, for other the soup is too thin.
  • Grass Is Greener: Хорошо там, где нас нет (Khorosho tam, gde nas net) - It's always better somewhere we aren't.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Едешь на день - хлеба бери на неделю (Edesh na den' - khleba beri na nedelyu) - If you go for a day trip, take a week’s supply of bread.
  • Dirty Old Man: Седина в бороду - бес в ребро (Sedina v borodu - bes v rebro) - Grey hair into beard - devil into rib.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Яблоко от яблони недалеко падает (Yabloko ot yabloni nedaleko padayet) - An apple falls not far away from the tree.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: От волка бежал, да на медведя попал (Ot volka bezhal, da na medvedya popal) - I ran from the wolf but ran into a bear.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Иной раз и дурак молвит слово в лад (Inoy raz i durak molvit slovo v lad) - Sometimes even a fool may be right by chance.
  • Morton's Fork: Куда ни кинь, всюду клин (Kuda ni kin', vsyudu klin) - Whichever way you turn, the wedge is everywhere.


  • Некультурный (nekulturniy) - translates as "uncultured", but has far stronger connotations in Russian. Such a person is likely to speak the ''mat'' form of Russian.
    • On a similar note, there's the very rude чурка (churka), which literally translates as "a chunk of unworked wood", but means "outlander" or "barbarian" and is a derisive term for non-ethnic Russians, especially those from Central Asia because of the plural form's similarity to the word "turki" for Turkic people, which most of exUSSR Middle Asians belong to.
    • On yet another side note, the Russian ethnic slur чёрный (chornyi) or черножопый (chernozhopyi) ("black" and "black-ass") actually refers to people who come from or inhabit the Caucasus region (due to their darker complexion). So, in Russian, "Caucasian" equals "black". It should be noted though that Georgians rarely get this treatment.
    • Dark-skinned inhabitants of the Caucasus are also derogatorily called хачи (khachi) (sing. хач khach or '''хачик' khachik). This is derived from an Armenian diminutive name Khachik, the full form being Khachatur.
  • On the other hand, the word интеллигенция (intelligentsiya) has the opposite meaning: cultured, educated, sophisticated persons involved in creative or scholarly professions, in other words, Gentlemen and Scholars. These are likely to speak classical Russian. Though some use this word to denote posers and use the word интеллектуалы (intellektualy) for the real [ McCoys]. Lenin, for instance, meant the posers when he said "Intelligentsia is the crap of the nation, not its brain".
    • It's also a borderline curse word for a stuck up snob who thinks himself better than "the common people". An exchange of "nekulturnyy" - "intelligent neschastnyy" can be common.
      • It's also Older Thanthey Think. For example when Anton Chekhov, a famous Russian playwright, was asked: "Are you an intelligent (that is, a member of intelligentsia)?", his reply was: "God forbid, I have a profession!" — he was a practicing physician up to his death.
      • Nowadays this word almost invariably refers to an ivory-tower intellectuals so engrossed in their high and noble ideas that they often forgot what they mean, until those ideas turn into their exact opposite.
  • Невозвращенец (nevozvraschenets), "the non-returnist", in Soviet times denoted a man who, after getting to Europe or USA, decided to seek asylum there and not return to the USSR. Since getting a permit to leave the country was a hard task that included all kinds of character checks to ensure such things will never happen, they were rare cases, and generally considered lucky bastards by everyone except for people who vouched for them and thus got in all kinds of troubles. Obviously, the Party taught to treat such traitors with burning hatred.
  • образованец (obrazovanets), roughly translates as educationated person and is a term introduced or popularized by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn meaning someone who has formal education (usually a university graduate) but has very little actual knowledge; originally this term referred to graduates of 'political faculties' who were taught the communist ideology and not much more, now it usually refers to graduates of 'diploma printing shops' or people posing as intelligentsya with evident lack of actual knowledge or sometimes even basic education.
  • новые русские (novyie russkie)- "new Russians", a Nineties stereotype of rich people with personal drivers and bodyguards, who have come about as a result of The New Russia. Often depicted as unsophisticated and vulgar in taste, having a criminal past and showing off attributes of their wealth - a brick-sized mobile phone, a giant golden chain, a Mercedes S600 and a tailor-made crimson jacket. Now almost a Dead Horse Trope.
  • Раньше (ran'she)- "earlier", the days of the Soviet Union. During the days of the Soviet Union, the word meant the days of Imperial Russia. See Nostalgia Filter.
  • мужик (muzhik)- depending on context, this can mean "guy" (as in a man), the Russian equivalent to "dude", "He's the man", a lower class person, or one with uncivil behaviour - the last two definitions were used more pre-1917. The term originally denoted a peasant.
    • This is an actual Russian greeting, used among men, that literally translates to "Hello, peasants!" and could be interpreted as "Hey, dudes!"
    • Perhaps a more direct translation of "dude" into Russian is чувак (chuvak), which also comes with чувиха (chuvikha) for "dudette". These two words are generally used by younger and trendier people, although in some circles these words have already joined the ranks of Totally Radical, whereas muzhik is somewhat more traditional and working-class, sort of like the British usage of "lad" and "bloke".
    • Also, in prison slang, "muzhik" is someone who is not a professional criminal and wants nothing but to honestly serve his time and return to regular life.
  • неформалы (neformaly) - literally "informal", this word means a variety of various youth subcultures, from hippies to metalheads to punks to goths to Tolkienists. The word originates in the last years of the Soviet Union, when the western-style subcultures fought over their right to exist with the various гопники (gopniki) Gangbangers who disliked anything unusual and attacked the "informals" on sight.
  • маскировка (maskirovka)- a term literally meaning "concealment", it's often used in the Reds with Rockets context to refer to the entire spectrum of methods to confuse and deceive the enemy, "to achieve deception" as western militaries would say. The USSR (and the Warsaw Pact as well) would publish highly misleading maps, for example, for the "benefit" of invaders (and their own citzens) which would omit entire cities, as well as naming military bases and installations after cities or geographic features...hundreds of kilometres away. Baikonur Cosmodrome is one of the most famous, to the point where its host city was renamed in 1995.
    • The term is used in Red Storm Rising for the whole Soviet plot to start World War III via a False Flag Operation.
    • ДМБ (DMB) aka Demobilization, a grotesque film satire of the Russian army and conscription (essentially unchanged from Soviet times), had a middle-aged NCO lecture his newbie privates that, "While the Enemy is drawing up maps for the expected offensive, we are to constantly change the landscape - by hand - so that, once their forces land, utter confusion will set in and they will lose any and all battle readiness." He is absolutely serious. This mocks the army's constant paranoia, which, coupled with the desire to keep soldiers completely occupied 24/7 to keep them out of trouble, leads to a never-ending string of idiotic projects realized in the least labour-efficient way possible.
  • Дембель (Dembel'), ДМБ (DMB), демобилизация (Demobilizatsija) - the process of leaving a mandatory military service. Is accompanied by a vast amount of rituals.
  • Отсюда до обеда (Otsyuda do obeda) or от забора до обеда (ot zabora do obeda) - literally, "[dig] from this spot until lunchtime" or "[dig] from the fence to lunchtime". Comes from a joke about a Drill Sergeant training conscripts on manual trench-digging. Denotes an utterly meaningless activity or moronic busy-work; ironic, considering that this is a rare example of meaningful training in the Soviet Army.
    • копайте здесь, а я пойду, спрошу, где надо (kopayte zdes', a ya poidy sproshu, gde nado) - You dig here while I go and ask where you should be digging. Same thing: a Drill Sergeant cannot leave his conscripts doing nothing, so even if their work is meaningless, they still have to do it.
  • Это курам на смех (Eto kuram na smekh) - literally "it's for chickens to laugh at", meaning "That's ridiculous!". Heard in The Big Damn Movie.
  • Лапшу на уши вешать (Lapshu na ushi veshat') - literally "hanging noodles on [someone's] ears" means lying, bluffing or deceiving someone. Turned into a Literal Metaphor in an old Soviet short film where people are listening to a motivational speaker, oblivious to all the noodles hanging off their ears.
  • Напугал ежа голой задницей (Napugal ezha goloi zadnitsei) or голой жопой (...goloi zhopoi) - literally "[you are] scaring a hedgehog with a bare ass", used to mock a threat as an idle one. Zaporozhian cossacks used variation of this when they tell Turkish sultan that he "can't kill a hedgehog with his bare ass"
  • Авось (Avos) - it is Russian for "Never tell me the odds". Yes, only one word, because it's such an important part of national character.
    • It semantically means "What if it works - though it certainly won't - not that I care", all in one word. It gives other words in the sentence hidden meaning and curious touch of emotion. Like in: Avos' zarplatu dadut - "what if they pay me today at work - which is unlikely of them of course - oh, they pay me crap, anyway".
  • Ваше здоровье! (Vashe zdorovye!) or За здоровье! (Za zdorovye!) - a toast. The former version is standalone, the latter is used with the name of someone whom you wish health. Important: not наздорове! (nazdorovye), which is Russian for "You are welcome" on special occasions. The so-called toast "nazdorovye" is, most likely, a mix-up of "Za zdorovye" and the Polish toast "Na zdrowie".
  • Да нет, наверное (Da net, navernoye) - a phrase translated literally as, "Yeah no, probably." A phrase almost identical to and familiar to English speakers as, "Yeah, probably no."
  • С ума сошёл (S uma soshel) - literally "stepped off his mind", used when someone does something stupid. Technically means "has gone insane", and is used in this way too.
  • Как два пальца (Kak dva paltsa) (Like two fingers) - the full form is "easy as pissing on two fingers", can be used in male companies to tell that something is not hard at all. The minced version is Как два палца об асфальт (Kak dva paltsa ob asfalt) ("easy as hitting the tarmac with two fingers"), this can be used around women and children.
  • Лох не мамонт, лох не вымрет (Lokh ne mamont, lokh ne vymret) (Suckers aren't mammoths, they'll never go extinct) - it is the full analogue of the expression attributed to Barnum, "A sucker is born every minute". Attributed to the infamous con artist Sergey Mavrodi.
  • Related to the previous is the word Лохотрон (Lokhotron) (literally translated as Suckertron, 2000 optional). Means any form of scam or long con, but initially referred to fake lotteries and rigged gambling.