Russian Outback?

Posted on 28. Jan, 2015 by in Culture, General reference article, History, Nature and the outdoors, Russian life, Soviet Union, when in Russia

What do you call the area of Russia that stretches between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean from east to west? It reaches as far south as northern Kazakhstan and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. It also borders with Mongolia and China and makes up about 77 percent of Russia’s total landmass. Ironically, with regards to Russia’s total population, this part only accounts for about 40 million people or 27 percent of the total. Bandy, which is Russia’s national sport, is even more popular here than in European Russia. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I am talking about Siberia. What follows are some facts about this great Russian “Outback” that I hope you’ll find entertaining.

Siberia has a few negative stigmas attached to it that may make it unappealing to some. The most obvious being that it is a very cold, desolate place, one where the Communists used to send “bad people” or those they deemed to be.

The Trans-Siberian Railway actually takes people from Moscow across Siberia to Vladivostok. Wild dogs, bears, and wolves rule the land and mankind has yet to establish total domination like elsewhere in the world. There is much more to this beautiful land than many of us know. It contains some of the world’s largest deposits of gold, coal, nickel, lead, silver, and diamonds. A plethora of oil and natural gas has also been helping the local and national economy for years.

Here is a short video about some cool facts about a part of Siberia made by a native:

Siberia also contains Lake Baikal which has been reported to be the oldest and cleanest lake in the world. This lake is about the size of the Netherlands and contains about twenty percent of the world’s freshwater.

The Tunguska event happened near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River on 30 June, 1908. Nearly 800 miles of forest were flattened by a meteorite that is believed to have exploded 3-6 miles above the Earth’s surface. The size of the meteorite has been estimated at between 200-600 feet and this event has been considered the largest impact event on or near Earth in recent years. Unfortunately, Russian dashboard cameras were not around to capture it:-(

Apparently, there isn’t an exact location called Siberia. Sure you can find it on a map and in an atlas, but according to Ian Frazier, author of the book Travels in Siberia, “Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.” It is labeled as a region, but you cannot find it connected to any specific place name. He suggests that it is more a state of mind than the name of a specific place. Some believe that the word “Siberia” comes from a Tatar word for “sleeping land.”

It is true that some of Russia’s least desirables and political prisoners have seen their last sunrise in gulags found scattered throughout Siberia – mainly toward the north east. These gulags even date back to before Stalin and the Soviets. If you think about it, it is so cold and desolate in Siberia that even if prisoners were to escape, where would they go? Surely, they’d freeze to death before they reached their first town. This made Siberia a natural choice for building these camps.

The coldest city on the planet, Yakutsk, can be found in eastern Siberia. Yakutsk is built upon permafrost – this means that the ground never thaws. In January, the average high temperatures reach a balmy -40 degrees centigrade. According to some, this is a great place to send your mother-in-law on vacation.

Hope you enjoyed these few facts about Siberia. If any of you have ever visited there, I would love to hear about your trip :-).

How Dare You Speak a Foreign Language!

Posted on 27. Jan, 2015 by in Culture, language, Russian life, when in Russia

Lets imagine that you get invited to dinner at the home of a Russian couple and you don’t speak Russian. Would you find it rude if they occasionally spoke Russian in front of you? How about if they translated it so you could understand it? We all know what it feels like to be around people speaking a language we don’t understand. This is what today’s post will be about: is it rude to speak a foreign language in front of those that do not speak it?

When my mother and I first came to America, she knew approximately 50-70 words in English. I, on the other hand, had been learning it for over ten years by that point. Understandably, when we had dinner or social gatherings with people that were not Russian, which was all the time, my mother and I often spoke in Russian. Mainly, I was telling her what was being said and she told me what she would like to communicate to others. Some of the people were a bit uncomfortable at times. I heard somebody once say, “You’re in America now, talk American.” This was a bit laughable to me but I understood their point of view – when in Rome…

Some of the reasons you might feel uncomfortable while in the presence of people speaking other languages include a sense of insecurity. You may think that people are speaking ill of you right in front of you, but not too you. My mother-in-law, to this day, thinks that this is what people are doing when they speak another language in front of her. Perhaps, this is true in some cases, but I know that I wouldn’t do it. My husband shared a story about being in Italy with some friends at a bar and one of his party was saying something about the girls at the next table over from them. After enough was said, one of the girls got up and stood directly in front of them and said that they all understood English – guess the guys likely felt like fools! My husband’s party erroneously assumed that the girls didn’t understand what was being said – ouch.

Other reasons why people may not appreciate your speaking another language in front of them has to do with inclusion and exclusion. While we are all speaking the same language, everybody feels included. Once somebody slips in the foreign language, somebody may feel excluded. I can understand not wanting to feel like I am not part of the conversation. I would dare say though, that you can feel excluded even if everybody is speaking the same language. For example, so many times when my husband gets together with old friends and I find myself going along, they talk incessantly about “old times” while I’m just sitting their mentally rolling my eyes. I understand everything being said but am not really included in their discussion.

Obviously, it is better to include everybody in the conversation when possible. I don’t know anybody who loves to be left out, whether it be a discussion or anything else. Whether or not it is rude to speak a foreign language in front of others really depends on the circumstances. When my mom and I are in the company of Americans discussing something, she doesn’t always understand all that is being said. I explain in Russian what she doesn’t understand – this is not rude. Sometimes she likes to reply in a manner that doesn’t fit her current speaking capacity so she’ll tell me what she wishes to convey in Russian, and then I’ll translate it to the group in English – I believe this is okay too. If we were to carry on and on in Russian, it would be rude.

With many of you learning to speak Russian, you may find that if you run into a Russian speaking individual in your native country, you’ll want to speak to them in Russian just to practice what you’ve spent much time and effort learning. Do you think that this would be rude? I certainly don’t.

I suppose in America, which is considered to be the world’s great “melting pot,”  people are more used to hearing foreign language.  They are so used to hearing it that they find it annoying; annoying to the point where one might feel like “come on, people, speak English!” I can certainly relate to the feeling after living here for well over a decade. In Russia, especially in areas outside of Moscow, foreign language is not heard nearly as often, so it carries a certain degree of mysterious appeal, people are more curious when they hear it; rarely are they annoyed.

What are your thoughts on this issue? How do you feel when people speak a foreign language in front of you? Please share your experiences :-).

Bags and Shoes — Russian Words for Everyday Items

Posted on 26. Jan, 2015 by in Russian for beginners

Image by Gabrielle on

Image by Gabrielle on

When I taught Russian, I noticed many learners without much exposure to the language would often get confused when choosing the right word for the most mundane objects. Perhaps textbooks are partly to blame, if they simply list the native/English word and its “equivalent” in Russian without defining or describing the Russian word in detail. In any case, here is a collection of very simple words that tend to give beginners trouble.


The English word “bag” is very versatile. Just look at these examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

  • A trash bag was taped over the door window inside.
  • Place steak in resealable bag.
  • I’m not one of those people who get funny about a friend buying the same shoe or bag as me.

I’m sure there are several more distinct usage examples you can think of, not to mention set expressions like “sleeping bag” or “air bag,” which tend to have their own designations (спа́льный мешо́к and поду́шка безопа́сности in Russian).

Let’s look at some words that refer to a bag of sorts.

Су́мка - the most general word. A woman’s purse is сумка. A soft baggage bag is сумка, although a suitcase is чемода́н. However, not every item that could be referred to as a “bag” in English can be called сумка.

Паке́т can refer to a plastic shopping bag. Many people in Russia carry big plastic bags with company logos (not the flimsy supermarket ones) to carry other things, but this may be considered not very classy. No one refers to a plastic bag as пластиковая сумка. If you need a modifier, it’s usually called полиэтиле́новый пакет.

Кулёк - some people call the bag type above кулёк. This word also has the meaning of a paper bag or cone used for dry foods — think of the paper bags roasted chestnuts are sold in.

Мешо́к literally means “sack.” This may describe a large canvas sack used, for example, for storing coal or potatoes. However, some people may call plastic bags мешки, as well. I think the takeaway here is not to assume that you can call them сумка just because it’s a “bag” in English.



Image by Samira Khan on

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way — shoes as in “footwear” is о́бувь (feminine, uncountable). This is what you would see in catalogs and on store/shop signs.

Ту́фли - these are shoes that normally cover most of the foot and are of the dressier kind. What follows from this is that slippers, flip flops, etc. are not called туфли in Russian. Туфли is what you wear to work in your work in a traditional office. Don’t take my comment about slippers literally, though — of course, what Cinderella left at the ball is a ту́фелька although it’s referred to as a slipper in English. But you’d agree that it’s not the same kind of slipper you wear at home.

Боти́нки – boots worn outdoors in cooler weather. Boots that go above your shins and higher are called сапоги.

Босоно́жки are women’s summer shoes that show the skin of your foot. The word literally means “barefoots.” Сандалии is the word for a similar type of shoe that is usually flat — this is a cognate of “sandals.”

Та́пки or та́почки are house slippers, which guests are expected to put on in the host’s house.

Are there any other generic things that you have a hard time choosing the Russian word for? Do you use the words above similarly to what I described?