Four Quirks Russian Non-Speakers Get Confused About

Posted on 01. Oct, 2015 by in General reference article

puzzled look

Most of our posts are meant for people who already know or are learning some Russian, however little. Still, there are people out there who are interested in the language and the many cultures using it, but have not ventured past the first few phrases yet. For this reason, I will not be the Cyrillic script in this post (have you checked out our alphabet courses yet?).

Some of the questions below have been covered in other posts on this blog, and we are now bringing them together on one page. Even beginner students of Russian will likely find this information basic, but hopefully it will answer some of the questions by those interested in the language but not yet learning it.

Why do some Russian words have KH in place of a K?

Why is there an “h” after the “k” in Khrushchev? What’s the difference between the last names Volkhonsky and Volkonsky?

The reason lies in transliteration — writing Russian words with Latin characters. Russian is usually written with Cyrillic letters. There no one to one correspondence between the two writing systems — instead, there are several transliteration tables. The Russian letter “х” — a breathier version of “ha” — is sometimes transliterated as “kh” into Russian. It’s not just another way of spelling the “k” sound — in fact, the Russian pronunciation of Khrushchev is closer to Hroo-SHOF .

Why do Russian last names end in -sky and why is it sometimes spelled -ski?

This is a common ending of a male last name (more on that below). In Russian, it has 4 letters: ский. The first two letters form a common suffix “sk.” The third letter is the equivalent of “i.” The fourth letter is the equivalent of the “y” sound in the English word “yes.” So, to transliterate Russian last names accurately, you would really need to spell then with -skiy, e.g. Rimskiy-Korsakov. However, conventionally, these names have often been written with just a single vowel at the end, i.e., Rimsky-Korsakov.

Why do men and women in the same family have different last names?

Russian surnames are essentially adjectives describing the appearance, occupation, origin, or other group membership of a person. They often take the form of a possessive adjective — Ivanov (Ivan’s). Since adjectives normally agree with the noun they modify in Russian, a woman’s last name will be in the “feminine” form. For example, a woman’s last name would be Petrova, Nogina, or Belskaya. The corresponding surname for a man would be Petrov, Nogin, or Belsky.

man and woman toasting with wineI’ve always said “Na zdorovye” for “Cheers,” but now my Russian friend tells me it’s incorrect.

I’m not sure where this myth originated — perhaps in Anglophone films. Na zdrowie is the Polish for “cheers,” for sure. Russian toasts are more of a dedication and need to be custom-said every time. The Russian phrase “na zdorovye” is an answer to “Thank you” (so, the equivalent of “You’re welcome”) or giving permission to do something (“Go ahead”).

Are there any other aspects of Russian our Russian-curious readers have been wondering about? I and our veteran readers will try to cover them for you.

Yakov Smirnoff: Russian Funny Man!

Posted on 30. Sep, 2015 by in Arts and crafts, Culture, History, language, Russian humor, Russian life, Soviet Union, The Russian Emotion

Yakov Naumovich Pokhis, better known as Yakov Smirnoff, is a comedian born in the Soviet Union in 1951. After emigrating to the United States in 1977, he changed his last name to Smirnoff after the vodka. During the 1980’s and early into the 90’s, Smirnoff saw his brand of humor taking off and resonating with people outside of the Soviet Union. Much of his humor was aimed at living behind the “Iron Curtain” and he had a clever way of using word play and combining his limited knowledge of American culture and idioms.

Here are a few examples of his jokes:

“In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Union, the party always find you!”

“The ad in the paper said ‘Big Sale. Last Week!’ Why advertise? I already missed it!”

“In Russia we only had two TV channels. Channel One was propaganda. Channel Two consisted of a KGB officer telling you: Turn back at once to Channel One.”

“In America, you watch television. In Soviet Union, television watches you!”

“In Russia is freedom of speech. In America, there is freedom after speech.”

During the mid-to-late 1980’s, Yakov’s humor was quite well taken and popular in America. Even popular comedians like Rodney Dangerfield loved his act. He was featured on many television shows including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the sitcom, Night Court. He also appeared in several 80’s comedy movies such as Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams, Brewster’s Millions with Richard Pryor and John Candy, and The Money Pit with Tom Hanks. Yakov was even the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 1988.

Here is a sample of his stand-up routine:

Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Yakov’s brand of humor fell out of flavor a bit. This did not stop him though. He went on to purchase a 2000-seat theater in Branson, Missouri where he would perform many times per year. He also featured other comedians and even Russian dance performances.

The last several years have seen Yakov earning a master’s degree in positive psychology and teaching classes at Drury University and Missouri State University. He has also appeared as a one-man show on Broadway entitled As Long As We Both Should Laugh. He also gives advice to readers in his column “Happily Ever Laughter” in AARP Magazine. 

The aforementioned accomplishments are not listed in their entirety and I would say that Yakov has done extraordinarily well for himself. Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine and teaching art was not enough for him. He chose to become a comedian and left to pursue his comedic dreams in America. I wonder if his friends and family tried to talk him out of this? After all, giving up a job as a teacher to tell jokes? Not too funny! I would dare say that he has had the last laugh.


Storytelling in Russian

Posted on 24. Sep, 2015 by in Culture, Literature

man in a carWe often connect with others over discussing our favorite films, plays, and books. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to describe that great Russian movie or novel to your friends? Let us look at some ways of talking about themes and plot.


First of all, what is the story about? Some ways of introducing the subject of the work include:

повествова́ть (to narrate): Этот рома́н повеству́ет об одно́м певце, мечта́ющем просла́виться (This novel tells the story of a singer who dreams of becoming famous).

речь идёт о + noun in accusative/о том, как… (to talk about): В статье́ речь идёт о полити́ческой обстано́вке в Ро́ссии в нача́ле XX ве́ка (The article talks about the political situation in Russia in the early 20th century).

затра́гивать те́му + noun in genitive (to touch upon the subject): Фильм затра́гивает те́му дру́жбы по́сле преда́тельства (The film touches upon the subject of friendship after betrayal).

Popular themes include семья́ (family), приключе́ния (adventures), де́тство (childhood), дру́жба (friendship), пое́здка + на/в + accusative (a trip), and испыта́ния (trials).

Settings and Plot

child jumping in a fieldNext, we get to describe what happens. We may use phrases like сюже́т/де́йствие развора́чивается (the action unfolds), собы́тия происхо́дят (the events take place) + where? when?

Сюже́т карти́ны развора́чивается в послевое́нном Ло́ндоне (The events of the motion picture take place in post-war London).

What are some of the things that our characters can do?

обнару́жить – to discover

Студе́нт, прие́хавший домо́й на кани́кулы, обнару́живает, что его роди́тели разво́дятся (A college student comes comes home for the holidays to discover his parents are getting divored).

узна́ть – to find out

Иссле́дователи узнаю́т о секре́тной лаборато́рии, где рабо́тали их предше́ственники (The researchers learn about a secret lab where their predecessors worked).

прие́хать – to come

В го́род приезжа́ет знамени́тая актри́са (A famous actress comes to town).

перее́хать – to move (to a different city etc.)

Молода́я семе́йная па́ра переезжа́ет на се́вер в по́исках но́вой жи́зни (A young married couple moves to the North looking to start a new life).

рассле́довать – to investigate

Детекти́в рассле́дует похище́ние це́нной карти́ны (The detective investigates the theft of a valuable painting).

знако́миться – to meet (for the first time)

Дети знако́мятся со свои́м ста́ршим бра́том, кото́рого они́ никогда́ не ви́дели (The children meet their older brother, whom they have never seen).


Finally, we should be able to describe some of the people in our stories. There is likely a гла́вный геро́й/гла́вная герои́ня (protagonist). They probably have a лу́чший друг/лу́чшая подру́га (best friend), but they may also have a враг (enemy) or сопе́рник (rival). Other important people may include роди́тели (parents), преподава́тели (teachers), нача́льник (boss), or колле́ги (co-workers).

Here is your challenge for this week: try describing your favorite Russian (or non-Russian) film, play, or book in 3-4 sentences.