Driving in Russia

Posted on 23. Jul, 2014 by in General reference article, Russian life, when in Russia

While you can drive in almost every country on Earth, the driving experience you can get in Russia could be priceless :-) . While it can be exciting to take in the unparalleled  beauty that the country has to offer, the lack of “driving necessities” may leave you stranded, lost, or worse. For example, driving in the US, you expect the interstates and freeways to be well stocked with gas stations, restaurants, easy-to-read and clearly marked road signs, and stores; in Russia you cannot take these things for granted and in many places, you’ll be lucky to see any of them. The challenges that you may face are not to be taken lightly so one must be well prepared.

System of Roads/Federal Highways

Being that Russia spans from Kaliningrad in the westernmost point, north of Poland, all the way to its easternmost point located at Big Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, and has an area of nearly 6.5 million miles, you’d expect a large system of highways, right? Think again. As long as you are in the western part of the country, there is a nice array of highways, all the way up to St. Petersburg and a bit beyond. You can quite easily travel south all the way to Azerbaijan. In the western part of the country, it can be said that “all roads lead to Moscow.” Should you wish to travel east, your choices go from few to nonexistent rather quickly. The farther north you go, well, let’s just say that you probably don’t even want to try.

Condition of Roads

Considering that Russia’s climate encompasses some very hot and equally cold temperatures, you can expect road conditions to greatly vary. With many Russians opting for chains on their tires in the winter, you can bet that this takes a toll on the roads.  The last six hundred miles of the Russian Federal Highway running from Moscow to Yakoutsk is called the Lena Highway and after the winter thaw, it is widely considered one of least hospitable in the world. Each time it rains in the spring and summer, the road turns to mud. In many places the regular maintenance is well overdue. On the bright side, roads in major cities like Moscow may be comparable to other places in Europe.

The Police/Laws

The imagination of Russian police officers when it comes to hiding and setting up radar should not be overlooked. As in other parts of the world, a car heading toward you flashing its high beams often means that you’d better check your speed. It is also recommended to carry a bit of cash when you drive because you can be stopped for any reason. Unless you are doing something horribly illegal, the cash can usually be your key to freedom.

Until recently, you did not have to have automobile insurance in Russia. Also, as long as you are not staying more than six months, your state/country’s driver’s license may also suffice. It is worth noting that Russian driving etiquette often trumps the rules of the road so get out of the way of a speeding motorist and always be on the look out for the unexpected. At night, you may see motorists throw all caution to the wind and drive however, and wherever, they wish. This is because many police officers use this time to catch up on their sleep.

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that until quite recently, many Russians did not own automobiles due to the lack of financing opportunities. This means that those who do have vehicles are likely to cherish them because of the difficulty in procuring them. The parking practices in much of Europe that would often allow one to gently “nudge” another’s vehicle while making room to park will be gravely out of place in Russia. With public transportation being so adequate in most cities, it would be advised by this writer to utilize it and save yourself the headache.

Всего хорошего!

Take Your Pronunciation to the Next Level – Part I

Posted on 21. Jul, 2014 by in Russian phonetics

Image by Ctd 2005 on flick.com

Image by Ctd 2005 on flick.com

Does anyone here find Russian pronunciation challenging? Perhaps you are learning Russian abroad and don’t get to hear native speakers very often. Or maybe, despite hearing them, you just can’t grasp how they produce the sounds of Russian and cannot quite repeat them. Let’s hope that’s not the case. But whatever your accent in Russian may be, I often find that working on a few pain points can drastically improve one’s pronunciation. Even if you can’t sound 100% native, tackling these aspects will help make your Russian flow smoother and be easily understood by Russian speakers.

1. Х sound

X is very prevalent in many Russian words, especially since it appears in adjective case endings, like больших (genitive plural of “big”). People tend to either “under-pronounce” х by skipping it altogether or doing the quiet exhale; or “over-pronounce” it by making a dry gargling sound in their throat. The actual sound is somewhere in between. You can find a technical description on Wikipedia, but here I would like to share some pronunciations by native speakers. All recordings come from forvo.com, which I recommend you use for looking up words you have doubts about.

хан – khan

This sound also appears in words of Greek origin that had the letter chi (χ) in the Greek – техника, механика, химия. Languages like English or Spanish tend to have a straightforward “k” sound in these words, so speakers on these languages may be tempted to say it that way in Russian, too. Resist the temptation. Here is an example of a word of Greek origin.

механизм – mechanism, machine

2. Soft sounds

Soft, or palatalized, sounds are formed by lifting your tongue against the roof of your mouth. That’s the technical description, which may be hard to fathom. You can also imagine that you go to pronounce an “ee” sound after the consonant, but don’t actually end up saying it.

As you probably know, a saying a “hard” (unpalatalized) consonant instead of a “soft” (palatalized) one can alter the meaning of the word. Some examples can make this clearer.

мелмель (chalk vs a shallow)

братбрать (brother vs to take)

матмать (checkmate or Russian swearwords vs mother)

селсель (he/I/you (male) sat down vs mudslide)

Please mind that many foreign names, when said in Russian, are pronounced with a soft consonant sound. This will be reflected in writing, with the consonant being followed by ь (мягкий знак – soft sign) or the vowels ю, я, ё, е, и. For example, Luke Skywalker is Люк Скайуокер (not лук, the Russian word for an onion). Philadelphia is pronounced Филадельфия (not Филаделфия with a “hard” second л). In case of names, these are not meaning-changing differences, but they will make you pronunciation much more elegant and less jagged for the native ear.

3. Initial consonant clusters

Socialite and activist Kseniya Sobchak (Ксения Собчак) - image by Evgeniy Isaev on flickr.com

Socialite and activist Kseniya Sobchak (Ксения Собчак) – image by Evgeniy Isaev on flickr.com

Russian is notorious for having multiple consonants at the beginning of the word, such as in встреча (meeting), взгляд (glance), or мгновение (an instant). To make matters worse, even the two-consonant clusters in Russian words may be hard for learners to pronounce because their own languages either don’t have similar combinations or treat them differently.

Often, what ends up happening is that the speaker, desperate to get both consonants out, will insert a small vowel sound, an “uh,” between them. So, the name Ксения (Kseniya, Xenia) becomes Kuh-seniya, and психология (psychology) becomes puh-sihologheeya. Again, resist the temptation. It is better to skip the initial consonant altogether than to insert an extra sound, which will confuse the listener. What can help you get there is to put your lips in position for saying the first sound (п in the психология example) but to start saying the second sound right away (с in the case of психология).

I will continue my list in my next post. In the meantime, do you have problems pronouncing any sounds of Russian? How do you get around them?

Please, also see this great post on the same subject.

Cool Russian Recipes for Hot Summer Days

Posted on 16. Jul, 2014 by in Culture, Russian food


In Summer, we get hot and dehydrated quicker, that is why we tend to crave cold, watery things. For those of you who are tired of going back to the same things every time, I am happy to recommend a few refreshing Russian recipes that I grew up with. Thankfully, there is no shortage of them. My list consists of two salads, a cold soup, and a cold beverage.

Salads (салаты):

Green onion and egg salad

Ingredients: ½ bunch green onion crushed, 4 hard boiled eggs, ¼ cup mayo or sour cream, ¼ bunch of dill, salt and pepper (garlic optional) to taste. Preparation: cut up the onion and eggs, mix onion, sour cream, salt, pepper and 3/4 of the eggs, add dill and remaining egg on top for garnish, refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving.

Red cabbage and mushroom salad

Ingredients: ¾ lb red cabbage, ¾ lb fresh mushrooms, 2 medium pickles, 1 medium onion, 1 cup sour cream, salt/dill/parsley/pinch of sugar to taste. Preparation: finely shred the cabbage, add salt, work the salt into the cabbage by firmly squeezing the cabbage with your hands for 1-2 minutes; boil the mushrooms for about 20 min, then cut into thin strips; finely cube pickles and onion; mix all of the ingredients, garnish with dill (I use ¼ bunch), refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving.

Cold Soups (холодные супы):

Cold soups, or summer soups, are a perfect way to fill up and cool off at the same time. In Russia, cold soups are usually a combination of vegetables, some type of meat, sometimes eggs, and a liquid base, such as kvass (a traditional Russian drink), kefir (kefir is similar to buttermilk), or even kombucha (чайный гриб). Aside from kvass, you can easily find all of the ingredients in a typical US supermarket. Kvass can either be made at home (here is one way to make it) or bought at the closest Russian store, if you have one in the area :-) . You can read more about kvass here.

Okroshka (окрошка) is probably the most popular cold soup in Russia. There are many variations of it. Traditionally, it is made with kvass but if you do not like the taste of kvass, using kombucha or kefir (use buttermilk as a substitute) is certainly an option.

Ingredients: ½ lb beef or bologna, 2 medium potatoes, 5-6 red radishes, ½ bunch cilantro/parsley, ½ bunch dill, 3-4 hard boiled eggs, ½ bunch green onion, 2 salad cucumbers (1 long cucumber will do, but they don’t really even taste like cucumbers, in my opinion); salt/pepper to taste.

Preparation: boil, cool, then cut into small cubes eggs, potatoes and meat (bologna); while potatoes and meat are cooling off after boiling, cut the parsley, onion, dill, and thinly slice the radishes and cucumbers; put all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Serve by combining 2-4 scoops of dry ingredients with a chilled liquid base of your choice – kvass, kefir/buttermilk and water (mix 2 parts kefir to 1 part water in a separate bowl), or kombucha. Note: combine dry ingredients with liquid base one bowl at a time; this soup is not meant to be mixed all at once because the ingredients will get soggy and mushy, add more to your bowl as needed. Also, the base has to be chilled to achieve authentic taste! If using kvas, feel free to add a dollop of sour cream to your soup.

Please keep in mind that if kvass new to you, it is very likely that you will not like the taste of it; perhaps, using buttermilk or kefir on your first try will be better :-) .

Cold Beverages (холодные напитки):

The above mentioned kvass (here is one recipe, however this one might be too sweet for okroshka) is among the most popular Russian summer drinks. There are many variations of kvass but due to specificity of taste, I would like to draw your attention to a different, perhaps, more palatable drink called компот (kompot).

Kompot (компот):

There are literally hundreds of different recipes for kompot in Russia. I am offering you a good beginner recipe for kompot with strawberries. Kompot is a great alternative to flavored water and other synthetically flavored drinks :-) .

Ingredients: 1 lb fresh strawberries, ½ cup to 1 cup sugar (depending on your taste preferences), 2 quarts water.

Preparation: bring the water to a boil, cut the stems of the berries; when the water starts boiling, add berries and sugar, cook for about 7-10 minutes. Let the kompot cool off completely. Kompot tastes best when chilled.

Приятного аппетита! (bon appetit!)