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 Uncategorized


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!) 


Gender Dynamics in Russia

Posted on 14. Jul, 2014 by in Culture

Image by Petras Gagllas on flickr.com

Image by Petras Gagilas on flickr.com

Gender dynamics in Russia are a curious mix of patriarchy, old-fashioned chivalry, and female empowerment. Women are expected to look and act a certain way; at the same time, they are a significant presence in industries considered male elsewhere.

Eye Candy Women

Image by ktolne on flickr.com

Image by ktolne on flickr.com

One of the first things visitors to Russia notice is how attractive the women are. Are the women truly more naturally or genetically attractive in Russia? More likely, what these visitors point out is how women make a visible effort to look attractive within the framework of their culture. That often means wearing what’s considered more feminine clothing, such as heels (туфли на каблуках), dresses (платья), and skirts (юбки) in everyday situations — not just for special occasions. While it is also true for several other countries, what stands out about Russia is how neat some women (strive to) look. Flipflops, yoga pants, and loose buns are considered sloppy and unsuitable for appearing in public.

The flip side of this is the high pressure on women to look “presentable.” Young girls are constantly reminded to smooth out their hair and sit in a lady-like manner. Mothers tell their daughters that no one will marry them if they are fat, poorly dressed, or have acne. It is often assumed that impressing a man with the purpose of marriage and having children is the ultimate goal for every woman. Girls will often be told, “Ты же девочка!” (meaning, “But you’re a girl” or “You’re a girl, after all” – and should act like one). I remember being told by a professor on a college trip to cover the small of my back because I would one day need to get pregnant — and, as you know from my previous post, cold air or ground is believed to cause infertility.

These attitudes can be so pervasive that women themselves will defend them. In many circles of Russian society, women are still widely considered less intellectually endowed, worse drivers, and susceptible to mood swings.

Footing the Bill

At the same time, men are often expected to take care of the women present, regardless of their relationship. Traditionally, a man inviting a woman to a restaurant would pay the bill, regardless of whether this was a date (свидание) or a friendly gettogether (дружеская встреча). It is changing in the recent years but is still considered good form. Moreover, the expectation in the family is often that the husband should be the breadwinner (“добытчик“), even if the wife is working. He is often expected to give his income over to the family budget (as they say in Russian, приносить деньги в семью), where it would be distributed for various family needs.

Moreover, women will normally be exempt from lifting or carrying bags and any sort of domestic work if men are present. This is not a hard-and-fast rule but more of a societal expectation that the man will carry out all physical labor. Males are expected to check on their female companions to make sure they can get in the car, cross the street, get in the door, etc. alright. The notion that the woman is an adult and, therefore, can take care of herself is not used to let women fend for themselves in these situations.

In The Workplace

Image by Saginaw Future Inc on flickr.com

Image by Saginaw Future Inc on flickr.com

Although the picture I’ve painted so far tells a story of patriarchy par excellence, women are surprisingly present across many sectors of the Russian workforce. Part of the reason is historical. After many men were killed in World War Two, women took over their jobs in manufacturing and other traditionally male industrial occupations.

Women are still very much present in the Russian workforce now, including industries that are considered male in other countries. For example, most medical doctors (врачи) and many lawyers (адвокаты) are female. You need to keep in mind, however, that these occupations are not as well-paid as in the US. At the same time, there are jobs that are legally off-limits for women because these occupations are deemed too dangerous.

In conclusion, Russia presents an interesting mix of considerable career options for women on the one hand and patriarchy and sexism on the other hand. While women are well-educated and definitely not confined to their homes and families, they still face prejudice and societal pressure to conform to expectations. What has your experience with gender dynamics been like in Russia? What did you like and dislike?