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Друзья-товарищи: Degrees of Friendship in Russian Posted by on Dec 22, 2016 in Culture

There are several words for talking about your social circle in Russian. Are all friends created equal? Not so in Russian. There may be some overlap between different words referring to friendship, but let’s concentrate on what’s specific to each of them.

two friends laughing

Image from Pixabay

Друг

The notion of a friend (друг) is more restrictive in Russian than the corresponding notion in English. For instance, you would not introduce a person you just met a few days ago to a third person as your друг. It does not mean you are keeping your distance or dislike the person. It’s just that friendship (дружба) in Russian presupposes an extensive shared experience and a deep connection to each other, not just casual meetings in social circumstances and mutual affinity.

Она́ всегда́ ста́вит о́чень высо́кую пла́нку в обще́нии, поэ́тому у неё ма́ло друзе́й (She always sets the bar very high in her social life, so she has few friends). [Сати Спивакова. Не всё (2002)]

The forms of this word are somewhat non-obvious:

masculine feminine
singular друг подруга
plural друзья подруги

“To become friends with someone” is подружиться с + dative.

Приятель

Приятель refers to a casual friend that you enjoy spending time with but probably don’t know too closely and wouldn’t burden with personal problems. Приятель is related to приятно (pleasant). The feminine form is приятельница.

Со́бственно, Ко́стя был вообще́ еди́нственный друг, остальны́е ― прия́тели (Actually, Kostya was my only friend; the rest were buddies). [И. Грекова. Фазан (1984)]

Man with a kitten

Image from Pixabay

Знакомый

Знакомый comes from знать (to know) and is roughly equivalent to an acquaintance. In other words, this is a person you’ve met, but you may or may not see them regularly or have any meaningful interactions with them. The feminine form is знакомая.

Оказа́лось, что у них, таки́м о́бразом, есть о́бщие знако́мые (So it turned out they knew people in common). [Ю. О. Домбровский. Ручка, ножка, огуречик (1977)]

To be fair, this word can sometimes be pretty similar to приятель in terms of how close you are to a person.

Товарищ

Товарищ may evoke associations with the Soviet Union for many people since it was used as a catch-all salutation (“comrade”). However, this is not the only and not the oldest sense of this word. Товарищ really refers to a peer with whom you engaged in some sort of shared activity. For example, you can say “товарищ по университету” to say “classmate, someone you studied with.”

Товарищ uses the same form for males and females.

Я присе́л к ним, и мы с Ю́рой, как во́дится, повспомина́ли де́тство и шко́льных това́рищей (I joined them at the table, and, naturally, Yura and I reminisced about our childhood and schoolmates). [Фазиль Искандер. Мой кумир (1965-1990)]

This term is becoming less common nowadays and is sometimes used ironically, perhaps due to its political “baggage.”

What other friendship terms can you think of? How did you hear your Russian-speaking friends refer to their friends?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. samonen:

    An excellent and very enlightening post, Maria! Actually, it strikes at the heart of Russianness and lead me to think about Russian social behavior. Americans very often don’t “get” Russians perceive them as rude. The flipside is, of course, cordial, intimate friendships and strong bonds between – well, друзья. The American way is very lighthearted and easy-going in comparison. A Russian friend once told me that a visit to America is like “vitamin”. (I must add that the public “rudeness” seems to be receding in Russia. And I can’t help wondering whether it really is a deep-rooted trait of Russian culture or the Russian character per se or simply the result of the extremely hard experiences of the 20th century with disaster after disaster, hardship after hardship. and frustration being the order of the day even in the stable conditions of “developed socialism”. A scene from a 1960s New Year’s Голубой огонёк just popped up in my mind: the optimistic younger generation seemed to be literally partying and – wow – twisting (something which was harshly criticized and ridiculed in Soviet propaganda elsewhere); stern-faced war veterans sitting at the table looking like they didn’t quite approve of this new lightheartedness…)

    I have encountered a diminutive of друг which, as far as I can tell, makes the дружба less serious or ever-lasting: дружок. Друган sounds like slang to me so God knows what connotations it might have. And even the augmentative дружище. This is an interesting word inasmuch as I’m not sure whether the augmentative augments the friendship at all.

    ***Season’s Greetings!***

    • Maria:

      @samonen Thank you, Samonen, all good observations. Друган and дружище evoke a sense of intensity, being larger than life. I would say друган is definitely used either humorously or in subcultures.
      Happy Holidays!

  2. Richard:

    This is an interesting post. I’ve noticed the different degrees of friendship with Russians; kind of like the rings on a tree which take you closer and closer to the heart of the matter.
    However I don’t know if this is unique to Russians as Canadians have similar concepts, just maybe not as distinct from each other. You can have a “true friend” who’s someone you can confide in completely, a “friend” who you feel comfortable talking to but may not completely confide with, a “buddy” who you like to go out drinking with but not much more, and a “friend of a friend” who you’re still accessing in terms of where that person fits in. Maybe this is just human nature: we’re naturally suspicious, naturally cautious with our feelings.

    All in all, a very good post, Maria!

    Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year!

    • Maria:

      @Richard Thank you, Richard! It is probably safe to say degrees of friendship exist in all human societies — we can’t be best friends with everyone we meet. In my experience, though, the English word “friend” does not imply as much a commitment. I could probably call a casual acquaintance a friend and not worry about them calling me at 2 am to ask for money. 😀 So perhaps “friend” has a wider range of uses than “друг”?

  3. Dave Graber:

    Has anyone ever noticed a woman being called by the masculine form “друг”?

    • Maria:

      @Dave Graber Dave, I suppose this could be done humorously. I’ve normally heard подруга said about women.
      I’m curious to see what our other readers may add.

  4. samonen:

    Dave, I don’t think a female could be called a друг unless something was implied. It’s one of those things. (Cf. French, German.)

  5. samonen:

    Oh-oh?! What about a friend of the opposite sex that you do not have a romantic/sexual relationship with and with whom you do not aspire anything suchlike to?

    I’m aware there not only is a feminine for a “friend”, подруга, but also a diminututive thereof –> подружка. Which, as far as I can tell, means “a girlfriend”. This is pretty hard!

  6. samonen:

    OK, it’s not hard when you don’t complicate it :
    1) подруга = female friend
    2)подружка = girlfriend

  7. Richard:

    Maria,

    Re my comment above, I understand what you mean. Thanks!

    On another note, I recently came across this sentence: “Это свой человек!” which was translated as “He’s a friend!”
    I realize that this touches more on the meaning of “свой” than on words denoting friendship, but if you could please shed some light on this I’d appreciate it. The grammar book I found this sentence in used it as an example but with no real explanation. Is it a colloquial expression that doesn’t lend itself to explanation?

    Thx,
    Richard

    • Maria:

      @Richard I’ve definitely heard “свой человек” or “наш человек.” You are right in that “свой” is the part that conveys belonging, not “человек.” I’d say this carries the meaning of “we can trust him.” So perhaps you haven’t known this person long, but you know they share your beliefs or belong to the same organization, so they won’t betray you/work against you, depending on the context. I hope this helps!

  8. Richard:

    That definitely helps, Maria! Thanks!