Russian Language Blog

Defender of the Fatherland Day Posted by on Feb 23, 2012 in Culture, language, Traditions

February 23rd is yet another holiday in Russia – День защитника Отечества (Defender of the Fatherland Day). The majority of young Russian males end up serving in the Armed Forces as призывники (draftees). Comparatively few Russian women serve in the military. Besides, women have their own holiday on March 8th. For all these reasons, February 23rd is usually viewed as a men’s holiday.

Since as I mentioned, most Russian males have some армейский опыт (army experience), they tend to tell stories about their days in the military whenever an opportunity presents itself. And that’s those with experience either as солдаты срочной службы (draftee soldiers) who served for two years (if drafted before 2008) or even just one year (if drafter after 2008) or professional контрактники (contract soldiers).

Interestingly, one of the official terms for “military obligation” is воинская повинность (the other one is воинская обязанность). The two words повинность (duty) and провинность (fault, delinquency) are cognates, but shouldn’t be confused.

Back to the holiday… On this day, if you find yourself в русскоговорящем кругу (in a company of Russian speakers), you are likely to hear tales, often tall tales, about their military service days. Or, borrowing a line from the classic, бойцы вспоминают минувшие дни… (soldiers recall the days long gone).

If you are a male, your Russian собеседник (conversation partner) might assume you too served in the military forces of your country. So don’t be surprised if you are asked about your rank or branch of service. Fathers-in-law are particularly prone to this line of questioning.

In case you have served or are serving in the military, here’s some basic info you need to know:

Сухопутные войска (lit. ground forces) would be approximately equivalent to the Army

Военно-воздушные силы orВВС would be same as the Air Force.

Военно-морской флот orВМФ is, of course, the Navy

Воздушно-десантные войска orВДВ are not the Marines, but rather Airborne soldiers. These guys are so tough, they have a holiday of their own on August 2. So, if you are a red beret in the US Army, you get much respect from your father-in-law for sure.

Now, Вооружённые силы Российской Федерации (Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) have something called космические войска which immediately brings to mind the Starship Troopers movie (or am I the only one?). These are Aerospace Defense Forces. The final one is Strategic Missile Troops or ракетные войска стратегического назначения. I think these last two are covered under the Air Force in the US.

So you can say Я служу/служил в ________________ (I serve/served in the ____________) using your branch of service instead of the blank. Don’t forget that you will have to use the prepositional case here.

Я служил в сухопутных войсках 6 лет. (I served in the Army for 6 years).

Я служу в военно-воздушных силах уже 15 лет. Ещё пять и смогу выйти на пенсию. (I’ve served in the Air Force for 15 years. Five more and I can retire).

Я сам не служил, но мой отец был морским пехотинцем (I didn’t serve myself, but my father was a Marine).

Now that we are clear with род войск (branch of the military), it’s time to figure out воинские звания (military ranks).


Russian English
Рядовой Private
Ефрейтор Private 1st class or lance-corporal
Младший сержант Corporal
Сержант Sergeant
Старший сержант Staff Sergeant or Sergeant First Class
Старшина Master Sergeant or Sergeant Major
Младший лейтенант 2nd Leutenant
Старший лейтенант 1st Leutenant
Капитан Captain
Майор  Major
Подполковник Leutenant-Colonel
Полковник Colonel
Генерал-майор Brigadier General
Генерал-лейтенант Major General
Генерал-полковник Leutenant General
Генерал армии General (four-star general)


Oh, two more absolutely must-know ranks are прапорщик (Warrant Officer) and старший прапорщик (Chief Warrant Officer). Which really puts you in a pickle if you are a warrant officer. You see, in Russia, прапорщик or прапор is usually portrayed as a dim-witted, arrogant, rude and frequently dishonest character. If a joke is not about a colonel or general, then it’s for sure about a warrant:

Не спорь с прапором о том, что земля круглая, а то он заставит тебя её разравнять. (Don’t argue with a warrant that the Earth is round or he will order you to flatten it)

Прапорщик встречает осла. Осёл спрашивает: «Ты кто такой?» Прапорщик отвечает: «Я – офицер, а ты кто такой?». Осёл отвечает: «Ну, тогда я – лошадь».

(A warrant meets a donkey. The donkey asks: who are you? I am an officer, – the warrant says, – and how are you? Well, then I am a horse, the donkey replies.)

No wonder that Russians are mostly phasing out these two ranks and replacing them with sergeants. Which kind of sucks if you are a warrant officer ‘cause in the US a warrant officer is an officer and not an enlisted.

By the way, just as in the US military, in Russian enlisted soldiers must salute their officers. To salute is отдать честь (lit: to render honor) while the word салют means fireworks or gun salvo.

And finally, if you were a commander of a unit, it’s important to know words for воинское формирование (military unit) you commanded:


Russian English
Отделение Squad
Взвод Platoon
Рота Company
Батальон Batallion
Отряд Anything from detachment-size to corps-size element
Полк Regiment
Дивизия Division
Корпус Corps
Армия Army
Округ Zone

Now combine all the elements:

Я служил старшим сержантом сухопутных войск, но вышел на пенсию пару лет назад (I as a Sergeant First Class in the Army, but retired a couple of years ago)

Муж моей дочери – полковник ВВС (My daughter’s husband is an Air Force Colonel).

Мой брат – командир отделения (My brother is a squad leader).

Hopefully, now you can join in the story-swapping. But only if you are a man. Women serving in the military will still have to wait until the International Women’s Day, March 8th.

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  1. Sarahjane:

    Great picture. )))

  2. Rob McGee:

    Супер, отдаю тебе честь за статью!

    I was surprised at first to see that “поручик” wasn’t on the list of ranks — I always think of “Поручик Ржевский” as “Lieutenant Rzhevskii”. But apparently you can only use that term in the context of the tsarist-era cavalry.

  3. Rob McGee:

    By the way, the Russian/English table of military ranks does NOT apply to the US or UK Navies, nor to the Russian “ВМФ”!

    In both the Russian and English-language military traditions, the Navy has its own peculiar rank terminology that’s different from the Army, Marines, and Air Force. For instance, a Naval “Captain” (Капитан) is the rank-equivalent of a “Colonel” (Полковник) in the Army and other services. But an Army “Captain” is a lower rank of officer, and equivalent to a US Navy “Lieutenant” (“Капитан-Лейтенант” in the Russian Navy).

    This Russian wikipedia article, assuming it links correctly, has a complete listing of enlisted and officer Naval ranks (scroll down to the two tables labeled “состав ВМФ”). But to sum it up quickly:

    The lowest enlisted ranks in the ВМФ are referred to as матрос (US: “Seaman”).

    An Army саржант is equivalent to a Navy старшина (US: “Petty Officer), while an Army прапорщик (“Warrant Officer”) is a мичмен.

    A junior commissioned officer in the Russian Navy, as in the Army, is a лейтенант (US: “Ensign”). But as one progresses up through the Naval Officer ranks, the terms майор (Maj.) and полковник (Col.) aren’t used — instead, there are different grades of лейтенант and капитан. Finally, the Naval equivalents of “Generals” in the Army and Air Force are called адмирал, just as in English.

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee I was waiting for someone to talk about the naval ranks 🙂 I find them very confusing regardless of the language 🙂 Same goes for much of the naval terminology even for simple things like right and left. I finally memorized starboard and port (there’s a really good explanation in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, lol).

  4. Rob McGee:

    And a question for Yelena: How would you translate “to retire at such-and-such a rank”? Could you use the construction выйти на пенсию старшим саржантом, with the rank at retirement in the instrumental? And could you say “Он — старший саржант на пенсии” to mean “He’s a retired Master Sergeant”?

    Мой папа служил подполковником в морской пехоте, а мама служила полковником в запасе армии. Теперь оба они на пенсии. (My dad was a Marine Lt.Col., and my mom was a “Full Bird” in the Army Reserve. Now they’re both retired.)

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Rob, I think using the construction you suggested is grammatically correct. I haven’t heard it used much, but again, I haven’t talked to that many retired Russian servicemen and women. Another construction that I would suggest is выйти на пенсию в звании + rank in the genitive. One thing about the word запас as related to the military service. Мой отец закончил службу сержантом, а вот у мамы – звание капитана. (My father ended his military service in the rank of Sergeant while mother was a Captain). Отец был на срочной службе (Father was a draftee), а мама в армии не служила, но работала доктором (but my mom never served in the Army, but was a doctor). In Soviet Union, people in certain occupations would automatically become reservists even without serving. For example, all doctors had a military rank that depended on their years of experience and category (so when they’d get promoted in their civilian career, they’d go up the rank as well). So, back to my mom’s story, she was капитан запаса (a Captain in the Reserve). But it’s not the same as the Army (or Navy, etc) Reserve. In fact, I find it very hard to explain the concept of a Reservist (in the sense it’s used in the US) to my Russian friends.

  5. Rob McGee:

    Oops, in my comment about Naval ranks, I misspelled “мичман” — which, according to Russian wikipedia, is derived from English “midshipman”.

    Also, since that link to the article doesn’t seem to work (damn Cyrillic in the URL), here’s a link to an English wiki article that compares and contrasts the Russian military rank terms for Navy and non-Navy branches.

  6. Rob McGee:

    Yelena: Thanks for the explanation about the “retiring” terminology!

    As for naval ranks, I mainly know them from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not because I grew up on military bases! 😉

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Rob, that just confirms my belief that a lot of useful stuff can be learned from watching TV! 😉

  7. Victor:

    Офицеры (и генералы) выходят в отставку или в запас и становятся, соответственно, офицерами в отставке (отставными) или запаса. Например, полковник в отставке, отставной подполковник (разговорное), майор запаса.
    N. B. Повинность и провинность are not cognates; they are related words with вина as a common root.

    • yelena:

      @Victor Victor, thank you for the clarification of выходить в отставку and быть в запасе. When I speak to my friends in Russia, I find that if I say that someone I know is солдат резерва they understand it as someone who is в запасе. I always end up explaining about the Reserve system in the US.

      As for the cognates… Doesn’t cognate mean однокоренной or родственный? I really appreciate help on this one since I am not a linguist by training and am rather terrified of terminology (yep, I am ashamed, but that’s the truth).

  8. Stas:

    We forgot about маршал.