Russian Language Blog

Expressions with себя in Russian Posted by on Aug 15, 2016 in language, Russian for beginners

You may remember the word себя, oneself. Apart from its independent usage, forms of this word are also used in several handy expressions.

woman taking a self portrait in the mirror

Image from Pixabay

Себя Overview

Себе is a reflexive pronoun pointing back to the subject of the sentence. The primary meaning of себя is “myself, yourself,” etc., depending on the subject.

Он не узнал себя в зеркале (He didn’t recognize himself in the mirror).

Since the subject will always be expressed by a pronoun or noun other than себя, the latter does not have a nominative case form.

gen. себя
dat. себе
acc. себя
instr. собой
prep. себе

On top of literal usage, forms of себя appear in several set expressions, some of which we will look at below.

На себя/от себя

Possibly the most common situation you will see “себя” in a Russian-language environment is opening doors. На себя and от себя are the equivalents of “pull” and “push” signs, respectively. You are literally telling a person to move the door towards or away from themselves. You may also see “к себе” for “pull,” although it is less common.

Coincidentally, “to work independently, to be your own boss” is “работать на себя.”

Я потянула высокую тяжёлую дверь с вертикальной надписью: “К себе” (I pulled a tall heavy door with a vertical sign saying “Pull”). [И. Грекова. Дамский мастер (1963)] 

Читать про себя

woman reading

Image from Pixabay

This phrase may be confusing — if “про” is “about,” does “читать про себя” mean “to read about oneself”? In fact, “читать про себя” refers to reading silently. The first interpretation of this phrase is also possible, but to make reading about yourself unambiguous, I would use “читать о себе.”

Он читал про себя, а затем вслух, но не всё (He read silently, then aloud, but not everything). [А. С. Грин. Дорога никуда (1929)] 

Покончить с собой

Покончить is a fairly rare verb meaning “to finish once and for all.” Покончить с собой is one of the ways of saying “to kill yourself.” Synonyms include “покончить жизнь самоубийством.”

Прочитав известие о смерти Брюсова, я думал, что он покончил с собой (Upon reading the news about Bryusov‘s death, I thought he had killed himself). [В. Ф. Ходасевич. Брюсов (1924)]

Постоять за себя

“Стоять,” as you may know, means “stand.” The expression “постоять за себя,” therefore, aligns pretty closely with the English “stand up for yourself.”

Этот мягкий человек умел постоять за себя (This delicate person knew how to stand up for himself). [Сергей Коковкин. Кольцо // «Звезда», 2002]

Следить за собой

woman brushing her hair in front of a mirror

Image from Pixabay

“Следить” can mean “to control, track, monitor, or surveil.” So does the whole expression mean “to spy on yourself”? That would be quite funny, but, surprisingly, “следить за собой” is closer to “take care of oneself,” “look after oneself.” This usually refers to looks, grooming, health, and physique as opposed to mental well-being.

Он всегда следил за собой, дома был чисто выбрит, подтянут, любил аккуратность во всём (He always took good care of himself, was clean-shaven and neatly dressed at home, and appreciated tidiness in everything). [Л. И. Брежнев. Жизнь по заводскому гудку (1980)]

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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 in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.