Four Quirks Russian Non-Speakers Get Confused About Posted by on Oct 1, 2015 in Uncategorized


Most of our posts are meant for people who already know or are learning some Russian, however little. Still, there are people out there who are interested in the language and the many cultures using it, but have not ventured past the first few phrases yet. For this reason, I will not be the Cyrillic script in this post (have you checked out our alphabet courses yet?).

Some of the questions below have been covered in other posts on this blog, and we are now bringing them together on one page. Even beginner students of Russian will likely find this information basic, but hopefully it will answer some of the questions by those interested in the language but not yet learning it.

Why do some Russian words have KH in place of a K?

Why is there an “h” after the “k” in Khrushchev? What’s the difference between the last names Volkhonsky and Volkonsky?

The reason lies in transliteration — writing Russian words with Latin characters. Russian is usually written with Cyrillic letters. There no one to one correspondence between the two writing systems — instead, there are several transliteration tables. The Russian letter “х” — a breathier version of “ha” — is sometimes transliterated as “kh” into Russian. It’s not just another way of spelling the “k” sound — in fact, the Russian pronunciation of Khrushchev is closer to Hroo-SHOF .

Why do Russian last names end in -sky and why is it sometimes spelled -ski?

This is a common ending of a male last name (more on that below). In Russian, it has 4 letters: ский. The first two letters form a common suffix “sk.” The third letter is the equivalent of “i.” The fourth letter is the equivalent of the “y” sound in the English word “yes.” So, to transliterate Russian last names accurately, you would really need to spell then with -skiy, e.g. Rimskiy-Korsakov. However, conventionally, these names have often been written with just a single vowel at the end, i.e., Rimsky-Korsakov.

Why do men and women in the same family have different last names?

Russian surnames are essentially adjectives describing the appearance, occupation, origin, or other group membership of a person. They often take the form of a possessive adjective — Ivanov (Ivan’s). Since adjectives normally agree with the noun they modify in Russian, a woman’s last name will be in the “feminine” form. For example, a woman’s last name would be Petrova, Nogina, or Belskaya. The corresponding surname for a man would be Petrov, Nogin, or Belsky.

I’ve always said “Na zdorovye” for “Cheers,” but now my Russian friend tells me it’s incorrect.

I’m not sure where this myth originated — perhaps in Anglophone films. Na zdrowie is the Polish for “cheers,” for sure. Russian toasts are more of a dedication and need to be custom-said every time. The Russian phrase “na zdorovye” is an answer to “Thank you” (so, the equivalent of “You’re welcome”) or giving permission to do something (“Go ahead”).

Are there any other aspects of Russian our Russian-curious readers have been wondering about? I and our veteran readers will try to cover them for you.

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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.


  1. Rosa:

    Keep sending verbs with thier various prefixes.

    • Maria:

      @Rosa Rosa, thank you for your comment. It does sound like a popular topic, so I’ll be sure to re-visit it.

  2. Mark:

    The common English pronunciation of the name Khrushchev has always bugged me. I’ve never understood this idea we have of completely ignoring how a person’s name is pronounced in favor of whatever way we decide it should be pronounced. It’s not like he was some obscure person either so I find it even more odd. I actually had a student once who was trying to look him up online using Cyrillic and was confused as to why he was having no luck. I explained this whole thing and then I ended up showing him a trick for whenever you aren’t sure how something should be spelled in Russian from English or vice versa. For most common words and names you can go to either English or Russian Wikipedia, type in the version you do know, and then scroll down the side until you find the article in the opposite language. I still do that and due to the large number of both Russian and English Wikipedia articles…it usually works.

    • Maria:

      @Mark Thank you, Mark. I suppose the older convention was to relay the spelling of the word as opposed to the pronunciation. The “shch” in Khrushchev is very confusing because the letter these 4 letters stand for — щ — is really just pronounced as “sh” in Russian.
      Great tip on using Wikipedia.

  3. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    To avoid the confusion with the “toast” you can always correctly say: “За дружбу!”
    Za droozhboo. To friendship!

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Excellent suggestion! За знакомство/To (our new) acquaintance also works.

  4. Carlos R. Barron:

    Why do net send easy sentence in Russian and the English equivalent to pronounce, plus send the cyrilic alphabet to get used, I have some knowledge of the cyrilic alphapet.
    I use Transparent language for the word of the day in German and Portuguese.
    It helpes a lot since I have a background of both language , I used CD from transparent language 10 years ago, still remember now , I am80 years old now.

  5. Paula:

    I agree with Mark. Why do we call it Moscow, when it is Moskva (Москва́)?

    • Maria:

      @Paula Paula, thank you for your comment. It may have to do with the earliest name of Moscow — Москов, according to Wikipedia ( Then again, we do sometimes upgrade translations of city names to reflect their contemporary pronunciation.

  6. sayed yahya:

    Thank you For informations we are waiting more and more . Спасибо вам большое за информации . Очень интересно и полезно ))

  7. natalia:

    As for the phrase “na zdororovie” – well, of course it cannot be used as a toast, and Maria has perfectly explained the main meanings of it/ But there is a remarcable and very popular Russion toast “ZA zdorovie!” (To your health!) Propably the meaning of this word combination corresponds to “Cheers!” Thank you for the post, Maria.

    • Maria:

      @natalia Natalia, this is an elegant solution to the “na zdorovye” problem. I bet a lot of these people who think Russians toast with “na zdorovye” actually heard “za zdorovye.”