Russian Language Blog

Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, or Expressing Obligation in Russian Posted by on May 23, 2019 in Grammar, language

Most learners of Russian will remember the word до́лжен (have to) for talking about your obligations. It may be trickier to remember other expressions. Let’s review some ways of expressing obligation in Russian.

brick wall with the words "until debt tear us apart"

Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash


The following short adjectives mean “owe” or “have to”:

  • должна́ (feminine)
  • должно́ (neuter)
  • до́лжен (masculine)
  • должны́ (plural)

These words are related to the idea of debt or duty, долг. That’s why you can sometimes hear “Я никому́ ничего́ не до́лжен” (a play on the idea of “I don’t have to do anything” or, literally, “I don’t owe anyone anything.”).

  • Мы должны́ ба́нку 3 миллио́на до́лларов (We owe the bank $3 million).
  • Ты должна́ хорошо́ учи́ться (You have to study well).

Russian does not really have the wide variety of modal verbs other languages do and may not reflect the fine shades of “must” vs “have to” vs “ought to” vs “should” vs “has got to,” etc. However, до́лжен and its variations does tend to sound like you’re telling the other person what to do. There are other, less direct forms for expressing obligation.

neon sign saying "you need coffee"

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash


Надо translates literally to “it’s necessary” and is used in combination with the dative case for the person. You may also come across ну́жно or необходи́мо in the same role, which is a bit more formal. This is closer to “need to” and sounds more like a recommendation.

  • Нам на́до запасти́сь терпе́нием (We’ve got to have patience).
  • Вам ну́жно обрати́ться в поликли́нику по ме́сту жи́тельства (You need to go to your local clinic).


This handy verb is great to talking about necessity. The great thing is you only need to know three forms to talk about anyone: the past, the present, and the future.

  • пришло́сь (perfective) for specific, one-off events and приходи́лось (imperfective) for repeated events
  • прихо́дится — present
  • придётся — future

This verb is combined with the dative case to show the person.

  • Я опозда́ла на после́дний авто́бус, и мне пришло́сь идти́ пешко́м (I missed the last bus, and I had to walk).
  • Дире́ктору придётся отве́тить на неудо́бные вопро́сы журнали́стов (The director will have to answer uncomfortable questions from the journalists).

I hope this helps you express obligation with greater nuance and without sounding like you owe someone. Do you use any of these expressions often?

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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.