Russian Language Blog

I Am In It to Win It Posted by on Aug 9, 2012 in language


The Olympic Games are not over yet. There are still a few medals to win. Yesterday was a particularly good day for российские атлеты (Russian athletes) who won четыре медали (four medals).

So let’s talk about why спортсмены со всего мира (athletes from around the world) train so hard; let’s talk about the two Russian verbs победить and побеждать, both meaning “to win”.

Let’s start with the imperfective побеждать. As you know, imperfective aspect is used to describe an action that is either incomplete, ongoing or repeated. If we are talking about our привычки (habits), we are likely to use imperfective:

Мы привыкли, что наши гимнасты побеждают  (We are used to our gymnasts winning)
Баскетболисты были уверены, что они будут побеждать с лёгкостью, пока не выйдут в полу-финал (The basketball team was sure they were going to continue winning easily up until the semi-finals)
Наша команда побеждала в каждом матче (Our team won every game)
С первых же мгновений заплыва стало очевидно, что американский пловец побеждает (From the very first moments of the race it became apparent that the American swimmer was winning)

On the other hand, if we are talking about a completed or one-time non-repeating action, we will use the perfective победить:

Хотя мы привыкли, что наши гимнасты побеждают в командном зачёте, в этот раз они не победили (Even though we are used to our gymnasts winning team standings, this time around they did not win).
Баскетболисты уверены, что победят в полу-финале (The basketball team is confident it will win the semi-finals)
Наша команда победила и в этом матче (Our team won this game as well)
С первых же мгновений заплыва стало очевидно, что американский пловец победит (From the very first moments of the race it became apparent that the American swimmer was going to win it)

So far so good, right? Well, if we look at the conjugation table for победить we will immediately see something very curious:


Future Past
Я победил, победила
Ты победишь победил, победила
Он, она, оно победит победил, победила, победило
Мы победим победили
Вы победите победили
Они победят победили


First, there is no way to use победить in present tense. Ok, fine, we have побеждать just for that, no big deal. But here’s something else. If you look at the table above, you’ll see that there appears to be no way for Russian athletes to psych up before the competition with some positive thinking along the lines of  “I will win this race”.

You might sometimes hear Russians saying я победю or я побежу, but both ways are grammatically incorrect and are used largely in a humorous way as in Vladimir Visotsky’s song Про дикого вепря (About a Wild Boar). In the song a kingdom is plagued by a monstrous beas and the king calls to all the men to fight the monster promising, of course, the princess as a reward. Finally, the king finds the man for the job and repeats an offer to him, but hears this in return:

А стрелок: – Да это что за награда?
Мне бы выкатить портвейна бадью!
А принцессу мне и даром не надо –
Чуду-юду я и так победю.

The archer says “That’s some reward.
I would rather have a bucket of booze!
By the way, I don’t need your princess either,
Fight with the monster I don’t plan to lose.

Turns out, победить is not the only Russian verb that doesn’t form first person singular present or future tense. Other so-called defective verbs include убедить (to persuade), очутиться (to find yourself in some place), ощутить (to sense), чудить (to act strange), бузить (kick up a fuss), тузить (to pommel), and дерзить (to talk back).

If you try coming up with first person singular present forms of these verbs, you will soon notice that they sound very similar, sometimes identical, to first person singular present forms of other ‘non-defective” verbs:

For example, you might come up with убежу from убедить which sounds very much like убегу, a form of убегать (to run away).
Бузить would produce бужу, except that it is the first person singular present of будить (to wake up).

Держу, as you know, is not a form of дерзить, but of the verb держать (to hold), etc.

This can get very confusing very fast. So just remember that to use the defective verbs in a first person singular present and future tenses, you need to employ some auxiliary verbs – одержать (to succeed), суметь (be able), хотеть (to want), пытаться (to attempt), etc.

Я думаю, что сумею победить в борьбе на пальцах (I think I will win in thumb wrestling)
Она сказала: “Я уверена, что завоюю победу на чемпионате” (She said: “I am confident I will win this Championship).

An even easier way of handling this situation is to use an imperfective verb instead, if possible.

Yet another way around it is to use a synonym of the verb победить, as long as it’s not one of the defective verbs. For example, we can use  выиграть, одержать верх, завоевать, побороть, instead of победить.

Here are some “winning’’ phrases from the Russian Olympic Games coverage along with simple sentences illustrating their use:

завоевать медаль, завоевать победу –  to win a medal, to win
Я завоюю медаль – I will win a medal

стать обладателем/обладательницей медали – to become a medalist
Я стану обладателем медалиI will become a medalist

выиграть соревнование – to win a competition
Я выиграю соревнование – I will win a competition

получить медаль –  to get a medal
Я получу медаль – I will get a medal

одержать верх над соперником – to defeat competition
Я одержу верх над соперником – I will defeat a competitor

And there you have it – a couple of ways of dealing with some unruly Russian verbs.

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  1. Rob:

    завоевать победу

    Hmmm, I’m guessing that this is the best expression to use if, for example, you’re playing Агамемнон and you want to brag: “I shall conquer Troy” — since verbs like выиграть aren’t really suitable for military contexts, AFAIK.

    So you could say Я завоюю победу над Троей.
    (lit., “I shall achieve victory over Troy”, putting Троя in the instrumental)

    • yelena:

      @Rob Хм, in this case you’d just say Я завоюю Трою (putting the hapless Троя in the accusative), but if you want to use the word победа, then you’d say Я одержу победу над Троей (keeping in instrumental).