Russian Language Blog

Monasteries, eyeliner, and poverty Posted by on May 18, 2022 in Culture, language, Vocabulary

Today is a deep dive into one Russian verb. Recently one of my students and I were casually talking about ways to express in English that you подвёл когото (as in ‘to let someone down’) when it dawned on me that I don’t know why we use “подводить” in that sense in Russian. What I thought would be a simple google search ended up being a very exhilarating trip into the world of idioms and language history.


Фото автора Eugene Liashchevskyi: Pexels

Let’s start with the basics. Here are some definitions of the verb ‘подвести:

·        First and foremost, подвести means to lead someone close to a certain place with you. What’s the difference between повести and подвести then? Повести is just to lead someone while подвести has an added element of bringing the person really close to something. Сompare:

Она повела меня за собой в библиотеку. She took me to the library with her. 

Он подвёл меня к забору и показал где собака вырыла проход.

He led me to the fence and showed where the dog dug a way out.

·        Подвести счета или подвести итоги – to sum up or to recap

Давайте подведем итоги сегодняшнего урока. Let’s recap today’s lesson.

·        Подводить глаза карандашом – to use eyeliner

Как правильно подводить глаза карандашом? How to apply eyeliner?

Moreover, we even have a derivative noun “подводка” which simply means “eyeliner”.

Как выбрать подводку для глаз? How to choose eyeliner?

Now onto the figurative meaning:

Подводить когото is a pretty standard way to say ‘to let someone down’. It does not mean предать, which is ‘to betray’. Other ways to think of this verb is in a sense “to drop the ball”.

Я очень подвёл свою группу с этим проектом.

I really dropped the ball on this project or I really let my team down with this project.

The official definition is “неожиданно поставить когото в затруднительное, неприятное положение какиминибудь действиями” (when your actions put someone in a difficult and uncomfortable situation).

Он меня очень подвел: обещал и не пришел.

He really let me down. He promised to come but never did.

to let someone down

Фото автора Thirdman: Pexels


All the dictionaries online just stated that подвести was a figurative meaning “to let someone down” but no explanation as to why that is. I just felt like there was a piece of the puzzle missing because on its own подвести made little sense. I wanted to add a “location”, as if the person is literally lead to a place that will be uncomfortable and difficult, i.e. подвести кудато или подвести к чему.

And I think my linguistic gut feeling was right because I found an idiom подвести под монастырь and this great in-depth paper that расставила всё по полочкам (put everything in its place).  

Подвести под монастырь: origins

This wonderful person named Zhujkova M. V. wrote a lot about the Dynamic Processes in the Idiomatic Systems of Eastern Slavic Languages but you can read further about this one idiom on pages 130-146.

Here’s the actual link. I just couldn’t resist not rickrolling you1🙂. Anyway, here are the main takeaways from that chapter of Zhujkova’s study.


Фото автора Vincent Rivaud: Pexels

The figurative meaning of the verb подвести has originated from Ukrainian. There are used to be a lot of phrases that talked about people having to beg for money and food under the walls of monasteries or churches because that’s what people used to do when they lost money or property. Zhujkova provides examples in Ukrainian that would translate to быть под монастырем, стоять под монастырем, уходить под монастырь, etc. She also talks about how people used to say that something or somebody led them to live a life of poverty and therefore beg for money and food under the walls of monasteries. In other words, пойти под монастырь became associated with ‘стать нищим2become poor. Losing one’s wealth or possessions would be a very devastating situation and therefore gave these phrases a very negative tone.

Although no longer a popular idiom, ‘подвести под монастырь has essentially the same meaning as the verb подвести on its own. Have you used this verb before or heard it being used? There is a popular Ukrainian song that goes “Ти ж мене підманула, ти ж мене підвела”?3In Russian that would be “Ты ж меня обманула, Ты ж меня подвела” (You lied to me, you let me down). Perhaps next time you hear it you might just be thinking of the interesting origins of the verb подвести.

Looking for more deep dives into Russian verbs or nouns? See similar blogs here:

Patience à la russe

Two very neat Russian words

  • 1
  • 2
    become poor
  • 3
    In Russian that would be “Ты ж меня обманула, Ты ж меня подвела” (You lied to me, you let me down).
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  1. Bob Little:

    Love this.

    • bota:

      @Bob Little Спасибо)))) мне очень приятно))))