Russian Language Blog

Most Useful Russian Phrases Posted by on Dec 15, 2011 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners, when in Russia

I once met a person who коллекционировал (was collecting) words. Actually, he only collected one word, “hello”, but in many different languages. He knew how to здороваться (greet) in over 30 languages and was working hard on expanding his collection for a future кругосветное путешествие (around-the-world trip).

I think learning just one word or phrase is a bit minimalistic. However, what if you are planning on travelling to Russia, but you не говорите по-русски (don’t speak Russian), don’t have time to learn it, yet need some basic survival phrases.

With this in mind, I asked our Facebook community to come up with the most essential and useful Russian phrases. And then I sat back, enjoyed чашка горячего чая (a cup of hot tea) and waited…

While waiting, I kept thinking about what kind of phrases would be наиболее подходящи (most fitting). After all, they are going to constitute the entire Russian словарный запас (vocabulary) of the hypothetic tourist.

Needless to say, our tourist will need some common courtesy phrases such as здравствуйте (hello), до свидания (goodbye), спасибо (thank you) and извините (excuse me). Now, I know, здравствуйте is a pain to memorize and pronounce, especially compared to привет (hi). But it’s a must because nothing will brand you as невоспитанный человек (a bad-mannered person) faster than неуместная фамильярность (an out-of-place familiarity). Same goes for choosing до свидания over a more informal пока.

This immediately eliminated all the где? (where?) questions. If you don’t understand verbal instructions, these questions are pretty бесполезные (plural form of “useless”).

Imagine you need to find out где туалет (where is a restroom). You’re lucky if it’s in the line of sight so that you are told вон там (over there) accompanied with a pointing gesture. More often than not you will not be so lucky. So how would you understand even simple directions such as на перекрёстке – налево, потом в переход, выйдете – там кафе есть, но там только для покупателей (turn left at the intersection, then go through the underground crossing, at the exit there’s a café, but they only let customers use their restrooms).

If you are in a situation like this – a Russian starts giving you an answer that you don’t understand, the phrase я не понимаю (I don’t understand) will come really handy. Of course, you are running the risk of hearing а зачем же спрашиваешь? (then why are you asking?) So right after you say я не понимаю, flip out a pen and some paper and ask покажите, пожалуйста (show it, please) or напишите, пожалуйста (write it down, please).

Of course, our tourist will probably be buying сувениры (souvenirs). The single most helpful phrase in this case is сколько это стоит? (how much does it cost?) or simply сколько это? (how much?). Again, напишите, пожалуйста (write it down, please) comes in handy here as well. The second most useful phrase for buying souvenirs is это слишком много (it costs too much).

If a seller is pushing something you don’t need, like yet another set of Russian leaders matreshkas, you can sayмне не нужно (I don’t need this). Then remind about what you really need by pointing to the item and saying мне нужно (только) это (I need (only) this)

Now, quite a few answers on the Facebook page were about vodka, including где купить хорошую водку (where to buy good vodka). Here we go again with the “where” question. I think a more useful question would be это хорошая водка? (is this vodka good?) In this case, there are only a handful of possible answers – да (yes), нет (no), не особенно (not especially), мне нравится/мне не нравится (I like it/I don’t like it).

A bigger concern might be how not to get drunk on the trip. Russians can be tough when it comes to getting out of drinking to yet another тост (toast). (But please, do not assume that ALL Russians are big on drinking vodka) A simple я больше не пью (I’m not going to drink any more) won’t have much success and neither will я – непьющий (I don’t drink). Instead, a determined-to-stay-sober-throughout-his-visit tourist should use мне доктор запретил (my doctor said I can’t). Another option is мне нельзя, я завязал (I can’t because I’m on the wagon (quit drinking)).

A very useful word, suggested in the conversation on Facebook, is можно? (may I?) as in можно попробовать (may I try?), можно купить? (may I buy? Is it for sale?), можно проехать (may I drive through here?), можно потом? (maybe later?), можно договориться? (договориться in this case is a euphemism for a bribe). Again, since our tourist’s vocabulary is so restricted and there is an almost infinite number of phrases that use the word можно, he can just accompany the word with gestures.

Finally, there are quite a few words and phrases that should not be used on the first, second or even tenth trip to Russia – мат (swear words), грубые слова (rude words) such as отвали (get lost) and отстань (give it a rest) and any phrases that build on the grotesque stereotypes of Russia as the land of drunks, easy women and bears roaming the streets. After all, as one of the fans pointed out, в России люди добрые, трезвые и культурные (in Russia people are kind, sober and well-mannered).

Got more must-know phrases that you used or wished you knew on your last trip to Russia? Please share in the comments.

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  1. Delia:

    Yelena: I think “Это слишком много” might be misunderstood by a Russian. They can think they’re giving a tourist too many or too much(of something), it вoesn’t quite mean “too expensive”. Why not say “Это слишком дорого”? I think it’s a very useful phrase to remember when traveling.
    Sentences “мне нужно/ мне не нужно” might be too “long” to remember. I think it’s easier to say “нужно/ не нужно” pointing at whatever a person is buying.
    These are just my two cents… 🙂 I’m really curious to see our learners’/tourists’ comments. I like the post and I’m printing it out for my students. Thank you!

    • yelena:

      @Delia Delia, I do agree. Это слишком дорого is a better phrase. As usual, your comments are very helpful and much appreciated.

  2. Richard:

    When you’re in any foreign country, it’s always useful to know how to say and how to read words for common things, things that you’d use back home. For example:

    tickets = билеты
    bank = банк
    street = улица
    store = магазин
    park = парк
    restaurant = ресторан

    Also, anything to do with a subway system (метро) is useful. Asking for a subway map, tickets, etc. When you’re in Russia, take your camera on the subway as the stations in St. Petersburg and Moscow are works of art in themselves.

    Bears roaming city streets? LOL We’ve got that in Canada: 😉

    My country suffers from stereotypes as well, I think all countries do. Perhaps that’s the best benefit of travel, it dispels the myths and stereotypes we have of other nations and cultures. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to vacuum my igloo.

    • yelena:

      @Richard Richard, your “have to vacuum my igloo” comment made my day 🙂 LOL I like your list of words and your suggestions about learning words for common things. In my experience, too many tourists limit their trips to Russia to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most that do so go on organized tours with English-speaking guides and don’t need to worry too much about having to speak Russian. So this is probably a post for someone who’s getting ready to go on such a tour, but would like to know a few phrases just in case.

  3. Richard:

    Yelena, it’s true that people who visit Russia tend to stick to St. Petersburg and Moscow, I’m guilty of that. I’d love to go back to Russia some day when I get the money together, but I would never go as part of an organized group, I like to travel independently.

    On the other hand, a lot of tourists who visit Canada never get out of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver; they miss the small towns and the countryside. I grew up in a small town so I think it’s a shame that they don’t see anything outside of the main cities. Perhaps people do this because cities in any country have a personality, an identity, that makes them unique.

    That said, the next time I go to Russia I’ll get out of the cities and see the country!

  4. yelena:

    Richard, I think it’s pretty typical of tourists going to a country and a culture that is so different from their own. If I was to go to Japan right now, I’d go to Tokyo and Kyoto and would probably go with a tour 🙂 Going to Russia independently is complicated by the not-so-friendly visa requirements and so it’s easier to go with a tour where things like visas and registrations are taken care of. In fact, last time I went to Russia I went with my husband who is an American. So in the interests of saving time on paperwork we booked a tour with a UK company. It was a basic tour going to Moscow and St. Petersburg. We flew in a few days before the tour so we could also travel independently which we did by going to my hometown and having a blast there 🙂

  5. Richard:

    When I went to Russia, my travel agent took care of the visa and all of the paperwork and contacted private citizens (through Intourist (Интурист) in both cities, people who rented rooms to tourists. I was met at the airport by a guy holding a sign with my name on it, I tossed my luggage in the back of his van and off we drove! LOL My time was my own and I could explore St. Petersburg and Moscow in my own way at my own pace. That’s about as organized as I want it. I had a great time! 😀

  6. Rick Haller:

    Would someone say “а зачем же спрашиваешь” to a stranger? I would think it would be “а зачем же спрашиваете”. Or is it intentionally rude. 😉

  7. Minority:

    Yelena, I think you’re trying to scare your readers without reasons. Nobody would think that foreigner is rude if he says “привет” instead of “здравствуйте”. Actually, most of Russians would be excited to meet foreigner and talk to him/her a little.

    When it comes to subway, I guess it’s hard to get lost there. There’re a lot of direction signs, in Russain and English. I’ve been to Moscow for the first time at about year ago. I was a little bit nervous about being alone in such a huge and unknown city on my own. We’ve got no subway in my town.. But I should admit it’s the most casual system I’ve ever seen – if you know which station you need, you will easily get there.

    If you need some restroom in Moscow, I bet the best way is to ask where the nearest McDonald’s is [где ближайший МакДональдс?], ’cause МакДональдс – это сеть бесплатных туалетов Москвы, and these cafes are everywhere. =)

    If you need to buy something to eat, I’d recommend to ask “Это вкусно?” [is it tasty?] or “Это сладкое/соленое/острое/кислое/горячее/холодное/газированное/негазированное/со льдом?” [is it sweet/salty/spicy/sour/hot/cold/fizzy/still/with ice?].
    The question “Это свежее?” [is it fresh?] may be useful too, though I doubt you can hear “no” in return. So you’d better check date stamps on the packing.

    One thing about date. You may be surprised about it at the first time, ’cause it’s usually dd/mm/yy[yy], or[yy]. As for me, I’m always confused when I see some date in western style – mm/dd/yy, it takes for me some time to understand what date is it. 🙂

    • yelena:

      @Minority Minority, I both agree and disagree with you. It really depends on the city. In one of her earlier posts, Josefina, the first Russian blogger on this blog, wrote about her (in)experience with Russian greetings. She would say привет at first and didn’t understand the often-strange reaction she’d get. Funny about Это свежее (Is it fresh) which is an excellent phrase. I actually do ask that at a really great Russian store on Brighton Beach and once in a while a sales woman there says “no” in a whisper 🙂 She then explains that even though the food item is not просроченный (past its due date), it’s не самое свежее (not the freshest). Good point about the dates!

  8. Rick Haller:

    First I need to say that I have quite a bit of experience with St Petersburg, and some with Moscow. Not much with other cities.

    I agree about McDonalds. That is one I use all the times. Never have eaten there though 😉 Most of them are fairly clean too, though I have been in ones that would have Ronald rolling in his grave.

    BTW, finding public toilets is almost as difficult as in the US. For the Tricentennial, they trucked in lots of extras including one across the Nevsky from Dom Knigi that was a converted autobus! Don’t expect the plastic outhouse type to be free though. There will usually be a babushka out front sitting in a chair and expecting you to pay up.

    Other good places are indoor Teremoks and coffee shops.

    The subways are basically easy to use in both SPB and Moscow and worth visiting by themselves because of the beauty of the interiors of the stations, specially the platform areas. Each line has it’s own number and color code.

    Be prepared for some long walks when making a connection to another line. There are some where you simply move to the other side of the platform, but for me it always seemed to be the wrong direction!

    And in St Petersburg, since the metros were also intended to be used as bomb shelters, the escalator ride down or up can seem to take forever. In fact, if the weather is good, you can probably walk from Mayakovskaya to Gostiny Dvor as quickly as riding the metro. A Russian has the same attitude toward a 15 min walk as an American has for one a few blocks long.

    This map is a great one for figuring out connections because the переходы (interchanges) are color coded so you can tell which station is on which line.

    And then there is the complex of Sennaya Ploshad/Sadovaya/Spasskaya. Three different lines (2,4,5) are interconnected and even my Russian friends say they are confused!

    And which exit to use at Nevsky Prospekt/Gostiny Dvor? Do I turn right or left when I leave the car? The wrong choice can leave you somewhat father away from where you wanted to be.

    But be very careful of your possessions when on the metro, specially when it is crowded. I have had a Nook and HTC G2 smartphone stolen because I wasn’t. And I caught on gypsy boy with his hand in my pocket!

    My Russian friends warned me and scolded me when I was robbed because I didn’t follow their advice. On the other hand, recently one of them had her smartphone stolen! I would imagine Ipads are a favorite target right now 😉

    Ah, Санкт-Петерб́ург, I miss you!


  9. Rick Haller:

    When it comes to shopping, two words you can be sure of seeing are “скидка” (discount) and “продажа” (sale). There seem to be sales going on all the time, sort of like Bed and Breakfast’s eternal 20% off.

    BTW, one thing I have noticed is that there are more Second Hand stores than there were, say 5 years ago. As I recall the signs are a transliteration of “Second Hand” into cyrillic, something like “секонд ханд”. If you look up “second hand” in google, you will find it is translated as something that refers to the minute hand in a clock!

    Quite a few words are like that. I always read and sound out the signs on my way from the airport to my hotel as a way of getting my brain into Russian gear, and sometimes I will realize before I am thorough sounding one out that it is an English word! “СТОП” is of course old hat by now 😉

    Another thing I have noticed is that when I first came to Piter in 1998, all the fashionable young ladies (девушки) wore sky high stiletto heels. This Spring, I noticed that a lot more were wearing flats or running shoes, like our young ladies, though stilettos were still in evidence.

    Unfortunately девушки have been pretty heavy smokers for a long time. Two of my three Piterburger friends are addicted. The newest fashion is to take the old Virginia Slims idea even further. By that I mean cigarettes about the diameter of a malted milk straw or the shaft of a screwdriver.

    I apologize for taking this comment drift so far. ciao!


    • yelena:

      @Rick Haller Rick, did you mean “распродажа” (sale)? As for секонд ханд (used), it sounds a bit nicer than подержанные (previously owned) or бывшые в употреблении (used) At least it sounded nicer back in the early 90ies when магазины секонд хэнд (second hand stores) first made their appearance 🙂

    • yelena:

      @Rick Haller Rick, did you mean “распродажа” (sale)? As for секонд ханд (used), it sounds a bit nicer than подержанные (previously owned) or бывшые в употреблении (used) At least it sounded nicer back in the early 90ies when магазины секонд хэнд (second hand stores) first made their appearance 🙂

  10. Rob McGee:

    A Russian has the same attitude toward a 15 min walk as an American has for one a few blocks long.

    Oh, don’t get me started! One of the things that left an indelible impression on me from my months living in Moscow in the early ’90s is that in Russia, being too fat is overwhelmingly a condition of middle age!

    It is (or was) rather rare to see Russians under 35 who are seriously overweight, although childhood and teenage obesity is a common problem in America. And I think this is partly explained by the fact that Russians walk a lot more than Americans do.

    Which is why I roll my eyes when I hear other Americans say, “It’s not my fault that I’m the size of a planet — it’s my genes, it’s trans-fats, it’s high-fructose corn syrup…”

    And I’m thinking, “Or MAYBE it’s because the idea of leaving your car at home in pleasant weather and walking a 3-mile round trip to the shopping center sounds to you like some bizarre torture from one of the Saw movies, rather than a regular part of a normal person’s weekly routine…”

  11. Rob McGee:

    The most important thing is: If you’re going to speak in Russian, make sure you pronounce every word with an atrociously heavy American English accent, like this — they’ll treat you much better.

    This also indirectly addresses Rick’s question about the politeness of “а зачем же спрашиваешь” — if you say я не понимаю with very чистое произношение, почти без акцента (pure pronunciation, almost without a foreign accent), they might think you’re a Ukrainian or Pole or Serb or Bulgarian (i.e., not a “real foreigner”), and that you speak Russian rather slowly because you’re stupid or drunk — and they’ll treat you accordingly.

    So, no matter how hard you’ve worked on your Russian pronunciation, sometimes you get more effective and courteous results by swallowing your pride and saying Yaaah neigh pony-MAH-you…

    (Of course I’m only talking about casual conversations with shopkeepers or asking for directions on the street… when you’re with Russian hosts or friends, obviously you should use the occasion to practice and improve your Russian pronunciation!)

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Lol, Rob, I think you’re right on this one. In fact, one of the readers, who is spending a whole year in Moscow, might be having this problem. She has such a clear pronunciation, even though she is a native English speaker, that she totally fooled me when we first met. It’d be great to hear from her on the accent/no accent issue. Her name is Hannah and I hope she’s reading the comments.

  12. Rick Haller:

    Yes, Yelena. I meant “распродажа” (sale). By the way, last year I saw a “магазин секонд хэнд” at the famous Удельная (Udelnaya) Market. I have a photo somewhere.

    Speaking of markets, I know there are quite a few “рынок” in their own buildings that are pretty much food. Is “рынок” the right word to use when referring to a flea market such as the Udelnaya? It wouldn’t be grammatical I think to say “Удельная рынок” since “рынок” is masculine, but on the other hand, my impression is that it is called Удельная because it is near the Удельная metro station which is feminine (станция).


  13. Yelena:

    Rick, yes, you can use “рынок” to refer to a flea market. In fact, in many places “рынок” will sell both produce and at least some non-food items. As for the grammar here, I’m not familiar with how this particular market is referred to by the locals, but if I was talking about it, I’d say either “Удельный рынок” or “рынок на (or возле) Удельной”. So I might say something like “рынок на Удельной неплохой, но довольно дорогой.” (the flea market at Udel’naya station is not bad, but rather expensive)