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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.