Russian Language Blog

Six Quintessentially Russian Concepts – Part I Posted by on Jun 16, 2016 in Culture, language, Russian life

Kremlin tower

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See Part II of this article here.

Every so often, an article will pop up online talking about culture-specific or untranslatable words in other languages. In this post, I will not be claiming that the words I discuss are “untranslatable” — yet they are used in Russian in ways that may not be obvious from their literal meaning. Since these phrases are culture-specific, the approximate translation of examples will strive to convey the feeling of the Russian except rather than the meaning of specific words.

У нас

У нас is a genitive form of мы, we, and means “at our place, in our country,”  and so forth. Other languages, such as German and French, have similar constructions. У нас is used to talk about the speaker’s home country — usually, Russian, but as I wrote on this blog, Russian is spoken in other countries, too. A lot of times, the speaker will contrast their home country/city/social milieu to other places or emphasize its quirks.

У нас принято нарядно одеваться в театр (We dress up to go to the theater [in our town/country]).

Note that у нас is sufficiently ambiguous as to refer to anything the speaker considers their “in-group.”


men armwrestling

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Мужик originally referred to a peasant or a serf in pre-revolutionary Russia. This word is related to муж, husband, and мужчина, man. This word has come to refer to a simple, uncouth, or rough man. The connotation will greatly depend on the context. Мужик may be derogatory and put someone down for their lack of manners or sophistication, or it may be complimentary, praising someone for being down-to-earth and one of the guys.

Из “Москвича” выбрался мужик и стал неспешно протирать стёкла оранжевой тряпкой. (A fellow got out of the Moskvich car and started slowly wiping the windows with an orange rag.) [Андрей Волос. Недвижимость (2000) // «Новый Мир», 2001] 


Девушка refers to a young woman. As you know, молодой (young) in Russian only really refers to young adults and not young children. Девушка should not be confused with девочка, girl — the latter does describe a young female child, probably through early adolescence; although grown women will sometimes lovingly refer to their girlfriends as such.

Now, in English calling a grown woman a girl can be considered disrespectful; the preferred term is “woman.” In Russian, anyone seen and desiring to be seen as young (so, under 25? 35? 45? older? — that’s for you to decide) will likely prefer to be called “девушка.” “Женщина” smacks of stately matrons, so it’s very hard to imagine a 20-year-old insisting to be called that. Could it be because of internalized sexism? I’ll let the audience judge.

Those of you who have traveled to Russia will know that Russian lacks a neutral “Sir/Ma’am” appellation, so people resort to calling strangers мужчина, женщина, девушка (man, woman, young woman), etc.

В то время я была ещё недурна. На улице окликали: “Девушка! ” Впрочем, сейчас девушками зовут всех от пятнадцати лет до семидесяти. (Back then I still didn’t look too bad. People called me on the street, “Honey!” Although these days anyone between the ages of fifteen and seventy is honey.) [И. Грекова. Перелом (1987)] 

Stay tuned for part 2! Are there are any words you think are specific to Russian reality and do not translate well to other audiences?

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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.


  1. Shaun Jooste:

    Thank you so much for this! Really clarifies certain things to starters like me

    • Maria:

      @Shaun Jooste You’re welcome, Shaun! Part II is going up next week.

  2. Richard:

    Maria, your first example got me thinking about the construction (мы с + instrumental) which translates as “you and I” (мы с тобой или вами) or “he/she and I” (мы с ним/ней). In other words, if I understand this construction correctly, мы is being used as a plural pronoun in Russian but is translated into English as the first person singular pronoun. This construction can’t be translated literally into English so I think it fits the topic of your post.

    To be honest, I’m not entirely clear on the use of this construction and if you could review it it would be greatly appreciated.

  3. samonen:

    @ Richard

    Мы с тобой should just be thought of as “you and I”. A “literal” translation leads far astray, thinking about a bunch of people who include somebody in their midst.

    Personally, I grasped the finesses of “женщина/девушка” via Estonian. I guess the Russian word for “a woma”n really is “жена + -щина”. Estonian has the word “naisterahvas” (a representative of “woman+folks”).

  4. samonen:

    Or: maybe “we together” would make this construction clear. It is puzzling, not only for English first language speakers.

    • Maria:

      @samonen Samonen and Richard,
      You both have good points. Yes, мы с тобой is the equivalent of “you and I,” so it does have an analog. It’s just not a literal analog.
      Example: Мы с тобой давно не виделись. ( We haven’t seen each other for a long time. )
      I would put it in a distinct category from words like девушка, where no clear equivalent can be determined.

  5. Richard:


    Thanks for your reply. I agree that “мы с тобой” should be translated as “you and I”, a literal translation just doesn’t work.
    I’m more concerned with the usage of this construction (is it considered literary Russian or is it more colloquial?) as well as the possible permutations of this construction given the fluidity of word order in Russian.