Russian Language Blog

Time Paradoxes in Russian Posted by on Oct 16, 2014 in when in Russia

Human perception of time is culture-specific, so it’s no wonder that simply learning the words to talk about time is not enough. You need to understand how Russian speakers see time so their words and actions can start making sense to you.

Time of the day is organic…

You probably learned time of the day (время суток) in your elementary Russian course. If so, you may remember that утро (morning), день (day/afternoon), вечер (evening), and ночь (night) follow our internal clock more than they respect the formal am/pm distinction. For example, English allows for constructions like “2 in the morning;” Russian does not.  Any time when people are normally be sleeping is referred to as ночь. So, 2 in the morning will be 2 часа ночи (not утра). Утро sounds acceptable for hours from about 4 am. This is very approximate.

There are no hard and fast rules, but you can search for what’s used more by using an internet search or a corpus. For example, there are only four real matches for “4 часа вечера” in the Russian National Corpus and 46 matches for “4 часа дня.”

…but time of the year is not

I was surprised when I heard someone tell me in September that autumn would be coming soon. (That was in the US — let me know if it’s the same in your culture!) In my mind, we had crossed into autumn as soon as September 1 rolled around. However, some cultures measure seasons by solstices (солнцестояние) and equinoxes (равноденствие).

Not so in Russia. In the Russian mind, the first day of the first month of a season is the first day of that season. So, December 1 (первое декабря) is the first day of winter, March 1 (первое марта) is the first day of spring, June 1 (первое июня) is the first day of summer, and September 1 (первое сентября) is the first day of autumn.

We are always in a hurry…

If you have been to Russia — of the vicinity — you will know that patience is not Russians’ strongest suit. In line (в очереди) at the bus stop or at vendor stands, people will wiggle their way past others and try to get to the front first. If someone is walking too slow, we run around them with annoyance. Public transport drivers close the door when the passenger has barely gotten through the door and take off before the passengers are seated. Perhaps the scarcity of the first post-Soviet years or a smaller personal space have shaped this attitude. In any case, going to — and coming back from! — Russia may require some adjustment to the pace you go about your day at.

…but we are always late

At the same time, your average Russian is not very punctual. Schools and workplaces encourage being on time, but from their insistence you can tell that advice is not always followed. People are much more tolerant of procrastinating (the verb to describe this action is затягивать; откладывать на потом). This often leads to crunch time (аврал) and things being done at the last moment (в последний момент).

Did you notice anything remarkable about Russian attitudes towards time? How are they different from your country?

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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. Ken:

    There is one aspect of the seasons that is similar in the US to what you describe. Memorial Day weekend at the end of May is considered the unofficial “beginning of summer” while Labor Day (first Monday in Sept.) is the unofficial end. (But we still consider fall as beginning later in the month, go figure.)

    • Maria:

      @Ken Ha, Ken, that’s true. It’s just the “first day of autumn” on Sept. 23 that I still find bizarre. It’s been autumn since late August as far as I perceive it.

  2. Anya:

    Something I noticed, when moving to the States after having lived in a Kazakhstan for years, was that the two cultures think of time in different increments. Minutes exist there as surely as they do in America, but I never thought of myself or anyone else as being 5 minutes or 2 minutes late. To think in such small increments seemed (and still seems) absurd. Moving back, suddenly minutes mattered. In Kaz, time mattered but typically in larger increments. Although I have lived in the States for a decade now and have managed to adjust my concept of time to always be early and accommodate what I know matters to other people here, I personally am very laid back, and still don’t consider myself or someone else officially late, for work for example, unless it is 10 minutes or more. In a non-professional setting such as having someone for dinner the time is longer: 20 or 30 minutes before you are actually late. I simply don’t naturally think of time in minutes, and I cannot schedule my life or think or function by time increments smaller than quarters of an hour. And that’s a quarter hour, not 15 minutes: the difference being that you think in fractions of an hour, rather than an accumulation of a large number of minutes.

    Perhaps this is a peculiarity of the version of Russian culture that exists in central asia as opposed to in Russia itself, but it’s something that still catches my attention because I still haven’t, and maybe never will have, fully adjusted to it.

    • Maria:

      @Anya Anya, yes, that sounds about right for Russia, as well. People try to combat it in official situations such as school or work, but I’d say socially it’s still acceptable.

  3. Masha:

    I like your posts – very interesting 🙂 I have been living in Germany for 4 years and here it’s just the same. Germans really think that July, August and September are actually summer months.