Russian Language Blog

To be or not to be?: Using “быть”, “есть”, and other terms of existence in Russian Posted by on Sep 25, 2017 in language, Uncategorized


Anton Chekhov IS one of Russia’s most celebrated playwrights.

Understanding these verbs is crucial to describing the world in Russian.

Most English-speakers find the very “to be” to be a central part of speech. The reason is clear to us natives: The verb is dynamic enough to denote existence, state, and mood. For example, “There is an eclipse happening”, “The door is open”, or “I am happy”.

However, one aspect of Russian and other Slavic languages most English speakers find surprising is that “to be” is rarely ever included in the present tense of sentences at all! It is simply omitted, and the meaning is gathered from context instead. This is especially apparent when describing things or people:


Я студeнт.      “I am a student.”


Онa счaстлива!      “She is happy!”


Магазин открыт?       “Is the store open?”




Despite this, however, the Russian word for “to be”, быть, is actually quite common in Russian when used in the future or past:


Я был готов. “I was ready.”


Студeнты будут расстроены.        “The students will be upset.”


You can find the full conjugation of these tenses of быть here.


As stated before, the present-tense of быть is almost always omitted in the present tense, and its conjugation in this tense is a striking anomaly in Russian for one reasonAll pronouns, genders, and numbers have the same conjugation, that being “есть”! However, this form is only very rarely seen, and only in literature and other written material, where it is used dramatically to indicate existential identity:


Хочу быть счастливым, какой я есть. I want to be happy with who I am.


Note that the adjective following быть is always in the instrumental case.


This above example highlights another case of when быть is included, which is in the infinitive, especially (but not limited to) when it is follows another verb. Here are some examples:


Я научился быть учёным.                             “I learned to be a scholar.”


Быть лидером—это честь.                              “To be a leader is an honor.”


A line of the Hymn of the Russian Federation is a perfect example of all of быть’s tenses in action:


Так было, так есть и так будет всегдa!                         “So it was, so it is, and so it will always be!”




Another verb worth mentioning is стать, which means “to become”, often in the sense of a profession or some other status. For example:


Я стал банкиром. “I became a banker.”


Мы стaнем друзьями. “We will become friends.”


This is the perfective form of the verb, which is the most common. The imperfective form is станови́ться.



Besides, быть, another term, есть (don’t confuse this will the present tense of , is important to learn. An important first step to understanding есть is to not think of it as meaning “to be”, but to mean “there is/there are”, since this is how the word is usually used:


Что у меня есть?                                 “What do I have?” (Lit. “What at me is there?)


На столe книга есть.                       “There’s a book on the table.” (Lit. “On the table book there is”)


Notice that есть often occurs at end of a sentence or phrase. This placement is not required, but it does serve to emphasize the existence of some object, rather than what that object actually is. This follows the cardinal rule of Russian sentence order that the most important words come at the end (rather than at the beginning, as in English). For example, compare these two sentences that have the same literal meaning, but that place different emphasis on their parts:


“На столe книга есть.”                “There is (indeed) a book on the table.”


“На столe есть книга.”                   “There is a book (as opposed to something else) on the table.”


Additionally, eсть usually occurs next to the object to which it refers, whether before or after, which the above examples illustrate. The possessive construction can also be simplified when answering a question:


У вас есть ключ?                     “Do you have a key?” (Lit. “At you is there a key?”)


Да, есть.                                        “Yes, I do.” (Lit. “Yes, there is.”)


The opposite of the affirmative answer is the term “Нет”, which can be substituted for есть to communicate that there is NOT something.


Note that whatever noun нет refers to must be placed in the genitive case:


Нет причин.                                                          “There’s no reason”  (Lit. “There are no reasons”)

Нет + причины (gen.)


Здесь хорошего ресторaна нет.                            “There is no good restaurant here.”

Здесь + хороший (gen.) + ресторан (gen.) + нет


Also, when talking about possession, don’t confuse есть with иметь, a verb that means “to have” in an abstract sense and with non-physical objects:


Я имeю право.                                                “I have the right.”


Понятия не имeешь!                                    “You have no idea!” (Lit. Notions you don’t have!)


Он имeл возможность встрeтиться с Путиным.                        “He had the opportunity to meet with Putin.”




Lastly, the verb cущéствовать means “to exist”, both figuratively and literally. It is used in a capacity very similar to in English, and is also inserted in place of есть to mean “there is/are” in formal contexts:


Однaко существует ряд проблeм.                                            “There are, however, a number of problems.”


Indicating existence is one of the ways in which Russian diverges from English. Following these descriptions and examples, however, will ensure that you develop a stable grasp of some of the language’s most important verbs.


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  1. Octavia Lupu:

    1. The copula in present tense is also dropped in Hebrew; Strangely enough I have heard native Russian speakers learning Hebrew introduce the copula in all the wrong places when speaking Hebrew, instead of just falling back on the Russian formula, which should have come naturally. So they say: אנ יש כאןי ( I AM here) instead of אני כאן ( I here).
    2. Regarding есть. It is a piece of linguistic trivia, but it might be interesting for English speakers learning Russian. Eсть, as used as an answer to a command , say in a military setting, is taken to mean ” I have it” but in fact is comes from Peter the Great times, when English sailors were brought in to help develop the brand new Russian navy. The Russian trainees heard the English sailors answering “Yes Sir” to orders received form the ship captain and mondegreened it to Eсть, the closer sounding Russian word in this context .

  2. Sue Nugent:

    Thank you. That was a very good summary. All of these types of things sounded so peculiar to me when I first went to Russia in the ’90’s. I remember someone saying “bymagi nyet”, which to me sounded endearing because in English, anything with an “ee” sound on the end is a diminuative in an affectionate sense, like “doggie” or “horsie”.

    • Jaksa:

      @Sue Nugent I’m curious whether есть has anything to do at all with british and sailing.It is used as “to be” in a number of slavic languages and used in military context atleast in poland too.”Tak jest”-Yes sir (literally meaning “it is so”).I also don’t see any similarities between mentioned “yes sir” and есть,especially with usual accented R at the end of reply.