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So you’ve made it to Russia – now what?!
Don’t feel discouraged by not having mastered Russian language fully yet. Life is long and there’s still plenty of time ahead for you to get a grip on all of those cases and to understand why so often the letter «о» sounds like the letter «а» when pronounced. Even if you’re not fluent in the language (or even far from it), you can still very much enjoy a visit to the great Eastern Motherland! But knowing a word or two before crossing the border might help you to get a little bit more out of your visit. And that’s what today’s post is intended on helping you with – by giving you the ten most useful Russian phrases! (These phrases are in no way ‘universal’, and are not based on any kind of statistics; they were simply taken out of my own mind and then duly motivated by my personal experience.) So start read and then repeat!
1. «Здравствуйте!» [hello; good afternoon] is the most important thing to know how to say and pronounce correctly when in Russia. It is pronounced rather sloppily most of the time, making it sound more like: «Здрастье!» [‘Zdrastye!’] It is also important to know that this is the preferred way to greet people with whom you have not yet made friends. Thus, to enter a Russian store and proclaim proudly: «Привет!» [hello, hi!] would be seen as a little bit rude by most Russians. Don’t make my mistake – I only knew two words when I first arrived in this country back in 2004 – «привет» and «пиво» [beer]. And the whole first week it seemed to me a mystery why the Russians looked so angry when I said that to them… (Well, of course they mostly smiled when I mentioned the word ‘beer’).
2. «Меня зовут…» [My name is…, lit. ‘I’m called…’] and in the place of the three dots you put your own name. It is really as simple as that. You don’t even need to think of the cases here, because the case (mainly) used in this construction is nominative. Hurrah! Do note that in Russia it is custom to say your «имя» [given name] first, after it your «отчество» [patronymic, lit. ‘made from your father’s name’] (but being as it is that you may be a foreigner, then you do not always have one – don’t stress it! Russians understand), and then finishing with your «фамилия» [last name]. You can tell Russians your name without being asked first, but you might as well wait for them to enquire: «Как вас/тебя зовут?» [What’s Your/your name?].
3. «Я не из России» [I’m not from Russia]. If it is your first time in Russia, and your Russian is still far from at its best, then it might be a good idea to warn the natives around you of the fact that you’re from ‘elsewhere’. After you’ve said this, however, they might want to know: «Откуда?» [Where from?], but don’t be afraid, just use almost the exact same phrase as above, only removing «не» [not] and replacing «России» with your country in the genitive case.
4. «Я плохо говорю по-русски» [I speak Russian poorly]. It is better to say this than to say «я не говорю по-русски» [I don’t speak Russian], as stating this bluntly might kill the conversation entirely. If you say that you’re not so ‘good’ at Russian, there’s still hope (the Russians tend to think so anyway) that you might understand a little bit of what they’re saying. And that’s in itself a whole invitation that could lead to eternal friendship or at least to a couple of vodka shots!
5. «Спасибо!» [Thank you!]. You can never go wrong with saying «спасибо» [thanks] in Russia and thus also in Russian – you can say it when you are given something, when someone does something for you, or just randomly in conversation or at the end of a conversation. I’ve heard from the older generation of Russophiles that back in Soviet times it was not customary to say «спасибо» as often as it is said in today’s Russia, but I think this is a highly polite and nice progress in modern Russian society. Everyone likes to be treated kindly, right? More thanks to the people!
Failing to understand properly what’s written on this note – «С куртками, шубами, пальто и прочей верхней одежды – нельзя!» [With jackets, fur coats, coats and other outerwear –you must not (enter)!] – will inevitably lead to you having to say: «Извините!» [excuse me!].
6. «Извините!» [I beg your pardon, excuse me!, pardon me!] – once again, also a very polite and kind thing to repeat often when in Russia. You should always say it when you happen to bump into someone on the street, but it is also used for opening conversation with strangers (without the exclamation mark in that case though). As a matter of fact, you can use this as much as you like in Russia, not only when you think you’ve done something wrong, but also when you suspect that you’ve said something strange. And being a foreigner means saying strange things on a daily basis. Get used to it, and get used to wrapping it up with «извините!» [I’m sorry!].
Okay, so you made it all the way to «центральный рынок» [the central market] in Novosibirsk. Now how do you let this kind «бабушка» know that you would like to purchase five oranges?
7. «Дайте мне, пожалуйста, борщ / стакан чая с сахаром и лимоном / ваш номер телефона / вон ту штучку» [Give me, please, borscht / a glass of tea with sugar and a slice of lemon / your telephone number / that thing over there]. When in a store buying groceries, or at a restaurant ordering a meal, or just talking with a Russian, or at the market while looking for the perfect fur hat for your uncle Albert in Minnesota – you’ll need to start explaining what exactly it is that you want to buy by saying: «дайте мне, пожалуйста…» [give me, please…]. In the place of the three dots you put what it is that you want (in accusative case). If you don’t know what the thing that you want actually IS you just say «вон ту штучку» [that thing over there].
8. «Где туалет?» [Where’s the restroom?] No comments – I think you all understand why this is important and when to ask about it – expect that in this category fall also the questions «где банкомат?» [where’s the ATM?], «где вокзал?» [where’s the train station?] and «где мы?» [where are we?].
9. «Я не понимаю» [I don’t understand]: there are plenty of situations in Russia when this phrase will come in handy. You might even come to find that it doesn’t always have to be said to someone, but could be whispered to oneself when in a peculiar situation, or just thought in one’s mind for that matter when reality around you seems crazy and wild. And Russian reality will often seem crazy and wild – especially in the beginning of your stay there. But if you say this to a Russian, then there’s a chance he or she will explain the crazy and wild stuff to you. And thus shed some much needed light on the mysteries of this great country.
10. «Я люблю Россию!» [I love Russia!]. This should, of course, be screamed with tears of joy whenever Russia wins in some kind of sport (when they weren’t competing against your native country, for then it is not an applicable reaction and the Russians will consider you mad), or when something really wonderful happens to you in Russia, like if you find a rare and old Russian book for very cheap that would’ve cost you a fortune on the other side of the Russian Federation’s border. Or when you make friends with a random Russian in the afternoon while walking around in some park and end up drinking wine and singing Russian folk songs accompanied on guitar by this person six hours later in their suburban flat. But also note that this phrase could be used IRONICALLY – when you, for example, have the conductor on the bus make you pay twice because she doesn’t ‘remember’ that you already paid five minutes ago. And since it was a ‘lucky ticket’ you have already eaten it, so there’s no proof for you to make your case with. A typically Russian situation!
But that’s only the top TEN Russian phrases. Now if I were to make a top HUNDRED – then the picture would look a lot different! What do you think of my choices? Do you disagree? What would you have on your top ten? What’s the most useful Russian expression in your opinion? Let me know!