Learning Russian can sometimes feel like trying to swim against a tidal wave: no matter how hard you try, it seems there’s always another grammar, pronunciation or lexical curveball headed your way. Luckily, we’ve prepared a list of Russian phrases you will likely encounter on your travels, together with their correct meanings and pronunciations, for you to read through before you travel to Russia.
1. Na zdorovie (На здоровье)
A lot of people around the world seem to think ‘на здоровье’ (na zdorovie) is Russian for ‘cheers’ when toasting. However, this usage seems to be common in Polish, but not in Russian. We are known to be a drinking nation, but we actually don’t have an equivalent for ‘cheers’. True Russian toasts are custom-made for the occasion during every single toast. It could be ‘for family’, ‘for love’, ‘for meeting each other’ or even a super long story going back to the day you met someone – the sky is the limit. Na zdorovie (На здоровье) is actually a response to someone asking to do something (Можно мне кусок пирога? – На здоровье: Can I have a slice of pie? – Go ahead) or a way of saying ‘You are welcome’ in response to ‘Spasibo’ (‘Спасибо’ or ‘Thank you’).
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2. Zdrastvui (3дравствуй)
Contrary to popular belief, the pronunciation of many Russian phrases and words differs from their writing. There is no easy way to remember these exceptions and many Russians also make mistakes. But certain words are easier as you will hear them almost everywhere you go. The word ‘здравствуй’ signifies a greeting, similar to English ‘hello’. When you read it letter by letter, you will pronounce it as ‘Zdravstvui’, which actually has a slightly different meaning of ‘get well/feel healthy’. To do it properly, chop the V in the middle and you are on the right track.
3. Ya lyublyu tebya (Я люблю тебя)
This romantic Russian phrase that means ‘I love you’ can be hard to pronounce. My tip for all of you English speakers would be to use words ‘yellow’ & ‘blue’ as support. ‘Yellow blue tebya’ is easier to pronounce and remember, right? And it sounds very similar.
Fun fact: you can move all 3 words around as you wish and say ‘ya lyublyu tebya’, ‘ya tebya lyublyu’ and so on in 6 different variations. You see, one of the main differences between English and Russian is that while in English you need to always follow the word order (‘I’ then ‘love’ then ‘you’), even with adjectives sometimes, in Russian you can play with it freely and a lot depends on the intonation. This is one of the features of the language that makes it difficult to learn, but very poetic and beautiful when understood.
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4. Babushka (Бабушка)
Babushka (Бабушка) is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, and the ш (‘sh’) should sound harsher than the English ‘sh’. Many non-Russian speakers also assume that Babushka is another word for a Russian doll or a scarf that Russian grandmas wear, but this is not the case. Babushka is simply the word for grandma.
5. Izvinite (Извините)
When you travel to Russia, don’t be as apologetic as you might be in Europe or Canada. Here saying the Russian phrase ‘извините’ (izvinite – ‘sorry’) is reserved for situations when someone is actually at fault. If you’re in a crowd, you’ll probably come into physical contact with others. Of course, you can apologize in such situations, but don’t expect any return courtesies. Outright flattening someone or clumsily colliding with them are the only times when “izvinite” absolutely needs to come into play. But make sure you say it with a stress on the second I and a smile on your face.
6. Pazhalusta (Пожалуйста)
Russians are viewed as a ‘cold’ nation, and even our word for ‘please’ makes you feel a bit chilly. But if pronounced correctly, it can actually sound very sweet. Some letters in ‘Пожалуйста’ are read differently to how they are written, so it turns into ‘paa-zha-lu-sta’. You can use this word as a ‘Thank you’, ‘Please’ or ‘You are welcome’.
7. Do svidaniya (До свидания!)
The usual way to say goodbye in almost any situation is ‘Do svidaniya!’, pronounced as ‘duh svee-dah-nee-ye’. This Russian phrase literally means ‘until (the next) meeting’ and you are guaranteed to hear it absolutely everywhere you go. If this sounds too hard, you can use an informal word ‘Poka’, pronounced as ‘pah-kah’, that stands for ‘bye’ or ‘see you later’.
Would you like to visit Russia? Book Wonders of St Petersburg and Moscow with Trafalgar to discover what this great country has to offer. Travelled to Russia before? Share your favourite Russian phrases in the comments below.