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Russian MiniLessons
for intermediate and advanced students
2006 - 2005 Archive
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Below is an archive of the Russian MiniLessons featured in the SRAS newsletter over the 2005-2006 school years. Please see our FULL TABLE OF CONTENTS for a list of all lessons, arranged by subject. To subscribe to the newsletter, and recieve a free Mini-Lesson each month, simply sign up

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Авоски = String Bags (Shopping Soviet-Style)

Specific language developed around the complicated process of shopping in the Soviet Union. For example, "дефицит" came to mean not only "a shortage of goods" but was used to refer to the hard-to-find goods themselves. Some of this vocabulary is still in use today (indicated in bold black), while some has become "old fashioned" (indicated in bold red).

If people were lucky enough to see дефицит (goods in short supply) for sale, they wanted to отовариться (get the goods) with it, even if they did not need this particular thing at that time, just for the future. There was a specific etiquette that was employed. Newcomers would ask the queue:"Кто последний?" (Who's last?). After some person replied, usually with a simple "Я" (I am) or "Я последний" (I am last), the appropriate response was: "Я за вами" (I am after you). With this, the newcomers занимали очередь (secured a place in the queue). Sometimes some rude person tried to пройти без очереди (jump the queue), but the rest of the queue used to tell him «Вас здесь не стояло» (You were not standing there). This process and language is still used in Russia wherever lines form (such as at a doctor's or government office).

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Women in the Soviet Union did not often rest during their lunch break, as it was regarded as valuable time to достать (get) groceries. Ladies used to take авоськи (string-bags) to work and бегали по магазинам (ran around shops) during their lunchtime. It was also not uncommon to find men carrying meat or oranges in their otherwise empty briefcases if they had found these дефицит items for sale. However, it was not just food that was often hard to find. When some scarce good appeared in the stores, people used to say, for example: "Ботинки выбросили!" (They have thrown out some boots [to us]!).

A person was lucky if he or she had блат (profitable connections). This person could get дефицитные товары (another way of saying "goods in short supply") and many other things. There was a пародоксальная ситуация (paradoxical situation) – for people with connections, холодильники были забиты едой, в то время как в магазинах был дефицит продуктов (refrigerators were full, at the same time that there was a shortage of food in the shops).

In mid-80s, талоны (coupons authorizing purchase of certain amount of butter, sausage, and other foodstuffs) were introduced. However, in the bigger towns there were кооперативные магазины (cooperative trade shops) where wealtheir people could buy sausage and other дефицитные товары at higher prices.

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Truth is not truth - Правда, да не истина!

Russian has two distinct words for truth, although both can be translated to English as simply "truth." "Правда" is generally thought of in the same context as the English "truth" but can also carry a rhetorical implication that the speaker is attempting to convince the listener of his/her own version of truth. The implication is especially pronounced if "правда" is compared with its counterpart "истина," which refers to an objective, undeniable truth. "Истина" is most often, though not always, used in religious contexts to differentiate between "God's Truth" and "secular truth." However, the terms could also be simply translated as "objective truth" and "subjective truth" if the difference between the two needed to be highlighted.

Perhaps the best and simplest explanation of the difference between the terms is expressed by the following simple children's song "Да только истина одна" (Yes, there is only one [objective] truth), written for the children's music film "Не покидай" ("Don't give up") from 1989. You may also view a 10-minute long scene from the movie from

Да только истина одна
муз. Е.Крылатова
сл. Л.Дербенева

Сыграть мы пьесу были рады,
И все старались искренне
И все что видели вы, правда
И все что слышали вы, правда
Правда, да не истина!

Есть правда гордая,
Есть правда скромная,
Такая разная всегда она
Бывает сладкая,
Бывает горькая,
И только истина всегда одна

Есть правда светлая,
Есть правда темная,
Есть на мгновенье
И на времена
Бывает добрая,
Бывает твердая
И только истина всегда одна

Порой восстанет брат на брата,
Безжалостно неистово
И все что первый крикнет правда,
И что второй ответит правда
Правда, да не истина!

Есть правда гордая,
Есть правда скромная,
Такая разная всегда она
Бывает сладкая,
Бывает горькая,
И только истина всегда одна

Есть правда светлая,
Есть правда темная,
Есть на мгновенье
И на времена
Бывает добрая,
Бывает твердая
И только истина всегда одна

Сражались мы неоднократно
С неправдой ненавистною,
Но часто нам мешала правда,
Земная маленькая правда
Правда, да не истина!

Есть правда гордая,
Есть правда скромная,
Такая разная всегда она
Бывает сладкая,
Бывает горькая,
И только истина всегда одна

Есть правда светлая,
Есть правда темная,
Есть на мгновенье
И на времена
Бывает добрая,
Бывает твердая
И только истина всегда одна



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Friendship - Дружба

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The Russian words "приятель"(m) and "приятельница"(f) are perhaps best translated as "friendly acquaintance" and represent a sort of middle level of friendship largely unknown in English. In Russian, the words "друг" and "подруга" (friend, m/f) are very strong, implying that you are very close to someone and have been for some time. Referring to someone who you met, for example, a few weeks before as "друг" is as strange in Russian as announcing you will marry someone you met only a few months before in America. "Приятель" and "приятельница" are more correct to use for someone you have recently met. For those acquaintances you do not have any established relationship with, the words знакомый/знакомая (acquaintance m/f) should be used.

Russian also has several slang words for friends: товарищ (comrade, still popularly used between close friends and which only has the one form for both males and females); male friends sometimes refer to each other as "мужик" (peasant) or "старик" (old man), though this is considered uncultured; a group of your very close friends can be referred to collectively as "свои" (ours).

Russian proverbs about friendship include the following:

1. Друг познается в беде. (A friend makes himself known in times of trouble.)
2. Скажи, кто твои друзья и я скажу, кто ты. (Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.)
3. Дерево держится корнями, а человек – друзьями (Trees are supported by roots, and man - by his friends.)
4. Не имей сто рублей, а имей сто друзей. (Don't have 100 rubles, have 100 friends.)
5. Друг для всех – друг никому. (A friend to all is a friend to none.)

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Клевая музыка - Cool Tunes

Much of Russia's modern music language is related to English. For example, the names of most genres can be directly translated: Рок, Рэп, Джаз, Хип-хоп, and even Функ and "Емо-музыка." Technical terms are also very closely related (having both come from Latin roots): arrangement (аранжировка), harmony (гармония), melody (мелодия), and even half note (половинная нота). Of course, many of these words are not in common usage and many are technical terms that are really only known to those who follow and study music.

Among young people, a set of slang words have evolved to describe music they like:

Драйвовая - Energetic music (from the English "Drive.")
Зажигательная - Music that makes one feel good (from the Russian "Зажигать" - to light on fire)
Взрывная - "Mind-blowing" (from the Russian "Взрывать" - to blow up)
Чумовая - Crazy music (from the Russian "Чума" - plague or pestilence)
Грузон - "Downer" music (from the Russian "Грустить" - to be sad; also similar to "Грузить" - to load upon.)

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Program downloading... Программа загрузится...


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Computer lingo in Russian is generally based on the English equivalent. For example, the Russian verb "загружать / загрузить" (to load) can be used to mean both "upload" and "download." The direction of the "loading" is usually clear from the context, and the verb will be followed by a preposition. For example, "загружать с сервера" means "to download from a server," "загружать через Интернет" is "to download via the Internet."

In speech, some computer professionals will use English words which have been 'Russified' – даунлоудить and аплоудить are two examples. These words won't be found in technical literature, but you might encounter them on IT forums. There is also the widely accepted slang скачать or скачивать, which carries connotations for most of "to copy" but can also translated as "to skim" or "to draw off."

Thanks to Anna Zvegintov of Kaspersky Lab for contributing to this language section.

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Девушки, Девочки, Девчонки ≠ Girls, Girls, Girls

Russian has several words related to "девушка" which can all mean "girl" with varying connotations. For example, "девочка," a diminutive form, would indicate a very young girl. "Девкa" is another derivative of the word, but a not wholly pleasant one, implying "wench" or even "harlot." In modern slang, the plural forms "девчата" and "девчонки" are used in familiar cases between friends, but we don't recommend trying to use them as they can also be quite offensive.

The word "девушка" also carries the extra meaning of "ma'am" in restaurant and other service settings; it is customary to call waitresses (официантки) by this title. A male server is commonly called "молодой человек." These titles can be applied no matter the true age of the server and with no negative connotation.

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Блат - "Back-scratching"

"Блат" is a Russian word referring to systematic profiting by connections (e.g. Я получил подпись директора по блату). This does not mean bribery. "Bribe" generally refers to material gain – "блат" is immaterial, referring only to favors (such as the actions of signing or stamping which were much more valuable in the USSR – and to an extent in Russia today). "Graft" in English can refer to a system of bribery or favoritism or the bribe or favor itself but is still lacking in translation because "блат" is so specific and much less negatively connotated. Many even consider it a natural part of their governmental system. "Back-scratching" is also lacking, but it was the only variant that we and our Russian coworkers could roughly agree on.

Some other more unsavory political words and terms include:

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взятка (or подкуп) - bribe (according to a recent poll, half of all Muscovites admitted that they have paid a bribe of some sort during their lives; the amount of bribes paid by businesses are increasing.)
cамоцензура – self-censorship (many analysts now consider this a bigger problem in the Russian media than direct censorship)
cфальсифицированные выборы – Falsified (rigged) elections (such as what happened in Belarus recently – most agree that Russia's elections are now largely fair. However, with television media dependent on the state or state-owned companies for management and finances, self-censorship and other factors give the party of power obvious advantages.)
заказуха – a "little order" more specifically means a "hit" (and ordered murder) – it has also been used (esoterically) to mean any demand by a politically powerful person, including demanding that a media outlet print or air a favorable story.
джинсы – many younger Russians do not recall the days when blue jeans were a symbol that you were well-connected and wealthy enough to stay at the height of fashion. Apparently "зиппери" was once used in the same way, as zippers were at times in short supply in the Soviet Union.

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The Language of Business - Деловой язык

Maxims have long been popular in the West with businesses seeking to establish a "corporate culture" and with employees seeking new ways to poke fun at that culture. This element of office life has been slow in infiltrating Russia in part because marketing materials are often notoriously difficult to translate. What sounds "strong" in English can sound overly simplified in Russian, what sounds "professional" in Russian can sound like a convoluted mess in English. Below are a few maxims that can be more-or-less directly translated and have been used on office posters in Russia:

Есть больше, чем один путь к успеху - There's more than one way to success
Используйте силу своих идей - Use the power of your ideas 
100% самоотдача - гарантия 100% успеха - 100% passion guarantees 100% success
Открыто для новых идей - Open for new ideas
Начало успеха лежит внутри тебя - The beginnings of success lie within you
Постоянно поддерживайте диалог с клиентом - Be in constant dialog with the client
Двигайтесь вперед вместе с новыми стратегиями - Move forward with new strategies
Найдите новое в привычном - Discover the new in the everyday
Прикладывайте максимуму усилий для достижения максимального успеха - Work to your maximum capacity to achieve your maximum success

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Говорить вкрадчиво – To Say Sweet Nothings

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Russian lovers don't call each other "honey" and often think it amusing when English speakers do. They most often use the words "dear" (дорогая), and "sweetie" (милая), and very often some derivation of the word "rabbit" (заяц, зайчик, зайчишка). More creative titles include "родная," which comes from the same stem as "родина" (homeland) and "родственник," (relative), two of the highest valued elements in traditional Russian culture. Other terms are "солнышко" (little sun), "золотко" (golden one), and even "рыбка" (little fish – not commonly used).

Probably no one is more famous for sweet nothings in Russian than A.C. Pushkin. His best known diatribe on love starts as follows: "Я помню чудное мгновение: / Передо мной явилась ты, / Как мимолетное видение, / Как гений чистой красоты." (I remember the many miracles / as you appeared before me / Like a fleeting vision, / As if a marvel of pure splendor). Most of Pushkin's poems on the subject juxtapose love and sorrow. Take, for example, "Унынья моего / Ничто не мучит, не тревожит, / И сердце вновь горит и любит - оттого, / Что не любить оно не может." (My despondence / Knows no grief nor even sorrow / For again my heart burns and loves, as / Not to love the heart cannot).

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Насквозь промерзший - Frozen Solid

Although current temperatures are the coldest Russians have experienced in about two decades, they are certainly nothing new for the famously cold country. The language, in fact, has developed some coping responses to the weather. Probably the most affirming of them is "У природы нет плохой погоды," which literally means "Nature doesn't have bad weather" but is also used in the context that one should roll with the punches and that everything happens for a reason. Also reassuring is "в зимний холод всякий молод" meaning "everyone is young in winter's cold." Literally, it refers to the rosy cheeks caused by blood initially rushing to them to keep them from freezing. There is also the more ominous "Мороз не велик, но стоять не велит" meaning "It's not tremendously cold, but we shouldn't stand in it," and which can be used in fairly obvious non-literal contexts. There are also linguistic turns pointing to the darker sides of human nature, of course. One of these is "у него снега зимой не допросишься" or, "he wouldn't even give you snow in winter" meaning that the person has a "cold heart," which can be literally translated as "холодное сердце."

Other terms, sayings, and words about cold:
frozen assets - замороженные активы
frostbite - обморожение
freezer burn - ожог при замораживании, морозный ожог
wind chill - охлаждение ветром
in cold blood - хладнокровно
He could sell ice to an Eskimo - Он и эскимосу снег продаст (he could talk you into anything)

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A Military Life - Армейская жизнь

Given that Russia still employs universal conscription, military life (or the avoidance of it) represents a large part of the Russian collective experience. Not surprisingly, jokes and terminology from military life are common in popular culture. For a full article written by Dr. Lawerence Mansour of West Point on this subject, click here. It appears on the SRAS site courtesy of the editors of The Russian Context, the unique resource book it was originally published in.

The following military one-liners are from the same source:

Всех отсутствующих построить в одну шеренгу!

Line up all the missing men in one column!
И не делайте умное лицо, не забывайте, что вы будете офицеры. Don't try to look intelligent. Don't forget that you are future officers.
Курсант, если вы хотите что-нибудь сказать, то луше молчите. Cadet, if you want to say something, you'd better keep quiet.
Все в окопы, остальные за мной! Everyone into the trenches! The rest follow me!

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Thankfulness - Благодарность

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This topic is doubly pertinent this month, as Thanksgiving (День благодарения) has just passed, but also because many charities (благотворительные организации) are likely to be affected by the new law on NGOs. The linguistic connection that Russian makes between charity and thanksgiving is an interesting one, perhaps even better developed by the expressions "спасибо на хлеб не намажешь" (you can't spread thanks on bread); and "из спасибо шубы не сошьешь" (you can't sew coats of thanks). These expressions were generally used (they are not in wide circulation today) by the poor to the rich after having performed a service, reminding that one should not just say thanks, one should do something or give something to express thanks.

Similar expressions:
Одним "спасибо" сыт не будешь (One "thank you" is never enough)
Доброе слово и кошке приятно (Even a cat likes a kind word)
Спасибо вашему столу от нашего (Thanks for the meal)
Дареному коню в зубы не смотрят (Don't look a gift horse in the mouth)
Своя рубашка ближе к телу (Charity begins at home)

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Word for Word – Дословно

Idioms and sayings can often be a translator's nightmare; seldom can the full meaning, humor, and impact be directly carried to another language. However, there are some examples from internationally popular literature that can be used with little variation. Take, for example, Shakespeare: ("Все хорошо, что хорошо кончается;" "All's well that ends well." "Не все то золото, что блестит;" "All that glitters is not gold."); or the Bible: ("Что посеешь, то пожнешь;" "You reap what you sow").

Other similar collocations are more debatable as to what their origins were or how the entered one language or another. For example, "take the bull by the horns" has existed in English since at least 1711, but Russians often attribute the phrase "Возьми быка за рога" to peasant wisdom predating 1711, as shaking a bull this way to get it to pull a plow has long been known to be effective. Other sources, incidentally, assume the phrase to be originally Greek, connected to a rodeo-type game which may have been part of the original Olympics.

A few other examples of near-exact matches:
To see the world through rose colored glasses - Смотреть на мир через розовые очки
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth - Дареному коню в зубы не смотрят
Better late than never - Лучше поздно, чем никогда

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Обломы – Bummers

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Russian has many phrases that describe disagreeable situations. For example, "сесть в лужу/галошу" literally means "to sit in a puddle/galoshes" and most often describes a situation where one has "slipped up." If one finds one's self between a rock and a hard place in Russia, one can use the phrases "между молотом и наковальней" (between a hammer and an anvil) or "между двух огней" (between two fires). Similarly, "попасть впросак" means "to be in a bind." By the way, trying to use "впросак" outside of this idiom will find you in a bind; it is generally not done.

Along slightly different lines, our favorite phrase that we unearthed was "опростоволоситься" which means to be without a hat. In 18th century Russia, it was very shameful to be seen in public without a hat (остаться с простыми волосами), and this phrase, while a bit old fashioned now, is still used with the meaning of "to mess up" or "to be caught with one's pants down!"

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Перо и Шпага - The Pen and the Sword

The English proverb "The pen is mightier than the sword" has no direct translation into Russian. This is perhaps, as Jules Verne, professor emeritus at UCLA recently pointed out on SEELANGS, because the opposite has been generally true in the Russian experience due to heavy censorship. Mayakovsky's "Я хочу, чтоб к штыку приравняли перо" comes perhaps the closest, but it is only a wish that the pen were at least equal to the sword. Bulgakov said, "рукописи не горят," which might contain the thought, but only if discerned as subtext. Other Russian phrases implying the strength of the pen include "острое перо" and "бойкое перо" and the popular collocation "перо и шпага." But none of these, tellingly, place the power of the pen directly over that of the sword.

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Ходить на картошку - Goin' to the dacha!

During the times of Soviet shortages, most Russians grew their own vegetables at their dachas. In fact, some dacha settlements even boasted of exceptionally good land for potatoes, the vegetable of choice for dacha gardeners. For this reason, many still refer to going to the dacha with the phrase: Ходить на картошку (to go for potatoes). Most find this phrase amusing in today's rather plentiful market. Along the same lines, some Russians also jokingly refer to their dachas as "фазенда" the Russian rendering of the Portuguese "fazenda" or "farm." This slang came about during the financial crises in the early 90s. A string of Brazilian soap operas became popular at this time, as was dacha gardening. Russians identified themselves, toiling at their dachas, with the slaves shown working the "фазенды."


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