Chapter 9: Language

The Russian language has no word for “privacy”, perhaps because the concept has no real place in Russian life.
(Kaiser, p.61; 1976)

S.I.Ozhegov's Dictionary
of the Russian Language:
an essential tool for 

years for students of Russian

Anyone who has chosen to learn Russian has had the experience of telling someone that they are learning the language and received the response, “Oooohhh, it must be difficult!” Usually this is based on no more knowledge than simply an awareness that Russian is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, in which most Slav languages are written. But learning another alphabet of 32 characters is not the difficult part. Some letters are the same as the Latin alphabet (for example, А in Russian is A in Latin; М is M); some look the same as Latin letters but represent a different letter (В in Russian is V in Latin; Р is R); and a little over one third are uniquely Russian or Cyrillic (such as Ж, usually transliterated as ZH and with the sound of the “S” in “pleasure”; and Щ, which needs four Latin letters to transliterate its sound: SHCH). If learning the alphabet was all it took, half the world would be speaking Russian in one day.


Linguistically, the biggest challenge in learning Russian is coming to terms with the grammar. Noun declensions; agreement of adjectives in each case; verb conjugations where a simple prefix can alter the meaning significantly (for example, Я читал книгу, I read the book; but Я прочитал книгу, I read the book from beginning to end; or Я перечитал книгу, I read the book again): all of these grammatical points and others make the study of Russian a challenge. But there are other aspects of the language, which are particularly relevant for this chapter, such as trying to convey a concept when either Russian does not have an equivalent word, or, on the contrary, the Russian term is so specific to the country or the system in which it is used that it becomes very difficult to translate.

When native English-speaking Russianists get together there will frequently be Russian words thrown into the conversation. This is not because we are trying to show off or baffle our non-Russian-speaking friends. It is because the Russian word sums up so much that we would otherwise need a paragraph to explain. For example, if we are talking about someone we know being granted the right to live in Moscow, we would probably say, “I hear that Ivan got his propiska”. There is no adequate translation in English, less for the term than for the concept behind propiska. Every citizen in Russia has to be registered where they live, and the propiska is the valuable permit which allows them to live in a particular place (see above, Chapter 3, Moscow, quotations by Mikhail Bulgakov and David Shipler.)

Concepts can equally be lost in translation from English to Russian. One of the most difficult concepts to convey to a Russian (certainly one who has not travelled or lived abroad) is the idea of “privacy”. As Robert Kaiser says (above) and Hedrick Smith agrees there simply is no word in Russian for the term.

The Russian language does not have a word for privacy. In the natural order of things, the individual simply takes second place to the kollektiv.
(Smith, The Russians, p.376; 1977)

Kaiser’s suggestion that this is because the concept has no place in Russian life rings true: in the previous chapter, Sex, journalist Katya Deyeva makes the point that, “couples live apart… They may spend days together but not nights”; this is because of a shortage of housing and the lack of the concept of privacy.


To the English mind a lack of “privacy” may be as difficult to comprehend as a lack of respect for one’s personal space; but there is a host of other areas of life, too. The most authoritative source on this remains Robert Hingley’s excellent book, The Russian Mind. In this example, Hingley points out what is effectively an extension of the idea of no privacy: no private property.

Russian generosity of spirit extends, naturally enough, into the financial sphere. The Russian is liable to lend or give away his last rouble, and to borrow someone else’s – both with equal unconcern. To this must be added a sense of property so alien to the non-Russian mentality that the language does not possess a proper verb for “to lend” or “to borrow”…
(Hingley, pp.43-44; 1978)


Russian has no word for “kick”… Nor can something be described as “shocking” except by use of the obviously borrowed verb shokirovat… Still less does the Russian – emancipated, devil-may-care, un-bourgeois, with soul unbuttoned – have a word for “respectability”… Nor…does Russian possess native words for “job”, “business” or “weekend”.
(Hingley, pp.60-61; 1978)

And Simon Ings takes this one stage further:

There is a word for debt in Russian (dolg), but no word for favour. The nearest equivalent, odolzhenie, still expects a return.
(Ings, p.183; 2016)

Arkady Shevchenko, who was the most senior Soviet diplomat to defect to the West, when he went over to the USA from the Soviet delegation to the United Nations in 1978, makes the point that there is no neutral word in Russian for “defector”. The idea of a Soviet citizen – especially one high up in government service – going over to the other side could be described only as “treachery”. (Shevchenko was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.)

I knew I was already a “defector”. That word, so familiar in the West, does not exist in Russian. This is, as the Soviets say, not accidental. Contemporary Russian has only two words for people who leave the Soviet Union: “traitor” and “emigrant”; and in the eyes of the Soviet authorities the two are synonymous. Both are used to describe persons who have betrayed their motherland, the Soviet people, everything dear and loved, irrespective of their reasons for wanting to leave the country.
(Shevchenko, p.13; 1985)

It is difficult to imagine that an American, Englishman or any other West European who chose to live abroad would be treated in this way. But such emotive meaning is not unusual in Russian. When a law was introduced in 2013 limiting the possibilities of Russian non-governmental organisations and charities to receive help from foreign organisations, the term used such organisations was “agents” – for Russians a term synonymous with “spies”.


It is not surprising that, as G Dobson mentions, Peter the Great used a French word for his gatherings:
[Peter the Great] organized social gatherings, which he called “assemblies” in French, because he said there was no suitable word for them in Russian.
(Dobson in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.76-77; 1913)

As mentioned previously, Russian was considered the language of the peasantry and at various times German or French was the language of the Court. This led to a curious incident during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. A group of Russian officers on a reconnaissance mission were apprehended by Russian peasants and almost lynched, because the peasants thought they were French. Their situation was made worse by the fact that they could hardly speak Russian. They finally persuaded the peasants that they were Russian, so the story ends.

Lesley Chamberlain points out that this use of foreign words has applied also since Peter the Great’s time in the area of food.

Thanks to close ties with Northern Europe, wrought by Tsar Peter the Great, they had their first introduction to meat cutlets (kotlety), sausages (sosiski), omelettes (omlety), mousse (muss) and compote (kompot). The language of food was quickly Europeanised. The potato came from Germany in the 1770’s and took a German name. Tomatoes arrived from Italy about the same time and kept their Italian name …
  More foreign words such as buterbrod (from the German for open sandwich), were borrowed.
(Chamberlain, pp.12-13; 1983)

New foodstuffs and recipes were being tried in Russia, and the names they brought with them were simply transliterated into Cyrillic. In recent years the tendency has continued, with examples such as пицца (pizza) and суши (sushi).


As well as influence from the West, the Russian language has borrowed terms from the East. The Tatars ruled most of what is modern Russia for 250 years, following the campaigns of Genghis Khan and his successors. Hingley gives examples of Tatar influence on the Russian language:

…certain significant words – kabala, “Bondage”; nagayka, “whip”; kandaly, “fetters” – came into Russian from Tatar together with terms reflecting administrative practices: those describing the postal and customs services; the word for money.
(Hingley, p.163; 1978)

As Hingley mentions, the Russian word for “money” – деньги (den’gi) – also comes from Tatar. In passing, it is interesting to note that in post-Soviet Kazakhstan the name of the currency comes from the same root: the tenge. The original name for the city now called Volgograd (and Stalingrad from 1925-1961), Tsaritsyn, is also a Tatar word, and has no relation to the word “tsar”. It is derived from the Tatar for “yellow water or river”. Many place names in areas of southern Russia or Central Asia derive from Tatar.


Just as propiska is a word for which it is impossible to convey the meaning with one English equivalent, so is pokazuka, as Kaiser explains.

Soviet ceremonies are one manifestation of a national urge to make things look different than they really are…
  In modern times they have even coined a new word for the phenomenon, an onomatopoeic gem, pokazuka … Just as the Russians have no word for privacy, we have none to cover pokazuka. It comes from the Russian verb which means to show or show off. The slang noun means, roughly, something one does for the sake of doing it, for show, so one can say it’s been done … Pokazuka is a central element of Soviet life, part of the social landscape. Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that it also defies rational explanation, it is so perfectly Russian.
(Kaiser, pp.159-160; 1976)

The concept of pokazuka is deeply established in the Russian consciousness. One of the best known examples of pokazuka from Russian history (even if the term wasn’t in use then) comes from 1787: the Potemkin village. Catherine the Great’s favourite and lover, Grigory Potemkin, is said to have erected a “village” which was little more than simply fronts of buildings with happy, loyal peasants standing before them in order to pretend to Her Majesty that life was prosperous along the banks of the River Dnieper as she rode past on her way to Crimea. Apparently, the Empress accepted it, perhaps because it was what she wanted to see anyway.


Hingley’s discussion of “Why?” speaks volumes for the idea mentioned above in National Character about Russians feeling they have the right, perhaps even the duty, to give advice, whether it is asked for or not.

Zachem, pochemu, otchevo, dlya chego, chego, na koy chort: the language seems to possess, and to need, an infinite number of words for “why”. Why, why, why? Why do you not grow a beard, why do you not shave off your beard? Why do you never say what you mean? Why did you learn Russian, why do you not learn Russian? Why don’t you like me? Why do you like me? Do you love your wife, hate your children? What are your impressions of Soviet man?
(Hingley, p.69; 1978)

The word for “dissident” in Russian means, literally, “one who thinks differently”, a good indication of the conventional mentality.
(Kaiser, p.372; 1976)

Kaiser gives a literal translation for “dissident”. He is referring to the Russian word for the concept, инакомыслящий, (inakomyslyashchy), which does literally mean one who thinks differently. But the word диссидент (the simple transliteration of “dissident”) is widely found in Soviet-era dictionaries, classifying it as a foreign word, originally from Latin. In 1989 I saw an interesting illustration of the humour which is often just below the surface in Russian life. This was the year when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness began to bear tangible results. One of these was the open-air craft market which sprang up under the trees in Izmailovsky Park in north-east Moscow (and which would later be subsumed into a more organised market nearby, largely aimed at tourists). One man was selling button badges, including one designed as a mock advertisement for toothpaste: dissi-DENT.


Another hurdle for the student of Russian to overcome is the use of the diminutive. As Hingley shows, this will often signify something small, such as a small house – but not necessarily.

Nouns tend to possess diminutive and other similar forms, exploiting a wide range of suffixes to express variations of mood: for example, not only domik, “a dear little house”, but also domishche, “a bloody great house”. The term diminutive is misleading if taken to refer solely to size; rather does its use reflect the speaker’s mood. To call someone a durak, “fool”, is offensive; but to call him a durachok, “a bit of an ass”, can be affectionate.
(Hingley, p.57; 1978)

Diminutives are also frequently used with people’s names to illustrate affection, and can move very far away from the original name. Alexander or Alexandra, for example, become Sasha; which in turn can then be heard as “Sashka”, “Sashenka”, “Sashok” and even “Sashulya”. Perhaps in some ways these diminutives make up for the distinct lack of imagination in personal names in Russia, especially for women, as George Feifer indicates.

Compared to its richness of idiom, Russian is disproportionately hard up for contemporary common names: of ten teen-aged girls, seven are Galya, Natasha, Tanya or Svetlana.
(Feifer, p.140; 1976)

And Feifer doesn't even mention Olga, possibly the most common (and one of the oldest) Russian female names of all. You won't be in Russia long before you encounter an Irina either, or a Maria, or an Oksana...


Foreigners in Russia are frequently made to feel that they are just that: foreign. This manifests itself in various ways, from the cringingly obsequious to the downright hostile. An example of the former would be the way in which foreigners would be treated in Soviet times when flying within the country. I recall when taking an internal flight seeing hordes of local people at Kiev’s Zhulyani airport crowded into a small departure area with one black and white television high up in a corner, before I was whisked upstairs to the lounge for foreigners – not first class, not VIPs, just foreigners – where I had a room all to myself which was twice the size of what was provided for the masses, complete with colour TV. Foreigners were also spared the scrum which the locals experienced to get on the ‘plane. We were boarded either first or last, having been taken across the tarmac in a separate bus from the rest.

Hostility is frequently shown to black foreigners, whom many Russians consider as second-class citizens; and in recent times any foreigner who speaks out against Russian military actions in Ukraine can expect either resentment, anger or a patronising attitude of, “you don’t understand”.


It is no coincidence that over many years so many writers have picked up on the concept that what is “ours” – nash – is deeply ingrained for many Russians. I have chosen here three examples:

Words like nash (our) and chuzhoi (other, foreign, alien) crop up constantly in both propaganda and conversation. They have immense force in delineating friend and foe and in fixing attitudes, for Russians think in terms of only two sides – for and against. They have an ingrained scepticism towards neutrality. “He is nash (our) man” – or just the opposite, “He is chuzhoi (on the other side)” – is enough to settle an issue.
(Smith, The Russians, pp.378-379; 1977)

One can judge something of a nation’s character from the way its soldiers form up and march and one thing was very evident here: the marching men were dedicated to expressing the “togetherness” to which the Russians are so profoundly attached. So successful were they that one seemed to see not fifty thousand men marching into the square but one. The crowd responded to the appearance of the soldiers and the emotion between it and them was silent only because it ran deep. Now for the first time I heard a word used which has great meaning and power in Russia. Someone near me speaking of the soldiers, breathed with deep satisfaction the word “nash” (that is “ours”).
(van der Post, p.168; 1965)

“A private life was something alien. This is reflected in our language: nash narod [our people] and nash chelovek [one of us]. The word for “personality” appeared only when Stalin’s cult of the personality came under attack. Anyone who tried to live an individual life was considered a potential enemy. You had to march in step and try not to be different.” [Anna Logvinskaya, Psychologist]
(Millinship, p.55; 1993)

This idea of “for” or “against” played a crucial role in the Bolshevik Revolution: if you were not “for” the Revolution, you must be, ipso facto, “against” it. And that meant that you should be eliminated, as Bolshevism could not tolerate any opposition.


One of the greatest compliments ever paid to me by a Russian came in 2002 from the then Russian Ambassador to the UK, Grigory Karasin. At the end of a reception in the Russian Embassy, all of the foreigners – except for me – had left. I was still deep in conversation with one of the Russian diplomats. The Ambassador called for quiet to say a few words to his countrymen. Suddenly, one of them pointed out that I was there. “Ах, он наш!” (“Oh, he’s one of ours!”) said the Ambassador with a smile and a wave of the hand.

On another occasion at the Embassy, when celebrating the Russian National Day on 12 June, I was literally locked in. When I tried to say goodbye to my diplomat host as the last foreign guest left at half past two in the afternoon, he said, “Ты куда? Ты наш!” (“Where are you off to? You’re one of us!”) I eventually left the Embassy two hours later.

One area where the Russian language is certainly not poor is swearwords and obscenities. I have two dictionaries devoted to this subject alone. And these quotations, written over a hundred years apart, illustrate the point:

He used many other expressions which are quite unprintable, though common on the lips of all classes in Russia.
(Joubert, p.69; 1904)

The Russian language has a rich vein of obscenities that are strictly excluded from public discourse to the present day.
(Harrison, p.114; 2016)

A whole book could easily be devoted to the language of Soviet propaganda. Here's just one quotation from Pravda at the time when glasnost was just beginning to be felt.

It has come to light that [in Ordzhonikidze] almost 25,000 people who are of an age when they are capable of working are not engaged in social production.
(Pravda, 8 June 1987, Взгляд с трёх сторон [A View From Three Sides], p.4)

This is a wonderful example of manipulation of language. Officially, there was no unemployment in the Soviet Union; and in 1987 Pravda could still not bring itself to use the term “unemployment”. So there were just “people…not engaged in social production”. Who said “spin” was a Western idea?


Lastly, something for the foreigner who simply wants to be able to say “Hello” and “Goodbye” in Russian.

The Marine guard sergeant at the embassy had a simplified course for members of his detachment who might be called on to welcome Russians into the building or usher them out.
  “Gentlemen,” the Gunny said, “repeat after me: ‘Does your ass fit ya?!’”
  The soldiers repeated it.
  “Excellent. Now if you practice saying it quickly a couple dozen times, you will arrive at the Russian word for ‘hello’, which is ‘zdrast-vui-tye’. Next, when a Soviet citizen is departing our premises, you may say to them, ‘Just leave us.’ This phrase, once you have also practised saying it quickly with no pauses between the words, will sound like ‘shas-lee-va’, which is a very friendly way to say ‘goodbye’.”
(Lifflander, p.40; 2015)

“Does your ass fit ya?” was in common usage also in BRIXMIS, the British Military Mission to East Germany, where it was taught to those who spoke German but not Russian. I’ve told many people to say it. It works – as long as you get it right. Two people I tried to teach it to later came out with “Up yer ass!” and “Get-your-knickers-off!” Most people appreciate a foreigner trying to speak a little of their language. But insults, intentional or otherwise, are best avoided!

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