11 essential Russian phrases + 1 gesture

Image: svenstorm

How to compare people to cucumbers, and when, exactly, to flick your neck in Russian.
1. Help please! I’m lost!

Помогите пожалуйста! Я потерялся! (Pomogite pozhaluĭsta! Ya poteryalsya!)
Traveling in Eastern Europe, you’re going to get lost. The streets are poorly marked, if marked at all. Some street signs haven’t even been updated since the fall of communism. Luckily, people are very helpful when it comes to giving directions.

Approach someone on the street and say Pomogite pozhaluĭsta! Ya poteryalsya! You probably won’t understand their answer, so be sure to have a map handy. But they’ll make sure you get to where you’re going, even if they have to take you there themselves.

2. Give me, please…

Дайте мне, пожалуйста… (Daĭte mne, pozhaluĭsta…)
You can get away with not knowing the Russian for foods and other merchandise when you can point. But you at least need to know how to ask for it. Give me, or Daĭte mne, is the polite way to ask for something. Sprinkle that with a please — pozhaluĭsta – and you’re golden.

3. I’m sorry. I don’t understand. I’m not yours.

Извините. Не понимаю. Я не ваш/а. (Izvinite. Ne ponimayu. Ya ne vash/a.)
People will speak to you. It can be awkward. So this is what you say to them. Telling them you’re not theirs is the equivalent of saying you aren’t a national. If it’s a guy you’re speaking to, use vash. If a woman, vasha.

4. Where’s the toilet? And may I have toilet paper?

Где туалет? Можно туалетную бумагу? (Gde tualet? Mozhno tualetnuyu bumagu?)
Get used to paying to use the toilet. And get used to asking for toilet paper. Restaurants and cafes in larger cities won’t charge to use the facilities, and they’ll have TP in the stalls. But a lot of places in suburban and rural areas — especially summertime cafes, train stations, and bus depots — have attendants working a window who will take your money and dispense TP to you upon entering the john.

Also, don’t try asking for a “bathroom.” If you’re understood they’ll think you’d like to have a shower.

5. Excuse me. May I get through?

Извините. Можно пройти? (Izvinite. Mozhno proĭti?)
Use this when trying to get through a crowd on a packed bus or metro car. Most people in Eastern Europe use public transportation. They also like to get places quickly. After all, who wants to spend time pressed up against strangers in a confined, musty space?

6. How much is this? May I have it for less?

Сколько стоит? Можно дешевле? (Skolʹko eto stoit? Mozhno deshevle?)
Russians love to bargain. And with all the lovely handicrafts you’re certain to come across at the markets and want to take home with you, knowing how to get something for less will ensure you not only don’t get ripped off, but you get more for your money. You might get a bit of respect as well, if you attempt to do so in their language.

7. Thank you! Everything’s very tasty!

Большое спасибо! Все очень вкусно! (Bolʹshoe spasibo! Vsyo ochenʹ vkusno!)
Russians love to feed you. On the occasion a guest is invited to dinner, all the best food and drink is served. Regardless of whether you like everything, it’s best to thank your host by telling them how wonderful it all tastes.

That jelly substance with meat inside just scooped onto your plate: Mmm! Ochenʹ vkusno! The samigon, or moonshine that just took your breath away: Opa! Vkusno! And at the end of the meal, when your third full plateful of food is clean and every last scrap on the table is gone – because only then will they let you leave your seat: Bolʹshoe spasibo! Vsyo ochenʹ vkusno!

8. Let’s go! / Come on! / Let’s do it!

Поехали! Давай! (Poekhali! Davaĭ!)
How about a celebratory shot? Davai! Ready to take that trip to the bathhouse? Poekhali!

9. To health! To friendship!

За здоровье! За дружбу! (Za zdorovʹe! Za druzhbu!)
If you’re at a party you can bet there’ll be a lot of drinking. And that means many toasts. The classic, which many people know, is “To health!” or Za zdorovʹe! Many Westerners mistakenly use na in place of za, which is incorrect when toasting. Na zdorovʹe! may be used when giving someone some soup to take home to an ill relative (Here you are. Na zdorovʹe!), or you might hear it when purchasing produce at the market (Here are your potatoes. Na zdorovʹe!). But za, meaning “for,” is used when toasting.

Chances are, as a guest, you’ll be asked to give a toast. A good one to depend on is Za druzhbu!, “To friendship!” Your hosts will likely be impressed you’re able to speak some Russian, and appreciate the gesture.

10. You look like a cucumber / gherkin today.

Ты сегодня выглядишь как огурец / огурчик (Ty sevodnya vyglyadishʹ kak ogurets / ogurchik)
Cucumber or gherkin, take your pick. It’s an old colloquial compliment. Saying to someone they look like either is to tell them they look fresh. Older women especially will appreciate this one.

11. There’s no place like home!

В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше (V gostyakh khorosho, a doma luchshe)
Whether you’re in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, or any of the other Russian-speaking countries, as a foreigner you’ll be asked multiple times how you like the place. Russians may have tough shells, but they’re as sensitive as the rest of us. You don’t want to insult your friends and/or hosts, so tell them a few things you like about the place if you can, but end with this helpful phrase. Everyone will understand and you’ll score big points for knowing a common Russian colloquialism.

BONUS gesture: The flick

A flick to the side of the throat or near your Adam’s apple sums up in a simple motion what would otherwise need to be awkwardly explained — you are / were drunk, someone else is / was drunk, or you want to get drunk. It’s typically a playful gesture. Use it to insinuate that you’d like to get this party started, or throw it in as word filler when explaining the past night’s drunken escapades.

Example: I went out with Igor last night. One shot led to another, and then — flick.

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  • Oleksiy Matsuka

    good pronunciation ))).

    • Christopher Miller

      Thanks Oleksiy!

  • Emily Hanssen Arent

    hehehe, this made me laugh :)

  • Candice Walsh

    Reaaaaally want to tell someone they look like a cucumber.

    • Sarah Park

      Candice, you are looking SO cucumbery today. Like MAD GHERKIN.

    • Candice Walsh

      Why thank you Sarah, I’m just pickled pink!

  • Pavel Shmelov

    Really nice guide! I’ve always used на здоровье, maybe in Ukraine it’s different?

  • Alla Lagutina

    there is a lil mistake in #3. 3. I’m sorry. I don’t understand. I’m not yours.

    Извините. Не понимаю. Я не ваш/а. (Izvinite. Ne ponimayu. Ya ne vash/a.) One should say “ne vash” in case the person who is saying that is male, and “ne vasha” if she is female. the gender of the person they are saying this to has nothing to do with the ending of this pronoun.

    • Christopher Miller

      Alla! Good catch! That’s obviously what I meant to say. Thanks!

  • Yakov Zhurinskiy

    Hi, as a native russian speaker, I’ve a couple of suggestions for you. Instead of “я не ваш” it would be much better to say “я не здешний” (I’m not from here) or “я иностранец” (I’m a foreigner). While it is often said about another person “он не наш” (meaning a foreighner), saying this about oneself sounds really weird to me. Also, while it may be nice to say “ты выглядишь как огурчик”, saying “ты выглядишь как огурец” is borderline insulting. And try to find a russian speaker to say these phrases, to avoid the accent.

    • Vadim Oss

      Good stuff, Christopher! It made me smile! I agree with Yakov, “I am not yours” may have a very different meaning, especially if a female says this to a male (think of its direct translation from english:)). “Ya ne zdeshnij” (casual) is a better fit. “Ogurtchik” (pickle) is only appropriate for your friends in informal setting. “Oguretz” is indeed may cause more troubles than love especially when directed to a stranger:). I love the themes you chose. They made me think about cultural differences and background – toilet paper and such:)

  • Дмитрий Косяк

    I wouldn’t recommend saying ”Я не ваш”. It sounds weird. No one will understand what you mean. You say ”Я не здешний” in this case. I would simply say “Я не отсюда” (I am not of this place) though.

    • Дмитрий Косяк

      I am not of this place sounds kind of weird.

  • Iļja Ketris

    “I am not yours” is certainly here by mistake. This is a strange phrase and is never used in that sense.