When you learn Russian, you'll get a lot closer to fluency, faster, if you pick up some Russian idioms.
Idioms are wonderful things. They let us spice up our conversations to give them some flair or colour. They let us say something without outright saying it. And idioms also remind us that we should never translate something word for word.
Think of how weird the phrase “raining cats and dogs” sounds to someone learning English. Similarly, Russian idioms can be weird, funny, and down right strange at times.
So with this article, you'll discover:
- Russian idioms about space, time, and amount
- Russian idioms for animals
- The literal meanings of each idiom
- How to use these expressions in day-to-day life
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Talking About Idioms In Russian
Talking about these expressions is a bit different in Russian. While the word идиома does exist in Russian, it’s much less often used than фразеологизм (phrase) or выражение (expression).
For this article, an idiom is any expression whose meaning is unclear when translated literally. So something like делать из мухи слона (to make an elephant from a fly) is an idiom, just like львиная доля (the lion’s share).
The only difference is that as an English speaker, you’ve probably already heard the second one.
So let’s jump into some Russian idioms.
How To Wish Someone Luck In Russian
When wishing someone a good journey, you have a lot of expressions to choose from. However, translating some of them literally will sound a bit weird.
#1 В добрый час
- Lit. Towards a good hour
- Good luck
#2 В добрый путь
- Lit. to the good path
- Safe journey, bon voyage
#3 Ни пуха ни пера
- Lit. Neither down nor feathers
- break a leg!
If you’re wishing someone luck on a performance however, you’ll want to use ни пуха ни пера. Most often this is answered with к чёрту (to the devil) although no one is certain why.
#4 С лёгким паром
- With light steam
This expression is one of the best examples of why you should never try to translate things literally and why you have to learn Russian in context. This is something you say when you hope that they had a good time at the banya/sauna/or shower.
Russian Idioms Of Space
Idioms are wonderful tools for exaggeration. Generally speaking, Russians adore expressions that overstate how far away something is or how it’s just so close that you could almost grab it.
#5 В двух шагах
- Lit. At two steps, two steps away
- Very close
#6 Под рукой
- Lit. under the hand
- Extremely close
#7 Под носом
- Lit. Under (one’s) nose
- So close that it’s almost touching you
- Это было у нас прямо под носом (it was staring us in the face)
#8 За тридевять земель
- At a distance of 30 lands
- Far away
#9 На краю света
- Lit. At the end of the world
- Extremely far away
#10 На каждом шагу
- Lit. at every step
- Everywhere, all over the place
- Проблемы на каждом шагу (problems at every turn/at every step)
Russian Expressions About Time
Just as Russian speakers like to exaggerate distances, they also like to talk colourfully about when events will happen.
As such, if something is going to happen soon it could be just in front of your nose, and it something is happening slowly it moves with turtle steps.
#11 Ни свет ни заря
- Lit. neither light nor dawn
- Extremely early i.e. when there’s no light yet
- Он проснулся ни свет ни заря (He woke up incredibly early.)
#12 На носу
- Lit. On the nose
- Very close, imminent, just about to happen
#13 Сколько лет, сколько зим
- Lit. So many summers, so many winters
- It’s been ages!
#14 Черепашьим шагом
- Lit. by turtle steps.
- Very slowly, at a snail's pace.
#15 когда рак на горе свистнет
- When the crawfish whistles on the mountaintop
One of the most colorful Russian idioms you’ll find. It’s something like “when pigs fly” or in other words, saying that something will never happen.
- Когда мы встречаемся с президентом? (When will we meet the president?)
- когда рак на горе свистнет. (When pigs fly.)
Animal And Plant Idioms In Russian
You’ve learned a bit about how to exaggerate when something happens and how far away it might be. Now it’s time to talk about idioms that use nature.
As with other languages, there are loads of Russian idioms that use comparisons to plants and animals to make a point.
#16 Белая ворона
- Lit. White crow
This is something similar to being “the black sheep”. Although in English, the black sheep is usually used in a family context.
However the белая ворона (the odd-one-out) can be found in classrooms, work offices, and any group where people gather regularly.
#17 делать из мухи слона
- Lit. to make an elephant out of a fly
- To make a big deal of something that actually small
- to make a mountain out of molehill, to overexaggerate
- To make a big deal of something that actually small
#18 И ежу понятно
- Lit. Even the hedgehog understands
This idioms is another demonstration of the Russian fixation on hedgehogs (ёж/ёжик). You say this when something is so obvious that even a passing hedgehog would understand.
#19 Львиная доля
- Lit. The lion’s share
- The largest portion
Russian took the same expression from Aesop’s fables and it has the same meaning as it does in English.
This expression isn’t about food, but about lifestyle. One can also live в шоколаде, which means to be financially and materially comfortable and without any great worries.
#20 Большая шишка
- Lit. a big pinecone
You can call someone as a большая шишка the same way you would call them a big shot, a big deal, or the head honcho.
- Отец Анны – очень большая шишка (Anna’s father is a very big deal)
Other Russian Idioms
This last group of Russian idioms don’t fit neatly into any category, but they are very good to know. So enjoy some other colorful phrasing to talk about the world.
#21 Как две капли воды
- Lit. like two drops of water
- Identical, looking the same
#22 Два сапога пара
- Lit. two boots in a pair
- Two of a kind
You use this to describe people who are very close and have similar personalities or tempertments.
- Они были два сапога пара (they were cut from the same cloth)
#23 Камень преткновения
- Lit. the rock of hinderance
- The stumbling block, a sticking point
Today, the word преткновение is fairly archaic, but you hear it just for this expression when communications reach an impasse. A matter that people just cannot work out is the камень преткновения.
#24 Бабье лето
- Lit. Old woman’s summer
This refers to when there’s a burst of heat at the beginning of autumn, why it refers to babas (old women) even the dictionary writers can’t say.
#25 Первый блин всегда комом
- Lit. the first pancake/blin is always a blob.
- One’s first attempt is always less than perfect
- Моя рукопись ужасная (My manuscript is terrible.)
- Не беспокойся, первый блин (Don’t worry, your first try is always a mess)
#26 Сесть в лужу
- Lit. to sit in a puddle
- To find oneself in an awkward or uneasy situation
Taking Russian Idioms Further
When it comes to Russian idioms, this article is a good starting point but there are a lot more to learn.
Like all languages, Russian has loads of expressions, turns-of-phrase, and idioms that people like to save up for just the right situation. Not forgetting Russian slang.
That being said, you should have some of the basics abouts idioms to:
- describe space
- wish someone well
- describe time
- describe the world compared to animals and plants
The best way for you to internalise these Russian idioms is to implement the rules of the StoryLearning® method. So make sure you read short stories in Russian and books in Russian
As you read, you'll see the idioms in context over and over again. So you'll start to pick them up and use them without really noticing it!
So go forth and read! And until next time удача из удач (best of luck)!