40 Russian Proverbs and Sayings You Need to Know

Veterinarian checking horse's teeth
Дарёному коню́ в зу́бы не смо́трят is the Russian proverb that means "don’t look a gift horse in the mouth". Alina555 / Getty Images

Russian proverbs and sayings are wise and humorous, and often risqué. It is through their proverbs and idioms that Russians express a multitude of meanings, both in formal and informal situations, so knowing these key phrases is essential if you want to understand Russian and speak it like a native.

Russian proverbs cover all areas of life, but you will find that most are used as a wise warning, a sarcastic comment, or as a shortcut in everyday speech that makes it immediately clear what the speaker means. Sometimes Russians shorten a proverb to just the first word or two, expecting the listener to know and understand the rest of it. 

The following list includes some of the most popular Russian proverbs and sayings grouped according to their usage.

Proverbs About Bravery, Risk Taking, and Fatalism

The famous Russian tendency of leaving things to авось, or the wild hope that somehow everything will work out with the help of a mystical force or luck, is a topic of many discussions among Russian intellectuals, and is often blamed for various political and social mishaps. Whatever the reason for this peculiar Russian quality, it underlines a lot of Russian life and tradition, as you can see from the proverbs on this list:

  • Кто не рискует, тот не пьет шампанского

Pronunciation: KTOH ni risKUyet, tot ni pyot shamPANSkava)
Translation: He who doesn’t take risks doesn’t drink champagne
Meaning: Fortune favours the brave

  • Дву́м смертя́м не быва́ть, одно́й не минова́ть

Pronunciation: Dvum smyerTYAM ni byVAT’, adNOY ni minaVAT’
Translation: One can’t have two deaths, but you can’t avoid one
Meaning: A man can die but once; fortune favours the bold

The first written record of this saying is considered to be by the Eastern Orthodox monk and theologian Paisius Velichkovsky in his essays in the 18th century. However, folk tales, part of the Russian oral lore, had used this proverb for centuries before that. It really reflects the Russian way of looking at the world through a prism of romantic adventure.

  • Живы бу́дем — не помрём

Pronunciation: ZHYvy BUdem ni pamRYOM
Translation: We will be alive, we won’t die
Meaning: Everything will be alright; let’s hope for the best

  • Будь что будет

Pronunciation: Bud’ Shto BUdyet
Translation: Let it be
Meaning: Whatever shall be, will be

Use this saying when you are ready to face whatever is about to happen but are secretly feeling optimistic. 

  • Чему́ быть, того́ не минова́ть

Pronunciation: ChiMU BYT’, taVOH ni mihnoVAT’
Translation: You can’t avoid that which is meant to happen
Meaning: Whatever shall be, will be.

  • Глаза боятся, а руки делают (sometimes shortened to Глаза боятся)

Pronunciation: GlaZAH baYATsa, a RUki DYElayut
Translation: The eyes are afraid but the hands are still doing it
Meaning: Feel the fear and do it anyway

  • Голь на вы́думку хитра́

Pronunciation: GOL’ na VYdumku hitRAH
Translation: Poverty inspires invention
Meaning: Necessity is the mother of invention

The literal meaning of Голь is extreme poverty, and this proverb highlights the tough socio-economic conditions many Russians lived and continue to live in, still managing to invent some fascinating solutions to the problems they encounter. 

  • Волко́в боя́ться — в лес не ходи́ть (often shortened to Волко́в боя́ться)

Pronunciation: ValKOV baYATsa – v LYES ni haDIT’
Translation: If you’re scared of wolves, don’t go in the woods
Meaning: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

This proverb has its roots in the traditional Russian pastime of mushroom and berry gathering, something many Russians relied on for food in the olden times.

Proverbs About Warnings or Lessons

Russian folk wisdom is often about issuing a warning or illustrating a lesson you are being taught. 

  • Даю́т — бери́, а бьют – беги́

Pronunciation: DaYUT byeRIH, ah BYUT – byeGHIH
Translation: If you’re given something, take it, but if you’re being beaten – run.
Meaning: This is a humorous way of telling someone to grab an opportunity, unless it is particularly dangerous.

  • Дарёному коню́ в зу́бы не смо́трят

Pronunciation: DarRYOnamu kaNYU v ZUby nye SMOTryat
Translation: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Meaning: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

  • В чужо́й монасты́рь со свои́м уста́вом не хо́дят

Pronunciation: V chuZHOY manasTYR’ sa svaYIM usTAvam ni HOdyat
Translation: Don’t go to someone else’s monastery with your own rulebook
Meaning: When in Rome, do as Romans do

  • Мно́го бу́дешь знать, ско́ро соста́ришься

Pronunciation: MNOga BUdesh ZNAT’, SKOrah sasTAHrishsya
Translation: If you know too much, you would get old very quickly
Meaning: Curiosity killed the cat.

  • Любопы́тной Варва́ре на база́ре нос оторва́ли (sometimes shortened to Любопы́тной Варва́ре)

Pronunciation: LyuboPYTnoy varVAre na baZAre nos atarVAli
Literally: Curious Varvara had her nose snatched at the market
Meaning: Curiosity killed the cat

  • Поспеши́шь — люде́й насмеши́шь

Pronunciation: PaspiSHISH – lyuDYEY nasmiSHISH
Literally: If you do something in a hurry, you will make people laugh at you
Meaning: Haste makes waste

  • По́сле дра́ки кулака́ми не ма́шут

Pronunciation: POSlye DRAHki kulaKAmi ni MAshut
Translation: No point throwing punches after a fight
Meaning: After death, the doctor; don’t shut the stable door after the horse has bolted

  • Не учи́ учёного

Pronunciation: ni uCHI uCHYOnava
Translation: Don’t teach a learned one
Meaning: Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs (don't offer advice to someone who has more experience)

Wise Commentary on Everyday Life

  • Аппети́т прихо́дит во вре́мя еды́

Pronunciation: AhpeTEET priHOHdit va VRYEmya yeDY
Translation: Appetite comes with eating
Meaning: Appetite comes with eating

  • Без труда́ не вы́тащишь и ры́бку из пруда́

Pronunciation: bez truDAH ni VYtashish i RYBku iz pruDAH
Translation: Without hard work, one wouldn’t even get a fish out of a pond
Meaning: No pain, no gain

Any Russian child knows that fishing involves hard work, all thanks to this popular proverb which was even included in the official school curriculum during the Soviet years.

  • В гостя́х хорошо́, а до́ма лу́чше

Pronunciation: v gasTYAH haraSHOH, ah DOHmah LUTshe
Translation: It’s nice to visit, but it’s better to be home
Meaning: There’s no place like home

Visiting friends and family is an important part of Russian life, often involving hours of conversation at a table laden with food and drinks, so to say that being at home is even better than that is a big deal. 

  • В каждой шутке есть доля правды

Pronunciation: V KAZHdoy SHUTke YEST’ DOlya PRAVdy
Translation: Every joke has an element of truth
Meaning: Many a truth is spoken in jest

It is sometimes changed to В каждой шутке есть доля шутки (V KAZHdoy SHUTke YEST’ DOlya SHUTki) – every joke has an element of a joke, the rest is the truth – when the speaker wants to emphasise how much truth there is in a particular joke. 

  • В тесноте́, да не в оби́де

Pronunciation: v tyesnaTYE da ne vaBIdye
Translation: It may be crowded but everyone is happy
Meaning: The more, the merrier

  • В ти́хом о́муте че́рти во́дятся

Pronunciation: v TEEham Omutye CHYERtee VOdyatsya
Translation: The devil lives in the still waters
Meaning: Still waters run deep; beware of a silent dog and still water

  • Всё гениальное просто

Pronunciation: VSYO gheniAL’noye PROSta
Translation: Everything that is genius is simple
Meaning: True genius lies in simplicity

Proverbs That Are Meant to Console and Comfort

Russians are optimists, even if their dark side makes it tricky to see it immediately. They may constantly teach each other lessons and make fun of each other, but when it comes to supporting a friend, Russians have no match for their commitment to hope and perseverance. 

  • И на стару́ху бывает прору́ха

Pronunciation: ee na staRUhu byVAyet praRUkha
Translation: Even a grandma can make mistakes
Meaning: To err is human

  • Не́ было бы сча́стья, да несча́стье помогло́

Pronunciation: NYE byla by SHAStya dah neSHAStye pamaGLOH
Translation: Luck would not have happened without misfortune’s help
Meaning: A blessing in disguise; every cloud has a silver lining

  • Нет ху́да без добра́

Pronunciation: nyet HOOdah byez dabRAH
Translation: No misfortune without a blessing in it
Meaning: Every cloud has a silver lining

  • Пе́рвый блин (всегда) ко́мом

Pronunciation: PYERvy BLIN (vsyegDAH) KOHmom
Translation: The first pancake is (always) lumpy
Meaning: Teething problems; you must spoil before you spin

  • С милым рай и в шалаше

Pronunciation: s MEElym RAY ee v shalaSHEH
Translation: Even a hut feels like paradise when you’re with your loved one
Meaning: Love in a cottage

  • С парши́вой овцы́ — хоть ше́рсти клок

Pronunciation: s parSHEEvay avTCEE hot’ SHERSti klok
Translation: A tuft of hair from a mangy sheep
Meaning: Everything is good for something

Proverbs and Sayings About Friendship (Especially Where Money Is Involved)

Russians are very clear on this: keep your friends separate from your money. Old friends are better than new ones, and lots of them is even better, but business and pleasure are kept very much apart.

  • Не име́й сто рубле́й, а име́й сто друзе́й

Pronunciation: nye eeMYEY stoh rubLYEY, a eeMYEY stoh druZYEY
Translation: It is better to have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles
Meaning: A friend in the court is better than money in the purse

  • Друг познаётся в беде́

Pronunciation: DRUG paznaYOTsya v byeDYE
Translation: You find out who your real friends are when you are in need
Meaning: A friend in need is a friend indeed

  • Дру́жба дру́жбой, а табачо́к врозь (or sometimes Дру́жба дру́жбой, а денежки врозь)

Pronunciation: DRUZHbah DRUZHboy ah tabaCHOK VROZ’ (or sometimes DRUZHbah DRUZHboy, ah DYEnizhkee VROZ’)
Translation: Friends and tobacco are separate things, or friends and money are separate things
Meaning: It’s not personal, it’s business

  • Доверя́й, но проверя́й

Pronunciation: daviRYAY noh praveRYAY
Translation: Trust, but verify
Meaning: Trust, but verify

Trust, but verify, is a well-known idiom loved by President Ronald Reagan, who was taught it by the writer Suzanne Massey. However, not many people are aware that it came into the English language directly from the Russian saying. While Reagan used it in the context of nuclear disarmament, Russians use it to mean that words should not be fully trusted. 

  • Ста́рый друг — лу́чше но́вых двух

Pronunciation: STAHry DRUG LUCHsheh NOHvyh DVUKH
Translation: An old friend is better than two new ones
Meaning: Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver, the other is gold; old friends and old wine are best

Sarcastic Proverbs About Failures and Bad Qualities

Sarcastic, rude, and risqué sayings are what make Russian speech so entertaining. Often these are shortened in order to appear less rude but retain the same meaning. 

  • Ни бэ, ни мэ, ни кукаре́ку (or ни бум бум, shortened to Ни бэ, ни мэ

Pronunciation: nee BEH nee MEH ni kukaRYEku (or nee boom BOOM)
Translation: Not even a cock-a-doodle-doo
Meaning: As thick as two short planks; doesn’t know which end is up

  • Плохо́му танцо́ру я́йца меша́ют (shortened to Плохо́му танцо́ру)

Pronunciation: plaHOHmu tanTZOHru YAYtsah myeSHAyut
Translation: A bad dancer blames his testicles
Meaning: A bad workman blames his tools

  • Седина́ в бо́роду, бес в ребро́ (shortened to Седина́ в бо́роду)

Pronunciation: syedeeNAH v BOHradu, byes vryebROH
Translation: Silver in the beard, the devil in the ribs
Meaning: No fool like an old fool

  • Сила есть, ума не надо (shortened to Сила есть)

Pronunciation: SEElah YEST’ uMAH ni NAHda
Translation: When one has power, they don’t have a need for intelligence
Meaning: Might makes right

  • Собака на сене лежит, сама не ест и другим не дает (often shortened to Как собака на сене or just Собака на сене)

Pronunciation: saBAHkah na SYEnye lyeZHYT, saMAH ni YEST ee druGHEEM ni daYOT
Translation: A dog on the hay will not eat it and won’t let others eat it
Meaning: Dog in the manger

  • Заста́вь дурака́ Бо́гу моли́ться — он лоб расшибёт (often shortened to Заста́вь дурака́ Бо́гу моли́ться or even just to Заста́вь дурака́)

Pronunciation: zaSTAV’ duraKAH BOHgu maLEETsya – ohn LOHB ras-sheeBYOT
Translation: Make a fool pray to god and they will smash their own forehead
Meaning: Zeal without knowledge is a runaway horse

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Nikitina, Maia. "40 Russian Proverbs and Sayings You Need to Know." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/40-russian-proverbs-and-sayings-4783033. Nikitina, Maia. (2020, August 29). 40 Russian Proverbs and Sayings You Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/40-russian-proverbs-and-sayings-4783033 Nikitina, Maia. "40 Russian Proverbs and Sayings You Need to Know." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/40-russian-proverbs-and-sayings-4783033 (accessed June 9, 2023).