40 Essential Russian Idioms to Add to Your Vocabulary

Pepsi Sign in Moscow
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

Idioms are an essential part of the Russian language. From expressing emotion to conveying information, Russian idioms play countless roles in daily communication. Here is a list of idioms you should know if you want to understand (and impress) fluent Russian speakers. Even simple things like saying goodnight have multiple versions.

Some of the idioms on this list are quite similar to English language idioms, while others are uniquely Russian. Each idiom is accompanied by a literal translation as well as its figurative meaning.

01
of 40

взять себя в руки

Pronunciation: VZYAT’ siBYA v RUki

Literal translation: to take oneself into one’s hands

Meaning: to pull oneself together; to calm down

02
of 40

сесть в лужу

Pronunciation: SYEST’ v LOOzhu

Literal translation: to sit in a puddle

Meaning: to embarrass oneself

03
of 40

шутки в сторону

Pronunciation: SHUTki v STOranu

Literal translation: jokes aside

Meaning: seriously

Example: Шутки в сторону, я хочу тебе помочь. Seriously, I want to help you.

04
of 40

так и быть

Pronunciation: tak i BYT’

Literal translation: so be it

Meaning: so be it

05
of 40

уходить с головой

Pronunciation: uhaDIT’ s galaVOY

Literal translation: to leave with the head

Meaning: to be fully engrossed/immersed (in something)

Example: Она ушла с головой в учебу. She immersed herself in her studies.

06
of 40

сгорать от стыда

Pronunciation: sgaRAT’ at styDAH

Literal translation: to burn with shame

Meaning: to be mortified

07
of 40

ни пуха ни пeра

Pronunciation: ni POOha ni piRAH

Literal translation: neither down nor feathers

Meaning: good luck; break a leg

Origin: Used to wish someone a successful endeavor, such as a job interview or an exam, this expression comes from the superstition that to wish good luck can deter it and even bring about failure. Remember to answer with ‘К чёрту!’ (k TCHYORtoo!), which means ‘to the devil!’ If you forget, don’t be surprised if your well-wisher looks panicked and reminds you of the expected response.

08
of 40

смотреть правде в глаза

Pronunciation: smaTRET’ PRAVdye v glaZAH

Literal translation: to look the truth in the eyes

Meaning: to face up to something; to face the truth

09
of 40

смотреть сквозь пальцы

Pronunciation: smaTRET’ SKVOZ’ PAL’tsy

Literal translation: to look through one’s fingers

Meaning: to ignore; to turn a blind eye

10
of 40

хвататься за соломинку

Pronunciation: hvaTATsa za saLOminkoo

Literal translation: to grab at straws

Meaning: to clutch at straws; to be desperate

11
of 40

ни слуху, ни духу

Pronunciation: ni SLUhu, ni DUhu

Literal translation: neither heard nor smelt; no rumors, no smell

Meaning: no news from someone; neither seen nor heard

12
of 40

шутки плохи

Pronunciation: SHUTki PLOhee

Literal translation: jokes are bad (with someone or something)        

Meaning: not joking; not to be messed with

Example: С Лёшкой шутки плохи. Alexei is not to be messed with.

13
of 40

так себе

Pronunciation: TAK siBYE

Literal translation: so in itself

Meaning: so-so

Example: Как дела? Да так себе. How are things? So-so.

14
of 40

тьфу на тебя

Pronunciation: T’FOO na tiBYA

Literal translation: I spit on you

Meaning: I spit on you

Origin: If you are visiting a small town with children, you may encounter well-meaning older ladies who seem to spit at your child while using this expression. Don’t be alarmed. The expression is based on a popular Russian superstition, which warns that to openly compliment someone is to provoke the wrath of gods and cause misfortune in the life of the compliment recipient.

More recently, this idiom took an alternative political meaning when it was used by billionaire Alisher Usmanov to address Alisher Navalny, an opposition politician who was investigating Usmanov's wealth.

15
of 40

Так темно, хоть глаз выколи

Pronunciation: tak tyemNOH, hot’ glaz VYkaLEE

Literal translation: so dark you can stab my eye out

Meaning: pitch black

16
of 40

слово в слово

Pronunciation: SLOvah v SLOvah

Literal translation: word for word

Meaning: exactly as written

Example: Повтори слово в слово. Repeat word for word.

17
of 40

час пик

Pronunciation: chas PEEK

Literal translation: peak hour

Meaning: rush hour (as in traffic)

18
of 40

тем не менее

Pronunciation: tyem ni MYEnyeye

Literal translation: nevertheless; however

Meaning: nevertheless; however

19
of 40

собраться с силами

Pronunciation: saBRAT’sa s SEElami

Literal translation: to gather with the forces

Meaning: to regroup, to gather the strength, to get the nerve

Example: Никак не могу собраться с силами. I can’t seem to get the nerve to do it.

20
of 40

спустя рукава

Pronunciation: spusTYA rukaVAH

Literal translation: with sleeves pulled down

Meaning: (to do a task) carelessly, negligently

Origin: This idiom comes from the times when members of the aristocracy (the boyars) wore clothing with sleeves almost as long as the floor, making it impossible to do any physical work unless they rolled up their sleeves.

21
of 40

час от часу

Pronunciation: chas at CHAsu

Literal translation: from one hour to the next

Meaning: just keeps getting better (sarcastic)

22
of 40

язык хорошо подвешен

Pronunciation: yaZYK haraSHO padVYEshen

Literal translation: the tongue is well-hung

Meaning: eloquent, talkative; in possession of the gift of gab

23
of 40

ставить в тупик

Pronunciation: STAvit’ v tooPEEK

Literal translation: to put one into a cul-de-sac

Meaning: to confound someone, to puzzle

24
of 40

сколько душе угодно

Pronunciation: SKOL’ka duSHEH uGODna

Literal translation: as much as the soul wants

Meaning: as much as you want

Example: Пой сколько душе угодно. You can sing to your heart’s content.

25
of 40

становиться на ноги

Pronunciation: stanaVEETsa NA naghee

Literal translation: to stand on one’s own feet

Meaning: to get well; to be self-sufficient

26
of 40

чего доброго

Pronunciation: chiVO DOBrava

Literal translation: by something good

Meaning: for all I know; god forbid

Example: Еще заявится, чего доброго. God forbid he comes over.

27
of 40

сложа руки

Pronunciation: slaZHAH RUkee

Literal translation: to have one’s hands in one’s lap

Meaning: to sit idly, to do nothing

28
of 40

сложить голову

Pronunciation: slaZHIT’ GOlavu

Literal translation: to lay down one’s head

Meaning: to sacrifice one's life

Example: Александр Иванов сложил голову в битве под Полтавой. Aleksandr Ivanov laid down his head in the battle of Poltava.

29
of 40

стоять на своем

Pronunciation: staYAT’ na svaYOM

Literal translation: to stand on one’s own

Meaning: to insist; to stand one’s ground

30
of 40

смотреть в оба

Pronunciation: smaTRET’ v OHbah

Literal translation: to look through both (eyes)

Meaning: to keep one’s eyes peeled; to be on the lookout

31
of 40

строить замки из песка

Pronunciation: STROeet’ ZAMkee iz pisKAH

Literal translation: to build sandcastles

Meaning: to have unrealistic hopes

32
of 40

уму непостижимо

Pronunciation: ooMOO ni pastiZHEEmah

Literal translation: the mind cannot comprehend it

Meaning: to baffle; to boggle the mind

33
of 40

ума не приложу

Pronunciation: ooMAH ni prilaZHOO

Literal translation: I would not apply my mind

Meaning: I have no idea

Example: Ума не приложу, куда он запропастился. I have no idea where it/he has gone.

34
of 40

пальцем не трогать

Pronunciation: PAL’tsem ni TROgat’

Literal translation: to not be touched with a finger

Meaning: to not lay a finger (on something)

Example: И чтоб пальцем его не трогал! And don’t you lay a finger on him!

35
of 40

на худой конец

Pronunciation: na hooDOY kaNETS

Literal translation: at the bad end

Meaning: if worst comes to worst

36
of 40

лица нет

Pronunciation: leeTSAH NYET

Literal translation: no face

Meaning: to be a terrible sight; to look pale as a ghost

37
of 40

сбивать с толку

Pronunciation: sbeeVAT’ s TOLkoo

Literal translation: to push off the sense

Meaning: to obfuscate, to befuddle, to confuse

38
of 40

Я тебе покажу, где раки зимуют

Pronunciation: yah tebbe pokaZHU gdeh raki zimuYUT

Literal translation: I am going to show you where lobsters spend the winter.

Meaning: an abtract threat, e.g. "or else"

39
of 40

руки не доходят

Pronunciation: RUkee ni daHOHdyat

Literal translation: the hands don’t reach it

Meaning: to not find the time to do (something)

Example: Да все до уборки руки не доходят. I can never get around to cleaning.

40
of 40

какими судьбами

Pronunciation: kaKEEmee sud’BAHmee

Literal translation: by which fates

Meaning: how surprising to meet you here