40 Essential Russian Idioms to Add to Your Vocabulary

Pepsi Sign in Moscow
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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.

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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

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сесть в лужу

Pronunciation: SYEST’ v LOOzhu

Literal translation: to sit in a puddle

Meaning: to embarrass oneself

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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.

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так и быть

Pronunciation: tak i BYT’

Literal translation: so be it

Meaning: so be it

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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.

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сгорать от стыда

Pronunciation: sgaRAT’ at styDAH

Literal translation: to burn with shame

Meaning: to be mortified

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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.

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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

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смотреть сквозь пальцы

Pronunciation: smaTRET’ SKVOZ’ PAL’tsy

Literal translation: to look through one’s fingers

Meaning: to ignore; to turn a blind eye

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хвататься за соломинку

Pronunciation: hvaTATsa za saLOminkoo

Literal translation: to grab at straws

Meaning: to clutch at straws; to be desperate

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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

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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.

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так себе

Pronunciation: TAK siBYE

Literal translation: so in itself

Meaning: so-so

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

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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.

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Так темно, хоть глаз выколи

Pronunciation: tak tyemNOH, hot’ glaz VYkaLEE

Literal translation: so dark you can stab my eye out

Meaning: pitch black

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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.

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час пик

Pronunciation: chas PEEK

Literal translation: peak hour

Meaning: rush hour (as in traffic)

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тем не менее

Pronunciation: tyem ni MYEnyeye

Literal translation: nevertheless; however

Meaning: nevertheless; however

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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.

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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.

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час от часу

Pronunciation: chas at CHAsu

Literal translation: from one hour to the next

Meaning: just keeps getting better (sarcastic)

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язык хорошо подвешен

Pronunciation: yaZYK haraSHO padVYEshen

Literal translation: the tongue is well-hung

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

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ставить в тупик

Pronunciation: STAvit’ v tooPEEK

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

Meaning: to confound someone, to puzzle

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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.

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становиться на ноги

Pronunciation: stanaVEETsa NA naghee

Literal translation: to stand on one’s own feet

Meaning: to get well; to be self-sufficient

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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.

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сложа руки

Pronunciation: slaZHAH RUkee

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

Meaning: to sit idly, to do nothing

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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.

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стоять на своем

Pronunciation: staYAT’ na svaYOM

Literal translation: to stand on one’s own

Meaning: to insist; to stand one’s ground

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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

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строить замки из песка

Pronunciation: STROeet’ ZAMkee iz pisKAH

Literal translation: to build sandcastles

Meaning: to have unrealistic hopes

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уму непостижимо

Pronunciation: ooMOO ni pastiZHEEmah

Literal translation: the mind cannot comprehend it

Meaning: to baffle; to boggle the mind

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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.

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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!

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на худой конец

Pronunciation: na hooDOY kaNETS

Literal translation: at the bad end

Meaning: if worst comes to worst

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лица нет

Pronunciation: leeTSAH NYET

Literal translation: no face

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

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сбивать с толку

Pronunciation: sbeeVAT’ s TOLkoo

Literal translation: to push off the sense

Meaning: to obfuscate, to befuddle, to confuse

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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"

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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.

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какими судьбами

Pronunciation: kaKEEmee sud’BAHmee

Literal translation: by which fates

Meaning: how surprising to meet you here

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Your Citation
Nikitina, Maia. "40 Essential Russian Idioms to Add to Your Vocabulary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/russian-idioms-4178475. Nikitina, Maia. (2020, August 28). 40 Essential Russian Idioms to Add to Your Vocabulary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/russian-idioms-4178475 Nikitina, Maia. "40 Essential Russian Idioms to Add to Your Vocabulary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/russian-idioms-4178475 (accessed May 28, 2023).