Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Russian, Answered

Why *do* Russians drink so much vodka?
March 18, 2020

Depending on who you ask, the Russian language is a vast, inscrutable mystery, or a familiar language of sorrowful poets. While Russian is widely spoken in Russia, it isn’t only spoken in Russia (which, as acknowledged below, is a pretty massive place all on its own). It’s actually the eighth most-spoken language in the entire world with more than 150 million native speakers. And in the realm of the internet, it’s the second most-used language online based on existing content, trailing just (well, pretty far) behind English.

For such a ubiquitous language, there’s a lot that English speakers don’t know about Russian (or the people who speak it). We answered some of the most frequently Googled questions about the Russian language.

How Do You Say Hello In Russian?

Short answer: it depends. Greeting someone in Russian isn’t entirely a game of chess, but you’ll probably have to consider the time of day and the appropriateness of a formal or informal greeting — and in some cases, the person’s gender.

The most basic informal greeting is привет (privet), but you’ll occasionally encounter nuances in its delivery. For instance, women sometimes use diminutive greetings among one another (kind of like “hiya” in English), such as приветик (privetik) or приветики (privetiki).

If you’d like to play it safe and toe the line of formality, здравствуйте (zdravstvuite) will have you covered.

Still worried? Here’s a more complete guide on how to say hello in Russian.

Why do Russians drink so much vodka?

Funny you should ask: the word “vodka” is actually a diminutive form of вода (voda), which means “water.” And we all know, water is essential for survival.

In all seriousness though, Russia’s vodka habits are taking a major toll on life expectancy. A 2014 study found that the average Russian adult drinks 20 liters of vodka per year (compare that to 3 liters of spirits for the average Brit). Though this number is lower than it used to be, a still-quite-significant 25 percent of Russian men die before they reach 55, and alcohol consumption has a role to play in this. Russia’s heavy drinking culture is probably a holdover from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the tsars established state taverns and incentivized sales of alcohol — the more, the better.

Why vodka then? It’s cheap and widely available, and it happens to complement Russian food pretty well (pickled vegetables, herring, potatoes). Russians also reach for vodka because they believe it gives them less of a hangover.

Where is Russian spoken?

Russian is an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and it’s considered an unofficial lingua franca in many former Soviet countries. These include Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re in Eastern Europe, you can probably get by with some Russian. Here’s more info on how many people speak Russian around the world (and where).

Why does Russian sound so harsh?

“Harsh” is a pretty subjective observation, and it matters who’s perceiving the sound. It’s entirely possible that some people think Russian sounds harsh because the consonants in their native language are relatively soft compared to Russian consonants. Additionally, it’s possible that this perception comes from Hollywood stereotypes about Russian spies and villains.

Can culture shock play a role in how a language is perceived? Certainly. Compared to Americans at least, Russians don’t smile at strangers (without good reason), so this perceived unfriendliness can contribute to the perception that Russians are harsh in general. Additionally, Russians can be more blunt and direct than some Westerners are used to in their day-to-day interactions, which is really just to say that they don’t always follow the same social scripts. On the bright side, your grumpy moods will be more socially acceptable in Russia.

Why does Russian use Cyrillic?

Russian is an Indo-European language, but its alphabet is different from the majority of European languages. When the Slavic tribes began to settle in eastern Europe, their language began to split off on the family tree, giving rise to the Slavic language family.

The Cyrillic alphabet was developed during the 9th century, arising as a blend of Greek, Latin and Old Slavic characters. It was created by the Byzantine missionary St. Cyril and his brother, Methodius, as a means to translate Greek religious texts into Slavic.

Russian didn’t emerge as its own distinct language until the late Middle Ages, and this is likely the reason it shares the Cyrillic alphabet with other Slavic languages such as Ukrainian and Belarusian.

Why is Russia so big?

Clocking in at over 6.6 million square miles, Russia is the biggest country in the world. For some perspective on Russia’s size, it’s vast enough to contain 11 time zones!

Its current size is largely the result of wars and conquests, but its inhospitable terrain also plays a role in why enemies have historically struggled to vanquish Russia. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the central Russian state was established and doubled in size, and by the 1700s, it was the third-largest empire in the world.

The conquest of Siberia in particular gave it a huge geographical advantage precisely because it’s so vast and sparse — meaning there weren’t a lot of people living there to begin with, and it’s not exactly a place where many are eager to wage conquests. In other words, Russia may take up a lot of space on the map, but a lot of that land is unpopulated.

Does the Russian language have dialects?

Yes, but not as many you’d expect for such a widely spoken language. Linguists classify Russian dialects into three main groups: northern, central and southern. Moscow is considered part of the central region, and this is where you find the literary norm.

Because Russia is so wide, however, this scheme presents the interesting effect of there being more in common between the Russian spoken in Moscow and Vladivostok — spread more than 5,500 miles apart — than the Russian spoken in Moscow and Ryazan, which are about 120 miles apart.

What do Russians eat for breakfast?

Take your pick of sweet or savory! A quick and easy breakfast in Russia might consist of a piece of bread, some butter, and some cold cuts and cheese. Omelettes are another popular choice, and semolina porridge (cream of wheat) fills the role that oatmeal plays on the American breakfast menu. Russians love their pancakes and crepes too, but not the kind you’re probably used to. Syrniki are beloved griddle cakes made with tvorog, or Russian farmer’s cheese (it’s like cottage cheese, but more dry). Blini are thin crepes that can be served with anything ranging from caviar to jam, tvorog and berries.

Though coffee now has a very important place in Russian society, black tea is much more quintessentially “Russian.”

Does the Russian language have genders?

There are three genders in Russian: masculine, feminine and neuter (neutral).
For nouns, you can generally recognize the gender based on its ending. Masculine nouns usually end in a consonant or -й; feminine nouns usually end in -а or -я; and neuter nouns usually end in -о or -е. Nouns that end in -ь can be masculine or feminine. There is no formal rule on this, so you have to learn the gender along with the noun.

Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that describe nouns (including people) are also modified to reflect the gender of that word.

What do Russian people look like?

Although the majority of Russians have Caucasian features, there’s more ethnic diversity in Russia than one might think. There are more than 190 ethnic groups in Russia, including Slavs, numerous Siberian populations like Aleuts and Chukchis, and Asian populations like Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Koreans.

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Author Headshot
Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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