How many words do you know in your native language?
10,000? 20,000? 100,000?
According to experts, an individual typically knows 15,000-20,000 word families in their native language.
But in reality, native speakers don’t use the vast majority of these words. Just think about it: When was the last time you said “unequivocal” or “myopic” or “pedantic”?
Word frequency lists can be a great resource for Russian language learners. But there’s a caveat: most word frequency lists are taken from written texts, not spoken language. As a result, commonly-spoken Russian words like привет (hi) and здравствуйте (hello) might not even make it onto some Russian word lists.
This practical, user-friendly, conversation-focused list of basic Russain words promises to fix that!
If you’re just starting your Russian language journey, you probably want to learn how to have basic conversations with Russian speakers, or get around town on an upcoming trip to Russia. This list should get you off to a great start.
How to Learn Basic Russian Words: 3 Tips for Getting Started
In an effort to get you started on the right foot, and not overwhelm you, here are some important tips and tricks to advance your Russian studies:
1. Learn the Alphabet
Hopefully, you’re already aware that Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Roman alphabet.
Be sure to learn the 33 letters of the Russian alphabet and the corresponding pronunciations. To a large extent, Russian sounds the way it’s spelled, so you can see words written and sound them out if you know how the individual letters are pronounced.
There are plenty of good resources available to learn the Cyrillic alphabet; don’t hesitate to use them.
2. Emphasize Listening and Speaking
Linguistic input is crucial, especially when starting a new language. Input-based learners may attempt to immerse themselves in a language by reading, practicing with flashcards, listening to music, watching movies or a host of other techniques.
If your aim is to communicate with people, be sure you’re training your ear. Don’t hesitate to watch YouTube clips with vital words over and over again. By the same token, be sure you’re speaking. Listen to a clip and then repeat it. Your mouth needs to become comfortable making the unfamiliar sounds common in Russian.
Tutors are also invaluable resources. They can help you perfect your pronunciation to ensure you’re well understood. They can also get you accustomed to the pace of speech. As with any language, some Russians speak quickly, mumble or run their words together. A tutor can help you get used to deconstructing what you’re hearing.
And if you want to super-charge your listening and pronunciation practice from the comfort of your own home, you have to check out FluentU.
3. Focus on Simple Sentences First
In many ways, math and languages are remarkably similar. For example, both use formulas. In math, you have an equation and can change the numbers to get a different answer. The same concept can be applied to language. For instance, you have a sentence and just substitute slightly different words to get another meaning. Here’s an example:
Я хочу яблоко. — I want an apple.
Я хочу собаку. — I want a dog.
Я хочу парня. — I want a boyfriend.
By using the same sentence and substituting different words you convey three different meanings. In the first sentence, you want an apple because you’re hungry. In the second, you desire a dog because you love animals and want a companion. In the third sentence, you also long for a companion, but the boyfriend has other qualities that differentiate him from a dog (hopefully).
With all that in mind, let’s get started learning all the Russian words you need to know for your first Russian conversations!
150+ Basic Russian Words and Phrases to Survive Any Conversation
While we’ve compiled a list of basic Russian words that’ll be useful for most, keep in mind your end goal.
If you’re traveling, you probably need to ask for directions, buy train tickets and know how to check in to your hotel.
However, if you’re doing business and need to agree on meeting times, you’ll need to be proficient with a different set of terms.
Regardless of your intended use of your Russian skills, one thing to keep in mind is the formality of the language. Similar to French or Spanish, Russian uses two versions of the word “you.” Ты (you) is used in informal situations when speaking to an individual. Вы (you) is used in two instances: when speaking to two or more people, and when speaking to an individual in a formal manner.
As a general rule, ты should really only be used when addressing children or close friends. The formal Вы should be used any time you’re speaking to strangers, acquaintances you don’t know well, anyone older than you or someone in a position of authority. Unless specified, all the vocabulary included in the list below shows the Вы form.
Greetings and Departures
Naturally, one of the first things any language learner should grasp is the ability to greet other individuals. Whether you’re meeting your new Russian teacher while on study abroad in Moscow, purchasing a ticket to the Bolshoi Theater or asking a stranger for assistance, you need to be able to greet someone and say goodbye, appropriately.
Привет — Hi
This is informal and generally only used when greeting someone you already know well.
Здравствуйте — Hello
Здравствуйте is the formal version of Привет and the one you should use most extensively.
Добро пожаловать — Welcome
You’ll likely hear this when entering someone’s home, a classroom, etc. It may be used formally or informally.
Доброе утро — Good morning (May be said anytime between dawn and noon)
Добрый день — Good day / Good afternoon (Used from late morning up until sunset)
Добрый вечер — Good evening (Used in evening hours, but not after dinner.)
Пока — Bye
Пока is used informally and is the counterpart to Привет.
До свидания — Good-bye
Expect to hear this everywhere as it’s the most common way of saying goodbye.
До скорого — See you soon
Definitely be sure to learn до скорого because you’ll use it with people you see repeatedly and know you’ll see again within a few days or hours. It conveys a sense of familiarity.
Спокойной ночи — Good night
Keep in mind that this is a way of wishing someone good night before bed. It’s good to know this phrase in case you’re staying in a dormitory or with a host family. This is generally not used outside the home, so it may be a while before you hear it, but it’s still useful to have in your arsenal.
Russians enjoy speaking to foreigners. They may not go out of their way to converse with you, but if the opportunity presents itself, you may find yourself making a friend for a short while. In that case, you want to be prepared to introduce yourself and cover some of the basics.
Как Вас зовут? — What is your name?
Memorize this question because you’ll be asked it frequently. Also keep in mind this is a formal way of asking this since it uses the formal version of Вы. If you were to ask a schoolmate or child this question you’d use the informal version: Как тебя зовут?
Меня зовут… — My name is…
This is the formal way of answering the above question. The official translation is “I am called…”
Я… — I am…
This is a more casual means of answering “What is your name?”
Очень приятно — Nice to meet you (Can be used in formal or casual situations)
Приятно с Вами познакомиться — Nice to meet you (Slightly more formal than Очень приятно.)
Как дела? — How are things?
Unlike Americans who tend to ask any stranger how they’re doing as a way of greeting someone, Russians don’t typically do this. It’s acceptable to ask a friend or acquaintance how they are, but avoid asking the store clerk or anyone you meet once and never expect to interact with again.
Как ты? — How are you?
This is a casual alternative to Как дела?, hence the use of ты.
Вы долго в России? — Have you been in Russia long?
Upon learning you’re visiting Russia, expect to be asked if you’ve been there long. You’ll also likely be asked what you’re doing there and how you’re enjoying your stay.
Вам нравится Россия? — Do you like Russia?
Needless to say, the answer should always be, unequivocally, “Да!” (yes). You’ll likely be asked this question frequently. While Russians may be critical of their home country, it’s best that you not be.
Personal Details: Country of Origin, Profession and Hobbies
Continuing the conversation from above, it’s helpful to be able to explain where you’re from and what you do for a living as these are the two most common questions asked of foreigners.
Откуда Вы? — Where are you from?
Я из X — I am from X
Tell anyone who asks which country you’re from before getting into more specific details.
Я из Америки — I am from America.
Я из США — I am from the U.S.A.
Из какого Вы штата? — Which state are you from?
Many Russians won’t be able to identify which English-speaking country you’re from based on a state or city name. Well-travelled Russians may ask for more information, in which case be sure to learn how to respond properly by filling in the sentence with your home state and/or town.
Я из Техаса — I am from Texas
Я из Калифорнии. — I am from California
Я из Нью-Йорка — I am from New York
Вы студент / студентка? — Are you a [male] student / [female] student?
Вы кем работаете? — What do you do for work?
Какая у Вас профессия? — What profession do you have? (An alternative to the question above.)
Я… — I am a…
This is similar to the way you can respond to the question “what is your name?” But instead of following the Я with your name, state your profession.
Я преподаватель — I am a teacher
врач — doctor
адвокат — lawyer
менеджер гостиницы — hotel manager
Есть ли у Вас хобби? — Do you have any hobbies?
Russians love to ask this question, so be prepared.
Да. Я катаюсь на лыжах — Yes. I ski
Я играю в баскетбол — I play basketball
Я люблю путешествовать — I love to travel
Language Ability and (Mis)understandings
Most likely, you’ll be asked at some point whether or not you speak Russian. If you begin speaking quickly and without hesitation, no one will question your ability. If you get tripped up, the person you’re speaking to will try to gauge your comfort level and determine how to assist you using the following phrases and questions.
Вы говорите по-русски? — Do you speak Russian?
Вы говорите по-английски? — Do you speak English?
Вы понимаете? — Do you understand?
Я не понимаю — I don’t understand
Вы можете говорить медленнее? — Can you speak slower?
Помедленнее, пожалуйста — Please speak more slowly
Повторите, пожалуйста — Please repeat that
Как сказать … по-русски? — How do you say … in Russian?
This is a very useful phrase and one every Russian learner should know because it helps increase your vocabulary. You can use an English word to fill in the blank or point to an object when asking this question.
Agreement, Disagreement and Confusion
These words and phrases are self-explanatory and commonly heard multiple times a day.
Да — yes
Нет — no
Может быть — maybe
Что это? — What is that?
Кто это? — Who is that?
Я не знаю — I don’t know
Это… — That is…
Manners and Polite Phrases
Russians are often perceived as being unfriendly and don’t ooze politeness as is common in some cultures. But good manners are appreciated, especially if you’re asking someone for assistance.
Пожалуйста — Please
Спасибо — Thank you
Спасибо большое — Thank you very much
Don’t feel the need to be overly gracious as Russians rarely are, but emphasizing your thanks is appreciated when warranted.
Пожалуйста — You’re welcome
Yes, Пожалуйста has two meanings. However, it should be easy to recognize how it’s intended, and even better, you only need one word to cover two essentials!
Извините — I’m sorry
Извините and Простите can be used interchangeably. Извините is used extensively, so feel free to focus on that one initially.
Простите — Excuse me
Всё в порядке -Everything’s ok
This phrase is said in response to Извините and Простите.
Я не могу… — I can’t…
This is another sentence that you can fill in according to your needs. This is especially important for someone that has a dietary restriction or limitation. For instance, you might say Я не могу есть мясо (I can’t eat meat) as a vegetarian or Я не могу пить алкоголь (I can’t drink alcohol) which is particularly important to state sooner rather than later given the Russian culture around drinking.
Food and Drink
Russians love their traditional foods. While you may not eat borscht or smetana on a regular basis, commit those terms to memory, as well as your other favorites.
Я хочу есть — I am hungry
Я хочу пить — I am thirsty
Борщ — borscht
Сметана — smetana
This is a type of sour cream which you often find on borscht, blini and caviar, as well as pelmeni.
Блины — blini
Икра — caviar
Пироги — pierogi
Пельмени — pelmeni (a type of Russian dumpling)
Водка — vodka
Фрукт — fruit
Яблоко — apple
Банан — banana
Овощи — vegetables
Лук — onion
Морковь — carrot
Помидор — tomato
Картофель — potatoes
Салат — salad
Мясо — meat
Колбаса — sausage
Рыба — fish
Курица — chicken
Говядина — beef
Соль — salt
Чёрный перец — pepper
Хлеб — bread
Масло — butter
This sounds and looks similar to Мясо (meat), so be careful.
Макароны — pasta
Сыр — cheese
Чай — tea
Кофе — coffee
Вода — water
Keep in mind that водка (vodka) and вода look and sound very similar, but are definitely not the same thing!
Сок — juice
Молоко — milk
Сахар — sugar
Family and Friends (Including Pets!)
You’ll likely be asked about family members, so be ready to talk about your relatives as well as any pets.
Семья — family
Don’t confuse this with фамилия which is the word for surname.
Родители — parents
Мама / Мать — mom / mother
Папа/ Отец — dad / father
Брат — brother
Сестра — sister
Сын — son
Дочь — daughter
Бабушка — grandmother
Дедушка — grandfather
Друзья — friends
Парень — boyfriend
Девушка — girlfriend
домашнее животное — pet
У тебя есть домашнее животное? — Do you have a pet?
Собака — dog
Кошка — cat
Птица — bird
Черепаха — turtle
Кролик — rabbit
Рыба — fish
Here are some common adjectives you’ll need to know. A few are included in names of places you might visit in Russia, while others may be necessary if you need to describe something or ask for an alternative.
Красный — red
Красная площадь — Red Square
Белый — white
белые ночи — white nights
Чёрный — black
Синий — blue
Зелёный — green
Жёлтый — yellow
Розовый — pink
Оранжевый — orange
Красивый — beautiful
Keep in mind this is similar to the spelling and pronunciation of красный (red). Don’t mix these two adjectives up as many learners do.
Симпатичный — nice, in reference to temperament; or cute, in reference to appearance.
So, симпатичная девушка could mean “nice girl” or “cute girl.”
Вкусный — delicious
Большой — big
The Большой театр (Bolshoi Theater), a famous and historic theater in Moscow, actually directly translates to “Big Theater.”
Маленький — small
Хороший — good
Плохой — bad
Жаркий — hot, in reference to climate or weather
Жаркая погода is the full phrase you’d use to mean “hot weather.”
Горячий — hot, in reference to an object
For example, you could say горячий кофе (hot coffee).
Холодный — cold
This one works for weather (холодная погода — cold weather) or for objects (холодный суп — cold soup).
Старый — old
Старый Арбат (Stary Arbat, or Old Arbat) is a famous pedestrian street in central Moscow.
Новый — new
You’ll hear this one on December 31st, as Russians say to each other с Новым Годом (Happy New Year).
There are a few basic verbs that most Russian learners almost immediately use which have relatively easy conjugations and can convey simplistic ideas. Here are a few to get you started:
Думать — to think
Знать — to know
Любить — to love
Жить — to live
Хотеть — to want
Смотреть — to watch
Слушать — to listen
Играть — to play
Спать — to sleep
Читать — to read
Писать — to write
Requesting Assistance and Reading Common Signs
To round out your basic Russian vocabulary, there are some words we use all the time and others that aren’t so frequent, but imperative to know when the time is right.
Туалет — toilet
Keep in mind that Russians never refer to a bathroom because the bathroom is at home and used to take a bath. The toilet is where you relieve yourself. If you’re in the cinema or school and ask for the bathroom expect to receive a puzzled look. When out and about look for the sign Туалет if you need a restroom.
Где туалет? — Where is the toilet?
Открыто — open
You’ll frequently find open or closed signs hanging on the doors of stores, restaurants and the like.
Закрыто — closed
Вход — enter
You’ll always see enter and exit signs in metros, train stations and airports.
Выход — exit
Помогите! — Help!
Пожар! — Fire!
Полиция! — Police!
Стой! — Stop!
Я болею — I am sick
Больница — hospital
Basic Russian Slang
Finally, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to impress a new Russian acquaintance with some fun phrases used by the cool kids in the cafeteria, here are a few you can try:
Мобильник — mobile phone
No one says мобильный телефон anymore, so stick with мобильник.
Чёрт! — Shoot!
For example: “We missed the movie? Чёрт!”
Бомба — awesome
For example: Учитель бомба. (The teacher is awesome.)
Класс — great
This is generally used to express approval. (“What do you think of this dress?” “Класс!”)
Круто — cool
You are traveling to Russia? Круто!
The list of basic Russian words and phrases above is far from comprehensive, but should help set you on track to start feeling comfortable speaking Russian from day one.
Удачи! (Good luck!)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Russian with real-world videos.