They’re expressive in the best possible way.
No, they’re not the latest summer fashions. They’re Russian idioms.
Idioms are groups of words whose figurative meanings don’t match their literal meanings. They’re common in any language.
In your native language, you probably don’t even notice them—they’re a dime a dozen. But when you’re studying a foreign language, you have to pay particular attention to them.
Since you probably won’t have been exposed to idioms as much as literal meanings of words, you need to study these idioms to understand their meanings.
Russian learning books and Russian textbooks are great for studying the language, but many conventional study materials barely touch on idioms, so if you want to learn Russian idioms, you might have to go back to the drawing board.
If you cut corners and just rely on those textbooks, you’ll miss the boat on valuable phrases. That’s why you need to take learning Russian idioms into your own hands.
So let’s not beat around the bush: these 10 Russian idioms will greatly improve your vocabulary!
Why Learn Russian Idioms?
Idioms are commonly used. In case you didn’t notice, there were six idioms just in the introduction to this article. Idioms are just as popular in the Russian language. Russian vloggers and other sources that use colloquial language frequently use idioms. Idioms can even creep into more formal contexts. Because idioms are so commonly used, if you’re unfamiliar with them, your Russian skills will suffer.
Additionally, you need to learn idioms to understand what people mean. Lucky for you, some Russian idioms have similar literal meanings to some English idioms, so you might be able to deduce their meanings this way. However, there are also a lot of idioms with figurative meanings you would never be able to guess. If you haven’t studied these idioms, there will be plenty of situations in which you don’t understand what people mean, or, worse yet, completely misinterpret their meanings. That could lead to some very awkward interactions!
Finally, learning Russian idioms will make you sound more like a native speaker. Travel phrases will help you get around, but going a few steps past the basics will make you sound much more “in the know.” Plus, if you already have advanced Russian skills, learning idioms might be that extra step you need to take you to full fluency.
Helpful Resources for Learning Russian Idioms
The 10 idioms listed below are a great start to your Russian idiom education, but there are thousands upon thousands of idioms in the Russian language. If you want to learn more idioms, there are lots of great resources out there to help you. Here are a few useful options to check out.
Master Russian offers a free list of idioms organized alphabetically by the first letter in the Russian phrase. This makes it a helpful tool to look up any idiomatic phrases you hear or read. However, it’s also great for perusing at your leisure.
Master Russian offers hundreds of idioms. Please note that the list includes the figurative meaning of each phrase but not its literal translation. If you would like literal translations, consider looking up each word in the phrase in a dictionary or translator. While it isn’t essential to know the literal meaning of each word, it can make idioms easy to remember.
FluentU is a great place to learn colloquial and authentic Russian language, period. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
On FluentU’s player, you’re able to directly interact with any words or expressions you don’t know—simply hover over or tap on them, and you’ll be able to access definitions, grammar information, example sentences and related images. This makes it easy to learn idioms in context without having to use multiple resources.
FluentU takes all kinds of videos and turns them into language learning experiences, as you can see here:
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? FluentU makes native Russian videos approachable through interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab. Easily review words and phrases with audio under Vocab.
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
The “Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms”offers nearly 14,000 comprehensive entries on various Russian idioms. Not all entries contain the exact same components, but each entry has a selection of different information including the Russian idiom, usage information, an English-language definition, any similar English phrases, a usage example, similar idioms, grammatical information and more based on what’s pertinent to that particular phrase.
Plus, “Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms” covers phrases from the 19th century to today, making it an excellent choice for anyone interested in Russian literature.
Because of its comprehensive nature and high price point, this option is best suited to serious Russian students, linguists and scholars.
The “Dictionary of Advanced Russian Usage: A Guide to Idiom, Colloquialisms, Slang and More” covers idioms in addition to other nuanced words and phrases. It’s intended for translators and anyone who’s serious about the Russian language.
This dictionary is organized for easy usage—you can look up English words or phrases for their Russian equivalents and explanations or look up Russian words or phrases for their English equivalents and explanations.
10 Vivid Russian Idioms to Add Color to Your Vocabulary
1. Когда рак на горе свистнет
Literal translation: “When a lobster whistles on the top of a mountain.” However, рак can mean “lobster” or “cancer” (not at all confusing, right?), so this could also be interpreted as “When a cancer/carcinoma whistles on the top of a mountain.” Sounds festive!
Figurative meaning: “It’s never going to happen”
Similar English idiom: “When pigs fly”
“Когда рак на горе свистнет” may initially sound a little weird to native English speakers, but when you think about it, it really isn’t any stranger than “when pigs fly.” No one said idioms always make perfect sense!
2. Ни пуха ни пера
Literal translation: “Neither down nor feather”
Figurative meaning: “Good luck”
Similar English idiom: “Break a leg”
Bonus: The preferred response to this well-wish is “К чёрту!” (“To hell!”). It’s friendlier than it sounds.
If you’re casual, you might even just say “ни пуха” in place of the whole phrase and people will know what you mean. Either way, the phrase is technically wishing the recipient failure in hunting. The idea behind it is the same as “break a leg,” the hope being that wishing someone bad luck will make them have good luck.
3. Руки не доходят
Literal translation: “My hands don’t reach it”
Figurative meaning: “I can’t find the time”
Similar English idiom: None
Мне нужно убраться, но руки не доходят.
(Literal: I need to clean up, but my hands don’t reach it.)
(Figurative: I need to clean up, but I can’t find the time.)
Making excuses to avoid things is popular no matter what language you speak, so you never know when you’ll need to whip out this curious idiom!
4. Делать из мухи слона
Literal translation: “To make an elephant out of a fly”
Figurative meaning: “To exaggerate”
Similar English idiom: “To make a mountain out of a molehill”
This phrase is likely based on an old Latin proverb, and idioms about making an elephant out of a fly exist in several languages.
5. Без кота мышам раздолье
Literal translation: “Without a cat, mice will feel free”
Figurative meaning: “When an authority figure is away, those under him/her may act up”
Similar English idiom: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”
The relationship between the very similar Russian and English idioms is unclear, but the English phrase originated between the 15th and 16th centuries and even appeared in a different form in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
6. Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла
Literal translation: “Love is evil, you may fall in love with a goat”
Figurative meaning: “You can’t control who you love”
Similar English idiom: “Love is blind”
“Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла” may be a bit hyperbolic, but the point is that you can fall in love with anyone.
7. Что посеешь, то и пожнёшь
Literal translation: “What you sow, you will reap”
Figurative meaning: “Actions have consequences”
Similar English idiom: “You reap what you sow”
If you want a little variation with this phrase, you can also say “как посеешь, так и пожнёшь.” Its meaning is nearly identical, so you can pick whatever rolls off your tongue most easily.
8. В ногах правды нет
Literal translation: “There is no truth in the legs”
Figurative meaning: “You can’t think straight while standing up”
Similar English idiom: None
Садись, и тогда поговорим—в ногах правды нет.
(Literal: Sit down, and then we’ll talk—there is no truth in the legs.)
(Figurative: Sit down, and then we’ll talk—you can’t think straight while standing up.)
You may have always trusted the veracity of legs, but apparently this was a mistake. It may sound insulting towards your legs, but it’s actually polite.
9. Взять себя в руки
Literal translation: “To take oneself in one’s hands”
Figurative meaning: “To compose oneself”
Similar English idiom: “To pull oneself together”
People can be a mess in any language. “Взять себя в руки” can be used to tell someone to compose themselves emotionally or just improve their current situation.
10. Без муки нет науки
Literal translation: “Without torture, there is no science”
Figurative meaning: “Adversity builds character”
Similar English idiom: “No pain, no gain”
Вы не получили работу? Без муки нет науки.
(Literal: You didn’t get the job? Without torture, there is no science.)
(Figurative: You didn’t get the job? Adversity builds character.)
When things are going poorly for someone, this is a helpful reminder that suffering can lead to better things.
Don’t let idioms be your Achilles’ heel.
Remember these great Russian idioms to add color to your vocabulary!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Russian with real-world videos.