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15 Great Russian Expressions You’ve Never Heard Of

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About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.


I’m having a great time getting into the exciting bits of my new novel. Bear-riders have appeared, my main character is in the middle of a huge dilemma, two other characters have lost their families, and another is getting himself stuck in some very dark, bad business (it may or may not involve giants. Or dragons. Or both!)

My second novel, I’m be honest, is a tad dark. So even as I’m writing it, feel the need to lighten it up a bit. In my first novel, unexpected bits of comedy came from secondary characters. I’m trying to do the same in this one. There’s one character, a kind of royal bodyguard named Bhuk, who’s modeled on a guy I worked with in the kitchens of a monastery in north Russia (true story).

Bhuk can hardly say a single sentence without having some kind of folksy expression in it. It’s a very Russian thing. So I thought it might be interesting to find and translate some of the more colorful Russian expressions and find out what they actually mean. Here we go:

The hidden meanings of Russian folk sayings: part 1.

  1. Иван родства не помнящийIvan who doesn’t remember his family

Literally, it means someone who doesn’t like to follow traditions or rules. An innovator (not in a good way). The historical meaning is this. During Tsarist times, police had to deal with runaway prisoners, serfs who were trying to escape hard masters, soldiers who couldn’t finish boot camp, various sectarians, and other wanderers with no official papers. These people often hid their real names and places of residence. If asked about their names, they all call themselves “Ivan,” and claimed they didn’t remember their families.

  1. Толочь воду в ступеTo beat water in a mortar

It means “to beat the air,” to waste time doing something useless. The hidden meaning has to do with the supposedly miraculous properties of water. From pagan times, Russians were in awe of water. People used to whisper blessings on water and wait for miracles. But what if someone already mumbled something over the water? Especially if that someone swore when he dropped a jug of it? Water remembers everything!

So the old pagan druids found a way to “erase” the negative information from water. They used to beat water in a vessel for a long time. After a few days of torturing the water, the water was ready to be whispered over and used for magical rites. The druids would use the supposedly magic water for barter. But eventually, people realized that the water didn’t do anything special. So after a long time, it became an expression meaning “to waste your time.”

  1. Шут гороховый—A pea-green jester

It’s a derogatory expression: “stupid idiot,” or “moron.” The image of the jester of Medieval Europe is well known—wearing motley, a hat with donkey ears, holding a rattle in his hand (the rattle was often a bull bladder filled with dried peas). He would always begin his performances by rattling the peas. In Russia, jesters liked to decorate themselves with dried stalks of pea plants. During the folk celebrations before Lent, an effigy of a pea-green jester was carried around on the streets.

  1. Тянуть канительTo spin gold thread

Literally, it means to do humdrum work. To work a long time at a monotonous task. So why do you need to spin gold thread? Metal threads, whether of silver or gold, were used in decorations of clothing and rugs. To make it “sewable,” you had to make it extremely thin by beating it and pulling it through smaller and smaller holes. The process was laborious and very, very boring.

  1. Делить шкуру неубитого медведяTo divide the pelt of a living bear

An English equivalent might be “to count your chickens before they hatch.” The older version of this phrase is “to sell the pelt of a living bear.” The meaning is pretty clear—you shouldn’t build plans before you know they’re going to come through. The source of the bear image is actually from a French fable called “The Bear and Two Companions” by Jean de La Fontaine. The story concerns two fur traders who make a bargain for the pelt of a bear they haven’t killed yet. Hilarity ensues. Here’s the full fable online.

  1. Съесть СобакуTo eat a dog

The phrase now means to go through bitter experience, and come out the wiser. But originally, the phrase was ironic. Here’s the full version: “He ate the dog, but choked on the tail.” The expression was used to laugh at someone who had finished a very difficult job, but tripped up at the end over some trifle.

  1. Кричать во всю ИвановскуюTo scream over all Ivanovskoe

Literally: “to scream bloody murder.” Inside the Moscow Kremlin, the square that has the famous bell tower of Ivan the Great is called “Ivanovskoe”. In old times, sextons would announce all public laws, documents, and other official business concerning Moscow and all other cities. These sextons had very loud voices, apparently.

  1. Выносить сор из избыTo carry the garbage out of the hut

Literally: “to air dirty laundry”. This one also goes back to pagan rites. The thing is, garbage was never carried out of the hut. It was burned in the stove. Why? People believed that a magician could find out a family’s secrets by smelling their garbage. If he really wanted to harm them, he could even bury the garbage in a cemetery (not good!)

  1. Делу время и потехе часThere’s a time for work, and a time for play

This one might seem obvious, but there’s an interesting historical episode here. In 17th century Russia, the most popular way for a noble to spend his free time was hunting with falcons. Even Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich loved it—he hunted almost every day, except for winter. He even published a set of rules for proper falconry.

In this rulebook, the hunt was praised as an occupation that was very good at banishing sorrow and misfortunes. However, ultimately the Tsar decided that people had started enjoying it toomuch, and government business was suffering. So at the end of his rulebook, he added a warning: “Do not forget the business of government: there is a time for work, and a time for play.”

  1. Куда Макар телят не гоняетWhere even Makar won’t take his cows

Literally: very, very far away. Here’s one version of this saying’s provenance. Peter the Great was traveling through Riazan’. He liked to talk to the common people incognito. It so happened that on a certain day, every peasant he met just happened to be named “Makar”. The Tsar was surprised by this, then was reputed to say, “From this day forth, you shall all be called Makar!” From that time, the name “Makar” was used as a catchphrase for “peasant man.”

  1. Танцевать от печкиTo dance from the stove

Strangely enough, this expression means “to act always in the same way, never changing based on newly acquired knowledge.” Funny story. A certain man named Sergei Terebenev returned to Russia after a long absence. When he returned, full of nostalgia, he recalled his childhood memories of taking dance classes.

So he’s standing at the stove, his feet in “position three.” His parents and servants are standing around watching him. The teacher gives the command: “One, two, three.” Sergei does the first step, but loses his beat, and his feet get tangled up.

His father says, “O, what a mess! Well, get back to the stove, start dancing again!”

  1. Зарубить на носуTo hack at the nose

This one sounds more violent than it actually is. It means to remember something forever. The image that comes to mind is a poor schoolboy that’s standing in front of an angry teacher who threatens him with a finger again and again. The poor boy imagines it’s an axe hacking away at his nose. But that’s not it at all. Actually, a “nose” is a small wooden board notched by illiterate peasants as a way of remembering important tasks.

  1. Семь пятниц на неделеSeven Fridays a week

This describes a person who constantly changes his mind. Someone you can’t trust. In old times, Friday was market day. Everyone shopped on a Friday. Friday was the day that the goods arrived, and payment was arranged for the followed market day (Friday). Whoever did not come through with the payment was branded with this expression: “For that guy, it’s seven Fridays a week!”

But there’s a different explanation too. Workers were usually allowed to leave early on a Friday, so a lazy bum was also given this expression. For him, every day was a day off, so to speak.

  1. Вилами на воде написаноWritten on water with a pitchfork

Literally: “a very doubtful event.” There are actually two explanations for this expression. “Vila” (the Russian word for pitchfork) is also another name for Russian mermaids, dangerous spirits who were said to drown young men (they also show up in chapter 3 of my new novel). If you saw them writing on the water, you could be sure that what they wrote would come true.

The second meaning refers to pitchforks as ritual objects used by druids. The three points of the fork were said to symbolize the essence of the god Triglav (literally, three-headed one). Druids would use them to “draw” runes on water as part of their magic rites. Of course, when nothing happened, people started to give the action its opposite meaning.

  1. Отрезанный ломотьA cut-off piece of bread

This refers to someone who has become independent—a daughter given to a husband who lives very far away, or a son whose started his own family and never comes to visit his parents.

Interestingly, in old times bread was never cut, because it symbolized life. You should only ever break pieces off. So the expression “cut-off piece of bread” is a real historical oxymoron.

Stay tuned next week for more linguistic madness from the Russians! The original Russian article can be found here.

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Germany’s flood zones spared severe storms on Saturday

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In the west of the country, the fire brigade reported a quiet night in the flood areas in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine Westphalia.

The situation remains tense, however, with local thunderstorms forecast in some parts of Germany from midday on Sunday — most likely south of the Danube.

Further heavy rain and hail were also possible again, according to the German Weather Service (DWD), which publishes storm warnings.

READ ALSO: WEATHER: German flood zones at risk of further storms

The latest storms came just days after parts of the country were hit by devastating floods after torrential rains that ravaged entire villages and left 180 people dead, hundreds injured and with many still missing.

The flooding also caused damage in Belgium, where 37 people died, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.



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Prosecutors allege R Kelly had sexual contact with under-age boy

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US prosecutors in R Kelly’s sex trafficking case say he had sexual contact with an under-age boy in addition to girls, and the government wants jurors in his upcoming sex-trafficking trial to hear those claims.

Federal prosecutors aired a wide-ranging raft of additional allegations – but not new charges – against the R&B singer in a court filing on Friday.

Jury selection is due to start August 9th in a New York federal court for Kelly, who denies ever abusing anyone.

The Grammy Award-winning singer is charged with leading what prosecutors call a criminal enterprise of managers, bodyguards and other employees who allegedly helped him to recruit women and girls for sex and pornography and to exercise control over them.

The charges involve six different women and girls, who are not named in court filings.

Now, prosecutors would also like jurors to hear about more than a dozen other people whom the government alleges that Kelly sexually or physically abused, threatened or otherwise mistreated.

Among them, the government says, was a 17-year-old boy and aspiring musician whom Kelly met at a McDonald’s in December 2006 and later invited to his Chicago studio.

According to the prosecutors’ court filing, after asking the boy what he would do to make it in the music business, Kelly propositioned and had sexual contact with him while he was still under-age.

And when Kelly was about to go on trial on child pornography charges in Chicago in 2008, the same youth told the singer he had access to a juror, and Kelly asked him to contact the juror and vouch he was a “good guy”, prosecutors wrote.

The filing does not say whether the youth did so. Kelly was acquitted in that case.

The boy also introduced Kelly to a 16- or 17-year-old male friend, with whom prosecutors say the singer began a sexual relationship several years later.

Kelly also filmed the two youths in sexual encounters with other people, including some of Kelly’s girlfriends, according to the filing.

Prosecutors wrote that the accounts of the boys and others would help show that the actual charges “were not isolated events and were part of a larger pattern”.

The multiplatinum-selling singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, is known for work including the 1996 hit I Believe I Can Fly and the cult classic Trapped In The Closet, a multi-part tale of sexual betrayal and intrigue.

Kelly’s private life has drawn scrutiny since the 1990s, and he currently is also facing sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota. He has pleaded not guilty.– AP

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Fears mount in western Germany as fresh rain falls

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For some areas, the German Weather Service has forecast heavy showers or storms, bringing between 30 and 40 litres per square metre.

Amid further rainfall on Saturday afternoon, evacuation services to emergency accommodation were offered to communities in Rheinland-Palatinate who had been particularly badly affected by the flooding, German news site Merkur reported.

“The people will have to make the decision themselves,” said Begona Hermann, head of the relief teams in the west German state, explaining that the forecast rainfall was not expected to be as severe as that which devastated parts of Germany last week.  

READ ALSO: German floods death toll hits 180, with 150 still missing

However, even lower levels of rainfall could still be a problem because sewage and drainage systems were not working properly because of the flooding.

Earlier on Saturday, police requested all volunteers working on the clean-up operation in the Ahr area to leave as quickly as possible for their own safety because of the difficult conditions.

This came after the police and the crisis management team asked the public not to travel to Rhineland-Palatinate to help out because there were too many people there.

“The population’s willingness to help continues to be undiminished and overwhelming,” read a Kassel police statement on Saturday. Due to the large number of volunteers who came to help out, however, roads in the area are now congested, it said.

Heavy machinery required for road and bridge construction, and for the restoration of the area’s water supply, was getting stuck in traffic jams, the press release said.

Vehicles for removing rubbish and construction debris, as well as emergency and rescue vehicles, were also unable to get through.



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