We hear proverbs and sayings from early childhood: first from parents and grandparents, then from teachers and colleagues. Growing older and wiser, we, in turn, share them with our younger and so on. Through that, old proverbs, idioms, and sayings persist, new ones are born and passed down from generation to generation, remaining a significant part of Russian language and culture. When studying Russian, knowing couple of these sayings is not only helpful for better understanding and communicating, but also shows your educational and cultural level.
This article presents the most famous Russian proverbs and sayings – the most popular, widespread and loved by all. Learn a few and use them to impress the next Russian speaker you meet. Or, if you like idioms, check out the 25 Estonian, Hungarian, or Italian proverbs.
Also read: 10 great examples of Russian slang, and their meanings
1. Сделал дело – гуляй смело.
Literally: Did the job – go walk boldly.
After you have finished your work, you can put it out of your mind and rest. It is said with satisfaction from the work done or for praise to commend person, who has done his work well and on time.
2. Лучше один раз увидеть, чем сто раз услышать.
Literally: It is better to see once than to hear hundred times.
People tell different stories about the one event, therefore, in order to create the correct understanding of something, it is better to see it once than to hear one hundred opinions about it from other people.
3. Не все то золото, что блестит.
Literally: Everything that glitters isn’t gold.
Not everything that is bright, attractive, and conspicuous represents real value. It is said about something (or someone) that does not have great merits, despite the beautiful, bright appearance. Similar to the well-known English saying.
Also read: 20 Russian Idioms With English Equivalents
4. Тише едешь, дальше будешь.
Literally: Ride slower – you will get further.
The meaning of this paradoxical proverb is not to rush and to have patience. You have to be sensible and thorough, and then you will achieve more than when you are in a hurry.
5. – Ни пу́ха, ни пера́. – К чёрту!
Literally: – Neither fluff, nor feather. – (Go) to devil!
This weird expression, which actually means “Good luck” came to our speech from hunters. It is based on the superstitious notion that wishing for the desired outcome of the hunt (catching “fluff or feather”), the hunt can be “jinxed.” People are afraid of jinxing even today, so it became a wish for good luck. You can say “Neither fluff, nor feather” to the student before an exam or in any other risky situation.
6. Без труда́ не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда́.
Literally: Without effort, you can not even pull a fish out of the pond.
Every work requires effort, and without effort, you will not see any results. It is said for encouragement when a specific task needs a lot of time or otherwise effort.
7. Раз на раз не приходится.
Literally: From time to time, it does not happen.
It means that no one is always lucky in everything they do. This idiomatic expression is commonly used to cheer up somebody who failed or show that the result of same action can be different regardless of your efforts, just because of circumstances.
Also read: 4 Fun Ways to Improve Your Russian Skills
8. Ни рыба, ни мясо.
Literally: Neither fish nor meat.
This idiom originated from times of the church reformations, with people trying to hide their religious affiliations. So, the meaning is related to fasting and other periods of abstinence. It is very closely related to the English saying “Neither fish nor fowl”. Now, it is used to describe an unremarkable, average person, without any bright properties or features. When one is incapable of active independent actions or about anything inexpressive and mediocre.
9. О вкусах не спорят.
Literally: Tastes are not argued.
The proverb means that one should not impose one’s preferences and attachments on another person, because each of us has different tastes, and no one’s is superior to others’. Very similar to “To each their own”.
10. После драки кулаками не машут.
Literally: They do not swing fists when the fight is over.
It is said when someone tries to change what has been done when it’s already too late, when nothing can be changed, or undone. After the fight is finished, there is no sense in acting aggressively (swinging your fists), complaining, or being upset.
11. Ни к селу, ни к городу.
Literally: Not for village, not for town.
About something that does not fit together, does not blend, combine, or something said or done for no apparent reason, without connection, or consistency. «Это платье ни к селу, ни к городу» – This dress is not for village, not for town, meaning that this dress is not appropriate for the specific style or occasion.
12. Пан или пропа́л.
Literally: To become a master or to be gone.
This one is about a situation where you have a choice, which can lead to either significant success, or to very serious trouble. So, you achieve all that is desired or lose everything.
Also read: How Hard Is It to Learn Russian?
13. У кого что болит, тот про то и говорит.
Literally: You talk about the pain you have.
It is said when someone keeps mentioning something they are consciously or unconsciously mostly concerned or worried about, or constantly returns to the same topic.
14. Кто рано встаёт, тому Бог даёт.
Literally: God gives to those who wake up early.
The modern meaning of this proverb is not about the literal time of waking up, but about diligence and number of jobs completed during your wakeful hours. You can wake up earliest, but lie on a sofa and do nothing all day – will it help you to become better? Similar in meaning to “Early bird catches the worm”.
15. Лучше синица в руке, чем журавль в небе.
Literally: A tomtit in your hand is better than a crane in the sky.
This proverb implies that it is better to have some small victory right now and in reality, than to fantasise about something unattainable and unreachable in the future.
16. В тихом омуте черти водятся.
Literally: The still waters are inhabited by devils.
The appearance and manner of behaviour is deceptive – a hot-tempered and rude person can be deeply unpleasant to others, but he is predictable, and, through that, less dangerous. However, behind the facade of false modesty, there may be a real storm of dark passions, which will one day find a way out.
17. Моя ха́та с кра́ю – ничего не знаю.
Literally: My house is at the end of the street, so I have no idea what is going on.
This expression indicates an indifferent person, someone who completely denies his/her relation to the world and does not care about what happens around. This saying teaches people to be proactive and express attitude to important issues of one’s social environment.
18. Поживём – увидим.
Literally: We will live – we will see.
It is said in situations when it is not completely comprehensible what you have obtained or reached right then, and this will become clearer only later when time passes.
19. Красиво жить не запретишь.
Literally: You can not forbid living beautifully.
This saying is about a person who has and uses the opportunity to live with a high level of comfort. Often, however, it is used ironically about a poor person who spends money unreasonably, trying to show off and live beyond their means.
20. Пе́рвый блин всегда́ ко́мом.
Literally: The first pancake is always lumpy.
If somebody does not get things right the first time around, a Russian-speaker will often say: “Ничего, первый блин комом!” This means – it is OK if fail at first, it is just a start and you should not give up right after first attempt.
21. Не имей сто рублей, а имей сто друзей.
Literally: Do not have hundred rubles, rather have hundred friends.
Friendship is more precious and valuable than any wealth, because friends can help you out in trouble and will support you no matter how much money you have.
22. Сила есть, ума не надо.
Literally: If you have physical power, you do not need intelligence.
This proverb is said ironically and with disapproval about those who use physical strength or violence to solve any problem. For example, when instead of knocking in the door they break them down.
23. С ми́ру по ни́тке – го́лому руба́ха.
Literally: One thread of the world — shirt for a naked.
If you take just a little bit from everyone, then, all together, you will create something significant. Because helping someone on your own can be tough, but if people unite and work together, they can create great value and change things for the better.
24. Из песни слов не выкинешь.
Literally: You cannot throw a word out of a song.
This expression is commonly used as an apology for having to tell everything, not leaving out any (usually unpleasant) details of the story or described situation – just as you can not miss a single word from the lyrics without spoiling the whole song.
25. И волки сыты, и овцы целы.
Literally: The wolves are full and sheep intact.
It is about a decision that should be convenient and beneficial for different parties with usually opposite interests and should suite absolutely everyone who is involved.
26. Idiom: взять себя в руки
Exact translation: Taking yourself into your own hands
English Equivalent: To pull yourself together
27. Idiom: ни пуха ни пeра
Exact Translation: Neither down/fur nor feathers
English Equivalent: Break a leg
28. Idiom: смотреть правде в глаза
Exact Translation: To look truth in its eyes
English Equivalent: To face the truth
29. Idiom: смотреть сквозь пальцы
Exact Translation: To look through one’s fingers
English Equivalent: To turn a blind eye towards something
30. Idiom: хвататься за соломинку
Exact Translation: To try to grab at straws
English Equivalent: Clutching at straws
31. Idiom: Так темно, хоть глаз выколи
Exact Translation: It’s so dark you can stab my eye out
English Equivalent: Pitch Black
32. Idiom: язык хорошо подвешен
Exact Translation: His tongue is well-hung
English Equivalent: To have the gift of gab
33. Idiom: сложа руки
Exact Translation: To have one’s hands in one’s lap
English Equivalent: To sit on one’s hands
34. Idiom: стоять на своем
Exact Translation: To stand on one’s own
English Equivalent: To stand your ground
35. Idiom: смотреть в оба
Exact Translation: To look through both eyes
English Equivalent: To keep one’s eyes peeled
36. Idiom: строить замки из песка
Exact Translation: To build sandcastles
English Equivalent: To build castles in the air
37. Idiom: пальцем не трогать
Exact Translation: To not be touched with one’s finger
English Equivalent: To not lay a finger
38. Idiom: лица нет
Exact Translation: No face
English Equivalent: Becoming as pale as a ghost
39. Idiom: Я тебе покажу, где раки зимуют
Exact Translation: Where lobsters spend winter
English Equivalent: Swim with the fishes/sleep with the fishes
40. Idiom: Когда рак на горе свистнет
Exact Translation: When a crawfish whistles on the mountain
English Equivalent: In a pig’s eye
41. Idiom: два сапога пара
Exact Translation: Two of a kind
English Equivalent: Cut from the same cloth
42. Idiom: В ус не дуть
Exact Translation: To not blow at the whisker
English Equivalent: Not turn a hair
43. Idiom: Вот где собака зарыта
Exact Translation: That’s where the dog is buried
English Equivalent: To hit the nail on the head
44. Idiom: В семье, не без урода
Exact Translation: Every family has an ugly person
English Equivalent: A Black sheep in the family
45. Idiom: Не делай из мухи слона
Exact Translation: To make an elephant out of a fly
English Equivalent: To make a mountain of a molehill
These are the most famous Russian proverbs and sayings, which are commonly used in the everyday lives of Russian-speakers. Understanding of these expressions is crucial if you want to get a better understanding of a Russian-speaking environment. And adding these proverbs to your everyday speech will make it more lively and bright, and will help you sound more like a native speaker.
Check out other posts in this series exploring proverbs in German, Hungarian, Italian, English, Japanese, Finnish, Romanian, Czech, Portuguese and Estonian.
This article was written by Nina Z – our Russian and Ukrainian teacher in Kiev. If your interest in learning Russian is now spiked, you can sign up for lessons with her below. Alternatively, you can check out other other articles written by Nina: 7 Interesting Facts about Ukrainian or 5 Советов Учителям Русского Языка.