8 spot-on Russian proverbs you probably haven’t heard of

Proverbs dating to medieval times are still today an integral part of Russian tradition and culture. If you want to know the Russian people better, then learn these words of wisdom.

1. When you rush, you make people laugh

Поспешишь - людей насмешишь (Pospeshish – lyudei nasmeshish)

English equivalents: "Hasty climbers have sudden falls," or "Only fools rush in."

Russians love traveling at high speeds, but they don’t like to be in a hurry. And for sure they don't like to be mocked, despite the fact they frequently laugh at themselves.

2. Measure seven times, cut once

Семь раз отмерь, один раз отрежь (Syem raz otmer', odin raz otrezh)

English equivalents: "Second thoughts are best," or "Look before you leap."

This proverb recommends carefully preparing before doing something, because you have only one chance. Despite this idiom’s obvious logic, there are possible negative consequences – when you grow up and hear it constantly then there’s an increased chance of developing an indecisive spirit.

3. A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it flies out, you can't catch it

Слово - не воробей, вылетит - не поймаешь (Slovo – ne vorobey, vyletit – ne poimayesh)

English equivalent: “A word spoken is past recalling,” or “What is said can’t be unsaid.”

Russians usually shorten this idiom to: "A word is not a sparrow."

This idiom was especially relevant in Stalinist times when a wrong word at the wrong time and place could have fatal consequences - for example, if the neighbors heard you telling a joke about Stalin, then you could be arrested. Not surprisingly, most Russians who lived during that era learned to be quiet.

4. Work is not a wolf – it won’t run away to the forest

Работа – не волк, в лес не убежит. (Rabota – ne volk, v les ne ubezhit)

English equivalent: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

This proverb reflects the ancient Russian folk image of a man lying about and enjoying his favorite pastime - doing nothing. This idiom was immortalized in the Soviet movie, Operation Y and Shurik's Other Adventures, where a man sentenced to construction work for a minor offense is too lazy to do any work, and says the legendary phrase, “work is not a wolf.” Take it easy – you can return to your work any time.

5. Don’t blame a mirror for your ugly face

Нечего нa зеркало пенять, коль рожа крива (Nechego na zerkalo penyat, kol’ rozha kriva)

English equivalent: “A bad workman blames his tools.”

This means that a person shouldn’t blame others for their failures and mistakes.

The great 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, used this phrase as an epigraph in his satirical play, The Government Inspector, which is about a small town mayor and his deputies who try to deceive a visiting state inspector, and give all their money in advance as a bribe, just in case.

6. Don’t go to another monastery with your own rules

В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (V chuzhoi monastyr so svoium ustavom ne khodyat).

English equivalent: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

In Russian Orthodoxy, when you become a monk you need to give up everything from your previous life, and take a vow of obedience. Similarly, in medieval Russia when a mother-in-law welcomed the new wife of her son into their home she didn’t want the young woman to establish her own order. Nowadays, this idiom is often used in relation to a new person at work or a group of friends.

Some people also use this phrase when rebuking immigrants who refuse to assimilate, meaning that they come to Russia and expect that Russians should abide by their traditions and customs.

7. An old friend is better than two new friends

Старый друг лучше новых двух (Stary drug luchshe novykh dvukh).

English equivalent: “Old friends and old wine are best.”

Another common phrase is: “You shouldn’t have 100 rubles, when you have 100 friends.” Friendship is very important to a Russian, who doesn’t easily become close friends with new people. Most of one’s closest friends are those from school or university. But if you’re lucky enough to become friends with a Russian, then you can be sure that he’ll help even if you call on a winter night stuck in the middle of nowhere without money (as long as he has a visa to get there, of course).

8. Wait, be patient – you’ll love your partner eventually

Стерпится, слюбится (Sterpitsya, slyubitsya)

English equivalent: “Marry first and love will follow.”

The word “слюбится” is only used in this idiom, and nowhere else. The Russian version doesn’t mention a ‘wedding,’ but before the 20th century young people were often married off by their parents to someone who they never had met.

This idiom is today popular in other ways, and for example, you can say these words in relation to those new shoes you’re not sure if you like, or about a new little dog at home. But be sure, love will follow.

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