How to address a Russian if you don't know their name

Irina Baranova
Even if you are an introverted kind of person and don’t really like to talk to strangers, you may still have to approach someone you don’t know in Russia.

Just imagine yourself standing confused in the Moscow metro, not sure where to go and what to do in this giant network of complex Russian names and crowds of people - desperately needing someone to help. You see an unsmiling tough Russian guy standing nearby - how would you address him or any other Russian for that matter?

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, a simple “Excuse me” will do, but if you’d like to survive in the provinces and learn how to do it the local language, read on. Here are some of the most popular conversation-starters Russians use to address each other. Even if you don’t use these yourself, you’ll at least know what to expect from Russians and what’s going on.

1. Извините (Izvinite) & Прошу прощения (Proshu prosheniya)

“Izvinite” and “Proshu prosheniya” are basically the Russian version of “Excuse me” and are used a lot if one wants to ask someone for a small favor, like “Izvinite, propustite, pozhaluysta” (Excuse me, let me through please) when there is someone standing in the way, or in case one needs to get some cash “Proshu prosheniya, pomogite, pozhaluysta, naiti bankomat” (Excuse me, could you help me find an ATM please). These are interchangeable and can basically help with any kind of request offering probably the safest and formal option there is, if one is not sure how to address another person.

2. Молодой человек (Molodoy chelovek) & Девушка (Devushka)

“Molodoy chelovek” can be translated as “young man.” In public transport, a guy might hear something like “Molodoy chelovek, dayte prisest” (Young man, let me sit) or “Molodoy chelovek, u vas upalo” (Young man, you’ve lost something) if his wallet fell out of his pocket. 

Interestingly, this is used not only when addressing young people but also mature men if it’s difficult to identify their age. Just yesterday, a waiter called my young-looking sporty father (who is over 50, by the way) “molodoy chelovek.” So it might be an option if one wants to be extra polite or make it sound like a compliment. 

The same works with “Devushka” (young lady), the equivalent of “molodoy chelovek”. “Devushka, mojno s vami poznakomitsa?” (Young lady, can we get to know each other?) is often used by men to start a conversation with women. It can also be used not only with respect to young women but also women in general. Note that saying “devushka” to a Russian babushka is a risky option - some elder ladies treat it as a compliment while some might laugh at it as if they heard a joke. In such cases, Russians usually call an elder lady “Zhenshina” (Woman).

3. Мужчина (Muzhchina) & Женщина (Zhenshina)

“Muzhchina” (Man) and “Zhenshina” (Womаn) is a less courteous way to address a man or a woman, but is also quite acceptable and commonly used. “Muzhchina, ne zaderjivayte ochered!” (Sir, don’t hold the queue!) or “Zhenshina, vi zabyli sumku!” (Lady, you’ve left your bag!) are a couple of examples. 

4. Девочка (Devochka) & Мальчик (Malchik)

“Devochka” (Girl) and “Malchik” (Boy) are commonly used when addressing kids: “Devochka, ne trogay sobaku!” (Girl, don’t touch the dog!) or “Malchik, ti pateryalsya?” (Boy, are you lost?). 

5. Уважаемый/-ая/-ые (Uvazhayemy/-aya/-iye)

“Uvazhayemy” (Respected, honorable) for a man, “uvazhayemaya” for a woman or “uvazhayemiye” for a group of people are a common way to address someone in written communication and usually is followed by the name of a person (like “Uvazhayemy Ivan Ivanych”). In speech “uvazhayemy” can sometimes have an ironic meaning, if one pronounces it with the right emotion. “Uvazhayemy, propustite!” (Respected, let me through) for instance, when a Russian is annoyed with someone, but doesn’t want to clearly offend a person.

There are also a number of other words that can be used to address someone ironically like “lyubezny” (amiable), “dorogoi” (darling), or “sudar’” (sir). Examples: “Sudar’, ne zvonyte mne bolshe” (Sir, don’t call me anymore), or “Ne podskajete, gde tualet, lyubezny?” (Where is the toilet, dear?).

6. Товарищ/и (Tovarish/i)

Most commonly used in Soviet times “tovarish” (comrade) survived the collapse of the USSR and is still appropriate in modern Russian conversation. It’s a bit less formal than “uvazhayemy” and can be appropriate to address a man (tovarish) or a group of people (tovarishi). One can say something like “Tovarish, nu khvatit zdes stoyat!” (Comrade, stop standing here!), “Tovarishi, proydite vpered!” (Comrades, move forward!) or “Tovarishi, ya sozhaleyu” (Comrades, I’m sorry). 

7. Коллеги (Kollegi)

“Kollegi” (colleagues) is a safe, formal and neutral way to address a team at work - in speech or online. “Kollegi, mojno potishe!” (Colleagues, be quiet!), “Kollegi, pitsa na kukhne! Ugoshaytes!” (Colleague, pizza is in the kitchen! Enjoy!) or “Kollegi, spasibo za pozdravleniya” (Colleagues, thank you for your wishes) - it basically works in any situation. 

8. Друг (drug) or брат (brat)

If a guy is pretty confident in himself and wants to address his mates, he can call a friend “drug” (friend) or “brat” (bro). Such informal conversation-starter basically kills any kind of distance between the two and instantly builds a connection. Russians usually use it when they want to ask for a cigarette, ask for directions, or want to talk to someone at a party.

Yet, if you hear someone calling you this way on the street at night, be extra cautious - tough Russian guys might want something more material from you. They might usually say something like “Brat, dai telefon pozvonit?” (Hey, bro, can I borrow your phone?”) or “Ei, drug, kotory chas?” (Hey, friend, what time is it now?) approaching you slowly and usually in groups. In this case, better flee.

9. Эй, ты (“Ei, ti”)

An even more informal and rather aggressive way to call someone is “Ei, ti” (Hey, you) - a Russian might say “Ei, ti, chto ty tam delaesh?” (Hey, you, what are you doing there?) when he or she sees someone robbing a car, for example, or “Ei, ty, stoy gde stoish” (Hey, you, don’t move) if he or she wants to warn someone to not move any closer. It’s not gender-specific, but usually it’s men who’d be approached like that. 

Do you know any other conversation-starters in Russian? Share your comments below.

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