Russian Language Tips & Need-to-Know Customs for 2014 Winter Games

Will Noble • TraditionsComments (0)

Russian: Need-to-Know Language and Customs Tips

Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia almost upon us, we figured it’s time to help you study up on your Russian language and customs. If you’re lucky enough to be headed to Sochi, some of this might just prove invaluable. If not, it’s all good-to-know material, and you can utilize it when you’re next in Russia. That, or show off your newfound know-how to friends at the bar.

Russian: An overview

Guess what – Russia is big. The land mass covers 17,098,242 km² and it’s inhabited by 150 million people. Though it is huge in size, it’s thought 81% of people living in Russia speak one language: Russian. Even those who speak a minority language tend to know Russian as well. Over 100 minority languages are spoken in Russia, including Tartar (more than 3% of Russians speak this one), Ukrainian, Chuvash, Bashir, Mordvin and Chechen. However, if you’re headed to Mother Russia any time soon, we suggest you stick with grasping plain old Russian. Your Russian language skills will prove useful outside of Russia too: residents of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan often speak Russian, as do many other people, especially those in countries that are former Soviet satellite states.

Difficult to learn?

Russian is not the easiest of languages to grasp. Pronunciation and grammar may be considered a chore; stressing the right syllables is tricky and nouns can end in a multitude of ways. The Russian (or Cyrillic) alphabet may look like an incoherent form of alien hieroglyphics the first time you see it, too. But wait! Before you run to the nearest Spanish class, understand that there is good news involving Russian language learning too. For one thing, Russian has only three tenses. Because of this, it’s much easier for the speaker to take an educated guess at the order of words in a sentence. And there’s more. About 10% of all Russian words are foreign loan words. Some are Italian, French or German, but most are English. If, for instance, you’ve had a problem with your coffee in a café, you can use the English version of these three words with minimal alteration to express your caffeine-related woes in Russian.

Conversation pieces

On the whole, Russians appreciate any attempt to speak their language, and won’t lambast you for flubbing your words. Though Western films may have promoted a stereotype of the “cold, distant” Russian, people can actually open up quickly, so don’t be afraid to try to make friends. It’s always appreciated when you go out of your way to learn something about a country you’ve visited. The modern history of Russia is perhaps one of the most fascinating (and studied in plenty of Western schools), but depending on whom you’re talking to, be a little wary of talking about things like politics and social agendas. If you’re in Sochi, your main topic of conversation will probably be sport anyway. Speaking of which…

Some useful phrases for Sochi

Going to the Winter Olympics? We’ve come up with some very specific phrases you might find useful in Sochi.

Извините, кто выиграл в скоростном беге на коньках? Excuse me, who won the speed skating?

Не могли бы вы объяснить мне керлинг? Could you please explain curling to me?

Здесь всегда так холодно? Is it always this cold here?

Горные лыжимой любимый вид спорта. Alpine skiing is my new favorite sport.

Я ставлю на Микаэлу Шиффрин в этом году. My money’s on Mikaela Shiffrin this year.

Russian customs

Now that you feel comfortable enough speaking some Russian, it’s time to immerse yourself in a few customs. Being invited for a meal is an honor, as is being invited to a drinking session. By acting on the following advice, your Russian etiquette should be exemplary.


First up – meeting people: Russians are known for their firm handshakes. If you’re a man meeting another man, imagine you’re going into a job interview: Clasp strongly and make eye contact. If you’re a man meeting a woman, or vice versa, a handshake is still customary, although lighten up on the grip a bit. Woman meeting a woman? A kiss on the cheek three times is the usual. Remember to start and end on the left cheek. When you get to know people better, that’s when the hugging and backslapping begins!

A couple of hand-gesture no-no’s: The “OK” sign (thumb and index finger forming a circle) does not mean OK in Russian and can cause offense. Therefore, if you’re feeling OK, don’t physically signal this! Slotting your thumb between your middle and index fingers is also taboo. So don’t do an “I stole your nose” trick with any Russian kids you encounter!


If you’ve been honored with an invitation to a meal in Russia, there are more customs you should observe. Bring a little present. If you’re female, anything will do, but if you’re a man, go with flowers (but not yellow ones, as they’re considered bad luck). Although, of course, being late is frowned upon, don’t turn up more than fifteen minutes early. Dress smartly and be prepared to swap your shoes for house slippers. Food is usually abundant at any meal. If you feel that you’re about to burst, show you’re satiated by leaving a little on your plate.


You could write a book on Russian drinking etiquette, but we’re distilling it down to the basics. Vodka is, of course, the alcoholic beverage of choice in Russia. It’s strong and is often offered to guests in none-too-moderate quantities. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to turn it down (people won’t necessary tell you you’ve had enough). Be prepared to toast with every drink (these toasts often become more rambling as the night goes on) and don’t drink until the toast is completed. Don’t toast with an empty glass and don’t put an empty bottle back down on the table. Got all that? To be fair we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Oh, and if you’re asked to make a toast, how about addressing it to the 2014 Winter Olympics!

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