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Russian Language Lab – Nina Wilson Explores Russian Proverbs

Nina Wilson researched, recorded, and explained several well-known Russian proverbs. About her project Nina said, “I have always loved proverbs, and I decided to work on Russian proverbs to learn more about Russian culture. It has been a very fun, unique project for me.”

Бьётся, как рыба об лёд.

It beats about, like a fish under the ice.

Usage: You are stuck in a situation and can’t get out of it.


Близко локоть, да не укусишь.

Your elbow is close, but you can’t bite it.

English equivalent: So close, yet so far away.

Usage: You are close to something but can’t quite reach it.


Первый блин комом.

The first blin is a mess.

English equivalent: Practice makes perfect.

Note: Blini (singular: blin) are Russian pancakes, similar to crepes.

Usage: You must do something many times before you do it well.



Горбатого могила исправит.

Only the grave cures the hunchbacked.

English equivalent: The leopard cannot change his spots.

Usage: You can’t do anything about what you look like.



Ум хорошо, а два лучше.

One mind is good, and two are better.

English equivalent: Two heads are better than one!



Не пойман—не вор.

Not caught, not a thief.

English equivalent: Innocent till proven guilty.

Usage: If no one can prove you did something, you didn’t do it.

Вот тебе, бабушка, Юрьев День.

There you are, Grandma, Yuri’s Day.

English equivalent: That’s a castle in the air.

Note: Yuri’s Day is the name of the two feasts of Saint George which the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates. The feasts of Saint George occur in both autumn and spring, and this proverb refers to the autumnal one. It was a harvest celebration, and in 1497 it was established that the two weeks before and after Yuri’s Day were the only times that Russian peasants could move from one landowner to another. A century after this, the movement of peasants around Yuri’s Day was abolished and Russian serfdom was finalized. This proverb uses Yuri’s Day as a “day that will never come” and probably only one that the speaker of the proverb’s grandmother remembers.

Usage: When speaking about something that probably will never happen.

А вы, друзья, как не садитесь;
Всё в музыканты не годитесь.

It isn’t important how you sit, friends-
You’re never going to be musicians!

Note: These are the final two lines of a popular fable by Ivan Andreevich Krylov, The Quartet.

Usage: A big show isn’t worth anything if you don’t have talent.

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