3 words you need to survive in Russia

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Russian grammar and pronunciation might indeed seem like a challenge. But it’s definitely worth it: Russian is full of beautiful and vivid words that are unique to the language. I spent some time living in Irkutsk, a city in southern Siberia, and I found that even in the simplest of words, there is a cultural meaning that you can only really learn by being immersed in everyday life there.

Бабушка (babushka)

If you’re going to learn anything about Russian culture, you should start with babushkas. The term babushka (бабушка) was originally a diminutive of the word baba (баба), an ancient Russian word for a married woman. Nowadays, this cute word translates as “granny”… but in Russian culture babushkas are so much more!

Russian babushkas wear a headscarf in all seasons, and are by definition wonderful cooks, expert healers, and dangerous hosts, constantly trying to stuff everyone to bursting point! Yet the word babushka isn’t just used for grannies. It can actually refer to any elderly woman in Russian society.

Babushkas are a totally independent part of the population, and they hold nearly unlimited power over everyone else: they know everything and they will always give you advice, whether you’ve asked for it or not. Children are taught to admire and assist them from a young age: it is a duty and honour to help them with a heavy bag on the street, or to give up a seat for them on public transport. Oh and remember, babushkas aren’t shy and they’re definitely not lacking in confidence. If you ever forget your manners, they won’t mind telling you. So, try not to disrespect a babushka, because if you do, you might live to regret it!

Дача (dacha)

You turn up in Moscow during the summer months and wonder why there’s no one there...”Where have they gone?” I hear you ask. To their dacha, of course.

A dacha is a typical Russian summer house. Yet, the word dacha isn’t just a second home: it’s a whole lifestyle. Since the 18th century, city dwellers have been escaping to their dachas for the summer. A dacha is a place where Russian families can get away from the city and reconnect with nature; where they can grow vegetables to eat and pickle for the winter, go foraging for mushrooms and sing together around a bonfire in the evenings.

For many Russians, a dacha is a synonym for nature, fun and relaxation. So if you ever get invited to a dacha, just sit back and have fun! (But make sure you help the babushka in her allotment first!)

Прорубь (prorub’)

So what do people do in winter then? Well, I can tell you I learnt and experienced many things during the winter in Siberia, but nothing stuck in my mind more than the word prorub’. While summer is made for relaxing at dachas, winter is made for working and wearing as many layers of clothing as you can… Oh, except on the day of the Epiphany, of course, when Russians of Eastern Orthodox faith get (almost) naked and plunge into a prorub’.

Have you guessed what it is yet? Yes, it’s a hole in a frozen lake or river. And yes, people do bathe in it (even I have!). It was originally a religious tradition, but nowadays it’s also practised by nonbelievers for its amazing health benefits! If you ever decide to have a go, make sure you know how to express yourself when you get out. Here’s one extra word I’m pretty sure will come in handy: “холодноооооо!” (pronounced: holodnooooo). Can you guess what it means?

Yes, you got it, it means “It’s coooooold!”

Marta is one of the Italian Language Experts at busuu. She grew up in a small town in the north of Italy and then moved to London to study French and Russian. As part of her degree she spent some time in Siberia, where she went to university and explored the surroundings of Lake Baikal. She loves poetry and travelling, and can’t go a day without rock climbing!