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Russian Proverbs and Sayings
March 4, 2010 09:58


Russian proverbs and sayings are keen winged expressions created by Russian people, or translated from ancient written sources and borrowed from literary works; they express wise ideas and thoughts in concise and witty form.

Many Russian proverbs are made of two proportional rhyming parts. Proverbs, as a rule, have both literal and figurative meanings (morals). There can often be several different versions of proverbs with the same morals. As compared to sayings, proverbs have higher generalizing meaning. The earliest preserved pieces of the ancient Russian writings that contain proverbs date back to the 12th century.

Proverbs can be found in some well-known works of Old Russian literature: The Tale of Igor's Campaign (XII century), Praying of Daniel the Immured (XIII century), etc. Manuscript books of proverbs were released starting from the 17th century.

Some part of the proverbs that have taken roots in Russia was created by oral folklore; some of them were adopted from ancient phrase collections and religious sources.

Many of the proverbs originated from works by Russian writers, such as Woe from Wit by Aleksandr Griboyedov, Ivan Krylov’s fables, and others.

Russian people always respected and highly estimated well-aimed, wise and vivid aphorisms. There are good grounds for Russsian sayings: «A proverb will not break for ages», «Without corners the house is not built, without a proverb speech is not said». In proverbs and sayings people have truthfully reflected their vast life experience, struggle for better life, their history and attitudes. Figurative and wise maxims imply customs and traditions, expectations and hopes of the Russian people. Witty and caustically they deride their oppressors and such negative features, as impudence, falsity, perfidy, duplicity, conformism, money-grubbing, greed, and bribery.

In all their shine and perfection Russian proverbs and sayings bespeak the shrewdness, vivacity and smartness of the national mind, its special talent to capture precisely the most characteristic traits of various things and phenomena. In a short and coined form national aphorisms very clearly and intelligibly convey sophisticated and big ideas, becoming that very “winged word”, which imparts keenness, precision and felicity to the Russian language.

Proverbs and sayings have existed from time immemorial, and are long-lived and steady. However, the structure of proverbs and sayings varies as time goes by. It is known, that majority of the proverbs used in the past centuries have gone out of use. For example, after the October revolution some proverbs associated with the imperial autocratic rule ceased to be.

Collectors of proverbs

Classics of the Russian literature carefully collected proverbs, putting them down after the common folks. A tireless expert collector of proverbs and sayings was Alexander Pushkin. Thus, in his article “Ancient Proverbs and Sayings” Pushkin gives a wide range of proverbs, with analyses of their historical sources, and literary form, as well as their direct and figurative meaning.

Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, NikolayDobrolyubov also highly appreciated folk aphorisms. As an 18-year old student, Dobrolyubov started collecting and writing down proverbs. He also studied theoretical works, made up collections of proverbs, and constantly used them in his literary reviews.

The great Russian prose writer Leo Tolstoy studied and collected proverbs throughout his entire life. The last book which he bought before leaving from his estate Yasnaya Polyana was Illyustrova's book “Collection of Russian Proverbs and Sayings”. All that the people have thought over is embedded in proverbs and sayings, Leo Tolstoy emphasized. He greatly enjoyed reading of proverbs.

Among the draft manuscripts for his famed novel War and Peace there were found two pages filled up with proverbs far and wide. It was evidently part of his preparatory material for the novel. One page has 29 of proverbs, and the other has 33 of them. Tolstoy interlaced proverbs into his text as confirmation to his ideas, and used them in descriptions of characters’ peculiar features.

Another writer who paid enormous attention to folk proverbs was Maxim Gorky. He considered studying of folklore to be the way to gaining literary skill. According to him, proverbs and sayings are the genre of national creativity, which helps a writer to master the riches of the Russian language.

Proverbs and sayings offer accessible explanation to most complicated questions, supplement logic formulas with the power of the word picture, and give bird's-eye conclusions of worldly wisdom.

Here are some of the Russian proverbs in English


A drop hollows out a stone.
A man is judged by his deeds, not by his words.
A proverb can't be judged.
A wife is not a pot, she will not break so easily.
A word of kindness is better than a fat pie.
All ages are submissive to love.
An enemy will agree, but a friend will argue.
Any sandpiper is great in his own swamp.
Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer.
Chickens are counted in autumn.
Confide a secret to a dumb man and he will speak.
Cry not out before you are hurt.
Curious Varvara's nose was torn off.
Deprive a mirror of its silver and even the czar won't see his face.
Do not make an elephant out of a fly.
Don't put new wine into old bottles.
Eggs cannot teach a hen.
Every sandpiper praises his own swamp.
Every seed knows its time.
Fear has big eyes.
Fear the goat from the front, the horse from the rear, and man from all sides.
Fear the Greeks bearing gifts.
For him who does not believe in signs, there is no way to live in the world.
For ill do well, Then fear not hell.
Gossip needs no carriage.
Happiness is not a horse; you cannot harness it.
He needs not search his pockets for words.
If everyone gives one thread, the poor man will have a shirt.
If the child does not cry, the mother knows not its wants.
If the devil catches a man idle he'll set him at work.
If the thunder is not loud, the peasant forgets to cross himself.
If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.
In a quarrel, leave room for reconciliation.
Keep your ears wider and your mouth narrower.
Laws are silent in time of war.
Looking at a tree see its fruit; looking at a man see his deeds.
Old age is not a joy, but death is not a gain.
Once burned by milk you will blow on cold water.
One does not go to Tula with one's own samovar.
One does not look for good when he is well.
One fisherman recognizes another from afar.
Pray to God but continue to row to the shore.
Spending is quick, earning is slow.
Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.
Take the bull by the horns.
Take thy thoughts to bed with thee, for the morning is wiser than the evening. Tell me who's your friend and I'll tell you who you are.
The first [cup of vodka] goes as a stake, the second as a falcon, and the third as a little bird.
The fish always stinks from the head downwards.
The morning is wiser than the evening.
The rich would have to eat money if the poor did not provide food.
The riches that are in the heart cannot be stolen.
The scythe ran into a stone.
The slower you go, the farther you will be.
The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.
The tallest tree is rooted in the ground.
The tongue always returns to the sore tooth.
There may be deep bottoms in still waters.
There's no harm in wine; it's drunkenness that is at fault.
Water does not run under a lying stone.
What the young one begs for, the grown-up throws away.
When money speaks the truth is silent.
When you meet a man, you judge him by his clothes; when you leave, you judge him by his heart.
Where something is thin, that's where it tears.
You cannot break through a wall with your forehead.
You cannot pull a fish out of the pond without work.
You don't get something for nothing.


Tags: Russian Literature Russian Folklore Russian Proverbs and Sayings   

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