25 Russian Words Used in English (and 25 More That Should Be)

By Mark Nichol

Many Russian words have been appropriated by the English language. Some, like mammoth and sable, are easily assumed to be from a more closely related language. Others were originally specific to Russian culture but can be applied to analogous Western concepts, such as a reference to an American politician retreating from Washington, DC, to his dacha, or to a comment about a troika of conspirators.

Here is a list of well-known Russian words and their original meanings and later connotations, if any. Below that you’ll find another set, that one consisting of words known to few, if any, speakers of English who are not bilingual in Russian or familiar with Russian culture. The latter list is ripe for exploitation in English. (Try referring, for example, to an elite cohort as the nomenklatura or to a petty bureaucrat as a namestnik.)

Either list can be mined for analogous meanings. Some require no annotation, while others should be introduced carefully in context or even glossed; which approach to take depends on the content and its audience.

Familiar Russian Words (Absorbed into English)

1. Agitprop: artistic political propaganda, from a truncated form of the Russian forms of the words agitation and propaganda
2. Apparatchik: a Communist Party member and/or functionary, from the Russian form of the word apparatus
3. Babushka: in Russian, “old woman”; in English, a type of scarf commonly worn by babushkas
4. Beluga: a type of whale or sturgeon
5. Bolshevik: a revolutionary or radical, from name of the majority Communist faction in Tsarist Russia, ultimately from the Russian word for “majority”
6. Commissar: an official
7. Cossack: a Russian ethnic group associated in popular culture with military prowess and a nomadic society; the name, like the ethnic appellation Kazakh, derives from the Turkish word for “nomad”
8. Dacha: a country house
9. Duma: a legislative body
10. Glasnost: a policy of political openness and transparency, from the Russian word for “publicity”
11. Gulag: originally an acronym for a Soviet-era system of forced-labor camps; it now can refer to any repressive or coercive environment or situation
12. Intelligentsia: the intellectual elite of a society, from the English word intelligent
13. Kopeck: a Russian coin
14. Mammoth: a prehistoric mammal, and, by extension, a synonym for massive
15. Menshevik: the name of the minority Communist faction in Tsarist Russia, originally in power briefly after the Russian Revolution but defeated by the Bolsheviks
16. Perestroika: the Soviet-era system of reform, from the Russian word for “restructuring”
17. Pogrom: originally, violent persecution of Jews in Russia; now, any officially sanctioned attack on a particular group
18. Politburo: the Soviet-era primary source of government policy decisions, a truncation of the Russian forms of the words political and bureau
19. Ruble: the basic unit of Russian currency
20. Sable: a mammal related to the weasel whose sleek black coat was long prized as a clothing material, and, by extension, a synonym for black
21. Samizdat: prohibited literature produced clandestinely
22. Samovar: an urn for heating tea
23. Sputnik: a traveling companion; also, the name given to a series of Soviet-era satellites, the first objects launched into space
24. Taiga: the far northern coniferous forests of both Asia and North America, from a Turkish or Mongolian word
25. Troika: a carriage or sleigh pulled by three horses, or a triumvirate (a ruling or administrative trio)

Unfamiliar Russian Words (Not Yet Absorbed into English)

26. Druzhina: a unit of bodyguards and elite troops
27. Glavlit: the Soviet-era government censorship agency
28. Izba: a log house
29. Knout: a whip used in punishment
30. Konyushy: an official responsible for horses used in ceremonies
31. Kulak: a well-off farmer
32. Lishenets: a disenfranchised group
33. Matryoshka: a set of Russian nesting dolls
34. Muzhik: a peasant
35. Namestnik: an administrator (from the Russian word for “deputy”)
36. Narkompros: a Soviet-era agency responsible for education and culture, later called the Ministry of Enlightening
37. Nomenklatura: the Soviet elite, holding prestigious government and industrial posts (from the Latin term nomenclature, “list of names”)
38. Okhrana: the Tsarist secret police
39: Oprichnik: Ivan the Terrible’s brutal bodyguards and henchmen
40. Prikaz: originally, a bureaucratic position; later, an administrative directive
41. Propiska: a Tsarist regulation requiring subjects to remain in their hometown
42. Rasputitsa: spring and fall periods in which, because of heavy snow or rain, unpaved roads are impassable (possibly related to the name of Rasputin)
43. Sambo: a form of martial arts
44. Silovik: the elite
45. Spetsnaz: special-forces soldiers
46. Tamizdat: prohibited literature produced outside the country
47. Tovarishch: a companion or fellow traveler; used as a direct form of address in the Soviet Union, equivalent to comrade
48. Ukase: a decree; refers specifically to a government proclamation or generically to an arbitrary command
49. Ushanka: a fur cap with ear flaps
50. Zek: an inmate

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21 Responses to “25 Russian Words Used in English (and 25 More That Should Be)”

  • Aleksandras

    Many English words have been appropriated by the Russian language too. Компьютер (computer), дисплей (display), плеер (player), драйвер (driver), гамбургер (hamburger), тостер (toaster), миксер (mixer), ланч (lunch), брифинг (briefing) etc. In Russian language formed a kind of funny computer jargon for example crack – кряк (from russian it is quack – the characteristic sound uttered by a duck), so you can imagine cracking means quacklin 😀

  • Andrey

    Two minor corrections from a native speaker:

    “…20. Sable: a mammal related to the weasel whose sleek black coat was long prized as a clothing material, and, by extension, a synonym for black…”
    Better “Sobol”, not “sable” (that is an English word)
    “Sable” or “sablya” = “saber”- a sort of cold steel weapon (used by Cossacks, for example)

    “Silovik”: not simply elite, but one rooting from police, secret service or military

  • Maria

    You are not a linguist, are you?
    Cossack is a Ukrainian word and it was adopted in English long ago. you can see it from the spelling. Russian Kazaks are descendants of Ukrainian Cossacks who were widely used by the Russian authorities to settle at Russia’s borders.

    not Okhrana — Okhranka.

    Propiska was in effect during the Soviet times and is still pretty much alive.

    Sambo is self-defense without weapons.

    Silovik is an official from the so-called force ministries, like the Ministy of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service (aka KGB).

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Awesome, that is what my Saturday was missing, a touch of Russian.

    We need more of this, looking at how words are formed and what they mean in other languages can also stoke the entomology fires when it comes to developing your own language for novels and fiction.

    Fantastic, thanks for sharing this with us!

  • AnWulf

    Udarnik … super-productive worker (like stakhanovite)
    Otlichnik … outstanding person

  • Andrey

    Kopeck: a Russian coin.
    Correct name is Kopejka.

    About the Tsarist secret police (Okhrana). It should be Okhranka.

  • Anna Tikhomirova

    Small correction.

    Otlichnik in russian is a person who is really good at smth. Usually we use this word when we talk about school or university, and OTLICHNIK is a person who has all the A’s in his diploma/certificate or whatever.

  • Mary Rose Liverani

    There would be very few languages totally unrepresented in the English language which has been very hospitable to any new word that adds the name of a thing or a concept to the language. Almost the entire stock of medieval French was added to English during the Norman period and the three centuries of French domination that followed. The list of Russian is actually quite small, a reflection of the fact that there has been comparatively little physical contact between Russians and anglophones over the centuries. That may change in the future. Agitprop is a wonderful word and its Russian connotations with a police state are what gives it its force in English. On the other hand, ‘Bistro’ – not on your list – is a word that few anglophones would realise is Russian.
    Because of all the immigrant words in English, that language must have by far the biggest vocabulary on the planet and it grows at a phenomenal rate.

  • Kate P.

    31. Kulak: a well-off farmer

    Actually, a “fist” would be much more common use of this word.

    37. Nomenklatura: the Soviet elite, holding prestigious government and industrial posts (from the Latin term nomenclature, “list of names”)

    Wow, that was really unexpected! I guess now it’s just a “list of names”, the other meaning is not used. I am ashamed to confess I didn’t even knew this is the word!

    42. Rasputitsa: spring and fall periods in which, because of heavy snow or rain, unpaved roads are impassable (possibly related to the name of Rasputin)

    The last part is fun! Although I suppose his name can have its origine related to the term, but definitely not the other way round!

    44. Silovik: the elite

    And one more time, it’s actually an interesting choice of words! I’d say it’s not the elite itself, more like top members of government services usually related with an army or special services.

    Thank you very much, that was really interesting! I hope to see more lists of international use of words from different languages. It is most enlightening.

    P.S. What about “Tsar”? 🙂

  • AnWulf

    I forgot sastrugi (pl) (also zastrugi) … ridges in the snow and ice made by wind drifts and erosion (one is sastruga/zastruga).

    In your second list, I think that spetsnaz is a well-known word (Rambo III I think) …

    Matryoshka dolls are well-known.

    Kulak, I think is known if anyone reads history … as is tovarish (tovarish is the usual spelling tho I hav seen tavarish as well) or watched a few spy movies from the Cold War era.

    Katyushka from WWII era.

    Tzar/Tsar

  • Sally

    Spasiba, tavarishch! (Thank you, Comrade!)

    “Rasputitsa” is indeed tangentially related to “Rasputin.”

    “Ras-/raz-” is a prefix that implies “every which way, apart”

    “Put’ – road, path.”

    “Rasputin” is said to mean “dissolute,straying from the (correct) path” but this seems to have been a legend created by the man himself (A Sinner Come to God). It is more likely a place name, meaning “crossroads” or, as Mark has intimated, “(place of) muddy roads.”

    And, Anwulf, the WWII rocket-launcher is a “Katyusha.” It was taken from a popular song about a girl – Katyusha < Yekaterina – whose lover has left for the front (the launcher's name was classified and often referred to by the letter K).

    I hope, Mark, that you will do a second list – don't forget the Vodka … Na zdorovye – Cheers!

  • Sally

    “Tavarishch” rather than “tovarishch” because unaccented O is pronounced A

  • s.blankstein

    Always nice reading posts in this blog, but there are way too many questionable “findings” in this one, kind of quantity over quality.
    E.g.:
    Babushka = grandmother; true, any old woman could be called grandmother – but not the other way round.
    Commissar – is much worse than just an “official”. The word gained international recognition because this is how the Bolsheviks named a special layer of commanders created in the army that would be senior to soldiers, but could not be qualified as officers because of their inadequate background. No wonder, early KGB (Cheka) was made of commissars.
    Duma = parliament.
    Pogrom = a mess, like in “create a mess”. Violent persecutions of Jews were called “Jewish pogroms”, true. I would disagree that now any officially sanctioned attack on a particular group is called a pogrom.
    …And I will abstain from commenting the unfamiliar list.

  • Claude Nougat

    He, that’s great fun, a discussion in Russian! I would add Vranyo, a Russian word for a special kind of lying (or deceiving) …like when Putin pretended he’d gone deep sea diving to recover ancient urns when in fact he was just a couple of feet under water and pulling up urns tht had just been deposited there from the local museum…

    I use Vranyo as a chapter title in my book FEAR OF THE PAST (when the protag goes to Russia) and had a great time with that word which was also talked about in the New York Times if I recall rightly, but I can’t remember now who wrote about it…Sorry! Maybe someone else can remember…

  • Soufflenin

    Not “Kopeck”, the right word for Russian coin is “Kope ́yka”.

  • Olga

    Hello everyone!
    I’m Russian, so for me this article is kind of funny)) I mean, it’s strange and funny to read Russian words written in English letters))
    There’re some mistakes. For example, we don’t say “Mammoth” but “Mammont” 🙂

  • LonelyPlanet

    Nice reading about my native language, thanks!
    Some things to add to Audrey (#2)’s post:
    1. “Babushka”: the accent must be in the first syllable, i.e, bAbushka, not babUshka, as many foreigners say.
    2. “Mammoth” should be “mamont”

    Then, Maria is not right in some corrections:
    -Cossack is a Ukrainian word…
    Russian word.

    – Russian Kazaks are descendants of Ukrainian Cossacks
    Absolultely no! Cossacks are slavic, Kazakhs are Mongoloids.
    Kazakhs are Turk etnicity, they live in Kazakhstan – a Central Asian country. Muslim people, and Cossacks are mainly Christians.
    Just an homonym, like Indians who live in India, and American Indians, who settled America long before Columbus.

    3. Kate P.:
    42. Rasputitsa: spring and fall periods in which, because of heavy snow or rain, unpaved roads are impassable (possibly related to the name of Rasputin)

    The last part is fun! Although I suppose his name can have its origine related to the term, but definitely not the other way round!”

    Rasputitsa is not anyhow connected to Rasputin, alas.
    It is: Ras-put-itsa, where:
    – ras: prefix “out- (of)”
    – put: root of the word, meaning “way”
    – itsa: suffix that means time or location (something like this).
    So total word is (hmmm..) out-of-ways-period.

    4. AnWulf: not “Katyushka”, but “Katyusha”

  • Vlad

    “Muzhik” is not only a peasant but also (and primarily, in fact) a universally loved informal word for ANY grownup man, which makes it a rough analogue of “guy”, “bloke”, “chap” and so on. It is largely neutral but may convey respect if used as an address

    “Namestnik” is mostly used in historical novels now and sounds pretty old-fashioned for a Russian ear, so use it with reserve.

    As for “samizdat”, these days it can refer to any book published by amateurs – e. g. a fan-produced translation of some English-language novel ignored by official publishers. There is also a popular literary website called Samizdat (the acronym is СИ), it is like Deviant Art for beginning authors. So the sense of prohibition has survived only in the historical context. “Tamizdat” is known even less, which is also true for “glasnost” – don’t expect a Russian-speaking person to understand you on the spot.

  • Cornucopia

    the Russian word “sambo” should be introduced into the English language? I thought it never left since it’s a derogatory slur toward African Americans in Britain. But, I’m sure this didn’t slip past any of the editors.

    Too many double entendres used on this site to cleverly hide intent, but the meaning is clear. I’ve seen it too many times before, and the writers can’t be so dense to miss it.

    “Daily Writing Tips” is quickly becoming a joke. I used to like reading this site, because I love the tips, but it’s no longer worthwhile. I can read other sites like Grammar Girl, and get the same information sans the xenophobic flair.

  • Mark Nichol

    Cornucopia:

    The Russian word sambo is, like many terms in that language, a partial acronym and has no etymological connection to the offensive racist slang word, which is fortunately no longer common here in the United States. It is puzzling to me why you should so aggressively accuse this website of racism through your careless confusion of the two terms, and your imputation of the site’s “xenophobic flair” is extravagant and unfounded.

  • Ruslan

    The Russian word sambo means SAMooborona (self-defense) Bez (without) Oruzhiya (weapons). The other meaning is hardly known in Russia and it does not have any negative connotation there because there has never been anything like race-related slavery in Russian history.

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