Words that transfer directly from one language to another with the exact same meaning are called loan words. Whenever a language takes a word, we refer to it as borrowing, which is a bit of a misnomer because the words are obviously never returned. English borrows loan words from many different sources, and given Russia’s size and cultural impact over the last couple of centuries, it should be no surprise that a few words have come directly from Russian. Political words are among the most commonly used, but Mother Russia – as Russians sometimes refer to their country – has loaned us words from all walks of life. Here are 15 of the most common.
An apparatchik is a person who works in a non-executive position in a large organisation. The word is most commonly used to describe someone who works within the state apparatus and has a small amount of political responsibility. In the West, we often use it to describe members of communist parties (but not those in the top positions).
Example sentence: “Putin was a KGB apparatchik before he became president.”
A babushka is a very old Russian woman. The British singer Kate Bush helped popularise the word with her song of the same name (although she used an alternative spelling).
Example sentence: “She seems like a wise babushka.”
Balaclavas are a kind of hat/mask which help protect the wearer against the cold. Originally made out of wool, the word came into existence during the Crimean War. Although they are useful aids for keeping warm, nowadays, they’re probably more closely associated with criminals and terrorism. Whatever you do, don’t wear one in a bank!
Example sentence: “A balaclava is great for keeping your ears warm in winter.”
Commissar was the word used for the head of a government department in the old USSR. When talking about the same position in modern-day Russia, we are more likely to use the word minister (as we do for most other countries), unless we are trying to evoke memories of the communist days.
Example sentence: “Chicherin was the Commissar for Foreign Affairs.”
This is one of the most used Russian words in English and also the simplest to explain. In any other country, someone who travels to space is called an astronaut, but if that person is from Russia, we call her or him a cosmonaut.
Example sentence: “One of the first cosmonauts was a dog called Laika.”
Russian literature has a rich history, with students around the world engrossing themselves in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov. If you read any of the Russian greats, you will almost certainly encounter the word Dacha, which means a second home in the countryside. Dachas are extremely common in Russia, with some sources suggesting 25% of Russians own one. Consequently, they play a huge part in Russian lives, so it’s a word you’re likely to come across if you ever befriend a Russian.
Example sentence: “Do you want to come to my dacha for the weekend?”
Another political term, glasnost is the name of the policy of political transparency that was instigated in 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost led to perestroika (see number 13 below), which played a large part in the fall of the USSR, so the word is still commonly heard in political and historic conversations.
Example sentence: “Glasnost helped change the course of history.”
Gulags are large prison camps in totalitarian countries. The kind of prisons we give this name to are typically forced-labour camps that house political prisoners (as well as non-political criminals). When I hear the word gulag, I think of the Siberian prisons that opened up under Stalin, or the prison camps in North Korea.
Example sentence: “Very few people ever escape from gulags.”
Intelligentsia is a collective noun for the elite group of intellectuals in a society.
Example sentence: “Most of the intelligentsia did not support Brexit.”
A kremlin was originally the word for a fortified city. There are lots of kremlins all over Russia, but the most famous one is in Moscow, which we now refer to with a proper noun: the Kremlin. Kremlin is now used as shorthand for ‘the Russian government’, in the same way we say the White House or Washington to mean ‘the American government’.
Example sentence: “The Kremlin has announced an increase in tax.”
The word mammoth originally meant any huge, elephant-like animal from the prehistoric era. Although no mammoths are in existence today, the word lives on and is most commonly used as an adjective meaning huge.
Example sentence: “Building a high-rise building is a mammoth task.”
A pavlova is a meringue cake topped with whipped cream and fruit. It is named after the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.
Example sentence: “Does anyone want some pavlova?”
The literal meaning of perestroika is ‘restructuring’, and this term is another that’s used to describe one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies. Coming a year after glasnost, Gorbachev initiated perestroika in 1986, meaning a program of economic and political reform.
Example sentence: “Perestroika was intended to improve the USSR’s economy.”
As the title suggests, tsar has 4 possible spellings in English. This word entered Russian from the Latin word/Roman ruler Caesar, and it means emperor or all-powerful ruler. These days, any person who has great power in a particular sector can be described using this word, with one of the most famous cases being Henry Anslinger, the US’s first Drug Czar (public official responsible for drug policy).
Example sentence: “She is a csar of industry.”
The last and no doubt most famous of our words is vodka. A colourless, alcoholic drink traditionally made by distilling potatoes, vodka is a popular ingredient for many cocktails, such as a Screwdriver, White Russian, or Bloody Mary.
Example sentence: “Vodka always gives me a terrible headache.”