Monday, July 22, 2013

Re-learning Russian

Ms. Sandwalk and I are going to be in St. Petersburg (Russia) in a few weeks. We plan on spending four hours in the building on the right (and adjacent buildings) although I'm told that's not nearly enough time.

I'm trying to remember my Russian. I last studied it in high school 50 years ago. We've been watching videos of the main tourist spots in St. Petersburg and I can usually figure out what the signs are saying. For example, it was pretty easy to recognize the sign below. In fact, most of you could probably figure it out even if you haven't taken Russian.

Here's the problem. The language in most Western European cities is quite casual compared to the way it was in the past. A typical greeting might be similar to "hi" instead of "How are you?" The comparable words in Russian are Привет and Здравствуйте. Which one is more appropriate in Russia today? And which pronunciation of Здравствуйте should I use?

Similarly, I was taught to say Как вы поживаете (How are you?) but that's a very formal phrase. I get the impression that it's now thought to be archaic and you can easily skip the pronoun by saying Как поживаете. Can you get away with addressing a stranger using the informal first person version of "you," e.g. Как поживаешь?


  1. And which pronunciation of Здравствуйте should I use?

    The first в is mute even in the most formal style. Something like zdrástvuytye or zdrástvitye will do when you are greating a stranger. Как (у вас) дела? 'How are things?' is a lighter version of Как (вы) поживаете?. Switching from the polite 2pl. forms of address to 2sg. is easier than it used to be (especially among young people), but requires mutual consent and could be regarded as aggressive/insulting without it.

  2. In fact, you could get away with zdrastye.

  3. Are you aware that Russia recently banned positive discussion about gay people (by votes with near-zero opposition) and that visitors have already been arrested under the law? The IOC has already had to make statements that the law will not affect out gay Olympians' safety in Sochi.

    Just a few weeks ago, when LGBT people protested for their rights in St. Petersburg, which has a local law that predates the similar nation-wide law, the result was a mob's violent attack on them.

    I hope you'll reconsider visiting that city, and that country.