Five key Russian words to unlock the soul



Sophia Tupolev is a Russian-American who splits her time between Central West Moscow, Central Park West, and the rest of the world. A seasoned expat in Moscow, Sophia leads the Russian Conversation Club, which she founded in 2009, and is now sponsored by RT. She is the Russia Representative for American Citizens Abroad, an advocacy group for American expats’ rights and is an active member of several community organizations such as the American Women’s Organization and the International Jewish Community. Sophia currently is the Corporate Social Responsibility Advisor to the Editor-In-Chief at RT. She can be reached at

These commonly used Russian words have simple translations but a hidden level of meaning which hold the key to understanding some of the values that define the Russian soul.

Ремонт (pronounced reh-mont) means ‘renovations.’ The word flutters on banners on the sides of residential buildings and is de rigueur in any kind of real estate listing. Indeed, the sounds of ongoing renovations seem to be unrelenting in Moscow. Remont in a flat can be ‘European,’ ‘Modern,’ ‘Classic,’ or non-existent – bez remonta. The Russian penchant for remont is a manifestation of a core belief that tomorrow will be a better day, and a feeling that one can bring about positive changes in life via physically improving one’s surroundings.

Завтра (pronounced zavtra) means ‘tomorrow.’ Since tomorrow is generally perceived as a better day, it naturally becomes the optimal time to accomplish things that don’t seem to be working out today. This includes both personal and professional tasks, which are often relegated to ‘zavtra,’ which is a concept, rather than the actual next day. ‘By tomorrow’ can be used to mean ‘by the end of the week,’ while ‘by next week’ often becomes by the end of the month.

Можно (pronounced mozhno) means ‘May I’ or ‘You may.’ This word is arguably one of the most useful words in Russian. Used in combination with hand gestures, one must only wait for a mozhno in reply for permission to do or take something, order a beverage, or enter an office. Russians use phrases like ‘would you be so kind…’ and ‘May I…’ even when ordering a croissant. This feature of the language reflects the refined imperial past, a sense of which lives on in the modern Russian soul through the built-in politeness of the language. While there were many more niceties in common usage a century ago, the word mozhno is now a stand in for the more complex phrases of yore.

Дача (pronounced dacha) means ‘country house.’ Most city-dwelling Russians, irrespective of age or socio-economic standing, have a place out of town. Come late April, Friday night and Saturday morning traffic goes one way: to the countryside. Dachas are for relaxing with family and friends, enjoying the fresh summer forest air, and of course, grilling shashlik (kebab) on an open flame. Mushroom-picking, light gardening and landscaping are national weekend pastimes. Dacha homes are the common thread that weaves in and out of generations. Despite a love of modern conveniences and well-renovated urban landscapes, the dacha is where Russians get back in touch with the land cultivated by their grandparents, a place that is not only a physical state but an essential part of the national consciousness.

Maмa (pronounced mah-mah) Not just the woman who brought you into this world, but the woman who will be the undeniable authority and a true matriarch for your own children for life. Many Russians live with or near their parents, even after they get married, for as long as possible. Later in life, parents often move in with their children. Partly, this is due to a disproportionate ratio of salary to home prices, but it goes far beyond that. Mama is the one who guides you through life until marriage, helps raise your children while you work, and God forbid you think of putting her in a home for the elderly. Irrespective of logistical or material challenges, Мама is an irrevocable part of Russian life.