Christian Phrases in Russian


Many of the phrases we use in Russian — and in English — actually come from or are inspired by (the corresponding translation of) the Bible.

I am not qualified to give a theological interpretation of such phrases. You can follow the links for each phrase to see the larger context in English or in Russian.  If you are interested in the languages the Bible was written in, check out our Hebrew and Greek blogs (no Aramaic blog here yet). Still, with these phrases being so ubiquitous in contemporary Russian among people who may or may not be familiar with the Bible, I would like to look at how they are used today.

Information on many other phrases is available in Mikhail Zagot’s dictionary of biblical phrases.


Перековать мечи на орала

картина Перековать мечи на орала


The passage says “и перекуют мечи свои на орала” and talks about the future peace. This is the Russian equivalent of “beat swords into plowshares” and is used to talk about someone moving from violence/hostility to peaceful activities.

Ковать is to forge, as used in metal-working. You will recognize it from the many variants of the Kovach (“Smith”) last name. Notice that the suffix -ова- goes away in conjugation: кую, куёшь, куёт, куём, etc. Меч is a sword. Орало is an obsolete word for a plough, which is now commonly called плуг.

Бандиты могли бы честно разбогатеть, если б перековали свои мечи на орала. (Gangsters could grow rich in an honest way if they beat their swords into ploughshares.) [Феликс Кривин. Еду в Самарканд (1982)] 


Не судите, да не судимы будете

Картина не судите, да не судимы будете


This is the famous “Judge not, that you be not judged” and is used quite literally — to tell someone not to judge someone whose situation they don’t know.

Судить is to judge. Note that this word does not normally imply condemnation in Russian. You can say “мне трудно судить об опере” (it’s hard for me to judge/form an opinion on opera), and that would not mean you are criticizing opera. A related word is судья, a judge. Судимый is the passive participle of судить. This word is also used nowadays to talk about someone with a criminal record, which, coincidentally, is called судимость.

Вот Женя ненавидела Макса Григорьевича, и в общем-то ее можно понять. Но не судите да не судимы будете, жизнь сложна. (So Zhenya hated Max Grigoryevich, and you could really understand why. But judge not lest ye be judged; life is complicated.) [Г. Я. Бакланов. Жизнь, подаренная дважды (1999)]


Что посеешь, то и пожнешь

Картинка Что посеешь, то и пожнешь


This phrase comes from “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” or its Russian counterpart “что посеет человек, то и пожнет.” Nowadays this phrase is most often used in the second person, as in “что посеешь, то и пожнёшь,” and is similar in meaning to “what goes around, comes around.”

Сеять is to sow. A related word is семя, seed (plural семена). This word declines like времяЖать is a rare verb meaning to cut down crops, not to be confused with жать as in “to press.”

И мстил ― доносами. Но что посеешь, то и пожнешь! В 1937-м на него настучали «коллеги». (So he took revenge by being an informant. But you reap what you sow! In 1937 he was snitched on by his “colleagues.”) [В. П. Стеценко. Из воспоминаний о Леонове (2004) // «Наш современник», 2004.08.15]


Фома неверующий


Фома неверующий (hear it pronounced) is the Russian equivalent of doubting Thomas, a disciple who did not believe Jesus had been resurrected until he saw him.

Фома is a somewhat obsolete name in Russian, unlike the English Thomas. Верить is to believe, and вера is faith. Верующий may be said of an observant, pious, or religious person.

Заметьте, даже самые заядлые скептики и “Фомы неверующие” начинают надеяться… (Notice how the most avowed skeptics and doubting Thomases start hoping…) [Какие забавные истории случались с Вами в новогоднюю ночь? // РИА Новости, 2006.12.29]


Козёл отпущения

картинка Козёл отпущения


Козёл отпущения (listen here) is used as frequently in Russian as its counterpart “scapegoat” is in English. This expression comes from a story of two goats, one of whom was to be sacrificed, and the other let to run off to the desert carrying sin away. In contemporary Russian, козел отпущения refers to someone or something on which a negative situation is blamed.

Козёл is a male goat, a female goat is коза, and a baby goat (kid) is козлёнок. The first two of these are also used as mild curse words for an annoying/backstabbing man or woman, respectively. Отпускать is to let someone go or, here, to forgive someone’s sins.

Осенью, если экономическая ситуация будет неблагоприятной, может понадобиться козёл отпущения. (In autumn, if the economic situation is troublesome, a scapegoat may be needed.) [Анастасия Матвеева. Кремль и есть правительство (2003) // «Газета», 2003.06.19]


Камень преткновения

фото Камень преткновения


Камень преткновения (listen here) is a stumbling block. This is thought to have referred to a literal stone where non-believers and people who broke the law. In today’s Russian, this expression signifies an obstacle in achieving something.

Камень is a stone or rock. The adjective is каменный as in каменная лестница, stone stairs. Преткновение is not really used in contemporary Russian; it comes from an Old Church Slavonic word meaning “to stumble.”

Камнем преткновения стала добровольность исследования. Если проверять детей на наркотики спонтанно, то это может нарушать права человека, а если их предупреждать заранее, то самоисследование теряет смысл. (Voluntary participation in the study became a stumbling block. If children are drug-tested randomly, it may violate human rights, and if they are warned ahead of time, the whole study loses its purpose.) [Елена Кудрявцева, Элионора Самотаева. Медицина // «Огонек», 2013] 

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