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The Russian Tongue: When sorry is the hardest word

As awkward as it can be to express yourself when someone you know has suffered a loss or run into trouble of some kind, in English we have things relatively easy in comparison with Russian.

As awkward as it can be to express yourself when someone you know has suffered a loss or run into trouble of some kind, in English we have things relatively easy in comparison with Russian. The phrase “I’m so sorry” can cover everything from stepping on someone’s foot by accident in the subway to consoling your friend over a bad break-up (with alterations in intonation, of course).

But in Russian, while Извините or Прощу прощения would work in the first instance, they are entirely inappropriate for expressing sympathy; it would sound oddly like you were really blaming yourself if you used either one to try and do so. 

So what can you say?

If the situation isn’t too serious, there are several one- or two-word exclamations available, including a number of iterations of бедный (poor). Say your friend is complaining about having the flu; you could say: Бедная\бедный, бедняга, or бедняжка. In this context, the English equivalent would be, “You poor thing!” Ой, бедняжка, поправляйся быстрее! (Oh, you poor thing! I hope you feel better soon.)
A couple other common phrases can cover a range of situations: (Какой) ужас! Как ужасно! (That’s terrible/How awful!)

Sometimes you want to try and convince your conversation partner that things aren’t as bad as they seem. In this soothing category we have: Всё будет хорошо/в порядке (Everything’s going to be OK). Then there’s one of the ubiquitous verbs of motion, обойтись. The literal meaning is motion around something, so you could think about this like walking around your troubles. In this context, I would translate Обойдётся as “Things’ll turn out all right.”

One sentiment I find intensely irritating but people love to express is: Maybe it’s for the best. (Может, это к лучшему.) If you want to be a little flippant about someone who’s complaining of physical pain, you can use the phrase: До свадьбы заживёт. (Literally: It will heal before your wedding. Contextually: Oh, it’s not so bad.)

If things are looking more serious, you can start off any sympathetic phrase with one of several verbs in the imperative: Не грустите, Не переживайте, Не расстраивай¬тесь. (Don’t be sad, don’t be upset.)

Find a friend crying in the bathroom (or whatever the male equivalent of that is)? Да не переживай ты так, все будет в порядке. (Don’t be so upset, everything’s going to be OK.) Расстраиваться functions in the same way: Да вы не расстраивай¬тесь, это пройдет. (Don’t be upset/don’t worry, this’ll pass.)

One more imperative form to keep in mind is держитесь. As in English, it can mean both physically and mentally hanging on. Держитесь, всё образуется! (Hang in there; everything will turn out all right.)

A couple of useful first-person forms for sincere sympathy are Сочувствую and Сожалею. These can be used in conversational speech, as in: Бедная. Сочувствую. (You poor thing. I’m sorry to hear that.)

Theoretically, we could say “I sympathize” here, but that’s a lesser-used phrase in conversation, I think.

These verbs can also be used in very formal expressions of sympathy, should you have the misfortune to find yourself in such a situation: Искренне вам сочувствую. (I truly sympathize with your… )

Hopefully you won’t have to worry about this, but in ordinary speech, on hearing about someone’s death, or speaking about someone who has passed away, people can use the phrase Царствие ему небесное (To him the kingdom of heaven). The best English equivalent would be, “May he rest in peace.” Мама у меня профессор на сельскохозяйственном факультете, а отец был врач, царствие ему небесное. (My mother is a professor of agriculture, and my father was a doctor, may he rest in peace.)

One word that is only used formally is соболезнования (condolences). As in English, you can express your condolences (выразить свои соболезнования), or ask someone to accept your condolences (Примите мои соболезнования).

Here’s Putin talking to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after some of the latter’s countrymen were killed in Iraq: Прежде чем мы начнем нашу беседу, я хочу выразить самые искренние соболезнования по этому поводу и Вам, и всем близким погибших заложников. (Before we begin the meeting, I would like to express my sincere condolences to you and all the family and friends of the murdered hostages.)

Or if you want to add a little style to your speech, you could always go with the language of Russian fairy tales: Не печался добрый молодец – утро вечера мудренее. (Do not sorrow, brave youth – the morning is wiser than the evening.) OK, that last part was a literal translation. For a translation, we could probably take a page from Scarlett O’Hara: “Tomorrow is another day.” 


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The Russian Tongue: Babes and babushkas


Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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