Posted On December 8, 2014 By In Russian With 3627 Views

Proverbs as a Doorway to Russian Culture

By: Nina, NSLI-Y Russia, Summer 2012

When I think of my summer in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, with NSLI-Y, some of the fondest memories that come to mind are of gazing out at the city from my host family’s ninth floor apartment. I could stare out the windows for hours and never get bored. There was an endless variety of buildings — ranging from tall apartment complexes to colorful little cabins — with people, cars, buses, and the occasional street cat rushing between them. It was very different from my suburban street back home, and I loved it.

One day, my host dad entered the kitchen and saw me looking out the window. To him, this image spoke of nostalgia. “Скучаешь?” (“Do you miss [home]?”) he asked good-naturedly. I explained that I was merely soaking in the view, but he wasn’t convinced. He told me a proverb commonly repeated in Russia: В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше. Translated, this means “It’s nice being a guest, but it’s nicer at home.”

I realized this proverb got at the heart of a fundamental aspect of Russian culture I’d observed personally. In Russia, the relationship between host and guest is very highly valued. Each guest is free to arrive unannounced when he or she pleases, and it’s the host’s responsibility to see that the guest can “чувствуй себя как дома” or “make yourself at home” — another common phrase.

Russian people also have very strong attachments to their homes, whatever form they might take. For instance, my host sister fondly called the town where she was born her “городок,” a term of endearment. Russia is famously known as the “motherland,” which is an approximate translation of the exclusively Russian word “родина.”

I returned home with an intense fascination for this link between language and culture. Each could teach so much about the other. I told my Russian teacher here in the U.S. about this newfound interest, and she guided me as I undertook an independent research and translation project about Russian proverbs. My favorite one I found is “Горбатого могила исправит,” literally meaning “only the grave cures the hunchbacked.” The humorous imagery really sticks out to me.

I plan to continue studying proverbs and hope to become certified in Russian translation in college. I would encourage all NSLI-Y students to learn as many idiomatic sayings in their target language as possible; it opens so many hidden doors to understanding both the language and its cultural context.

Click here for Nina’s collection of personally researched, recorded, and explained Russian proverbs in Russian and English.

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