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How to Learn Russian Through Sport

Though tensions often seem to be ramped up between Russia and the rest of the world, nothing is ever likely to prevent East and West from coming together over a shared love of sport. Russians are as fanatical about sport as the rest of us, though of course they have their own favourite pastimes to both take part in and watch, with the likes of rugby and golf not particularly prominent on Sport 1 (Спорт 1), their main channel for sports lovers.

Photo by illtronic


Here are a few of Russia’s favourite sports, their current heroes and a few words you’ll need if you want any chance of understanding the commentators.

Football (футбол)

Naturally Russia is obsessed with the global game, just like the rest of us (including the Americans now apparently, too). The Russian national team flatters to deceive at every major tournament, but their club sides are starting to edge into the global elite, with Zenit Saint Petersburg (Футбо́льный клуб Зени́т) and CSKA Moscow (ЦСКА) the leading lights. At the time of writing, Zenit are top of the Russian Premier League (Чемпионат России по футболу) with 25 points (точки), 4 points ahead of CSKA. Defence is Zenit’s strong point with only 4 goals (голы) conceded in 9 matches (соревнования).

Pronunciation guide:

футбол - footbol

Футбо́льный клуб Зени́т - footbolnee cloob zyeneet

ЦСКА - tse-es-ka-a

точки - tochki

голы - goli

соревнования - sorevnovaniya

Essential phrase:

Ты слепо, Судья? - tee slyepa, soodya (tr: Are you blind, referee?)


Ice hockey (хоккей)

Given much of the country is a winter wonderland for more than just one season of the year, it’s not that surprising to find that Russians are keen on ice hockey. For the uninitiated, two teams of six take to the ice rink (хоккейная площадка), engage in a face-off (вбрасывание) to see who gets control of the puck (шайба), and then attempts to score before being flattened by a huge opponent in a face mask (маска) with a massive stick (клюшка). Russian teams play in a league with those of other nations known as the Kontinental Hockey League (Континентальная хоккейная лига).

Pronunciation guide:

хоккей - hokyay

хоккейная площадка - hokyaynaya ploshadka

вбрасывание - vbracevanye

шайба - shaeeba

клюшка - klyooshka

Континентальная хоккейная лига - kontinyentalnaya hokyaynaya liga

драка - draka

потасовка - potasovka

Essential phrase:

Я думаю, что лед трещит - ya dumayoo, shto lyed tryetsheet (Tr: I think the ice is cracking)

Photo by Alexey Chernyadyev

Photo by Alexey Chernyadyev

Of course, one of the stranger aspects of the sport is its propensity for fighting (драка), which also goes by the quaint name of fisticuffs (потасовка), and which brings us nicely onto our next sport.

Boxing (бокс)

Though the Klitschko brothers are Ukrainian, that didn’t stop a great many Russians cheering the huge twosome when they destroyed their various opponents in the boxing ring (ринг) over the years. There have been two especially famous Russian fighters in the last couple of decades, however; Nikolai Valuev (Николай Валуев) wasn’t an especially good boxer but at seven foot tall his left jab (удар слева) often proved a very nasty weapon. And Kostya Tszyu (Костя Цзю) is widely regarded as one of the finest fighters ever to come out of Russia… which may be why they gloss over the fact that he emigrated to Australia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Pronunciation guide:

бокс - box

ринг - reeng

удар слева - udar slyeva

Essential phrase:

Ниже пояса - neezhye poyasa (Tr: Below the belt)


Tennis (теннис)

Russian tennis stars are popular all over the world, though sadly not always due to their prowess with a tennis racket (ракетка). Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Евгений Александрович Кафельников) and Marat Safin (Мара́т Муби́нович Са́фин) both won a Grand Slam (Большой Шлем) tennis tournament each, but far more interest appears to be given to Russia’s female tennis stars, for some reason. Thankfully their brightest star, Maria Sharapova (Мари́я Шара́пова), is a demon with the racket with five Grand Slam tournaments under her belt, as well as her other talents (she sells a mean bag of sweets, we’re told).

Pronunciation guide:

теннис - tenneese

ракетка - rakyetka

Большой Шлем - bolshoi shlyem

Essential phrase:

Новые мячи , пожалуйста - noveeye myachi, pozhaluysta (Tr: New balls, please)


Putin watching (смотреть Путина)

Nothing short of a national, and frankly international, obsession, watching the latest sporting feats of President Vladimir Putin (Влади́мир Пу́тин) is a sport in itself. Whether it’s horse riding (верховая езда), shooting (стрельба) or hurling terrified opponents out of a judo (дзюдо) arena, Putin is possibly the nation’s most accomplished sportsperson of all.

Pronunciation guide:

смотреть Путина - smotryet putina

верховая езда - vyerhovaya yezda

стрельба - stryelva

дзюдо - dzyooda

Essential phrase:

Мы любим президента - moi lyoobeem pryezidyenta (tr: We love the president!)

Has our round-up of popular Russian sports given you an appetite for the Kontinental Hockey League or a few rounds with a seven-foot boxer? Find out what your chances of success would be (at least at holding a conversation) with our Russian Level Test.