Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mr. Chairman and Comrade Colonel

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

??????: to use the informal form of address, to be on familiar terms/first-name basis

You're walking down the street when suddenly you see the woman ahead of you drop her glove. You open your mouth and say ... Well, how do you address someone you don't know?

We foreigners are cut a lot of slack by Russians in the manners department, but it's always better to aim high stylistically. The most proper way to address a stranger is with a simple "excuse me": ????????, ??????????, ?? ??????? ????????! (Excuse me, you dropped your glove!) You can also use ?????? ????? -- would you be so kind, I beg your pardon -- though usually when you are asking for something: ?????? ?????, ????????? ??? ?????. (Could you please pass me a ticket?)

Alas, today people usually address strangers by biological type: ???????, ???????, ??? ? ?? ????. (Mister, "man," say that I'm after you in line.) ???????, ?? ??? ?? ??????! (Lady, "woman," you weren't standing here.) ???????, ??????? ????, ??????????. (Miss, "girl," could you let me pass?). ????????, ?????????! (Be careful, boys!) ??????? ??????? -- literally "young person" -- refers to young men; ??????? ???? could be either a group of young men or a mixed group.

If someone addresses you as ??????? 20 years after you were remotely maidenly, you can huff, ????? ? ??? ????????! (I'm not your girl!; literally, "What kind of girl am I to you?!") Or you can joke in reply: ?? «???????» ????????? ???????! (And a special thanks for calling me "miss.")

In the old days Russians were (according to the scholar Likhachyov) the only Europeans to address strangers by relational names: ???????, ?????? (grandma, grannie), ??????? (grandpa); ????, ??????? (mother) and ???? (father); ????, ?????? (brother) or ??????, ????????? (sister). Anyone younger was ????? (daughter) or ??????? (son). You can still hear this today: ????????, ??????? ???, ??????????, ??????. (Dear, literally "little daughter," could you please pass me a newspaper?) The use of ?? is natural in the context and makes you feel like part of one big family.

If anyone ever calls out to you, ?????????!/?????????! (Citizen!), this is the voice of authority -- either a cop or some other official, who has stripped you of every identifying mark except citizenship. You probably did something wrong. In response, give your smarmiest smile. If it's a militiaman, say: "??, ??????? ??????????" (Yes, Comrade Colonel?) He won't be higher in rank than a sergeant, but flattery never hurts.

??????? (comrade) was the great leveler during the Soviet period, now used in some expressions and commonly when addressing folks in uniform. You can use ????????/??????? before other titles, something like the American manner of saying Mr. President. It is very formal and polite: ???????, ???????? ????????????, ?? ??????????? ?? ???????????. (Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your invitation to this conference.) If you aren't comfortable with first name and patronymic you can call someone ???????? ???????. But don't ever call anyone simply ???????? or ???????; this is as rude as calling someone "mister" or "lady."

If you are addressing a mixed group of men and women in a formal or business setting, you can address them ???? ? ???????! (Ladies and gentlemen!) This is actually technically incorrect in Russian, since ??????? -- something like "gentlepeople" -- refers to both genders, but it is standard Russian usage. You can, however, just say: ???????! ????? ????????. (Ladies and gentlemen! Please be seated.) If it's a very informal setting, you can address the gang as ?????? -- "guys." ??????, ??????? ???????? ?????????! (Come on, guys, let's wrap up this discussion.)

Although some Russians naturally call everyone but the president ??, we foreigners can't do it. If the person is taller than your waist and at least your age, it's ?? to you. If someone calls you ?? inappropriately, you can say ?? ??????? ???! (How dare you speak to me that way!; literally, don't "ty" me!) Or ?????? them back.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.