In many languages, the names of animals are used in an idiomatic way to describe people's traits of character, behavior and some typical situations. In this article we'll have a look at quite simple yet very colourful expressions and phrases that exist in the Russian language to compare people to animals, birds, insects, reptiles and fish.


Please feel free to leave comments to this article to share if some ideas are the same in your language or if any of them have surprised you. It is always great to get to know unique and different ways we perceive the world.


To put it simple even for those who have just started learning Russian, let's begin with an easy-to-use structure:


Adjective + как (as) + an animal


Firstly, there is an animal name and then the collocation it is used in. Most of those below are very close to their English equivalents, but what about your language?


  • Лиса́ (fox)
  • “Хи́трый как лиса́.” (“As sly as a fox”). A fox is often one of the main heroes in traditional fairy tales. You can enjoy this nice cartoon, “Лиса и волк” which features a sly fox.


  • Осёл (donkey)
  • “Упря́мый как осёл.” (“As stubborn as a mule”). To be bullheaded. Instead of осёл you can also use бара́н (male sheep) interchangeably. Somehow hoofed animals are generally considered to be stubborn.


  • За́яц (hare)
  • Трусли́вый как за́яц.” (“As timid as a rabbit ⟨mouse⟩”; “as cowardly as a chicken”). In fairy tales a hare often struggles to overcome its fears and to ultimately become courageous, like in this cartoon, “Храбрый заяц”.


  • Лев (lion)
  • Хра́брый как лев.” (“As brave as a lion”). We think of lions (which actually don't inhabit Russia) as brave animals, though according to some modern research they're not.


  • Медве́дь (bear)
  • Си́льный как медве́дь.” (“As strong as a horse/ox”). By the way, a bear is also a symbol of Russia.


  • Волк (wolf)
  • Голо́дный как волк.” (“As hungry as a wolf”). One more fun and very popular cartoon with a hungry wolf is “Жил-был пёс”. The storyline is based on a Ukrainian fairy tale!


  • Свинья́ (hog)
  • Гря́зный как свинья́.” (“As dirty as a hog (pig)”). Even a little pig can become a hero in this very philosophical cartoon.


  • Черепа́ха (turtle)
  • Ме́дленный как черепа́ха. (“As slow as a tortoise (snail)”). A sloth might actually be slower than a tortoise though. An interesting thing to know is that in Russian, the word for a sloth is лени́вец, which is derived from the word лень (laziness).


Now let's try something different. The following similes will include Russian verbs. The structure is:


Verb + как + an animal


  • Ло́шадь (horse) and pабо́тать (to work)
    • Рабо́тать как ло́шадь.” ((to work) very hard: (be) a (real) workhorse; (work) like a horse (a dog, a mule, a slave)).
    • “Я рабо́таю как ло́шадь с утра́ до ве́чера, а получа́ю копе́йки!” (“I work very hard from morning till night but I get paid peanuts!”)
  • Пчела́ (bee) and tруди́ться (to labour).
    • Труди́ться как пчела́.” ((to work) much and willingly, eagerly: be (as) busy as a bee.)
    • “Она́ тру́дится как пчела́: убира́ет дом, гото́вит, смо́трит за детьми́ и ещё рабо́тает!” (“She's as busy as a bee; she cleans the house, cooks, looks after children and also works”).
  • Солове́й (nightingale) and nеть (to sing)
    • Петь как солове́й.” (to sing beautifully, to sing like a nightingale)
    • У моего́ сы́на о́чень краси́вый го́лос, поёт как солове́й!” (“My son has a very beautiful voice, he sings like a nightingale”).
  • Ры́ба (fish), mолча́ть (to keep silent) and Быть (to be)
    • Молча́ть как ры́ба.” ((to keep silent) in a persistent manner: (be) (as) mute as a fish).
    • “Я спра́шиваю его́, а он молчи́т как ры́ба.” (“I ask him but he keeps silent”).
    • “Быть как ры́ба в воде́.” ((to be) totally at ease (in the specified surroundings, with the specified area of knowledge, in somebody's company, etc.): (be) in one's element; (be) right at home; (be) as much at home as a fish in water).
    • “Он не знал, о чём говори́ть со све́рстниками, но с молоды́ми людьми́ он был как ры́ба в воде́”. (“He didn't know what to talk about with his peers, but he was in his element with young people.”)



At last here are different fixed phrases, collocations and sayings for curious readers and advanced students.


  • Воро́на (crow) and Бе́лый (white)
    • Бе́лая воро́на.” (a person who is vastly different from those around him, unlike all the rest)
    • “В кла́ссе он был бе́лой воро́ной, все ма́льчики слу́шали рок, а ему́ нра́вилась класси́ческая му́зыка.” (“He was the odd man out in the class; all boys listened to rock but he liked classical music.”)
  • Крыса (rat) and Бума́жный (paper (adj.), busy with paper work)
    • Бума́жная кры́са.” (a callous petty bureaucrat: paper-pusher; paper shuffler; office drudge)
    • “Одна́жды я по́нял, что я про́сто бума́жная кры́са и ничего́ в жи́зни не сде́лал.” (“One day I realized that I am just an office drudge and I have done nothing in my life.”)
  • Му́ха (a fly) and cо́нный (sleepy)
    • Как со́нная му́ха. (languidly, unhurriedly: like a sleepy fly)
    • “Е́сли у́тром я не вы́пью ко́фе, то хожу́ как со́нная му́ха.” (“If I don't have coffee in the morning, I wander like a sleepy fly.”)
  • Ко́шка (cat), cоба́ка (dog) and Жить (to live)
    • Жить как ко́шка с соба́кой. ((Two parties are) constantly quarreling, in constant conflict with each other: (fight) like cats and dogs.)
    • “У них о́чень плохи́е отноше́ния, живу́т как ко́шка с соба́кой.” (“They have very bad relationship, they fight like cats and dogs.”)
  • Бе́лка (squirrel), kрути́ться (to whirl) and kолесо́ (wheel)
    • Крути́ться как бе́лка в колесе́. (to be incessantly bustling about, doing various things, occupied with various concerns; to be like a squirrel on a treadmill).
    • “Он у́чится и рабо́тает на двух рабо́тах, в о́бщем, кру́тится как бе́лка в колесе́.” (“He's a student and works two jobs; by and large he is like a squirrel on a treadmill.”)
  • Му́ха (a fly), cлон (elephant) and Де́лать (to make)
    • Де́лать из му́хи слона́. (to make something unimportant seem important, exaggerate; to make a mountain out of a molehill).
    • “Ка́тя всегда́ де́лает из му́хи слона́; я про́сто забы́л да́ту на́шей сва́дьбы, и она́ сра́зу сказа́ла, что я её бо́льше не люблю́.”  (“Katya always makes a mountain out of a molehill; I only forgot the date of our wedding and she immediately said that I don't love her anymore.”)
  • Сини́ца (titmouse), Жура́вль (crane), В рука́х (in hand) and В не́бе (in the sky)
    • “Лу́чше сини́ца в рука́х, чем жура́вль в не́бе.” (A less-than-ideal object, opportunity, etc. that a person already possesses or has available to him is preferable to a better object, opportunity, etc. that he may never (be able to) get: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.)
    • “Окса́на не хо́чет переходи́ть на другу́ю рабо́ту, говори́т, что лу́чше сини́ца в рука́х, чем жура́вль в не́бе.” (“Oksana doesn't want to change her job. She says that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”)
  • Кот (male cat), kупи́ть (to buy) and В мешке́ (in a bag)
    • Купи́ть кота́ в мешке́. (To buy something without having seen it, without having carefully examined its quality; to buy a pig in a poke).
    • “Я не люблю́ он-ла́йн шо́пинг, купи́ть что́-нибудь по интерне́ту это всё равно́, что купи́ть кота́ в мешке́.” (“I don't like online shopping; buying something on the Internet  is as good as buying a pig in a poke.”)


To finish off, I should let you know that some animal words are rude swear words and might sound offensive. For example, осёл (donkey), оле́нь (deer) and дя́тел (woodpecker) might mean "stupid, idiot". Козёл (male goat) is used by girls to tell men that they're jerks/assholes; овца́ (female sheep) is vice versa used by men talking about girls. Now you know what animals to avoid!


Of course there are many more idioms with animal words that you might study with your Russian teacher or yourself. You will definitely discover the whole new world to enjoy! But if you feel like using these idioms right away, keep in mind that language idioms might sound very folk and sometimes weird in everyday speech, so you really need to feel the right time and context to use them.


Good luck with your Russian!


P.S. If you want to practice some of these animal idioms, put the words into the appropriate spaces in the passage:


Му́ха, му́хи (Gen. from муха), сини́ца, волк, бе́лка, ры́ба, ко́шка, жура́вль, слона́ (Gen. from слон), ло́шадь, солове́й.


Это Андрей и его семья. Андрей очень много работает, другими словами, он работает как . Домой он приходит поздно и всегда голодный как . Андрей рано встаёт, поэтому утром на работе он как сонная . Он не очень любит общаться с людьми, поэтому его коллеги говорят, что он часто молчит как .

Это жена Андрея, Ольга. Она тоже много работает и крутится как … в колесе. У Ольги очень красивый голос. Её друзья говорят, что она поёт как . Андрей и Ольга живут хорошо, но их соседи наоборот, живут как … с собакой. Они всё время ругаются, спорят, муж говорит, что жена всегда делает из … …. Но они не разводятся, жена говорит, что уж лучше … в руках, чем … в небе.




Lubensky S. Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms


Image Sources


Hero image by Steve K (CC BY 2.0)


Practice Exercise Answer Key


лошадь, волк, муха, рыба, белка, соловей, кошка, мухи, слона, синица, журавль.