What is “a false friend”? You may think that it’s the person who you confided your problems to, trusted everything to, thought you could rely on, but in the end betrayed you. This is indeed a type of false friend. However, in this article, we will not speak about this type of person, but instead about a common language problem: words that we are happy to see and hear, but that in the end “betray” us.


For example, you will surely be happy when you see аэропорт in your first Russian lesson, because you’ll immediately assume that it means “airport” without even looking it up. Similarly, you’ll most likely be delighted when the next word you read is магазин, which you think is a “magazine,” a type of a journal. After seeing such words, you might even think: “Russian is not that difficult after all.” However, this is where a lot of students, and even professional translators and interpreters, get trapped: магазин is not a journal at all, but a shop.


You see, “false friends” are words that have similar pronunciation and spelling in two particular languages, but have completely different meanings. For this reason, we should always be very careful with them. Therefore, in this article you will learn some of the most typical “false friends” that English speaking students will encounter while learning Russian.




This word traces back to the Arabic word  مخازن (maχáːzin), which means “storehouse.” It has in fact been borrowed by other languages as well: Magazin in German, magazine in French, magazijn in Dutch, магазин in Russian and “magazine” in English. Over the course of time, each language developed and modified the meaning of the word in its own way. In many European languages, this word means a periodical containing articles and illustrations. Other meanings of this word in English are “a part of a gun that holds bullets” and “a receptacle for storing and feeding film into a camera.” As we can see, these other meanings reflect the idea of “storing.”


In Russian though, the meaning of the word has not changed so drastically and it simply means “a shop.”


So, what is the word for “periodical” in Russian then? We say журнал. Now you might say: “Wow, Russian is confusing! This makes it more exciting to learn!” Well, if you want to learn more and keep expressions with these words straight, study the examples of their usage in Russian below:


  • Cosmopolitan: женский журнал (Cosmopolitain is a women magazine).
  • Мне нравится читать журналы (I like reading magazines).
  • Рядом с моим домом есть хороший магазин (There is a good shop near my house).
  • Я покупаю одежду в интернет-магазине (I buy clothes from the internet shop).
  • Никита пошёл в магазин, чтобы купить журналы и газеты (Nikita went to the shop to buy magazines and newspapers).




This word comes from the Latin artista and has been borrowed by many languages. It probably came to Russian through French (artiste) or German (Artist). So, what comes to mind first when you hear the word “artist” in English? What image appears if you type this word into a search engine and try to find a picture? A man with a brush all covered in paint, of course!


Have you ever tried to search for the image of the Russian word артист? You will find a lot of pictures of people in different poses and with different appearances, but no hint of a brush! That’s because артист in Russian refers a professional in the performing arts, such as theatre, dance, music, illusion, mime, spoke word, or the circus arts.


Did you notice? Painting is not on the list. So, while in other languages, “artist” can be applied to a person who is connected to a wide range of arts, in Russian it is used in a more limited way; only to speak about the performing arts. So, how do Russians refer to Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet or Rembrandt? They call them художник. Here are some examples of the usage of these words:


  • - А вот и наш заменитый артист, - сказала Марина... (V. Nabokov. Ada or Adour) [“That’s our best performer,” she said… (Translation by V. Nabokov)].
  • Он великолепный артист(He is a wonderful performer).
  • Твой сын хорошо рисует. Вырастет – будет художником! (Your son paints/draws very well. When he grows up, he will be a painter!)
  • Художник рисует портрет выдающегося артиста (The artist is painting a portrait of an outstanding performer).




You are speaking about professions with your Russian friend and say with pride that your brother works as a кондуктор in the orchestra. In response, your friend gives you a perplexed look and tries to find out what a conductor does in an orchestra. Why is this? Because in Russian, кондуктор is the person who checks the tickets on forms of public transport such as a tram, bus, trolley or train. A person who directs the performance of an orchestra is called дирижёр. Have a look at the following examples for clarification:


  • Николай Николаевич Некрасов – народный артист СССР, советский и российский дирижёр(Nikolai Nikolayevich Nekrasov is a national performer of the USSR, a Soviet and Russian conductor).
  • Дирижёр начинает увертюру (The conductor starts the overture).
  • Кондуктор стал проверять билеты (The conductor started to check tickets).




This is one of the first words that you’ll learn when you take up the challenge to start your Russian classes. So, I suppose that you already know that this word is not used to mean “family,” but instead to mean “a family name” or just a surname.


Family as a group of people is called семья. Here are some examples:


  • Как Ваша фамилия? (What is your surname?)
  • Кузнецов – это распространенная фамилия в России (Kuznetsov is a common surname in Russia).
  • Как ваша семья? (How is your family?)
  • Семья – это самое важное, что у нас есть (Family is the most important thing that we have).




The Russian word бриллиант originated from the French “brilliant,” meaning “shining” or “sparkling.” This is the meaning of the word that the English language has preserved; brilliant means radiant and bright. However, Russian people use this word as a noun and not as an adjective. And what is radiant and sparkling? What shimmers in the rays of light? Diamonds, of course. Now the sentence Девушки любят бриллианты should make more sense to you. On the other hand, “shining” and “shimmering” are блестящий in Russian.


Here are some examples:


  • Он подарил ей кольцо с бриллиантом (He gave her a diamond ring).
  • У неё были блестящие туфли (She had shiny shoes).


These are just five examples of some of the “false friends” that you might come across in Russian. However, keep in mind that there are many, many more. Some of these could lead to misunderstandings and others could even cause embarrassing situations. So proceed with caution!!!


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Hero Image by Eugene Zemlyanskiy (CC BY 2.0)