You are in the middle of Moscow or any other Russian city and want to ask for directions. What will you call a person in the street, the person you don’t know?
In English, you can say “Mister”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, “Sir” or “Madam”. In Russian it is often very difficult for the Russians themselves to find the right word to call a person.
We have the words [gaspad-EE-n] Господин (Mister) and [gaspazhA] Госпожа (Ms/ Mrs.). But those words are primarily used in very formal situations or letters.
What other choices do we have? What other words can you use when talking to another person?
1. Impersonal Form of Addressing People.
I think it is the best way to draw the attention of a person you don’t know. In this case, you need to use a verb in an imperative mood in the 2nd person:
e.g., Извините [-ee-zv-ee-n-EE-te] – Excuse me.
2. "A Young Man/ Miss"
It is quite common in Russia to call young people:
Молодой человек [maladOy ch-ee-lavEk] – “A young man”
Девушка [dEv-oo-shka] – Miss
I find it is quite tricky, though. One is supposed to be able to judge other person’s age. Where is that boundary, a line, when one can call another person “young”?
Of course, if you are confident and can say that this is a young man or a girl then you can go ahead and call him or her Молодой человек (a young man) or Девушка (Miss) – totally acceptable.
But as to older people, calling them Молодой человек (a young man) or Девушка (Miss) might offend them or, who knows, might flatter them.
3. Man and Woman.
Мужчина [m-oo-shch-EE-na] – a man
Женщина [zhEn-shch-ee-na] – a woman
These words are used very often by Russian people. It is a very rude in my opinion, but unfortunately, it is quite popular.
Can you imagine anybody saying something like this in English: “Woman, where is the British Museum?”
However in the Russian language it would be quite all right to say: "Женщина, где Кремль?" – [zhEn-shch-ee-na gde kreml’] – "Woman, where is the Kremlin?"
Гражданин [grazhdan-EE-n] – citizen (male)
Гражданка [grazhdAnka] – citizen (female)
The word has a very specific application. It appeared in the language at the times of Stalin’s repressions. Suddenly overnight officials: policemen (militia), post-office clerks etc. started calling their “customers” Гражданин (citizen) and Гражданка (citizen). The words are very formal and still used by police and other legal authorities, law-enforcement units, customs.
5. Господин (Mr.) and Госпожа (Mrs.).
As I have already mentioned, those words are used in formal language and are very rare in a conversation. It is probably the result of our Russian-Soviet history, and how the Russian language developed and changed.
The words Господин [gaspad-EE-n] (Mr.) and Госпожа [gaspazhA] (Mrs.) have a touch of superiority to them.
Господин (Mr.) originally comes from the word meaning “master, sovereign”.
It was so much easier in the Soviet times! One could call another person Товарищ (comrade) and not to worry about being awkward, the same word could be used when talking to a man or a woman, younger, older one – it didn’t matter.
When so-called Перестройка [p-ee-r-ee-strOyka] (reorganisation, rebuilding) happened in the mid-late 1980s the word Товарищ (comrade) suddenly became negative and was associated with the Communist ideology and propaganda.
Originally the word Товарищ (comrade) was used only in relation to the members of the revolutionary communist party. Unlike Господин (Mr.) and Госпожа (Mrs.), Товарищ (comrade) implies the equality between the people involved in a conversation.
It’s all very confusing but I guess little can be done, that’s how the history and language have changed and evolved.
And thanks to all these historical changes Russian people stopped being Comrades Товарищи (comrades) but have not become Дамы (ladies) and Господа (gentlemen)
It is easy to rename towns and streets, give them their old, pre-revolutionary names, but it is quite difficult to change people’s mentality.