Too many people make learning Russian a torturous process for themselves. Yes, it’s a tough language for English speakers. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to make the process fun. Watching movies is the single best way to practice Russian, learn about the culture, and massively stack up the hours you spend immersing yourself in the Russian language.
Why Watching Russian Movies Is Great For Beginners
Learning Russian to the conversational level can take a while. That’s okay, since knowing Russian is worth it. To have regular conversations in Russian you need to:
- know approximately the 1000 most common words in spoken Russian
- understand the case system
- have a grasp of verb conjugations
- be able to understand spoken Russian
To learn the most common words, Optilingo is great. To get cases and verb conjugations, a grammar book or podcast works well. But understanding spoken Russian is different. Why?
Because it’s a fluent skill. It’s not just a matter of rehearsing words or grammar. Simply put, you need to let your brain and ears get accustomed to the language.
This takes time.
Sure, there are specific exercises to get better at understanding conversations. But so far the single best way to improve your Russian comprehension is to simply listen to a humongous amount of Russian. The polyglot Luca Lampariello also recommends massive immersion as a good strategy to learn Russian (or any language, really).
If you also spend time on learning new words and grammar, spending 20 minutes per day listening to Russian for a couple of months is a surefire way to understand common conversations. Plus you will also train your brain to understand different types of Russian accents and dialects.
The best way to practice this is to watch movies. They’re fun to watch, and before you know it, you’ve just spent 90 minutes of intense Russian listening training.
Be sure to watch with English subtitles if you’re just starting out. Later you can try watching with Russian subtitles (or no subtitles at all!). But in the beginning, it’s more important that you enjoy yourself and understand the plot. That allows you to spend the longest amount of time listening to Russian dialogues in the movie.
I’ve added the YouTube link to 5 of the 6 movies on this list. They all have subtitles, either hardcoded or from the YouTube subtitles. Unfortunately, the film “Union of Salvation” is too new, and not available on YouTube.
If you ask Russian people which movies you should watch, you’ll always get a list of great Soviet movies. Soviet cinematography is considered a lot better than modern Russian movies. Though in the last years, Russian filmmakers are starting to get better and better.
I love soviet movies because they show how Russia was during Soviet times. And since the movies are old, it means that you can often find them on YouTube including English subtitles.
Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future)
This comedy movie is about time travel. An inventor creates a time machine, and through an accident, his neighbor ends up time traveling back several centuries to the time of Ivan the Terrible.
As fate has it, he looks exactly like the great tsar. And the Tsar gets catapulted into the 20th century, while the neighbor becomes the tsar. Of course, the time machine breaks, and both need to come to terms with their new existence in a different time.
Ирония судьбы (Irony of Fate)
This is the Russian New Years’ Eve classic. Every year millions of Russians rewatch this film before entering the new year. The movie is about Zhenya who goes to the sauna with his friends (a common tradition in Russian) at NYE. They drink and eat, but he ends up drinking too much. He needed to catch a plane home but his friends put him on the wrong plane to the wrong city.
Once he arrives, he calls a taxi and gives his home address. The street exists, and he gets dropped off. That’s how the romance story starts.
12 стульев (12 chairs)
This is an old comedy that every Russian knows. Ippolit’s mother tells him on her deathbed that she hid the family jewelry in one of the 12 dinner table chairs from the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, all the chairs were confiscated and sold one by one (unknowingly that one of the chairs contains a fortune) throughout the entire country.
The rest of the movie is about several characters hunting down and searching for the jewelry. If you love movies such as Snatch, or Lock Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels, you’ll love this old soviet gem of a movie.
After the soviet union fell, it took a while to get back to a good level of filmmaking. Here are some gems that are great to watch.
Жмурки (Dead Man’s Bluff)
This film is set in the ’90s. Those were tough years in Russia, and crime bloomed. It’s a black comedy in which 2 low-level gangsters, Semen and Sergey, accidentally lose a package of drugs. Even worse, it wasn’t even theirs to begin with.
The entire movie is about them trying to get back the package for their boss. Of course, they’re not the only ones after the package, and the duo ends up in a lot of interesting situations.
Союз спасения (Union of Salvation)
This movie is about a revolution among the Tsar’s high officers at the end of the 19th century. It’s a historical overview of how a band of young officers are not happy with the way the Tsar ruled Russia. They see how Europe is developing, and don’t want Russia to stay behind Europe. The movie can be a bit confusing to watch, but the historical scenes make up for it.
This film is too new to be on YouTube, unfortunately.
Ёлки (New Year Trees / Six Degrees of Celebration)
Ёлки is a series of NYE films, that are set in modern Russia. They’re nice family films that give a glimpse of how life goes in modern Russia. The movies are about the concept that everyone on the planet is connected to everyone else through a maximum of 6 connections.
Each movie shows how different people celebrate the new year, and through the story, they all accidentally end up being related to each other. It’s a really cool movie to watch to see how life is in modern Russia.
Reach Fluency Fast with the Best Russian Movies
Especially when starting out it may seem as if learning Russian is a task that will take you years. While real fluency can take that long, getting to a conversational level doesn’t need to be too difficult and can be a matter of months if you take the right approach. Luckily, the best Russian movies can make that easy for you.
The main problem of people wanting to simply have conversations is that Russians speak too fast for them. While a real problem, it’s also an easy one to solve: spend more time listening to the Russian language. Films are a great way to practice listening without pressure. And you’ll learn a lot about Russia, it’s culture, mentality, and people along the way.