What is stylistically neutral word for "to flee": "бежать" or "сбежать"?

EDIT: I consider here the formal register (such as in Wikipedia articles or TV news).

I know that both words can describe the same situation, and in some contexts only one can be used idiomatically, such as

сбежать из дома (flee from home)
бежать от опасности (flee from danger)

but my question is which word is typically preferred in neutral style.

I often see "сбежать" in neutral contexts, such as in descriptions of historical events, in Wikipedia articles, or in news reports:

Upon defeat, the king fled from the country.
После поражения король сбежал из страны.

My feeling is that this is stylistically incorrect, while the correct (stylistically neutral) phrase is

После поражения король бежал из страны.

because (in my feeling) "сбежать" is stylistically marked, mostly negatively, probably bearing connotations of deception, and probably sounding pejoratively, and thus it should be very limited in use:

He is a coward, he simply flew away!
Он трус, он просто сбежал! (pejorative)

These fools even did not notice as I escaped.
Эти дураки даже не заметили, как я сбежал. (deception)

Is my perception correct?

  • 2
    also бежать in the sense of to flee and not to run, is purely a literary form, it's not used in everyday language to decribe mundane situations, so at least colloquially there's no dilemma between them May 6, 2019 at 8:08
  • @БаянКупи-ка I politely disagree. Everyday language does not to be informal. A teacher in the class, a TV newscaster, a senanor at a meeting of the government use formal register in everyday speech. My intuition is that in all those situation, the only correct form is Предводитель повстанцев бежал из страны (Insurgent leader has fled the country), and my question is whether this my intuition is correct. May 6, 2019 at 14:48
  • i agree i should have been more precise, i meant informal register, and since for most people daily routine takes place in informal setting their chances of using this verb and hearing it from their interlocutors are negligible May 6, 2019 at 15:42
  • @БаянКупи-ка Ah, sorry, I meant formal register :) Will edit my question now. May 6, 2019 at 15:46

2 Answers 2


Generally speaking they are both stylistically neutral and can be used to describe 'fleeing', 'escape from prison/other institution/country'. But бежать is described as спасаться бегством, while сбежал has the sense of убегать, уходить (not just in case of danger), hence I think these possible connotations of weakness, insecurity with сбежать, e.g. муж сбежал от неё (because he feels insecure), собака сбежала (because the dog is stupid), or even сбежать с уроков (play hooky from school, because one is lazy).

So I think you perception is generally correct. As for deception (as in сбежал) it is probably negative usually, but sometimes сбежать can be perceived as devising a good and bold plot to escape.

  • Thank you! It is right that бежать is associated with danger and сбежать with general escaping / improper leaving. Still my question remains: for "to flee from a danger", is бежать neutral and must it be used in neutral contexts in the formal register? May 6, 2019 at 15:13
  • 1
    OK, this clarified things to me: I now think that when the speaker emphasizes avoiding danger, then бежать is the right form: "The king fled from the country = left the country to avoid danger". When the speaker emphasized the means or way of doing the action, then the form сбежать can be better: "The king fled from the country = secretly and probably cowardly, or via a plot, left the country". Then I think in formal register, the speaker usually means the fact and the reason ("left to avoid danger") and not the means or way ("left secretly, cowardly, or via a plot"). May 6, 2019 at 15:26
  • 1
    I think they are both used in neutral register (in Russian that's стилистически нейтральный - neutral style), but Он бежал из страны is more like stating a fact, while Он сбежал из страны will be definitely in general perceived by a speaker of Russian as 'cowardly act'.
    – alexsms
    May 7, 2019 at 7:12

This is a very nice question. To my knowledge there's no statistical evidence that бежал из or бежал в is more stylistically correct. The very concept of something being more statistically correct if it is not supported by actually usage stats seems to me quite doubtful. But that happens as well - however, the thing is that in this particular case I'm not aware of any style-guides or any kind of public rules that state anything about this бежал/cбежал differentiation.

My feeling is that they are used quite interchangeably, with "сбежать"-form just being more frequent. For instance, we can take some big newspaper - "Коммерсант" for instance. Just like any big newspaper they have their own guides. However here's a quote from one article:

20 октября из чеченского плена бежал администратор гуманитарной организации "Врачи без границ" Кристоф Андрэ.

Here's a quote from another one:

Французский преступник вновь сбежал из тюрьмы.

  • 1
    Thank you! For judgements about what is "correct" language, the evidence is to be over language use by educated people, which nowadays is not trivial to obtain. My perception is that even in newspapers or TV, the language nowadays is far from that of educated people. On the other hand, if the distinction were clear to most speakers (so that a simple google query could resolve the doubt), I would not ask this question. And I explicitly state that my concern is that even sources that are supposed to be "good" often use these words improperly, so statistics over these sources does not help. May 5, 2019 at 23:05
  • 1
    BTW, your two examples seem to confirm my feeling: in your examples, "бежал" is used in positive / neutral context, while "сбежал" is used when speaking about a criminal, which justifies pejorative style, plus the fact that he did it "again" hints on a negative estimate of the administration, plus he probably "again" fooled or deceived his guards. May 5, 2019 at 23:07
  • @Alexander Gelbukh i agree with your judgement, you could double check whether it's accurate with Google or in the Russian national corpus May 6, 2019 at 7:46
  • 2
    which means that it may be an instance of neutral use, without necessarily coloration with negative opinion of the author May 6, 2019 at 8:14
  • 1
    but since negative opinion about criminals is a more prevalent phenomenon it may be expected that with reference to them сбежать will be used more often. May 6, 2019 at 8:20

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