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What is the difference between битва and сражение? Every reference I've looked at translates both as "battle," but they don't seem to be interchangeable. The Wikipedia entry for битва specifically says "Не следует путать со Сражением," and vice-versa the entry for сражение.

Judging from this page, I get two contradictory impressions:

  1. That битва is a specific battle, often one that is crucial to the war, whereas сражение is a series of military actions, which might be better translated as a "campaign."
  2. That битва is a more general word for battle, maybe even "battle" in the abstract, whereas сражение is always a description of some actual fighting.

So as you can see, I'm quite confused. Can anyone clarify the distinction?

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This is a very period-sensitive question, because the meaning of those words had been slowly, but continuously evolving over the last several centuries.

Those words are largely synonyms, and historically some battles had become known as "битва", and some as "сражение". There are other words that have essentially the same meaning and they had become inseparable from certain events. For example, we say "Ледовое побоище", but never "ледовая битва" or "ледовое сражение".

Recently (in 20 century) "битва" had become to mean a large, deciding "сражение" (ex. "Сталинградская битва"). Overall, "битва" has a historical, poetic flavor to it, while "сражение" is more neutral.

In modern lexicon, both "битва" and "сражение" are falling out of favor and words like "бой" or "операция" are used instead.

  • It feels to me that "операция" is not quite the same as "сражение", as it includes preparations and might be covert. And "бой" is in my perception shorter than "сражение". I guess this two worlds are more used in modern world as no one does full-size battles anymore. – Alissa Nov 19 '19 at 10:28
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In modern Russian you can safely call them complete synonyms. See this Ngram.

Notably «сражение» was more popular up between 1750 to early 1800s (including Napoleonic times), after that «битва» overtook it (maybe Pushkin preferred it for having less syllables - useful in poetry; or Slavophiles felt it to be more native Russian).

But since approximately 1920 (after Revolution and Civil War), usage levels became close, and since around 1960 (post WWII) nearly identical. So I’d say any difference in meaning is lost since then. In Russian, it is considered good writing style to switch between synonyms frequently so not to tire the reader with the same word, so modern writers may use «битва» и «сражение» interchangeably for the same battle in one sentence.

I also included «баталия» in that graph, it’s a borrowing (probably early 1700s - Peter the Great reforms time) which evidently never became really popular and now is considered archaic.

You may try adding «бой» yourself to that graph, it is used more often, but means a less epic engagement.

  • While I agree with your answer I should notice that the fact that some arbitrary chosen words are used with the same frequency doesn't proved or disproves the fact that they are complete symonyms. – shabunc Nov 23 '19 at 22:58
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Roughly, "битва" is a battle, where Decisive victory on the operation level was achieved by one side. "Сражение" is a "decisive" battle which determined results of the whole war, i.e. there was a decisive victory on strategic level.

Strongly disagree with using of "бой" instead of "битва". "Бой" is strictly localized in time and place, for "битва" и "сражение" it is not mandatory condition.

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    Please keep in mind that "битва" is completely gone from modern military lexicon. – Alexander Nov 19 '19 at 17:39
  • @Alexander I would say that "битвы" themselves are completely gone from today military practice. This is very good, as for me. Nevertheless, a need to describe events of past (and to understand described) still persists. In addition, meaning of "бой" is defined by military guides, for example in "Боевой устав сухопутных войск". – ratschbumm Nov 20 '19 at 8:46
  • I totally agree that "битва" can be used in historic context. My comment was about finding a correct word for a large modern "battle". – Alexander Nov 20 '19 at 18:29
  • @Alexander I agree on "Операция", it suits much better than 'бой". In my humble opinion, "бой" is "combat" for English. "Combat" word is never used to describe non-localized events. – ratschbumm Nov 21 '19 at 6:26
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These words are synonyms. The only difference I can think of is that битва is a bigger event, a big сражение so to say. Битва has also a slight poetic flavour. But only a slight.

But that's like the impression of the word, you can use them interchangeable in 100% of the cases (when it's not the official name of some battle of course).

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I would say сражение has a wider meaning: it can be used not only in a war but also can be conducted between two opponents, a fight with swords or a duel. It metaphorically can also be used in sport, chess, argument, game.

Битва on the other hand always mean cruel battle with multiple participants. Yes, it can mean metaphorically battle with non-lethal weapons, but usually underlines cruelty.

Сражение usually has undertones of excitement and agitation while битва conducts undertones of cruelness, hardness and survival.

  • There is some point here, however "битва" can also be used quite metaphorically, ex. "битва за урожай". – Alexander Nov 25 '19 at 22:46
  • битва can and often is used metaphorically as well e.g битва за первое место – user7808407 Nov 26 '19 at 7:27

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