I recently read an article in Russian written by a doctor of art science for the journal Живая история, and that article is about the Soviet-German war and starts with the following two sentences:

Войну ждали. Но она пришла неожиданно.

The literal meaning seems to be as absurd as, "The war was expected, but came unexpectedly."

I believe that a doctor of art science could not mean to say such an absurdity, especially in a journal article, so it must be some tricky idiom, wordplay, slang, homonym, or subtlety that I fail to recognize.

What do those two sentences mean together? I humbly hope that native Russian speakers can kindly explain a confused Orient student how such apparently mutually exclusive statements make sense together.

UPDATE: I just found the same expression in another article:

1941 год. Война. Все её ждали, но она пришла неожиданно. Сотни тысяч добровольцев пошли сражаться с врагом. Огромные очереди стояли в военкоматы.

And a similar expression:

Войну ждали, но она началась внезапно. (Source)

So it appears to be a kind of common expression in the Russian language, and I am so much confused about this.

  • 13
    We've all been waiting for Mitsuko to ask another one of her questions, but this one was rather unexpected.
    – mustaccio
    Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 4:02
  • @mustaccio : Do you mean to say that the Russians expected SOME WAR, but not against Germany, or not such a large-scale war?
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 12:33
  • 1
    If the phrase was "People were [psychologically] preparing for war. But when the war came, people were unprepared", would it sound less absurd?
    – Alexander
    Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 18:06
  • Unexpectedly simply means '(expected, but) not so soon' here. Almost no paradox, compared to the famous ironic expression: It never happened, and here it comes again (Никогда такого не было, и вот опять...).
    – Alex_ander
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 12:37

6 Answers 6


Yes, it is a paradox. "The war was expected, but came unexpectedly" is a right translation. In this particular conext, it may mean several things:

  • People expected the war, but nobody expected it that soon.
  • People expected the war, but it took the army and the country by surprise, because Stalin etc. did nor prepare the country to the war. There is a Russian joke "зима каждый год приходит неожиданно", meaning the officials do not prepare for the winter, as if they don't know it will come.

I want to give the historical context as I understand it both from what older people told me about their experience, and from what I read about that time.

Before June 22, 1941, Germany conducted a wide-scale disinformation campaign that proved largely successful. While it was generally understood that Germany is going to attack the USSR, it convinced the Soviet leaders that Germany has no plans to attack the USSR before it will finish the war against the United Kingdom.

Stalin, in his first public speech after the war started, July 3, 1941, told "Что касается того, что часть нашей территории оказалась все же захваченной немецко-фашистскими войсками, то это объясняется главным образом тем, что война фашистской Германии против СССР началась при выгодных условиях для немецких войск и невыгодных - для советских войск. Дело в том, что войска Германии как страны, ведущей войну, были уже целиком отмобилизованы и 170 дивизий, брошенных Германией против СССР и придвинутых к границам СССР, находились в состоянии полной готовности, ожидая лишь сигнала для выступления, тогда как советским войскам нужно было еще отмобилизоваться и придвинуться к границам." In other words, he claimed that the USSR did not expect the war, at least not at that moment. On the other hand, most people understood that the war is coming. So the war was, in some sense, both expected and unexpected.


It's a paradox rather than absurdity. Such things happen. You might eagerly be expecting a phone call, and still be shocked when the phone rings suddenly. Or even more paradoxically, you might know a deadline precisely, but still be surprised when it happens. (How? Already?!) A proverbial occurrence with student exams :)

In your specific case, everyone knew that the war would come. It was in the air. Much of Eurpope was at war already. The previous decade was spent in frantic war preparations. But still, not such war. Not today. Not like that.

  • A good analogy with a phone call.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 14:00

At most, it is a rhetoric figure to make a phrase more dramatic, using contraposing. Cf. "nobody wanted the war but the war was inevitable".

Anyway, it possible to wait with the passion or with the fear, then you can wait for something but not to desire this, and to hope this never will come.

Therefore, you translation "The war was expected, but came unexpectedly." is not fully correct. "The war was awaited, but it started suddenly" in my opinion suits better, if to say more or less literally. The word "Expect" is more like "look for".

  • Exactly. A rhetorical device.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 14:03

This is very simple: It means that the Soviets knew that Germany would declare war at some moment, they were sure that this would happen, but they were not sure when exactly it would happen.

So, honestly, contrary to what has been written above, I don't see anything paradoxical or irrational about that statement.

It's like, for instance, someone will say that the city for some reason will run out of water within the next 10 days. Psychologically, intuitively you expect to run out of water, maybe, from 5 to 10 days later, but if you run out of water on the second day, that will probably come as a surprise even though you were warned about the 1-10 days shortage interval, because your mind always wants bad things to happen later (if at all), so you probably don't believe that you won't have anything to drink tomorrow.


welcome to the human's irrational world. And so, i see you have never been a victim of a war attack; And in your imagination too.

Just no one wished the War and didn't want and didn't believe (emotionally) that it would still be; Although the facts said otherwise, it were the facts; But it came, and it was - emotionally - unexpected. This isn't about the well-known strategic calculations and miscalculations yet ... and not about who personal scheduled and who mis-scheduled...although there is a difference too;

Imagine that I’m saying that I’ll shoot near your ear (or in your head) ... and I’m standing next to you and standing - day, week, second week and doing nothing, and you have already relaxed and are writing here on the forum - and here - bang! - I'm shooting ... Something like that

Well what else to tell you - only this https://youtu.be/Rikv9fnNh_M The literal translation is correct.


I want to add to the other answers.

There is a subtle difference between Russian words нежданно and неожиданно. While the first one can be better translated as unexpectedly, the second one can be better translated as by surprise.

You see, something can be expected but still take you by surprise. For instance, a hiding enemy may be expected but assault you by surprise because you did not know exactly where did they hide.

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