Russian Language

If you are travelling to Russia, as with any foreign country, you will find that you have more interesting experiences if you can speak and understand a little of the language.

Learning Russian is a challenge for most native English speakers, though you will be relived to know it’s not as difficult as Japanese! The purpose of this short guide is to to give you some language basics so that you can get more out of your trip to Russia, not turn you into a translator!

What does this guide cover?

I would like to learn more, what can I do?

Learning Russian is a rewarding and useful experience, though for many, learning a foreign language is difficult when those around you cannot speak the language you wish to progress in. To work on pronunciation, informal communication, sentence structure as well as listening and speaking skills, it is an absolute imperative to get out there and immerse yourself in the local culture, environment and language, to find a good local teacher or college course., or, of course, like many others you could start of with the “teach yourself” books and CD’s.

  • Russian courses in Russia for all levels with — based in Petrozavodsk and staffed by teachers who have great experience in teaching Russian to foreigners — a great way to learn and visit Real Russia!
  • You can find weekly courses in the UK, local teachers, short courses, residential courses and much more at Ruslan, — an organisation that specialises in the teaching of Russian to native English speakers and run by the approachable John Langran, former Head of Birmingham’s Brasshouse Centre (the largest Adult Education Centre for Languages in Europe), Director of Studies for Pitmans Business Training in Russia, and author of the BBC Russian Phrasebook.

1. An Introduction to the Russian Language

Cyrillic alphabet distribution map Russian is the most widely spoken Slavonic language. It is not only spoken by the 145 million native Russian speakers of the Russian Federation, but also by many former Soviet Union Republics and many more speak Russian as a second language all over the world. A total estimated number of between 255 million and 285 million worldwide. As an official language of the United Nations, this international form of communication is rightly recognised. Russian is part of the East-Slavic group which in turn is part of the Indo-European family of languages. Very closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian, some areas will mix their native tongue with Russian freely. A lot has been written about Russian over the years, none more so famous than that of the Russian scientist, writer and poet M.V. Lomonosov referring to the words of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; “… Russian is far superior to all the languages of Europe in its comprehensiveness and richness, and had Charles V been acquainted with it he would have discovered in it the majesty of Spanish, the vivacity of French, the strength of German, the sweetness of Italian, and, in addition, energetic conciseness in its imagery, together with the richness of Greek and Latin.”

2. The Cyrillic Alphabet and Russian Pronunciation

Russian doesn’t use the Latin alphabet but instead an alphabet attributed to its creator Saint Cyril who introduced the written language to Russia from Greece in the Tenth Century, this is why if you are familiar with the Greek alphabet you will find some common letters. The Cyrillic Alphabet has 33 characters in Russian and is used for the written form of not just Russian but also Belarusian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian and Ukrainian. Russian text is actually much simpler to read than English. It doesn’t take long to get used to the new alphabet (including the written one — Russian has a different printed and a handwritten alphabet). In general a word is pronounced as it is written, unlike English, take for example the sound made by ‘ou’ in the following words – through — though — tough! Below is a table detailing how each letter is written and the related sound it makes when read: N.B. ‘ё’ is often written just as ‘е’, which may be somewhat confusing at first when reading Russian texts not written specifically for foreigners.
Printed Upper-Case Printed Lower-Case Sound
А а Father
Б б Bat
В в Victory
Г г Goat
Д д Dad
Е е Yet
Ё ё Yorkshire
Ж ж Pleasure
З з Zebra
И и Eat
Й й Toy
К к Kite
Л л Light
М м Mike
Н н Note
О о Core
П п Peter
Р р Run
С с Sun
Т т Tom
У у Boot
Ф ф Fun
Х х Loch
Ц ц Bits
Ч ч Church
Ш ш Shawl
Щ щ Shch
Ъ ъ
Ы ы Milk
Ь ь
Э э Bet
Ю ю You
Я я Yar
mcdonalds Now see if you can decipher the following words:
In Russian, as in all languages, there is a syllable within the word that is stressed more than other, for example photograph where the stress is on the first syllable and photography where the stress is on the second. It should be noted that which syllable to stress follows no observable pattern and just has to be learnt, just like in English! An important point to note is that unstressed ‘o’s tend to be pronounced more as ‘a’s rather than ‘o’s so a word like молоко (milk) is actually pronounced малако because the stress is at the end and пиво (beer) is actually pronounced пива because the stress is on the first part of the word.

3. Introducing Yourself — Basic Phrases

One of the first things you will want to do is introduce yourself. In Russian, just like in French, there is a formal form of the word ‘you’ (вы — vi) and an informal one (ты — ti).

The formal version is also used when referring to a group or talking to more than one person; when addressing small children and people of the same age it is common to use the informal version.

When addressing superiors and elders or anyone that you wish to show respect to, then the formal version must be used, it is not a good idea to call a Militaman “ты” unless you are looking for trouble! Below are some phrases that you will find useful.

Basic Greetings

OK, you have met someone and would like to get the ball rolling, you can choose from:

ЗдравствуйтеDrast-voi-tyeHow do you do (formal)
ЗдравствуйDrast-voiHow do you do (informal)
ПриветPriv-yetHi / Hello
Доброе утроDob-ro-ye U-troGood morning
Добрый деньDob-ri DyenGood day
Добрый вечерDob-ri ver-cherGood evening

Getting acquainted

So, you have said hello, now you can introduce yourself…

Давайте познакомимся. Меня зовут…Dav-i-tye Paz-nak-o-mim-sya. Men-ya Za-voot…Lets get acquainted. My name is…
А вас?A Vas?And you?
Как вас / его / её зовут?Kak Vas / Ye-vo / Ye-yo Za-vootWhat is your / his / her name?
Очень приятноO-Chin Pri-yat-naPleased to meet you

Responding to a question

You will often hear your Russian friends ask you “Как дела?” which means “How are things going?” or quite literally “How (Как) Things (дела)?”. You can respond in a variety of ways, for example:

НичегоNich-e-voFairly well
НеплохоNe-ploch-aNot bad
Так себеTak seb-yeSo-so

Saying Goodbye

And finally, closing the conversation…

До свиданияDoz-vid-anyaGoodbye (formal)
ПокаPak-aSee you later / bye bye
До завтраDoz-aftraSee you tomorrow
До встречиDoz-stre-chiUntil we meet
СчастливоSchas-tli-voHave a good journey


4. Russian Names

Russians as the English, have first names and surnames but instead of an optional middle name they have what is called a patronymic (a formal name derived from their father’s first name). You will also see this mentioned on the migration card you receive when you cross the border into Russia.

In formal situations Russians address each other using the person’s full first name and his/her patronymic. A patronymic is formed by adding -ovich/-evich to the end of the person’s father’s name if they are male and -ovna/-evna if they are female.

So, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, is Joseph Stalin, son of Vissarion would be addressed by people in a formal situation as Joseph Vissarionovich.

Close friends and family tend to call each other using diminutive versions of each others’ first names usually by shortening and “softening” the sounds by adding suffixes such as “ka” and “sha” — here is a table with a list of common Russian names (in Russian) and their diminutive versions. You should note that there are literally many dozens of variations on names that can be used depending upon the situation.

Masculine NameDiminutive VersionFeminine NameDiminutive Version
АлександрШура, СашаАлександраСаша, Шура
АлексейАлеша, ЛешаАлла
ВладимирВолодя, ВоваЕленаЛена
ДмитрийДима, МитяИринаИра

5. Getting Around by tram, bus and taxi

On trams, buses and trolley buses a conductor will come to you to sell you a ticket and will usually either say nothing and just stare at you or will give you a choice of a student or a standard ticket. Either way it’s best to state clearly ‘один’ — (pronounced “adin” which means one), followed by the type — ‘студенческий’ (student) / ‘обычный’.

Some useful questions to use on a bus or tram.

Простите, этот автобус (троллейбус, трамвай) идет до…?Prast-it-ye, etat avto-bus (trolli-bus_ id-yet do…?Forgive me, but does this bus (trolley-bus, tram) go to?
Какая следующая остановка?Kak-aya sled-you-sh-aya astan-ov-ka?Whats the next stop?
Вы выходите (на следующей) = Вы сейчас выходите? Да, выхожу / Нет, не выхожу.Vi v-had-eet-ye? Da, vi-had-aj-u / Nyet, ne vi-had-aj-uAre you getting off now? Yes, Im getting off / No, Im not getting off.
Можно пройти = Разрешите пройти.Пожалуйста.Mojh-na prai-tee?Could I get past please?

Some things you might hear on a bus or tram.

Следующая остановка…Sled-oyou-sh-aya ast-an-ov-kaThe next stop is.
Проходите / пройдите вперед (по салону).Pra-had-eet-yeMove further down please.
Вам нужно сделать пересадку.Vam Nooj-na cdel-at per-esad-kooYou need to change (tram/bus).

Some useful taxi phrases.

Вы свободны?Vi Sva-bodni?Is this taxi free?
В/На… отвезете? (В аэропорт отвезете? На автовокзал отвезете?)V/Na… at-bye-zetye? (V aero-port? / Na avto-vokzal at-byez-etye?)Could you take me to the airport? Could you take me to the bus station?
Быстрее, пожалуйста, я опаздываю.Bist-ree, pajal-sta, ya apaz-diva-you!Faster please, I’m late!
Сколько с меня?Skol-ka s men-ya?How much do I owe?

What a taxi driver might say to you.

Вам куда? Куда ехать?Vam Ku-da? Ku-da ye-hat?Where are you going? Where to?
Свободен / садитесь / поехали.Sva-bod-yen / Sad-eet-ye / pa-ye-haliIt’s free (available) / Sit down / let’s go.
Приехали.Pre-ye-ha-li.We’ve arrived.
С вас…рублей.s vas…. rub-leeYou owe… Roubles.

6. Finding your way around — Directions and Destinations

Some useful words to make your way around by yourself…

Скажите, пожалуйста, где находится…?Skaj-itye pajal-sta, g-d-ye na-hod-eet-sya…?Tell me please, where is ?
Вы не подскажете, где находится…?Vi ne pad-skaj-eet-ye, g-d-ye na-hod-eet-sya…?You wouldn’t be able to tell me where…?
Вы не знаете, где…?Vi ne zna-yet-ye g-d-ye…?I don’t suppose you know where ?
Где здесь…?G-d-ye zd-yes…?Where might I find here a ?
Это далеко (отсюда)?Eta da-leko (ot-syou-da)?Is it far (from here)?
Как дойти до вокзала…?Kak da-itee do…?How does one get to…?
гостиница / отельgast-in-eetsa / otelHotel / Hotel
посольство/консульствоpas-olst-va / kon-sool-stvaEmbassy/Consulate
банк/обмен валюты/банкоматbank / ab-meen val-you-t / bank-o-matBank/Bureau de change/cash machine
храм /церковь /соборhram / tser-kov / sobarTemple/Church/Cathedral
улица / площадьoo-lit-sa / pla-shodStreet/Square
рынок (вещевой / продуктовый)ree-nokMarket
здесь — тамz-dyes — tamHere — There
справа, слева, прямо, направо, налево.s-pra-va, s-lye-va, prya-mo, na-pra-va, na-lye-vaOn the right, on the left, straight ahead, to the right, to the left.
в обратном направленииv a-brat-nom na-prav-le-neeIn the opposite direction
далеко? недалеко, близко, рядомDa-lee-ko? Ne-da-lee-ko, bliz-ka, pya-domIt is far? its not far, its close, nearby
на первом этаже,na perv-om e-taj-eOn the first floor
в конце/ в начале (улицы, проспекта)v kan-tsye / v na-chal-ye (oo-li-tse / pros-pek-ta)At the end/at the start (street, avenue)

7. Ordering food

Russian food is surprisingly varied for the un-initiated, with the current Federation and previous Soviet Union composed of many dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups including Russian, Caucus, Tartar, Cossack, Kazak and many more. If you get away from the hotels and tourist strips you will find a delight of cuisine awaits at very reasonable prices! When you are in a restaurant, bar or cafe a waiter may say:

Вам столик на двоих (троих, четверых…)?Vam stol-ik na dva-ich (tra-ich. chet-ver-ich…)?Would you like a table for 2 (3, 4 )?
Вам столик для курящих / некурящих?Vam stol-ik d-lya koor-yash-ich / ne-koor-yash-ichIs that smoking or non-smoking?
Чай / кофе сразу?Chi / kof-e sraz-oo?Would you like some tea or coffee?
Приятного аппетита!Pre-yat-no-va app-e-teet-a!Bon Appetite!

 Some things you might wish to say in a restaurant:

Можно меню / пепельницу / салфетки?moj-na men-you / pep-el-nit-soo / sal-fet-keeCould I have a menu / ashtray / napkin?
на первое/второе/десерт я возьму… For starters / the main course / dessert, I shall have
Счет, пожалуйста The bill, please.
Вы принимаете кредитные карточки, доллары, евро? Do you accept credit cards, Dollars, Euros?

 Some common food items you will see in Russia:

лед (со льдом, без льда)l-yod (so-l-y-dom, bez ly-da)Ice (with ice, without ice)
борщbor-schBorsch (beetroot soup)
щиsh-eeShi (cabbage soup)
ухаu-haFish Broth
пельмениpel-me-ny-eeRavioli (approximately)