One of the most challenging things for visitors to Russia is the language barrier. One look at all those back-to-front letters (Я, И), funny marks over letters (Й, Ё) and symbols vaguely familiar from those maths classes you fell asleep in (П, Г) is likely to send any native English speaker into a fit of pique. Can it be long before you hear the immortal words of the English-speaker abroad, "Why can’t they all just speak English?"

In fact the Russians share a lot in common with the British in this regard, who expected to be able to talk in their own language wherever they were in the Empire, and considered the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare as one of their most important legacies. In the case of Russian it was the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy of course, which was spread throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia and later, Eastern Europe too, initially (as with English) at the end of a bayonet but eventually becoming a genuine lingua franca for hundreds of millions of diverse peoples across the Eurasian landmass.  English (the language of the enemy) and German (the language of Brother Socialists on the frontlines of Capitalism) were the most common foreign languages taught at school in Soviet times, and English today, as throughout the world, is considered a pre-requisite for success in many spheres. As a result, most people will have some small understanding of English, although it may not be enough to communicate satisfactorily. Frontline staff in hotels and restaurants used to welcoming foreign tourists, and the younger generation, will mostly speak some English, and dual or English-language menus (often amusingly translated) can be found in many restaurants in the centre. 

The good news is that St Petersburg is much more tourist friendly than Moscow and here you will find that most street and metro station signs will have the English transliteration written in small letters under the Russian. There are lots of translation software tools available to help, but most of these are of questionable reliability and you would need to have access to the Cyrillic keyboard to use these fully. (That said, we swear by a two-way translation app on the iPhone that has an extensive, if not exhaustive, vocabulary of everyday words). But to get the most out of any visit to St Petersburg, making some effort to learn the alphabet and a few words before you come will pay dividends once you’re here.   

There follows below a very brief guide to learning the alphabet, together with some common phrases you may need (how to read and say them). We have deliberately simplified things, and there are of course plenty of rules and exceptions, but if you get through this and can remember the contents consider yourselves beginners!


The Cyrillic alphabet was created in the 9th century AD in what is today Macedonia by two monks, Kyril and Mefodii (Cyril and Methodius as they are better known) with the aim of translating the bible into the vernacular early Slavonic that was spoken then. Their invention took existing Latin and Greek letters and combined these with new letters they created to replicate sounds that were specific to Slavonic. Thanks to the spread of Christianity from Byzantium to Kiev, the alphabet was a huge success and adopted by many of the southern and eastern Slavs (thus today it is the basis for Serbian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, as well as Russian, and during Soviet days was used for the Turkic and Persian languages of Central Asia). 

Rather than learning the 32-letter alphabet in alphabetical order (which is fine if you’re going to be doing a lot of research or using dictionaries, but most bilingual dictionaries will usually include this list there anyway and being able to recite the alphabet is unlikely to help much when you’re ordering a meal or buying a train ticket), it’s easier to break the alphabet into 3 categories of letters to facilitate learning.   

Category 1 consists of those Cyrillic letters which look and sound (almost) exactly like their counterparts in most Latin alphabets: А, Е, К, М, О, Т.   Thus: 

Кто? = who?

Кот = cat (male)

Мак = poppy 

Category 2 consists of those letters which look the same or similar to letters in the Latin alphabet, but which have a different sound in Russian. These are:  В (which sounds like V), Ё (Yo), Н (N), Р (R), С (S), У (U), Х (Ch – like German composer Bach)

Метро (Met-ro) = metro

Театр (Tay-atr) = theatre

Нет (Nyet) = no

Вот (Vot) = here (it) is

Москва (Mos-kva) = Moscow

Category 3 consists of letters which are uniquely Cyrillic (so if you know some Greek, Bulgarian or Ukrainian you may recognize some of these):  Б (B), Г (G), Д (D), Ж (Zh), З (Z), И (I), Й (Y), Л (L), П (P), Ф (F), Ц (Ts), Ч (Ch), Ш (Sh), Щ (Sch), Ь (no individual sound),  Ъ (no individual sound), Ы (Iy), Э (E), Ю (Yu), Я (Ya)

Аэропорт (a-er-o-port) = airport

Автобус (av-to-boos) = bus

Трамвай (tram-vai) = tram

Троллейбус (trol-lyey-boos) = trolleybus

Концерт (kon-tsert) = concert

Рубль (Roo-bl) = rouble

Водка (Vod-ka) = vodka

Зенит = Zenit, local football club

Санкт-Петербург (Sankt Pyet-yer-burg) = St Petersburg

Reading practice

Now you can read Russian (!), here are some names of famous Russians to practice with.

Андрей Аршавин

Мурат Сафин

Владимир Путин

Антон Чехов

Владимир Ленин

Юрий Гагарин

Петр Чайковский

Лев Тольстой

Федор Достоевский

Phrases and common words

To learn:

English Russian Pronunciation
Yes Да da
No Нет nyet
Please / You're welcome Пожалуйста pa-zhal-is-ta
Thank you Спасибо spa-si-ba
Excuse me Извините iz-vin-itye
Hello Здравствуйте Zdrav-stvuy-tye
Hi Привет Preev-yet
Goodbye До свидания da svi-da-niya
Bye Пока pa-ka
Who? Кто? kto
What? Что? shto
Where? Где? g-dye
Why? Почему? pa-chem-oo
How? Как? kak
How much? Сколько? skol-ka
A lot Много m-no-ga
A little Немного nye-m-no-ga
Vodka Водка Vod-ka
Water Вода Vo-da
Tea Чай chay
Coffee Кофе Ko-fye
Beer Пиво Pee-va
Who is last?* Кто последний? Kto pa-sled-nee?

*Very important phrase to know any time you walk in somewhere (shop, ticket office etc) and there is a large group of people apparently milling around randomly in what passes for a Russian queue. By asking who is the last person in the queue, you find out who you will follow and announce to the crowd that you have joined the queue.


To recognize:

English Russian
Hotel Гостиница, отел
Restaurant Ресторан
Cafe Кафе
Convenience store Продукты
Chemists Аптека
(Currency) Exchange Обмен (валюты)
Purchase Покупка
Sale Продажа
Street Улица
Embankment Набережная
Square Площадь
Bridge Мост
Underpass Переход
Entry Вход
Exit Выход
Books Книги
Men Мужчины
Women Женщины
Pull На себе
Push От себя
No Smoking Курить запрещено
Open Откыыто
Closed Закрыто