"The Russian language is, as far as I can judge, the richest of the idioms of Europe, and seems almost made to express the most delicate nuances."

Prosper Mérimée

Even in the context accelerated Russian learning in order to meet a soul mate in the land of Russia, learning the Cyrillic characters which are peculiar to the Russian language is a must.

If you are wanting to learn Russian with a professional or linguistic perspective in mind - or even if you have a cultural or intellectual desire for the Russian language - you may want to discover Russian masterpieces by reading. In this case, making use of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet is all the more necessary.

Discovering the rudiments of the Russian alphabet will lead you to written communication in Russian, whether computerized or on traditional paper.

Let's have a look at the different facets of the Russian writing system in the image of the language that it is intended to teach, one of extreme beauty.

The Modern Russian Alphabet

For Americans, all Cyrillic alphabets look the same. However, in regards to the different Slavic countries, the alphabets vary slightly according to the lexical particularities of each nation.

The Russian alphabet, contrary to popular belief, does have a life of its own.

It owes its present disposition to a history that spans several centuries, and it is also caused by a human language: a living language which evolves with time, never being truly fixed - including when academies of grammarians and philologists seek to lock it down!

Today, the modern Russian alphabet has 33 letters from A to Я - the Latin alphabet only has 26.

Note in passing that, in terms of computers, a dozen characters does not result in additional keys to standard computer keyboards.

Check out all our tips to using a Russian keyboard.

The modern Russian alphabet | A mnemonic board to memorize the essentials of Russian linguistics

Like most contemporary languages, Russian associates a majority of consonants with several vowels.

Among these, five of them, - е, ё, и, ю and я - serve to palatalize the consonant that precedes them. Unlike other Slavic idioms, modern Russian has conserved the intermediate vowel ы.

This last vowel is sometimes listed after the "hard" vowels, which are a, э, o and у.

It is thanks to this that readers and authors can make a distinction between wet consonants and those that aren't palatalised, therefore hard. It is a largely syllabic writing system, a bit like Hungarian, which belongs to another family of languages.

Some consonants are already determined: such as the hard consonants ш, š, ж, ž, ц and c; and the soft consonants щ, ŝ, ч and č.

Unlike English, Russian has the advantage of reserving almost no surprises: the words are written as they are pronounced, and vice versa.

So it's worth getting your hands dirty to progress quickly in one fell swoop!

The only exceptions are the deviation of final consonants or certain associations of consonants, phonetic elements that are not too difficult to learn. Russian can sometimes be difficult for a anglophone, but we believe that with a little practice you can do it.

Here are two extremely helpful tips from a TED translator:

  1. Play house with the language. The more you invite a foreign language into your daily life, the more your brain will consider it something useful and worth caring about. “Use every opportunity to get exposed to the new language,” says Russian translator Olga Dmitrochenkova. Label every object in your house in this language, read kids’ books written in it, watch subtitled TED and TEDx talks, or live-narrate parts of your day to an imaginary foreign friend.
  2. Let technology help you out. Dmitrochenkova has a great idea: “A funny thing like resetting the language on your phone can help you learn new words right away,” she says. Ditto for changing the language on your browser. Or you can seek out more structured learning opportunities online. Dutch translator Els De Keyser recommends Duolinguo for its gamified approach to grammar, and Anki for memorizing vocabulary with its “intelligent” flashcards.

Still, the most complicated thing remains learning the so-called "ambiguous" vowels, where the tonic accent is not spelled but words of more than 2 syllables have different meanings according to the vowels.

As in Ukrainian and Bulgarian, we speak of "accent-related apophony."

The History of the Cyrillic Method

33 letters to learn may seem a bit arduous for an American student who is starting Russian lessons.

Cyrillic LetterPronounciation
ЫI tendu
ъHard sign (non-vocalized)
ьSoft sign (non-vocalized)

But here is the positive side of things: back in the day, archaic Russian and its ancestor Old Slavic used other more characters, four of which were eliminated in 1918 (І, Ѳ, Ѣ and Ѵ), and 8 others after their disuse throughout the eighteenth century: Ѕ, Ѯ, Ѱ, Ѡ, Ѫ, Ѧ, Ѭ and Ѩ.

The purpose of the eliminations of these letters was to simplify the language, confining it to a phonetic register, even if it lost some etymological relief.

Here is the great difference between the history of Russian characters and that of the alphabets used in the Latin countries: the successive simplifications have encouraged the birth of a new Russian from Slavonic and Old-Slavic.

Here pictured is an 11th-century Roman fresco (Saint Clement Basilica) | Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Pope | source: Wikimedia Commons

This explains the blossoming of various Cyrillic alphabets (such as the Serbian alphabet for example) from a common medieval source: the alphabet which was composed from the Greek by the two holy monks and brothers named Cyril and Methodius.

In Bulgaria, at the end of the ninth century, these monks had created a bicameral graphological system (that is to say, a system composed of small letters on the one hand and of capital letters on the other) of 30 characters intended to allow writing for the languages spoken in these then-considered barbaric and pagan lands (from a Byzantine point of view). At that time, writing had not yet been truly invented.

In other words, at this moment the Slavic world entered history, and at the same time as it was Christianized and opened up to the influences of the vanished Roman Empire.

This early alphabet thus became what is now called "old Slavic." At this time, the first Christian missionaries translated works for the attention of the indigenous populations.

How far we've come from that time - today there is a pantheon of Russian literature! Their writers are known worldwide: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy...

Learn how to find Russian classes near me here.

Discover the Russian alphabet through one its literary greats - Dostoievski! 😉

Google "Russian lessons London" to find a tutor in the British capital.

Learning the Cyrillic Alphabet: Why, Exactly?

Today, in addition to the dialects already mentioned, derivatives of the original Cyrillic are used in Belarus, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan, Tatar, Kyrgyz, Bashkir, Chuvash, Komi, Husband, Sami, Mongolia, Buryat, Kalmuk, Kurdish, Ossetian, Tajik, Romanian Transnistrian, and Dungan.

In other words, the Cyrillic system had the genius to adapt to no less than 7 different linguistic families (from the Slavic group to the Sino-Tibetan group, including the Turkish, Uralian, Mongolian, Iranian, and Romanic subfamilies)!

Knowing one of these Cyrillic alphabets is the best way to easily read and use the others.

In addition to being a scholar, there are many reasons to start writing the Russian alphabet in the twenty-first century.

Learn the Russian language and its alphabet | Imagine as many Russian dolls as the characters of the modern Russian language!

The USSR's political ideology had made Americans shy of learning the Russian language for a time. But when it broke up in 1992, Russia emerged from its political, cultural,economic, diplomatic, and demographic stagnation. This meant it once again became a leading international power.

Being comfortable with the Cyrillic alphabet is a way of creating a bright future for yourself, as relations with Russia - both public and private - are now on the rise and need your help.

Russian is a language that counts!

Russian-speaking countries are potential hosts to expatriates and, perhaps soon, students. Bulgaria has already entered the EU, and the Cyrillic alphabet has now become the 3rd alphabet, which means it will soon be learned by students everywhere.

Also keep in mind that more and more American people are choosing to marry a woman of Slavic origins - whether it's Russia or Ukraine, Moldavia, or elsewhere. By the way, these are all countries where the natives have been using the Cyrillic alphabet since kindergarten.

How to Learn to Write in Russian

Learning the Russian alphabet is one of the first steps when undertaking the Russian language.

Some pedagogues prefer to stick to learning how to speak the language. However, this may be OK if you are just planning to Skype with a Slave, but it would not be suitable for a tourist needing to decipher road signs or Russian advertising...

To understand the logic of a foreign Slavic language, there is nothing better than bathing in its alphabet!

There are multiple learning methods to use. To begin with, they can either be interactive and digital.


Communicate in Russian | Writing in Cyrillic is possible wherever you are on the planet | source: commons.wikimedia.org

The Internet offers several possibilities for learning the Cyrillic alphabet. One of the most accessible to all is doing a free video course - with just a quick search on YouTube using the right keywords (Russian course in New York City, for example) you will find a plethora of results, mostly up to par.

Do this on Google and you will be put on the path of e-learning, with several sites dedicated to learning the alphabet, usually for free and with audio resources as a bonus.

There are also paperback manuals available in bookstores, such as the For Dummies method, as well as a multitude of other books for all ages and learning goals.


In short, there is nothing better than a traditional method that can adapt to each and every interested student: a private lesson with a Russian teacher all on your own, which beats being in a group course, for example.

Need a Russian teacher?

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.