Russian Vocabulary: To St. Cyril With Love

Whether you long to read War & Peace in its original language, converse with a native in Red Square or become a spy for the CIA, learning Russian can be a singularly rewarding — and singularly daunting — experience. With Russia’s increasing importance on the world stage and over 166 million speakers worldwide, there’s never been a better time to learn. While Russian itself may not be as difficult as say, Japanese or Arabic, the Russian alphabet can be a major roadblock to learning an already perplexing language. For many new learners — and particularly for Roman alphabet natives — the thought of the Russian letter “P” making an er sound or a “3” making a ze sound is enough to send one running for the hills. So where exactly did these Russian letters come from?

Russian Phrases: The Many-Named Alphabet

Rooted in the 9th century Byzantine Empire, the Cyrillic alphabet — on which the Russian alphabet is based — was created by the Christian missionary St. Cyril to translate the Bible and other ancient texts into the Slavic language. Playing an important role in the “Christianization” of the Slavic population, the Cyrillic alphabet was not only an effective conversion tool for Orthodox missionaries; it also proved a powerful unifying force for Slavic peoples. Since its creation in the 800s, the Cyrillic alphabet has become the writing system of choice for 250 million people in more than 10 countries. From great literary works to Soviet-era propaganda, Cyrillic characters are some of the most widely read in the world. Learning Russian characters — despite the obstacles — might not be as difficult as you think; here are just a few reasons to accept the challenge:

  • A Unique History and Culture: Knowing the Cyrillic alphabet gives you a front row seat to Russia’s rich and storied past — from the spirit of the Russian Revolution to the intrigue of the Cold War, Russia has long been a source of fascination for the western world. Decidedly “uneuropean” but also distinct from its Asian neighbors, Russia’s language and culture has been shaped by its unique geographical position — whether adopting Enlightenment ideals from the west or military tactics from the Mongols, Russia’s position straddling east and west has allowed it to borrow from other cultures while maintaining its distinct identity.

  • Challenging, but Rewarding: Often regarded as one of the most difficult languages in the world, Russian boasts a daunting six grammatical cases in addition to its whopping 33-letter alphabet. Not only do new learners have to navigate unfamiliar (and confounding) Russian characters — they’re also burdened with a mere 1 in 6 chance of correctly spelling each noun in a sentence! Clearly no easy feat. Imagine then — despite these challenges — how accomplished you’ll feel when you can read and understand a whole sentence of Russian characters! Learning a new language clearly offers its own rewards, but more importantly, think how impressed your friends will be when you text “Эй чувак” (hey man!) in Russian letters!

  • A Rich Literary Tradition: Anna Karenina, War & Peace, The Brothers Karamazov — some of the world’s great literary masterpieces were written in Russian letters; while many good translations of these works exist, most native Russian speakers will tell you that nothing compares to reading Tolstoy in the Russian alphabet! Learn Russian characters, and find out exactly what Tolstoy meant when he wrote: Мы спим, пока не любим!

Russian Alphabet with Babbel

Want to learn Russian but think you don’t have the time? Have you tried other language learning apps but lost motivation after the first few lessons? Or maybe you invested in expensive learning software that promised quick fluency but delivered very little. Babbel makes learning Russian fun, easy, and convenient — whether at home, on the bus or waiting in line, you’ll progress fast with our award-winning, fully interactive Russian courses. The course material is divided into small blocks that are useful in everyday life: grammar and vocabulary practice are built into units that focus on things like mastering the Russian alphabet, ordering food in a restaurant, shopping, or sightseeing. Babbel even listens to you speak and helps you perfect your pronunciation!

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