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Or alternatively - how well-spoken (and widely-spoken) is English?

I intend to visit St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk and Vladivostok. I feel like I might have the most troubles in the latter two cities.

Should I be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet?

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"Should I be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet?" Of course not, why would you want to be able to read anything? – TheMathemagician Oct 31 '14 at 18:14
up vote 16 down vote accepted

You need a bit more information. Are you going with a tour or solo?

I went solo and I don't really know any Russian aside form what I picked up while there. I stayed on the Europe side of the Urals, and bounced between hostels. It is definitely more difficult to go solo, but with some pedimiming and patience, it is easy enough. Contrary to a lot of stereotypes Russians are generally nice, helpful people. I can't tell you how many pairs of nit socks I bought from the babushkas on the streets.

If you smile and point, you should be fine. It really depends on how experienced you are at traveling.

I do, of course, always recommend studying up on the culture and language A BIT before you go. Know some words and carry a dictionary. The 'Where is...(bathroom/police/embassy)' and 'I want...(food/water/beer)' set of words is pretty much required where ever you go.

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+1 for the "where is..." and "I wants..." – Phelios Jun 22 '11 at 2:38
I don't know what "pedimiming" is )-: – hippietrail Jun 23 '11 at 18:25
Oh, hmm... Yea. I don't think it is a actual word, just something I hear alot. It means using your hands to indicate what you want. But not just pointing. I had to buy a jock strap once... and well, you can image how I communicated that. – Ginamin Jun 24 '11 at 1:46
I think you mean 'pantomiming' express or represent (something) by extravagant and exaggerated mime. (Thank you Mac Built in!) – atroon Jun 29 '11 at 12:29
By "nit" I hope you mean knitting and not socks infected by lice! – Andrew Grimm Dec 12 '12 at 6:47

If it's more than a day or two, I would try to memorize the following words in Russian:

  • numbers 1 to 3
  • hello, bye
  • please, thanks
  • excuse me/sorry

Those alone will get you a long way.

Also, it certainly helps you to get around and find shops/hotels/etc if you're able to read Cyrillic. A lot of international words are the same, just look differently. From my experience, getting it into your head isn't too hard, especially when you're there and the letters are around you all the time.

For more specific conversations, there are special books for travellers that have lots of relevant pictures/symbols/icons that you can simply point to when talking to a local, which in my eyes is pure genius.

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My favorite Cyrillic word so far is PECTOPAH. Which is nothing else than a restaurant (lit. RESTORAN) :-) – Jan Jun 22 '11 at 9:38
That'd be ресторан in Cyrilic script, for the unintiated ;) – Mark Mayo Jun 22 '11 at 9:44
@Mark cheers, I was too lazy pulling out the charmap ;-) – Jan Jun 22 '11 at 9:52
I do love Google Translate, it's the only way I can use to look up trains in Russia :) – Mark Mayo Jun 22 '11 at 9:55
Yeah, the obvious solutions sometimes elude me... -facepalm- – Jan Jun 22 '11 at 9:58

I'm in Russia now - just got off the train in Volgograd. I know only a few words and am travelling on my own. Fair warning - Russia (my second visit) is the hardest country I've travelled in. I struggle with the Cyrillic - but it's definitely worth learning. It gets faster to read quite quickly.

One of the best suggestions is to write requests down. For example - trains, I write the destination (in Cyrillic), the time (numbers are mostly universal) and the class, and draw a set of bunks to indicate the top bunk. Almost no words are required, but it's clear what I'm after.

It's hard, but I arrived with fewer than 10 words, and I've certainly managed - entering from Finland, I went to Murmansk, down to St Petersburg, across to Moscow and back, and now down to Volgograd. It's a fantastic country, well worth it, but it IS hard :)

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Looking back, Russia was simple in comparison to Uzbekistan/Tajikistan :) – Mark Mayo Jan 27 '14 at 11:10

You don't have to be able to read the alphabet to travel but learning it will save you from a lot of confusion when you're trying to synchronize the map, the signs and what you heard from the other people.

Cyrillic ain't that hard—the hardest part may be to realize that some letters don't match (Cyrillic “В”, “Р”, “С” and “У” are actually “V”, “R”, “S” and “U”). Russians are very willing to help you with the directions, and the younger generation speaks English well. Older people rarely know English but would still try to help you as long as you're able to communicate your destination with gestures and the map.

Russians absolutely love explaining their language to the foreigners so don't hesitate to ask them to teach you a few words during a cup of tea. There are a lot of fun things about Russian language. Because the syntax is slightly less strict than English, you may want to ask about the difference between “Я тебя люблю”, “Люблю я тебя” and “Тебя люблю я” (all variations on “I love you”). They will also teach you some Russian mat (sometimes even without you knowing, so never trust what they just taught you is appropriate).

Note that smiling out of politeness is not common in Russia and you should be aware of the fact. Russians smile when there is real emotion involved and rarely do so to strangers. People may look dead serious when talking to you but they don't mean to be rude at all.

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Actually the only hard part for me is that some letters look totally different in italics. I know the normal alphabet well but I always get flummoxed by the italics. – hippietrail Jul 31 '11 at 8:47
@hippietrail Hehe, I'm sure, you didn't saw the traditional letters. Italics - pretty simple :) – VMAtm Jul 31 '11 at 10:07
I have seen the traditional letters in Bulgaria and in Romania they have Latin alphabet equivalents! But they weren't used anywhere important. I'm only talking about these. – hippietrail Aug 1 '11 at 8:07

If you didn't study Russian for some time, you shouldn't read the Cyrillic. Some letters are similar to Latin ones, but are pronounced differently, and this can confuse you.
Also, you definitely should not worry about English in Saint-Petersburg and Moscow - there are lots of people who speak English well. But in Irkutsk it can be a problem, and you should follow the instructions from other answers.
Also try to get Cyrillic tourmap to ease the conversations.

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protected by Ankur Banerjee Jan 29 '13 at 1:40

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