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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?

27

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.

  • It'll be solo, me + my boyfriend. – victoriah Jun 22 '11 at 9:35
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    I don't know what "pedimiming" is )-: – hippietrail Jun 23 '11 at 18:25
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    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. – Beaker Jun 24 '11 at 1:46
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    I think you mean 'pantomiming'...to express or represent (something) by extravagant and exaggerated mime. (Thank you Mac Built in Dictionary.app!) – atroon Jun 29 '11 at 12:29
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    By "nit" I hope you mean knitting and not socks infected by lice! – Andrew Grimm Dec 12 '12 at 6:47
22

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 :)

16

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
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    @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
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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
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    That'd be ресторан in Cyrilic script, for the unintiated ;) – Mark Mayo Supports Monica Jun 22 '11 at 9:44
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    @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 www.rzd.ru to look up trains in Russia :) – Mark Mayo Supports Monica Jun 22 '11 at 9:55
  • Yeah, the obvious solutions sometimes elude me... -facepalm- – Jan Jun 22 '11 at 9:58
9

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.

  • Even without knowing about o being reduced to a in most cases, just being able to read Cyrillic helps a lot imho. – Jan Sep 6 '16 at 22:50
  • O being reduced to A only in large cities. Mpst of the Siberia doesn't do that. – VMAtm Sep 7 '16 at 1:51
5

I traveled 8000 km through Russia this summer mostly avoiding cities. I speak no russian at all and had even trouble remembering "hello", "thanks", and "goodbye" in russian.

Besides a border guard speaking a few words of english I met nobody speaking any english whatsoever. Two times young people used google translate to communicate with me. Once a Gazprom security guard radioed a german speaking person to communicate with me.

All other communication was done without any common language. This worked remarkably well for me.

I had bigger problems with the cyrillic alphabet because reading maps and signs was an issue but I think I learned most of it just form driving by signs, thinking about them and occasionally looking letters up within 5 days or so.

3

I spent 10 days in Moscow. In the touristic area's, you can expect to find people who speak english. However, I visited many different regions in Moscow. Once you start leaving the main touristic areas, I was unable to find english speakers.

Luckily I had a Russian friend and that I had practiced a bit of Russian. If you can read Cyrillic, you'll find that it easy to decipher words as they are sometimes just english words written in Cyrillic.

That being said, I found the Russian people very friendly, and even if they did not understand, they took their time to try and help.

It would definitely be to your advantage to be able to read cyrillic. If definitely helped me when I was there.

Learning the cyrillic alphabet and learning how to pronounce words is not as complicated as it may seem.

3

I visited Russia solo last year. I didn't know any Russian (nor any languages of the neighbouring countries), not even basic words, apart from the few picked up in the research needed (e.g. автобус), but I can read the alphabet.

I brought a phone, a local SIM card, installed offline translations into the phone, and a detailed day-by-day itinerary with all the addresses in local language and also the buses to take, and searched the bus timetables beforehand (this was the hardest part).

I mainly visited museums and beaches on the trip. However, all the narrations in museums were in Russian only do I could only very limited part of them without knowing any Russian. I also visited a national park as well. These didn't require much language so I generally went well.

When I entered a food court in a shopping mall, I typed the words on the menu into the translator app.

It was essential to know how to read the place name when taking a rural bus, because we need to buy ticket from the conductor.

My trip generally went well, but on the very last day I was in trouble, even I had a local friend nearby. I went to a bus stop well ahead of schedule for a bus to the hostel I was staying, but the bus didn't show up. It was the last bus of the day in the direction I needed. I was in a rural area with a café nearby. I tried to ask if anyone saw the bus gone, but no one could understand. I also called the bus company but they didn't understand either. I showed my bus ticket and they started to understand my situation.

The hostel was only 12 km from the place I was at, however, the phone number was a long distance number which I couldn't call. I also had a local friend who spoke English well, but the phone number was also a long distance number. I tried to WhatsApp and Viber the hostel and my friend but the data reception there was very poor, so we could only communicate occasionally.

After the villager knew my situation, he offered me a ride in the direction I needed, but he couldn't ride me directly to my destination because he didn't have the paper needed to cross the border. He then dropped me off at the boundary of the frontier closed area and explained in local language to the guard about my situation, lucky the guard spoke a little English, calmed me down and helped me to get someone to ride me across the border to my destination.

The border I needed to cross is inside a national park and most tourists cycle through the border. It does not allow crossing on foot, but only on a vehicle. There are only 2 buses per day going thru, and all the information and trip reports I can find are about taking the bus between the cities, however I was trying to take the bus at the stop just before the border after visiting half of the national park (most tourists use a car or a bike to visit), and alight just after the border.

To conclude, if you don't know Russian you may still be fine, but you will be in real trouble if you are stuck in some rural area and the bus which brings you out of Russia doesn't come on time.

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