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Which languages to brush up on for Ukraine trip?

I'm thinking of visiting Ukraine, and I'm deciding whether to learn Russian or learn Ukrainian. I'm already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, though I recognise its pronunciation will be a bit different for Russian or Ukrainian compared to Mongolian. One factor I'm evaluating is whether Russian will be useful in countries other than Ukraine.

Amongst countries which are reasonably "touristy", ie places where the locals won't raise an eyebrow at an Australian visiting their country for tourism, and assuming I stay on the "beaten track" within those countries, where is knowing Russian useful to tourists who can already speak English?

Wikivoyage's phrasebook for Russian describes where Russian is spoken, but doesn't summarize where it's useful for those who speak English, and the promotional page for Lonely Planet's Russian phrasebook only mentions Russia.

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    I visited Kiev in 2010 and tried to learn a few phrases of Ukrainian .. with hindsight it made about as much sense as a visitor to Cardiff trying to learn some Welsh phrases (none whatsoever). Everyone spoke Russian. – TheMathemagician Jan 12 '17 at 14:29
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    As a native Czech, I would not recommend you to speak Russian in Baltic countries and in Ukraine. Baltic nations, Polish and Ukrainian people do really hate Russians. Learn local lore. You would probably get better services, if you would speak English. – Petr Jan 12 '17 at 16:18
  • Of course everyone speaks Russian, but they might like you much if you know their local language. In the West of Ukraine the mother tongue is mostly Ukrainian (or Rusyn) so if you are mountaineering in the Carpathians there will be many more Ukrainian speakers there than Welsh speakers in Cardiff. – Vladimir F Jan 12 '17 at 16:36
  • @VladimirF: For a tourist intending to visit several former eastern bloc countries, the optimal approach might be to focus mostly on learning Russian, but to also memorize a few basic greetings and such in the local language of each country. The same approach works with English in many countries where it's reasonably commonly spoken as a second language: learn a few phrases of the local language, enough to exchange greetings and to communicate that you're a tourist, and fall back on English / Russian / whatever shared second language you share with the locals for anything more complex. – Ilmari Karonen Jan 12 '17 at 19:39
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    @IlmariKaronen Only Former Soviet Union, not the whole Eastern bloc. I don't really recommend Russian in Poland and even in my home Czechia you will not be very successful. True older people had to learn it at school, but they have mostly forgotten it and many don't like it. In Hungary it will be similar. – Vladimir F Jan 12 '17 at 20:41
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For an English-speaking person, Russian is extremely useful in every former member of the Soviet Union, with the possible exception of the Baltic countries where English knowledge is not so bad. English education is horrible in the entire region so speaking Russian is a huge help. I am not aware of any other regions where Russian is commonly known, except for small immigrant enclaves such as Brighton Beach in New York.

I wouldn't bother with learning any of the local languages (such as Ukrainian) as it's only useful in that particular country and locals are never offended if you try to speak Russian to them, despite what fevered nationalists on the Internet might have you believe.

There is the stereotype that Warsaw Pact countries are also hospitable to Russian speakers, however that's far from true after 25 years of full independence. Russian curriculum has never been strong in the area (although mandatory) and the local people haven't needed to speak Russian to anyone for over a generation. Most people over 40 therefore only remember a few dozen random words (Vodka! Horosho!), but won't be able to keep up a conversation. It is similar to trying to speak Spanish to Caucasian Americans from Texas - almost everyone studied Spanish in High School, but few can actually use it.

Source: native Russian speaker visiting numerous post-Soviet states

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Mar 7 '17 at 15:45
  • -1: This answer's logic is flawed as it flips the cause and the effect. It mixes people who are able to speak Russian and those who want speak it. The Russia uses its language (and the Russian-speaking minorities) as a weapon, and more and more people in countries that used to be invaded and occupied by Russia simply refuse to be that weapon. A reference to "fevered nationalists on the Internet" (like myself) is a vivid confirmation to this. Check this YouTube video (in Estonian and Russian) for more details. – bytebuster Dec 22 '17 at 20:01
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    @bytebuster I've been to Western Ukraine and the Baltics as late as in 2016 and spoke Russian just fine, with zero aggression towards me as a native speaker. Can you name a place in the former Soviet Union where I'd be shunned for trying to speak Russian? Thank you. – JonathanReez Dec 22 '17 at 20:04
  • I did not speak about the aggression towards you. Instead, you speaking Russian can be perceived an aggressor (or affiliated). It is me who is preparing for the immediate defense when a Russian says to me "слышь, пацанчик, есть чё?" on a street of my city. – bytebuster Dec 22 '17 at 21:48
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    @bytebuster I'm no fan of Russia, but I found your comments hard to comprehend. – Andrew Grimm Dec 22 '17 at 23:59
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When I visited in 2010 I found that this was the case in the Republic of Georgia.
When I visited it was nearly impossible to find anyone who understood even basic english words. Even our guides had poor English.

A number of people on our trip spoke Russian however and were able to communicate with nearly everyone (though apparently there is a reluctance to associate with/speak Russian among some people since the invasion of Ingushetia).

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    Really? Where was this? Been to Tbilisi thrice in 2016, and given that I'm perfectly aware that English is not a useful lingua franca worldwide, I was stunned to find the majority did know basic phrases – Crazydre Jan 12 '17 at 19:00
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    I was in Tbilisi for only a few days but spent most of my time backpacking in Tusheti National park and in Svanetia. Also I was there in 2010, so your experience is probably more up to date than mine. I altered my answer to reflect this. – smoss321 Jan 12 '17 at 19:35
  • Just as background, how "touristy" were the places you went to? Popular with foreigners, or off the beaten track? – Andrew Grimm Jan 12 '17 at 21:31
  • In Tusheti National Park we ran into a group of Danish backpackers the first day but saw no other tourists for the rest of our seven day trip there (this was in July I think). A friend of mine visited the same park recently and said he saw some tourists. In the Svaneti park (I can't remember the name) we saw tourists in the main town, but none in the park. So perhaps 'not touristy'. – smoss321 Jan 12 '17 at 21:33
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    Nearby in Khevsureti we even met a single soldier guarding near the border who didn't speak Russian. And it was the border with Russia! – Vladimir F Jan 13 '17 at 13:05
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In Israel, Russian can be quite helpful.

Most of the population speaks English more or less, but a significant part of lthe population are immigrants from Russia and other ex-USSR countries, who speak fluent Russian.

  • Are the Russophones people you're likely to be speaking to (e.g. shop staff)? – Andrew Grimm Jan 13 '17 at 1:01
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    Yes. they're a higher percentage among service professions than in the general population. – ugoren Jan 13 '17 at 6:10
  • That's good to know, if anything I would have expected the opposite! – Andrew Grimm Jan 13 '17 at 7:20
  • 20 years ago my sons attended at Israeli after-school music program. The staff were all Russian immigrants. The teacher had been a mid-reputation symphony violinist, spoke English and Hebrew. The less-talented musicians who spoke only Russian were janitors. – Andrew Lazarus Dec 22 '17 at 20:25
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I am native Polish, I speak fluent English and I was pretty much surprised to have had problems with communicating with people in Turkey. In tourist areas, all signs and attractions are very Russian-friendly. Probably it's not the case deeper in the country, but on the sea shore where many many Russians come, Turkish people in tourism industry are speaking Russian. Though, I also don't know Russian much, so I can't tell if it was good :)

I heard similar about Egypt, but I didn't have chance to be there myself.

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As a Russian I can assure you that nobody really speak Ukrainian, Byelorussian in those countries. Even considering hostility of Ukrainian nationalists to Russia that we have nowadays - really nobody speaks so-called 'mova' (Ukrainian language). Even Ukrainian fascist soldiers that genocide Russian in newly-formed Donetsk and Luhansk republics, mostly speak Russian and seldom Ukrainian on their videos available on Youtube. They do speak with slight accent typical for southern regions of Russia, but words and sentences building patterns are Russian, not Ukrainian.

I have noticed that even newscasters on Ukrainian TV who stick to anti-russian point of view, of course, do speak Ukrainian, but noticeably reluctantly, as if they translate in mind that they are speaking about. Absolutely the same thing is with Byelorussia (where I was born BTW, but I absolutely do not know Byelorussian and have never known).

These national languages are indeed used in deep provinces and villages where local people really speak them and are seldom spoken in the big cities. It is not relevant only for abroad countries. For example, my grandma-in-law has lived almost all her life in the village of Rostov suburb (not far from Ukraine border, but it has always been Russian area) speaks almost pure Ukrainian, and pronounces most of the words in Ukrainian manner. And other people from that village do so. Despite it has never been under Ukrainian government - neither in Soviet times, nor after.

Another thing is with Moslem post-Soviet countries - like Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan etc. Even in Soviet times they poorly spoke Russian and speak fluently only their native languages. Nowadays in these countries, as I suppose, Russian is almost forgotten, but for the foreign tourist it is preferable to speak Russian anyway. Some of people still know it, but almost nobody speaks English throughout all post-Soviet space.

For Georgia, Baltic countries (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) - i.e. for the post-soviet countries hostile to Russia, the whole thing is more similar to Ukraine rather than to Tadjikistan. I.e. formally they pretend to be non-Russian and pretend that they do not speak it, and Russian is officially prohibited, but indeed all of them are able to speak it. Since English knowledge is very poor among all post-soviet space and maybe 1% of people can make two English words with, do not expect to be understood. Maybe in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg it is slightly better, and it will turn to be 2% instead of 1 )))

So... if you are going to travel to post-Soviet countries and going to study local language, Russian is the best choice. But do not delude yourself - most probably your pronunciation will not be understood by locals. As like as my English will seem clumsy to you )))

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    Genocide is no trifling matter, especially as it has happened against people living in Ukraine last century. Trivializing it the way you have is offensive, even if such a claim was relevant to this question, which it isn't. – Andrew Grimm Jan 13 '17 at 13:09
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    It's just too bad that a few grains of information in this answer are buried under engaged statements about Ukrainian conflict. Yegor, you need to learn expressing yourself in a more neutral and respecting manner if you want other people to listen. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jan 13 '17 at 13:25
  • I meant by 'genocide' that ukrainian army is shooting and ruining pro-russian separated regions and that is it did and still really doing, though world news conceal this fact. So, it is genocide regardless if you appreciate it or not. So does Putin against Syria now, however shameful for Russia it is. But you are right that emphasizing political issues is not relevant here, but it is closely related with the initial post issue - can you use Russian in Ukraine and other countries or not. It cannot be considered without taking current political conflicts into account. – Yegor Jan 13 '17 at 14:04
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    that post seems to me like a good piece of brainwashed propaganda :) – Kamil Mikolajczyk Jan 15 '17 at 14:31
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    I am sure that an answer in a similar tone but coming from the other (Ukranian) side of the conflict would be equally strongly downvoted. – Jan Dec 23 '17 at 17:04

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