There’s no sugar coating it; learning Russian is no easy task. With a strange alphabet and tricky pronunciations, it’s one of the hardest languages to pick up on. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t memorize some basic Russian phrases to help you get by as you explore this country of contrasts.
For starters, tackle the alphabet and start connecting letters with their sounds. Next, move on to simple things like ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘hello.’ Before you know it, you’ll be recognizing words left and right and maybe even ordering your favorite meal correctly in Russian.
Taking the leap to learn a new language is the hardest step, but we’re here to help. Check out below our top 57 best Russian words to learn, and you’ll be one step closer to being fluent!
What language is spoken in Russia?
As you’d likely guess, Russian is the official language of Russia. The vast majority of Russians speak the language, and you’ll find most businesses, schools, and places of recreation use Russian as their language of choice. In fact, almost all of Russia’s 150 million people speak Russian, as do many from Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, making it the world’s 8th most widespread language.
If you’re not confident in your Russian skills and are planning to visit, don’t worry. Many people, especially younger Russians and those working in customer service roles, speak English and will be able to provide you with assistance should you be in need. However, once you’re out of the big cities and off the main tourist track, the number of English speakers decreases significantly. Hence, knowing some basic Russian words can go a long way and be a big help if you’re planning to visit some of the smaller towns and villages.
Learning the Russian alphabet
Like many languages, the best way to start getting your head around the Russian language is to learn its alphabet. For starters, Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet and has twenty consonants, ten vowels, one semi-vowel, and two modifier letters that change a preceding consonant but are not pronounced themselves.
While it may look very confusing and overwhelming at first glance, by taking the time to understand the pronunciation and use of each letter, learning the language will become that much easier. Check out the table below for the English equivalent and pronunciation of each Russian letter, and take some time to say each out loud.
|Russian Letter||English Equivalent|
|Ш||SH ‘shh’ (harder)|
|Щ||SHCH ‘shh’ (softer)|
|Ъ||Hard sign – letter before is hard|
|Ь||Soft sign – letter before is soft|
The basics of pronouncing Russian words
Once you’re comfortable with the alphabet, the next step is practicing pronouncing basic Russian words. Luckily, even though the Russian language is known for its difficulty compared to easier languages like Hawaiian, it is relatively phonetic – meaning that one letter usually corresponds to one sound, and the words are pronounced just as they are written.
Some fundamental rules to keep in mind when pronouncing Russian words include:
- Capital letters in a word indicate which syllable to stress. Take, for example, Спасибо [spaSIbo], which means ‘thank you.’ The second syllable ‘SI’ is stressed.
- The Russian ‘R’ is rolled.
- The letter Ь is never pronounced. Instead, it’s there to show that the previous letter is spoken softly. For example, if you think of the words ‘poor’ and ‘pure,’ the ‘p’ in poor is spoken softly compared to the hard ‘p’ in ‘pure.’
- To indicate a hard pronunciation, the Ъ sign is used. For example, въезд, which means entry for cars, is pronounced as ‘v-yezd.’ Another way to think of the Ъ sign is that it separates the consonant from the following soft vowel.
It’s also worth noting that in Russian, there are formal versions of words and informal. If you do not know someone or if you’re talking to a customer service worker or public official, you should use the formal version. Plus, similar to French, Russian nouns each have a gender, which has nothing to do with the object’s physical characteristics.
Basic Russian phrases to memorize
Once you have the basic understanding of Russian down, memorizing some basic Russian phrases is relatively simple. The following words will help you get started learning the ins and outs of Russian and provide a solid base for a trip to Russia or another Russian-speaking country.
- Да [da] = Yes
- Нет [nyet] = No
- Пожалуйста [poZHAlusta] = Please
- Спасибо [spaSIbo] = Thank you
- Не за что [ne za chto] = You’re welcome
- Извините [izviNIte] = Excuse me
- Я не понимаю [YA ne poniMAyu] = I don’t understand
- вы говорите по-Английски? [vi govoRIte po angLIYski?] = Do you speak English?
- Помогите, пожалуйста [pomoGIte, poZHAlusta] = Help me, please
Basic Russian greetings to learn
Once you’ve mastered some basic Russian words, the next step is learning how to greet others. The first and most obvious word to learn is ‘hello,’ which already has multiple variations to learn.
- Здравствуйте [ZDRAstvuyte] = Hello (formal)
- Привет [priVET] = Hello (informal)
Next, just like in English, different greetings are used at different times of the day. These include:
- оброе утро [Dobroe utro] = Good morning
- Добрый день [Dobryj den’] = Good afternoon
- Добрый вечер [Dobryj vecher] = Good evening
If you’re leaving or saying goodbye to someone, some common phrases to use include:
- До свидания [do sviDAniya] = Goodbye
- Доброй ночи [Dobroj nochi] = Good night
- До встречи [do VSTREchi] = Until next time
- Увидимся [Uvidimsya] = See you later
Basic Russian phrases to help you get around, travel, and sightsee
Even though many Russians will know basic English and are happy to point you in the right direction if you’re lost, you can save yourself a lot of time and confusion by learning some directional phrases.
In big cities, buses, trams and fixed-route taxis are the easiest way to get around. If you’re traveling from city to city, take the stress of driving off and opt for the country’s extensive train network. Here are some phrases to help both exploring within a city and traveling around Russia:
- Как добраться до … ? [Kak dobrat’sya do … ?] = How do I get to…
- Туалет [tualet] = The bathroom
- Вход [vhod] = The entrance
- Вокзал [vokzal] = The train station
- Магазины [magaziny] = The shops
- автобусная остановка [avtobusnaya ostanovka] = The bus stop
- справочное бюро [spravochnoe byuro] = The information office
- Мне нужно такси [Mne nuzhno taksi] = I need a taxi
- Сколько стоит проезд? [Skol’ko stoit proezd?] = How much is the fare?
- Я хотел бы купить [YA hotel by kupit’] = I would like to buy
Best Russian phrases for food
Contrary to what you might guess, food in Russia isn’t all about the hearty meals filled with meat and potatoes. Instead, similar to Costa Rica, Russian cuisine is largely vegetarian and pescatarian, with a strong emphasis on ingredients from the land. However, meat has gone from an ingredient found only during celebrations to being more common in everyday meals in recent times. Some staple ingredients you’ll find in many meals include:
- Помидор [Pomidor] = Tomato
- Салат [Salat] = Salad
- Курица [KUritsa] = Chicken
- Говядина [goVYAdina] = Beef
- Рыба [RIba] = Fish
- Чеснок [CHesnok] = Garlic
- Яйцо [YAjco] = Egg
When you’re in Russia, be sure to try some of these common Russian foods:
- Blini (блины) – Russian pancakes. These thin pancakes are found on almost every menu in Russia. They’re versatile and can be sweet or savory, and are perfect for special holidays or just your weeknight lunch.
- Pelmeni (пельмeни) – Russian dumplings. It’s nearly impossible to go to Russia and not be served these traditional bites at least once. Pelmenis are usually filled with meat or fish and served in a large bowl with sour cream.
- Syrniki (сырники) – Yes, another type of pancake! These are made from cottage cheese, eggs, and flour and served with sour cream, jam, honey, or fresh berries.
- Borscht (Борщ) – At any time of the year, you’ll find borscht on the menu. This classic Russian soup originated from Ukraine but found its mark in Russian cuisine nearly instantly. Made with beetroot and tomatoes and other meats and vegetables, it has a distinctive reddish-purple color.
- Shashlik (Шашлык) – A Russian kebab, or meat skewer, these tasty treats are a staple of Russian cuisine. Each family will have its own secret recipe for marinating the meat, so be sure to sample a variety.
A few other useful terms to help make dining out easier include:
- Можно меню, пожалуйста? [MOzhno meNU poZHAlusta?] = Could I have the menu, please?
- У меня аллергия на … [U menya allergiya na …] = I’m allergic to…
- Я буду… [ya BUdu…] = I will have…
- Счёт, пожалуйста [Schyot, pozhalujsta] = The bill, please
- Это очень вкусно! [Eto ochen’ vkusno!] = It was delicious!
Fun Russian idioms to sound like a local
Nobody is claiming Russian is an easy language to learn, and sometimes you just need some witty expressions to put a smile on the local’s faces and earn yourself some respect. Try and memorize some of these idioms to sound like a local when the moment strikes.
- Быть не в своей тарелке [byt’ ne v svoyey tarelke]. Similar to ‘a fish out of water,’ the literal translation is ‘to be not in one’s own plate’ and is perfect for when you’re feeling out of your element or have done something a bit embarrassing.
- Дать зуб [dat’ zub]. Similar to ‘cross my heart,’ the literal translation is ‘to give a tooth.’ Use this when you want to show someone you really mean your promise.
- Первый блин всегда комом [p’erviy bl’in vsigda komam]. Similar to ‘practice makes perfect,’ the literal translation means ‘the first pancake is always a blob,’ and it doesn’t get more Russian than this. Just how your first pancake may turn out like a blob, by practicing, you’ll have beautiful pancakes in no time.
- Не гони лошадей! [ni gani lashad’ei!]. Similar to ‘hold your horses,’ the literal translation means ‘don’t rush the horses,’ so take your time, and everything will be fine.
- Ёлки-палки [yolki-palki]. Similar to ‘for crying out loud,’ the literal translation means ‘fir-trees and sticks,’ but this idiom doesn’t have anything to do with nature. Instead, it’s a popular Russian exclamation used to show a range of emotions from anger to admiration.
Russian words to know in case of an emergency
Fingers crossed, you never find yourself in an emergency situation, but even so, it’s good to have a few phrases on hand if you do.
- Помогите! [Pomogite!] = Help!
- Осторожно! [Ostorozhno!] = Watch out!
- Мне нужен врач [Mne nuzhen vrach] = I need a doctor
- полицейский участок [policejskij uchastok] = The police station
- скорая [skoraya] = An ambulance
It’s also important to know that the Russian emergency number (like 911) is 112. However, because American culture is well-known in Russia, even if you say ‘call 911,’ most locals and other tourists will know what you mean.
Other great Russian translation resources
Learning Russian on your own can be highly intimidating. Even the alphabet looks complicated, and without the proper pronunciation, you may find yourself flustered very early on. To avoid this, we recommend enlisting the help of one of the following online resources.
For those just starting out and who want to learn basic Russian phrases, Duolingo is the perfect resource. Not only is it free to use, but it also keeps things fun and engaging. When you’re waiting in line or on the bus, pop on a five minutes lesson, and you’ll be surprised how fast you start picking up basic Russian phrases.
This is a must-watch Youtube channel before traveling to Russia. Not only will you learn Russian with the aid of a natural speaker, but some of Cafe Russian‘s videos showcase Russian culture and things not to do while you’re visiting.
Russian for Free
If you’re looking to take a deeper dive into Russian compared to learning a few basic phrases, Russian for Free is a great tool that won’t cost you a penny. It’s set up similar to lessons you’d find in school, complete with dialogues, audio, and grammar exercises. It’s not as fancy or fun as the others, so if you’re not looking to get serious, other resources may be a better fit.
There you have it. Now all that’s left to do is get to studying and start planning your next trip to Russia!