This is probably the main concern when thinking about travelling to Russia, along with safety and the idea that there isn’t much to see in this giant empty frozen land …
Now, let’s ask yourself this : Did you speak French when you travelled to France ? I guess no ! And it went fine, right ?
In Russia it would be exactly the same !
The language barrier is a real thing pretty much anywhere in the world, but it shouldn’t stop you from visiting Russia or anywhere else for the matter.
Moscow, Saint Petersburg and some 2018 World Cup cities like Nizhny Novgorod “have english signs” (sort of), or at least transcript into latin and english menus in popular restaurants. But honestly, for 99% of the country, it’s all in Russian & cyrillic.
Here are a few tips & things you should know to help you get by in Russia (and most of the former Soviet countries) without having to be fluent in Putin’s language.
Last updated : 07/11/2022
Learn the alphabet
Do it, it’s the only easy thing in the Russian language. You will thank me later.
No but seriously, it is quite easy : one letter = one sound. It makes sense, not like French.
Within a couple of hours, you will know it all. Outside of Moscow and St petersburg where signs are most likely not transcript into latin letters, knowing the alphabet will make your life so much easier.
Plus, some words are very similar and even sound exactly the same as in English :
See ! You can already read these words !
Download the right apps
It’s 2022 and I guess you are travelling with your smarphone in your pocket. Download these apps before heading to Russia, they are all in English and very easy to use !
- Yandex Maps to find the right bus or marshrutka (mini bus) to pretty much anywhere in Russia and Russian towns.
- Yandex taxi to book a taxi, no need to bargain a fare with a random taxi driver in the middle of the street.
- The Moscow Metro app, the only one you need not to get lost in the most beautiful but giant metro in the world.
Book your hotels & train tickets online
- You can easily book any sort of accomodation (even dachas!) anywhere in the country on Ostrovok.ru, the best altrnative to Booking.com in Russia It’s very popular in Russia and you can even find hotels in random provincial towns.
- The national railway company RZD’s website has a great English version (might not work in your country without a VPN and right now it is not possible to pay online with a Visa or Mastercard due to the sanctions). Book your train ticket directly on it, it’s easy & you can see the schedules, prices, seats available etc.
Find English speakers on Couchsurfing
The Russian Couchsurfing community is huge and amazing ! There are so many people all across the country registered on it. It breaks all the stereotypes you may have : people are friendly, welcoming, eager to know more about you and to share more about their country. Most of them will go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable and have a great time with them.
Also, what better way to get to know a country & the culture than actually spending time with the locals !
You are probably going to get invited to a banya, to some crazy outdoor adventures, to try a wide range of local food and maybe even make long term friends across the biggest country in the world !
Do Russians really know no english at all ?
English is mandatory in Russian schools from 10 old years and even earlier in private schools.
But chances are that if you ask a random young person in the street – in english – if they speak it, 99% sure they will answer no.
In fact, they probably know more english than you may know Russian.
Middle age and elderly Russians across the country probably don’t know any english for real. It makes sense, Russian was the common language for Soviet citizens.
So why young Russians refuse to speak english ? Same reasons you refuse to speak your few words of russian :
- They are shy
- They are embarrassed
- They are out of practice – Russia isn’t the most touristy country in the world, they have no one to practice with.
- And just like you, they don’t want to be ridiculous !
But give them puppy eyes and beg for help, they will probably make the effort to speak some english !
My personal experience
I was 22 when I first travelled to Russia on my own – the very first time was 7 years earlier, part of a school trip : I choose to study Russian for a couple of years because they were offering a school trip to Moscow. Let’s be honest, I was a terrible student and barely knew the alphabet when I got to Russia’s capital city.
22 was the first number I’ve learned. A friendly babushka in the train taugh it to me. I learned the alphabet while trying to understand the menu in small cafés of provincial Russian towns. It took me a while to dare ordering the famous “herring under a fur coat salad” – Селёдка под шубой … (I found out later it’s also simply called Shuba!)
Now, I’ve spent almost a year in total travelling different corners of the Russian Federation, another year across the South Caucasus and Central Asia, all former Soviet countries.
I’ve learned most of my (still poor in my opinion) russian knowledge by talking with strangers ! From Adygea to the Pamir, from Nagorno Karabakh to Buryatia, I can have broken conversations about plenty of topics, ask my way around, order food and even bargain prices at the market.
Russian is said to be spoken by 258 millions of people all across the former Soviet Union and in the world in general, either as a native or a second language. Some people are fluent like most Russian citizens, others only speak it a bit like women in Pamiri villages, but it doesn’t matter as long as you can communicate other than with smiles and hand gestures, right ?
Learning a few key phrases isn’t that complicated, people will ask you the same questions anyway.
They will notice and highly appreciate your efforts (or think you’re a spy!) and this will open you more doors than you could possibly imagine !
Story time : I once took a 3 days horseridding tour in Kirghizstan (awful, will never do again). One night my 2 newly made companions from Quebec and I ended up staying in a family yurt camp with a bunch of other tourists. No kidding, but everyone was from a French speaking country : Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec and me from France. I left the dinner table while everyone was talking about their daily life back home and went to the yurt I was sleeping in. The mom of the Kirghiz family hosting us was making the beds.
I asked her in Russian if she could speak it – Her face lit up in a second !
– “You speak Russian ?!” she said
“Usually tourists from Europe don’t speak it, and I don’t know English so I never speak with them” she added.
She was genuinely happy! We chatted about random stuffs and her family while finishing to get the beds ready together.
So even if you speak only a little Russian, your grammar mistakes break ears and your accent is awful, it doesn’t matter, people would be glad if you say a few things in a language they feel comfortable speaking.
You don’t need perfect grammar nor thousands of words in your vocabulary.
I’ve met some Babushkas in the North Caucasus who spoke even worse Russian than me. We still managed to chit chat about family etc.
I once read about a French writer who claimed that you basically need “100 words to travel across all the former Soviet Union“. I totally agree with him, you really don’t need much to get by.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
And tell me, would you be interested in a list of words + key phrases that I found useful in my travels across Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union ?