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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Russian Language: Dictionaries and Grammar

The Cyrillic Alphabet

Did you know that the Cyrillic alphabet is closely based on the Greek alphabet? Saint Cyril, a Greek monk, along with Methodius brought written language to the Christian converts around 860, to what is now Russia.  Cyrillic was first written in the early Middle Ages, in ustav (large letters), and later a progression of cursive forms developed into what was used in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great had the letters simplified and regularized, and some letters which were appropriate more to Greek phonology were removed from the alphabet. In 1917-1918 there was another reform of the Cyrillic alphabet, during which more letters were removed, bringing us to the alphabet used today. Omniglot provides an overview with charts showing the alphabet at various times.

You can find more information on the website, Face of Russia, which was a series on PBS which premiered in 1998, and based on the interpretations of Russia's cultural history.

Another more detailed and scholarly explanation of the Cyrillic alphabet's history can be found in the linked article by Paul Cubberley.

Typing in Russian

Need to type in Russian but don't have your keyboard set up for Cyrillic, or don't have access to a Cyrillic keyboard?  This website, Type Russian letters without a Russian keyboard, could help.  It is set up so that the Russian letters will match up in most cases, phonetically with your English keyboard.

The website does not, however, have a translation feature.

Transliteration of Cyrillic

Although there are several possible variations in the way certain institutions and countries romanize Cyrillic text, the Library of Congress has made available scanned texts of the 1997 edition of the ALA-LC Romanization Tables: Transliteration Schemes for Non-Roman Scripts.  The Russian Romanization table as well as a Church Slavic Romanization table are provided, and you can find all of their Romanization tables here.

You may also be interested in learning about the 2010 procedural guidelines for proposed new or revised Romanization tables, which apply for the revision of existing tables and the creation of new Romanization tables. is a great tool for transliteration from Russian Cyrillic to Latin and visa versa.


Taken from Omniglot.

Russian is an Eastern Slavic language spoken mainly in Russia and many other countries by about 260 million people, 150 million of whom are native speakers. Russian is an official language in Russian, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and in a number of other countries, territories and international organisations, including Tajikistan, Moldova, Gagauzia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and the UN. It is also recognised as a minority language in Romania, Finland, Norway, Armenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The earliest known writing in Russia dates from the 10th century and was found at Novgorod. The main languages written on them in an early version of the Cyrillic alphabet were Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic. There are also some texts in Finnish, Latin and Greek.

Russian started appearing in writing regularly during the reign of Peter the Great (a.k.a. Peter I) (1672-1725) who introduced a revised alphabet and encouraged authors to use a literary style closer to their spoken language. The dialect of Moscow was used as the basis for written Russian.

Russian literature started to flower during the 19th century when Tolstoi, Dostoyevskii, Gogol and Pushkin were active. During the Soviet era knowledge of the Russian language was wide spread though the subjects authors could write about were restricted.

Russian at a glance

  • Native name: русский язык [ˈruskʲɪj jɪˈzɨk]
  • Linguistic affliation: Indo-European, Balto-Slavic, Slavic, East Slavic
  • Number of speakers: c. 260 million
  • Spoken in: Russian, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Romania, Finland, Norway, Armenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc.
  • First written: 10th century AD
  • Writing system: Cyrillic alphabet
  • Status: official language in Russian, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and many other countries and territories.

Russian Alphabet

Language Learning Sites

(image from

The Foreign Service Institute has digitized many language-learning packets, including the one used for Russian which can be viewed as well as downloaded.  The Russian FAST documents you will find are from 1995, but they include useful and relevant vocabulary, a pronunciation guide (all stressed syllables are marked), and useful phrases.  There are also audio files which can be listened to, and downloaded.  The packets provide cultural information as well as tips for those planning on travelling to Russia.

The Frequency Dictionary for Russian provides a modern frequency list, which can be downloaded from the linked website.  It provides a list including about 32000 words with frequency greater than 1 instance per million (ipm) words, as well as a shorter list of the 5000 most frequently used words.  You can find out more information about the Frequency Dictionary on their website, and you will also find links at the bottom of the page for frequency lists of verbs of motion, words describing size, and words describing emotion/state of being.

Russian Word of the Day provides daily updates with different Russian words and, and includes a brief explanation of the word, etymology, declensions, and examples of usage.  It is aimed at first and second-year students of Russian, but could also be beneficial to students in the higher levels. You can view the words chronologically as they are posted, or view the words in alphabetical order.  Along the right side under the heading "Russian Trivia," there is a helpful list of links to the different spelling rules as well as a few grammatical irregularities.  Further down along the same column, you will find that the Russian Word of the Day vocabulary has also been subdivided by category.

The blog Learning Russian, by Bruce Dumes - a student of Russian language at UCLA, discusses everything from recipes, videos (he posts short videos and full-length movies, sometimes subbed, other times dubbed, and occasionally neither), to grammar points and etymology.  He also links many other helpful sites, blogs, and recommended books for those interested in learning the Russian language, as well as the culture.

UCLA's Language Materials Project is no longer funded, but is accessible through For less commonly taught languages, the cite allows users to search for language learning materials by selecting a language from a drop-down list, type of material you are searching for (such as dictionaries, phrase books, grammar books, text books, cultural material, picture books, or audio/visual materials) and the target audience age-range and learning level. You will then be given a list of citations including publisher information and how to obtain the material.  Although this resource does not actually provide you with the material, it is a good way to discover useful materials that could benefit your language study experience.

Russian 101 gives basic vocabulary and phrases that would be relevant in different situations, including time-telling, food-related inquiries, driving and transportation (bus, train, etc.), and emergency phrases. is another introduction to Russian, including explanations of the different parts of speech, and how to distinguiesh adverbs from adjectives, among other things.


The Oxford Russian Dictionary. The 2007 Fourth edition dictionary includes revisions reflecting the changes in the Russian language over the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain.  It includes 185,000 words and phrases and 290,000 translations, modern idioms, colloquial terms, and useful abbreviations and acronyms.

You can also look up other Russian-English/English-Russian dictionaries by (Library of Congress) Subject Heading terms such as:

  • Russian language AND Dictionaries AND English
  • English language AND Dictionaries AND Russian

"Учебный словарь глагольных форм русского языка: для изучающих русский язык как иностранный"  (or in Romanized text:  "Uchebnyi slovar' glagol'nykh form russkogo iazyka: dlia izuchaiushchikh russkii iazyk kak inostrannyi") is a Russian language dictionary of verb forms for non-native learners.

You can also look up similar items by subject, using the Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Russian language AND Verb AND Dictionaries
  • Russian language AND Textbooks for foreign speakers

The Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language "Толковый словарь русского языка" (or "Tolkovyi slovar' russkogo iazyka" in Romanized text) does not include English translations of words, 4 volumes total

If you are interested in historical Russian terms, the Dictionary of Russian historical terms from the eleventh century to 1917  by Pushkarev, S. G. (Sergeĭ Germanovich),