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7 Things You Didn’t Know About The Russian Language

Russian is the native language of 150 million people and the second language of 110 million. The 8th most spoken language in the world has a fascinating history, and a bright future.

The Russian Federation is a BRIC country, that is, a “peripheral” country with a fastly growing influence. And, as the British Council’s Languages for the Future report points out:

“The increase in ethnic and regional conflicts in the post-Soviet era, together with Russia’s role as a global economic power, has meant that Russian continues to be an important language for diplomacy and security.”

While being influential at an economic and geopolitical scale, Russia ranks low on the English Proficiency Index, which means that the request for Russian translation and interpretation services is as high as it is constant. This opens bilingual Russian speakers to a world of professional opportunities.

But, before you plan your training as a translator, or even start your Russian learning journey, here are seven things you probably didn’t know about Russian, but that will help you get familiar with the language and its surrounding culture:

Greek Alphabet

Partly due to Russia’s geographical location, size and commercial relevance, and a myriad of other historical and cultural factors, the Russian language developed with an influx of various Middle Eastern and European languages.

The Russian language include selements of Yiddish, French, Arabic, Dutch, English and many others. Russian has an alphabet quite similar to the Greek. This was intentional.

Saints Methodius and Cyril used Greek as a basis to develop a written form of the Slavic languages, in order to facilitate the translation of religious texts.

But Russian does not have Greek roots. Morphemes and syntax differ greatly. The only other similarity between Greek and Russian is that both languages are stressed (having pronunciation affected by stress marks) and inflected (both languages work with a system of cases).

No Articles

There are no “артикли” (“articles”) in Russian. That is, there is no “a”/”the”.
When necessary, these words are replaced by:

  • “один” (“one”)
  • “некий” (“some kind of”)
  • “какой-то” (“some kind of”)

Russian Literature Influenced Science

Russian literature is one of the most influential in the world. And, according to a 2015 study, the leaders of the Russian canon are also often cited in scientific texts.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was mentioned 7,800 across languages and disciplines, Leo Tolstoy was mentioned 6,400 times, while Alexander Pushkin had 5,200 mentions. But that’s not where the list ends.

One would assume that the texts where these authors are cited come mostly from the social sciences. That’s true, but these disciplines aren’t the only source:

“For instance, The Brothers Karamazov was cited by chemical researchers. Phrases from the novel were used in an article entitled “Protein Chains as Literary Text” with the purpose of proving the efficiency of the methods for analyzing repeating segments in proteins. Interestingly, two out of three mathematical works citing Leo Tolstoy are dedicated to his mathematical metaphors in the fourth volume of War and Peace.”

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot was often cited by neurologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, due to its evocative depictions of epilepsy, an illness Dostoyevsky himself suffered.

“The Language of Space”

The Space Race between The United States and the Soviet Union was one of the most exciting sagas of the 20th Century. Russian-born Yuri Gagarin was the first human to ever journey into outer space. This milestone was outperformed by the United States, when the Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

The influence of the Soviet Union and then of the Russian Federation on space travel is undeniable and ongoing. Roscosmos is one of the five space agencies involved in the operation of the International Space Station, and half of the station is operated by Russia and its control panels and instructive signs are written in Russian. To guarantee prompt operations and fast communication, astronauts must be multilingual. One of the languages they’ve got to learn is Russian.

Commander Tim Peake, the first Briton to visit the International Space Station said that the hardest part of becoming an astronaut was learning Russian:

“Learning Russian has been the single most difficult aspect of my training. I love systems, I love diagrams, I’m not a natural linguist and Russian for me has been particularly hard. It’s probably the part that I’ve found the toughest, and at times, the least enjoyable.”

Russian Cursive Can Be Incredibly Hard to Read

According to the Russian Wikibook (a collaborative effort to make a comprehensive online textbook for Russian learners), “Russian culture highly regards cursive, similar to the way Chinese culture exalts good calligraphy.”

But Russian cursive is very hard to read. In some cases, even for Russians. Most Russian learners have seen this image online:

Russian Writing

This is what Russians call “медицинский почерк” (“medical handwriting”). While the handwriting of doctors has a similar reputation across cultures, this is an extreme example reinforcing that prejudice.

1,100 Hours

The United States Intelligence Community has referred to Russian as a “hard target” language, considering both its difficulty to acquire and its critical role in U.S. world policy.

The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State has referred to Russian as a Category III Language. That is, a language that is difficult to very difficult for native English speakers to learn, due to its significant linguistic differences with English.
They estimate that achieving intermediate fluency in Russian would require approximately 1,100 hours of immersion.

Learn Russian with LinguaLift

Good Friends & False Friends

It has been estimated that 1 in every 10 Russian words resembles an English one. For instance:

  • проблема (“problema”) means “problem”
  • кофе (“kofi”) is “coffee”
  • свитер (“sviter“) means “sweater”
  • автомобиль (“avtomobil’”) means “automobile”
  • мотор (“motor”) means just what you would assume
  • фильтр (“fil’tr”) means “filter”

But be aware that Russian is also plagued with false friends. Some examples are:

  • Аккуратный (“akuratni”), which sounds similar to “accurate”, but it actually means “neat”
  • Артист (“artist”), which is not the word for a painter, but for an actor
  • Кабинет (“kabinet”), which is not a cabinet, but an office
  • “Репетиция” (pronounced “repetitsiya”), which is not a repetition,but a rehearsal
  • “Аудитория” (pronounced “auditoriya”), which is not an auditorium, but an audience

Are you interested in learning Russian? You’re in the right place.

About the author:

Sean Patrick Hopwood, CEO and President of, has carefully but aggressively guided his company to global success, providing excellent language solutions worldwide.

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