In Russia you'll find yourself face to face with both a foreign language and also a foreign alphabet! Although some people in hotels will speak some English, most places you will find that few people speak English and you will be best able to enjoy Russia either with a guide/interpreter and/or with some basic understanding of Russian yourself.
At first glance, the Russian language seems very very different to English. This is, of course, because Russian uses a different alphabet - the Cyrillic alphabet. However, don't panic! Although many of the letters in the Russian alphabet look different, the sounds are generally very similar to English, and the language follows the same familiar structure of English or French or German or Spanish - it isn't as wildly different a language to what we are used to as is, for example, Chinese! It is surprisingly easy to learn the alphabet, and once you know the alphabet, it is very easy to read Russian, because the language is phonetic - if you can read the word, you can pronounce it (not like English, which has very complicated rules of pronounciation that we just take for granted, but which are difficult for foreigners when they learn our language!).
If you'd like to see the Cyrillic alphabet, and maybe even learn to read and pronounce it, we have prepared some helpful pages on learning to read and pronounce Russian.
As a visitor to Russia, you do not need to be at all fluent in speaking Russian. However, you might enjoy the fun of learning the Russian alphabet, and you would find it helpful to at least know some simple Russian words such as "please" and "thank you", of course. Some people find it very helpful to learn to count in Russian - they say that this helps them when bargaining for a good price!
It is important to realise that fewer people speak English in Russia than can commonly be found in other European tourist destinations. Remember that Russia has only been "opened up" for travel (both for foreigners visiting Russia, and for Russians visiting other countries) in the last ten or so years, and you'll appreciate that foreign speaking visitors are still as much the exception as the rule. Many Russian people are now learning English, but it will be some years before you can conveniently get around the country like you could in other western European countries with no knowledge of the local language. Don't let this discourage you from visiting Russia now - indeed, surely it is much better to experience the country before it becomes too "spoiled" and too commercialised! :)
If you can at least recognise Russian words, then this will be very helpful to you if you choose to walk around a city by yourself. You'll be able to read street signs, and if you go for a ride on the metro, then you can understand the various signs showing station names, where to go to get out to the street, and such like. Of course, if you have an interpreter/guide with you (we can arrange this at very affordable rates) then perhaps you won't need to do this.
If you really want to travel independently, then you probably want to be able to have six categories of language-related knowledge :
This is all readily achievable, but probably not something that the typical tourist would wish to prepare for.
We suggest that you should travel with, as a very minimum, a good phrase book that has Russian expressions shown in both the Cyrillic and also English letter "transliterations" as well as the English translations. This will help you with simple phrases in common situations, and will also include a guide to learning the Russian alphabet.
If you'd like to learn a bit more Russian, then something that has worked very well for us is the "Pimsleur" learning system on cassette. This is very different to any other cassette language course, and it really works (well, at least it has worked for several of the people in our office, learning Russian themselves before they travel). We have more information available about these tapes and why we think they are so good.
For more information on Russian language issues, the Languages on the Web site is a good reference point.
Another good reference source is this one here, part of the Foreign Languages for Travelers web site.
Comments? Suggestions? Send mail to David Rowell firstname.lastname@example.org .