Learning Russian in St. Petersburg Part 1: Cyrillic 101

From Latin alphabet point of view, Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet, tends to be deceiving and confusing as it contains of Latin letters may be pronounced differently and some curious-look letters, such as the inverted version of “R”, “N”, the Greek “Phi”, double-sided “K” and more. Reading the letters feels like playing detectives; somebody needs to break those “codes”.

Observing road signs, street names, neon signs, museum signage is like an orientation day of literature studies without the need to attend classes in the future. For those who love foreign languages, it is a very fun activity.


McDonald St.Petersburg

I specifically love capturing signboards, neon signs of international retail chains written in non-Latin alphabet. I think it’s part of a nation’s unique identity. When the bus passed McDonald’s building with Cyrillic neon sign on top, I hurriedly press the button before it’s too late. So did my cousin DKLo and my dad.

Capturing a local alphabet on a public property or take a selfie with it as a background is a shout out of “I was there” without vandalizing public facilities. Same story as getting a non-English or non-Latin newspaper whenever possible. I didn’t have the chance to get Russian newspaper though, but I got a Russian version of Tallinn tourism booklet in Estonia instead.


traffic light
first Russian word learned from a road sign

Solely having an international driving license is not enough for foreigners to drive in Russia since most road signs are in Cyrillic. Although there are some well-known signage, I think it’s easy to get lost without some basic knowledge of the alphabet. Driving, reading a map and breaking the codes of Cyrillic simultaneously is a pretty tough job to do.

After repeatedly seeing the same signs from the bus window, DKLo and I finally found out that the Cyrillic “C” is the Latin “S”, “P” is “R”, “H” is “N”, “Π” is “P”, “Φ” is “F”, while the Cyrillic “O”, “T”, “E”, “A” remain the same meaning as the Latin ones. So, we concluded that “CTOΠ” is “STOP”, “РЕСТОРАН” is “RESTORAN” (restaurant) and “КАФЕ” is “CAFE”. Dear Russian readers, please correct us if we get them wrong.


the salad is just salad, but the bottled mineral water is something

We were so happy that we were able guess a few road signs on the first day of the tour. However, our basic knowledge still didn’t help us to read the waiter’s name tag who served us in the restaurant since there was no Latin conversion below it.

If the tag says, “Горбачев”, how could we call him? Let’s guess. Gamma – O – R – …sigh….whatever.

There was no way to call his name spontaneously without asking him directly. The restaurant management seemed to forget that they were serving international tourists who possibly do not speak Russian. A minor thing like name tag was obviously overlooked.


russian entrance exit

“ВЫХОД” (exit) and “ВХОД” (entrance) were the most common signs in museums. DKLo was so curious that he asked Mariana, our tour guide, how to spell both words while waiting for other tour member to finish their toilet time.


Come again? I wasn’t sure what I heard. I couldn’t differentiate the sound of Russian “entrance” and “exit” when pronounced. Neither could DKLo. It remained that way, even after Mariana repeated both pronunciations as he kindly requested.

Deep inside my heart, I hope that DKLo would stop asking the same thing for the third time as it may piss her off. Well, actually she was a nice lady, but I just didn’t want to ruin her mood. He eventually read my mind and gave up. Those were too hard to handle.


the only building I saw from Soviet Union era
the only building from the Soviet Union era I passed

Although I know the general meaning “CCCP” printed on t-shirts, passport holders, hats, wallets etc, followed with the hammer and sickle symbol as something fashionable yet striking at the same time (after the downfall of Soviet Union), all my life I had never realized that it’s a Cyrillic alphabet.

But after a quick lesson from the road signs, I instantly know that the “CCCP” engraved on a mirror case in the souvenir shop is “SSSR” in Latin, whose abbreviation is “Sojúz Sovétskix Socialistíčeskix Respúblik” or “Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик” or The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in English. Please note that I copied and pasted the abbreviation thing from Wikipedia, not my own conclusion from the quick lesson.

Call me a retard. Call me tacky. I don’t care. I’m just happy that I finally get some extra knowledge from my St. Petersburg trip. Classrooms are not the only place to learn, after all.


8 thoughts on “Learning Russian in St. Petersburg Part 1: Cyrillic 101

  1. Love your observations… and I can SO relate to your story!! Having crossed the border from Mongolia to Siberia, then taking the train westward and spending weeks all over Russia, I had plenty of time to pick up the language. Very useful – especially at the info desk at Moscow’s train station, where the clerk seemed unable to converse in (or in true Soviet style, resistant to) English. But I never tired of saying words like “PECTOPAH” instead of restaurant – even when I knew the correct pronunciation. Much hilarity ensued in conversation!


      1. I know, great fun with word play!
        Not a business trip; rather an adventurous pan-Asian journey, including SE Asia, Korea, Nepal, Mongolia and Russia. Now hoping to see more of Indonesia too 😉 But hey, you travel too! (quite the bug, isn’t it?)


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