Welcome to Moscow — in Russian, Москв (say "Mahsk-VAH," with the stress on the second syllable). Important note: in our texts, we'll mark stressed syllables in Russian by underlining their vowel (but usually not for words of one syllable only!). Keep in mind that "real" Russian texts would never mark stress in this way. Russians may sometimes mark stresses using an acute accent mark (as in "â"), but only for instructional purposes, or in (relatively rare) cases when the stress is ambiguous or unusual, even for native speakers. Otherwise, Russians simply know where the stress falls on a given word.
This is Red Square, with the Kremlin wall on the right, Lenin's Mausoleum in the center, and St. Basil's Cathedral in the distance. Since we'll be focusing on the Soviet era throughout the first two textbooks, we'll be visiting many relevant sites in Moscow as we study Russian grammar (don't worry, the focus will shift to Petersburg for Books 3 and 4!).
One of the most distinctive landmarks on Red Square is the Savior Tower - one of many towers that make up the Kremlin wall. In Russian, it's called the Спсская бшня (say: SPAHS-skuh-yuh BAHSH-yuh). It's known for the famous descending chimes with which its bells mark the hour. Take a listen here.
You undoubtedly recognized the iconic onion domes (in Russian, купол - say "koo-pah-LAH" of St. Basil's Cathedral. The Russian for "cathedral" is храм - say "khrahm," where the "kh" is like the German "ch" in "Bach."
You probably didn't know that the "Basil" after whom the cathedral was named was a so-called Holy Fool - a very important type in Russian history. In Russian, he is called Васлий (say "Vah-SEE-lee") — or, to be more precise, Васлий Блажнный ("Vah-SEE-lee Blah-ZHEN-nee") - "Basil the Blessed." Here's an early example of how cases are used in Russian: the form we just gave is in the nominative case, used to simply "name" things. Where English can use the preposition "of" to express possession, as in "The Cathedral of Basil the Blessed," Russian will change the case endings of both Васлий and Блажнный to genitive case endings. This gives us the full Russian term for St. Basil's Cathedral: Храм Васлия Блажнного (say: "Khram Vah-SEE-lee-yah Blah-ZHEN-nuh-vuh."
Opposite the Kremlin and Lenin's Mausoleum is a gargantuan shopping complex called the GUM (pronouced "GOOM") — in Russian, ГУМ. We'll step inside it later — including for some Soviet-style ice cream.
This ornate brick building is the State Historical Museum, also on Red Square. It's easy to assume that Red Square's name has something to do with Communism, but its name long predates the Bolshevik Revolution! The explanation is quite simple: in Russian, what today means "red" (крсная - "KRAHS-nuh-yuh") once meant "beautiful," so the original sense of the name was "Beautiful Square." Meanwhile, the modern Russian term for "beautiful" would be "красвая - "krah-SEE-vuh-yuh."
Lenin's Mausoleum - in Russian, Мавзолей Ленина. Lenin's preserved body (or what's left of it) is still on display here, in a glass sarcophagus.
Can you read the inscription after Day 1's lesson? Лнин - say "LYEN-in." You may notice that the term we just used to describe his mausoleum - Мавзолй Лнина - once again involves a genitive case ending. It is, literally, the mausoleum OF Lenin.
Behind Lenin's mausoleum, at the foot of the Kremlin wall, many other famous Soviet-era figures are buried, including Yuri Gagarin (рий Гагрин), the first human being in outer space. Here too, somewhat inconspicuously, stands the grave of Joseph Stalin (Исиф Стлин), the Soviet dictator who will figure prominently in much of the propaganda we'll see during our studies.
Needless to say, Stalinist propaganda presents a highly idealized picture of Soviet life, particularly before the political "thaw" that followed Stalin's death. In time — particularly when we reach the literature unit at the end of Book 2 — we'll grapple more directly with the historical reality obscured by official propaganda.
Resurrection Gate (Воскреснские вортa "Vuh-skrih-SYEN-skee-yuh vah-roh-tuh"), leading to Red Square. The gates we see today are replicas, built in the 1990's — the originals were demolished in 1931 to make way for large military vehicles to enter Red Square for parades. Take a look at the word вортa — compare how it's written in Russian, and how it's actually pronounced. In short, because of vowel reduction, the Russian "a" isn't always pronounced "ah," nor is Russian "o" always pronounced "oh." While not quite as noticeable, the same is true of Russian "e." HOw these vowels are actually pronounced depends on their position relative to the word's stressed syllable.
Another view of the Kremlin walls, with their many towers. Many old Russian cities have a "kremlin" at their center; in medieval times, the entire city (or at least its most important structures) was contained within fortified walls. This helps explain the literal meaning of the Russian word for "city" — "грод" (pronounced "GOH-ruhd"): the city is thought of as something that is "walled." In fact, this Russian word is cognate with the English word "yard" and "garden!" This example reminds us that Russian is indeed an Indo-European language, like English; so, while cognates may not always be obvious, they do exist!
The large white tower seen in the very center of the Kremlin is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower - the колокольня of Иван Великий. Again, switching to genitive case endings, we get the full Russian name: Колокльня Ивна Велкого. By the way, we'll study the genitive case in more detail later on; today, we're just seeing a few examples.
A panoramic view of the Kremlin, with the Moscow River (Москв-рек) flowing alongside it. As we mentioned, many old Russian cities have their own kremlin, or кремль, but the Москвский Кремль is obviously the most spectacular. Later in this series, we'll venture inside!
day 1: the alphabet and basic pronunciation
Today we'll learn the alphabet and the basic sound of each letter. While Russian's Cyrillic alphabet is itself often enough to scare students away from Russian, most find it surprisingly easy to learn once they try: most of the letters are familiar in one way or another. Best of all: generally speaking, Russian follows a "one letter, one sound" principle, meaning that a given letter will always sound more or less the same. In this sense, Russian spelling and pronunciation is much more straightforward than English or French, for example. Of course, there are some exceptions, but we'll get to those over the next two days.
Below are links to the day's materials, such as audio files, worksheets (for use as daily written homework assignments), and slides (intended primarily for use in the classroom). Check in every day for these materials, and for additional examples and explanations, study advice, cultural tidbits, and music: as we learn about the Soviet era through our textbook, we'll gain insight into its collapse by surveying late Soviet (and early post-Soviet) rock music. Before you know it, you'll even be able to understand some of the lyrics and sing along.
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what to expect from Russian
Welcome to the Russian language! Brace yourself: it's not exactly the easiest language in the world to learn. But, rest assured: if you work at it, you can indeed become competent or, in time, even fluent in Russian. Along the way, you'll learn a language (and mindset) that is likely quite different from your own, one that challenges you to rethink the world and talk about it using an entirely new idiom. Well, not entirely new; after all, Russian is an Indo-European language, making it related, though quite distantly, to English, and to other languages you may have studied, such as French or German. But languages like the latter are, of course, much closer to English: many of their words and constructions are very familiar. A more distant relative to English, Russian will seem oddly familiar in some ways, and completely bizarre in others. In this sense, the Russian language is a lot like Russia itself.
The idea behind these textbooks was to make no secret of the challenges Russian presents. Often, taking something that is complex and trying to present it as simple will only make it harder, and cause a lot of confusion in the long term. We'll try to present Russian clearly, but not simplistically. After all, Russian does follow rules, which are best learned in a more or less systematic fashion. These books will strive to present this system as clearly as possible, step by step, and we'll go from learning the alphabet to reading Dostoevsky. Instead of showing you the easy stuff now, and paving the way for dreadful revelations in the future, I'll try to give a more or less complete account of each topic as we come to it — and though this might make for a bit more work in the short run, it should pay dividends in the long run. A good example is the verb conjugation system used throughout these texts: we will not pretend that all verbs work the same, because they simply do not. There's no escaping it! So, we'll classify all verbs by their actual conjugation patterns, and by the end of Book 2 we'll have seen practically all of these "verb types" (a reference table is provided in the back of each textbook). So, yes — more work to do up front, but once you've done it, you'll have an overview of every kind of verb you can possibly encounter in Russian. We'll also be able to conveniently "tag" every new verb we come across, which will greatly simplify matters when we begin reading actual works of literature.
This series was written with serious students in mind — students whose goal is genuine understanding of the Russian language and culture, and eventual fluency — not simply "learning a bit of Russian." There are plenty of other books out there if the extent of your ambition is a smattering of tourist vocabulary. Assuming you're serious about Russian, you should feel confident that these books will provide you with in-depth coverage of Russian grammar, along with a solid introduction to Russian literature, culture, and even some history. By working through the course, you should at a minimum become competent at reading Russian. Of course, speaking Russian effortlessly is a greater challenge. Take advantage of every opportunity to interact with native speakers; consume every bit of Russian music, movies, and podcasts you can get your hands on; and work through the books with an instructor or tutor whenever possible. In any case, I do believe (from personal experience) that the only way to really master Russian is to spend time in Russia itself. Nothing will subsitute for an immersion experience; this is true of any language, but especially true of one as challenging as Russian. So, if there's any possibility of visiting or studying in Russia, I'd begin considering it now. And don't be dissuaded by any negative news coverage; Russia (or, at the very least, its two "capital cities," Moscow and St. Petersburg) is very welcoming to those who wish to learn about it.
using the book and site
This series of textbooks, and the accompanying site, assumes that you have no prior knowledge of Russian or Russia. As we learn the language, we'll toss in all kinds of information about Russia and Russian culture. So, check the page for each day's lesson for a variety of additional tidbits. As you progress through the series, you should begin to feel a lot more familiar with how Russians live and think, and be well prepared to visit Russia or, ideally, live and study there for an extended period.
Each volume in the series corresponds to one semester's worth of intensive college-level study of Russian, and each "day" in the book corresponds to a daily lesson, as presented in a 50-minute class period. The information is presented in a kind of "lecture" format, in that it provides rather thorough prose explanations of the grammar at hand, along with examples and reference tables. Exercises include the fill-in-the-blank variety, for which there is an answer key in the back of the book, and conversational excercises, usually with several prompts or topics of conversation. There is also a worksheet provided for each daily lesson, which corresponds to the written work assigned for each day in a college course. These are based on the exercises in the book, but will often have different examples. No answer key is provided for these, so that they can be used as class assignments.
The site will also include some advice for students, based on my own experience as a learner of Russian, and on questions and concerns from former students. The first bit of advice involves the focus of these books, which is unquestionably on grammar. While I've tried to provide vocabulary and expressions that I believe to be highly useful, my organizing principle was rolling out some very difficult grammar in a clear, seqential fashion. So, you may want to supplement these books with books geared toward more casual learners — books that are dialogue-driven and include recordings, for example (not to mention beginners' podcasts, learning apps, etc.). These can undoubtedly be very useful, but, by the same token, you may notice that they tend to skirt a lot of the actual grammar, or radically simplify it (misleadingly, at times). The good news is that you don't have to choose between these two types of books. Get a few books with various approaches — the more examples you see and hear, the better. Hopefully, the rigorous knowledge of grammar you glean from this series will help you fill in the gaps in any dialogue-driven texts you use, making your use of them a lot more productive.
Because of the focus on grammar, this series might certainly be called "challenging" (just as Russian is undeniably a challenging language). Keep in mind that each "day" corresponds to a day in a college course; if you're studying independently, it may of course take you more than a day to absorb a particularly difficult lesson. As you progress, you may find it reassuring to step back and take a look at some much simpler material in another book. The same goes for the series itself — once you've been through, say, twenty lessons, back up and read it back through from the beginning. Things that struck you as completely bizarre the first time around will likely seem a lot clearer when you revisit them. Repetition is essential for language learning.
the first of many rock songs
The posters in the book (and on this site) will give us a good sense of "official" Soviet imagery and language. Needless to say, they tell only one side of the story, as we'll eventually see when we get to the readings in Book 2. In any case, for fun, and for a sense of the attitudes of young musicians and their fans who grew up under the Soviet regime, we'll sample some "classic" Russian rock from the late Soviet period and the 1990's, a time many Russians perceived as chaotic, full of both promise and uncertainty. We'll learn quite a bit about how Russian rock music slowly emerged from the "underground," after long being prohibited. Many of these songs would be familiar to almost any Russian, especially those by groups like Viktor Tsoi's Кин, of which we'll hear many.
Today's band, Наутлус Помплиус, was very well known in its own day; nowadays, many likely know them because their songs were featured in the ever-popular film Брат (which even included an appearance by the lead singer, Вчеслав Бутсов). This song speaks to a certain disillusionment with American (and Western) consumerism; in the waning years of the Soviet Union, some consumer products (like the blue jeans mentioned in the song) were making their way into Russia, but often came at a high price. Here, the singer suggests that these jeans are too small for him, and that the lure of such "forbidden fruit" had lost its power.
Listening to music, and singing along (if you dare), is a great way to learn Russian, especially when it comes to hearing the subtleties of pronunciation and stress. Try finding some groups you like; it will help motivate you not only to listen, but to begin figuring out what they're singing about.
When we've learned more Russian (later in Book 1), we'll gloss the vocabulary in each song so you can better appreciate the original meaning. For now, we'll give a rough translation. The title of today's song gives an example of how English words are transcribed using Russian letters (and sounds). Try singing the refrain while reading the Russian letters, and pronuncing the "Russian version" of this English phrase. Can you spot two other words of English origin in the text? How exactly do Russians pronounce them?
Note that this song is usually listed under the title Прощльное письм, or Послднее письм; here, we'll list it as most people would likely refer to it!
Click on the title for a link to the music.
Goodbye, Americaby Nautilus Pompilius
When all the songs fall silent
That I don't know,
In the harsh air will shout
My last paper steamship.
Goodbye America, ooo,
Where I've never been.
Grab a banjo
And play me a farewell song.
Your worn jeans
Have grown too small for me.
We've been taught for so long
To love your forbidden fruit.
Goodbye America, ooo,
Where I'll never be.
Will I ever hear a song
That I'll remember forever?
Гудбй, AмрикаНаутлус Помплиус
Когд умлкнут все псни,
Котрых я не зню,
В трпком вздухе кркнет
Послдний мой бумжный парохд.
Гудбй Амрика, ооо,
Где я не был никогд.
Сыгрй мне на прощнье.
Мне стли слшком мал
Тво тртые джнсы.
Нас так длго учли
Любть тво запртные плод.
Гудбй Амрика, ооо,
Где я не бду никогд.
Услшу ли псню,
Котрую запмню навсегд.