The Russian Alphabet | A Complete Guide (with Quiz & FREE Flashcards)

The Russian Alphabet | The Only Guide You Need

So you’ve decided to take the brave step to learn Russian? Good for you. The first thing you need to overcome is learning the Russian alphabet.

Learn the Russian Alphabet

Whilst it may appear intimidating at first, it doesn’t take all that long to get your head around.

Some sounds even mimic their English equivalents, which is great news! Others, unfortunately, do not.

We therefore need to pay careful attention when learning the Russian alphabet.

No need to fear though, because as always we’ve got a plethora of excellent content for you. In this article we’ll cover the alphabet, a little bit of history, pronunciation and even teach you your first Russian words.

Without further ado…

Russian Alphabet | The History

Russian Alphabet | The Letters

Russian Alphabet | Pronunciation

Russian Alphabet | Consonants

Russian Alphabet | Vowels

Russian Alphabet | The Soft Sign Ь

Russian Alphabet | The Hard Sign Ъ

Russian Alphabet | Stress Marks

Russian Alphabet | Difficult Letters: Ы and Х

Russian Alphabet | Common Mistakes

Russian Alphabet | First Words

Russian Alphabet | Five Fun Facts

Russian Alphabet | Quiz

Russian Alphabet | FAQ’s

Learn the Russian Alphabet and more with Flexi Classes

The History of the Russian Alphabet

The Russian alphabet (a.k.a russkaya azbuka) has existed in its modern form, with 33 letters, since 1918.

A previous version of the alphabet with 35 letters was approved in 1917.

The history of the alphabet’s letters begins with a pair of brothers from the Byzantine empire, Cyril and Methodius, who invented the first Slavic alphabet.

Russian Alphabet

During the emergence of Christianity and the construction of churches in the once-mighty Central European state of Great Moravia, a need arose for a writing system that could help record theological texts.

The King of Moravia asked for help from Byzantine Emperor Michael III, who in turn sent two preachers, Cyril and Methodius, to Moravia to assist with the matter. 

In the year 863AD, the brothers proclaimed that they had created the alphabet.

The alphabet was named after their younger brother – Cyrillic.

The precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet was another system of letters also invented by the brothers – the Glagolitic alphabet.

With the help of the Cyrillic alphabet, Cyril and Methodius translated the Holy Scripture and a number of liturgical books from Greek into Slavic tongues.

The Orthodox Church proclaimed the brothers to be miracle workers. People were finally granted letters and with them, the opportunity to read and write.

DID YOU KNOW | In the very beginning, there were as many as 43 letters in the alphabet, but over time 4 more letters were added and 14 were removed, bringing us to our current 33. Initially, the letters appeared more similar to those of Greek, but they evolved over time to become the way they look today.

In 1918, the alphabet changed again when several unused letters were removed from it. As a result, 33 remained.

This is the Russian alphabet we use to this day.

Russian Alphabet | The Letters

The Russian alphabet contains 33 letters. It comprises 21 consonants, 10 vowels, and two modifier letters that have no sound – a hard sign and a soft sign.

The lowercase versions of many letters appear somewhat different when italicised, so the following table provides both versions.

To see how these letters are pronounced, check out the table in the next chapter.

NumberPrintedItalicisedName in Russian
1А аА аа
2Б бБ ббэ
3В вВ ввэ
4Г гГ ггэ
5Д дД ддэ
6Е еЕ ее
7Ё ёЁ ёё
8Ж жЖ жжэ
9З зЗ ззэ
10И иИ ии
11Й йЙ йи краткое (lit. “short и”)
12К кК кка
13Л лЛ лэл
14М мМ мэм
15Н нН нэн
16О оО оо
17П пП ппэ
18Р рР рэр
19С сС сэс
20Т тТ ттэ
21У уУ уу
22Ф фФ фэф
23Х хХ хха
24Ц цЦ ццэ
25Ч чЧ ччэ
26Ш шШ шша
27Щ щЩ щща
28ъЪ ътвёрдый знак (lit. “hard sign”)
29ыЫ ыы
30ьЬ ьмягкий знак (lit. “soft sign”)
31Э эЭ ээ
32Ю юЮ юю
33Я яЯ яя

Russian Alphabet | Pronunciation

So we’ve seen the letters, but how on earth do we pronounce them?

TOP TIP | Remember what we said before, some of the letters mimic English, such as M and K, but many others do not, so don’t be fooled by these false friends!

Let’s take a look together.

LetterEnglish TransliterationPronunciationAnalogous English Sounds
[a]aahthe a in “far”, “bar”
[б]bbehthe b in “but”, “bit”
[в]vvehthe v in “voice”, “vine”
[г]ggehthe g in “got”, “game”
[д]ddehthe d in “day”, “do”
[е]ye or eyehthe ye in “yet”, “year”
[ё]yoyothe yo in “your”, “york”
[ж]zhzhehthe s in “pleasure”, “measure”
[з]zzehthe z in “zone”, “zoo”
[и]ieethe ee in “meet”, “bee
[й]i or y or jee kratkoyeh (lit. short ee)the y in “boy”, “toy
[к]kkahthe k in “skate”, “kitten”
[л]lehlthe l in “look”, “lamp”
[м]mehmthe m in “may”, “map”
[н]nehnthe n in “not”, “normal”
[о]o or aohthe o in “sport”, “folk” or the o in “Morocco”
[п]ppehthe p in “spoon”, “pet”
[р]rehrthe r in “rock”, “roll”
[с]sehsthe s in “smoke”, “see”
[т]ttehthe t in “tie”, “tip”
[у]uoothe oo in “noon”, “boot”
[ф]fehfthe f in “foot”, “face”
[х]kh or hkhahthe ch in the Scottish “loch
[ц]tstsehthe ts in “boots”, “sits
[ч]chchehthe ch in “chair”, “chip”
[ш]shshahthe sh in “shell”, “shut”
[щ]schschyahthe sh in “Danish”, “sheep”
[ъ]tvyordiy znahk (lit. hard sign)no sound
[ы]yithe i in “kick”, “ill”
[ь]myagkeey znahk (lit. soft sign)no sound
[э]eehthe e in “bet”, “met”
[ю]yuyoothe u in “use”, “usual”
[я]yayahthe ya in “yard”, the yu in “yummy”

Russian Alphabet | Consonants

Russian has 21 consonants which are б, в, г, д, й, ж, з, к, л, м, н, п, р, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ.

Russian Consonants

Russian is, for the most part, a phonetic language.

That means that unlike in English, it’s usually easy to tell how a word is pronounced simply based on just how it’s written.

FOR EXAMPLE | Consider how incredibly confusing words like choir or colonel are for non-native English speakers.

Russian is much more intuitive in this regard, and so as a Russian learner you can consider yourself “lucky!”

Paired and Unpaired Consonants

In spite of the above, it wouldn’t be correct to say that Russian is a purely phonetic language.

Many of the basic consonants have two corresponding pronunciations – a hard version and a soft version.

Consonants that have both a hard and soft pronunciation are called “paired” consonants.

Consonants that only ever have one of these two pronunciations are, unsurprisingly, called “unpaired.”

Paired ConsonantsUnpaired Hard ConsonantsUnpaired Soft Consonants
БЖЧ
ВШЩ
ГЦЙ
Д
З
К
Л
М
Н
П
Р
С
Т
Ф
Х

What are the differences between soft sounds and hard sounds?

We’ll get to that below when discussing the soft sign.

Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

Another way to group consonants is based on whether they’re voiced or voiceless.

Voicing refers to the vibration of the vocal cords when producing a sound.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, here’s a very simple trick.

Touch your throat lightly and pronounce the English letter D. Now pronounce the letter T. Feel the difference?

Great, now you understand voicing! In Russian, all consonants are either voiced or unvoiced.

Voiced ConsonantsUnvoiced Consonants
БП
ВФ
ГК
ДТ
ЖС
ЗХ
ЙЦ
ЛЧ
МШ
НЩ
Р

Out of the 21 consonants in Russian, 12 also fit into voiced-unvoiced pairs.

In each of these pairs the sounds are basically the same, except that one is voiced and the other is not.

You don’t need to remember these, but it’s good to know they exist:

[Д-Т], [Б-П], [В-Ф], [Г-К], [З-С], [Ж-Ш] 

TOP TIP | Sometimes voiced consonants become unvoiced when appearing at the end of a word. But that’s a topic for another day!

Russian Alphabet | Vowels

Russian has 10 vowels: а, о, у, ы, э, я, е, ё, ю, и.

Vowels can be divided into “hard” and “soft” vowels.

Note that technically speaking the vowels themselves are neither hard nor soft, but they get this designation because of how they affect the consonant that precedes them by making it become hard or soft.

“Hard” Vowels“Soft” Vowels
АЯ
ЭЕ
ЫИ
ОЁ
УЮ

Here too, most of the vowels fit into “pairs”:

[А-Я], [Э-Е], [О-Ё], [У-Ю]

Russian Vowels

If you reference the transliterations in the pronunciation section above, you’ll notice that within each pair the distinguishing factor is that soft vowels start with the letter Y.

The two letters that don’t fit into a pair are Ы and Й. 

Taking into consideration that we have four vowel pairs and an additional two “loners,” we can also think of Russian as having ten vowel letters, but only six distinct vowel sounds.

Russian Alphabet | The Soft Sign Ь

One of the ways to indicate the softness of consonants is by using the Russian soft sign Ь.

It may look a bit like a small English b, but actually it doesn’t produce any sound on its own.

Don’t forget: the equivalent of the English b in Russian is Б/б.

Softness in Russian refers to the palatalisation of a consonant sound.

DID YOU KNOW | Palatalisation is when the tongue moves closer to the palate which is located at the top of the mouth.

Russian Hard and Soft Sound

What does this sound like in practice? Consider the following two words: Мат (floor-mat) and Мать (mother).

Notice how they are written the same except for the soft sign at the end of the second one.

The т in Мат sounds a bit harsher, similar to the t in matter.

The т in Мать however is softer, and somewhat resembles the t in Matilda.

There are other examples in English too, for example the n in noon is hard, while the n in onion is soft.

Palatalisation however is not an obvious feature of English speech, and so the concept can be a bit difficult to grasp at first.

Additionally, the difference between the soft and hard versions tends to be a less clear for some consonants.

But rest assured, with enough practice many Russian learners develop an ear for the difference between soft and hard sounds, and also learn how to reproduce them correctly!

Russian Alphabet | The Hard Sign Ъ

Similarly to the soft sign, the hard sign Ъ does not produce any sound on its own.

Russian Hard and Soft Sound

In fact, its main purpose in the language is to serve as a buffer.

Recall that soft vowels (я, е, и, ё, ю) typically force the preceding consonant to become soft.

However, there are situations where the preceding consonant should actually remain hard, and this is where Ъ helps separates hard consonants from the soft vowels that follow it when necessary.

Just like the soft sign, the hard sign doesn’t only change how words sound, it can also change their meaning entirely.

FOR EXAMPLE | Let’s take the words the words съел (ate) and сел (sat).

The hard sign only ever appears mid-word and before the vowels е, ё, ю, я. The hard sign is much rarer than the soft sign, but you will encounter it occasionally so it’s good to remember why it’s there.

Russian Alphabet | Stress Marks

Stress can fall on any syllable in Russian words, and part of learning a new word is also learning where its stress falls.

This makes reading texts out loud a bit trickier for learners, but stress marks are here to help!

Stress marks will always appear above the vowel of the syllable where the stress falls in a given word. 

Take for example the phrase “Я люблю яблоки” which means “I love apples.”

It should be read as Ya lyub-lyu ya-bla-ki, with the stress in люблю being on the last syllable lyu, and the stress in яблоки on the first syllable ya.

When written with stress marks it would appear as “Я люблю́ я́блоки.”

Stress marks typically appear in language learning materials and certain types of literature, but they’re rarely used in other contexts. In general, stress in Russian is a rather complicated topic which merits it’s own separate discussion.

Russian Alphabet | Difficult Sounds: Ы and Х

The Letter “Ы”

One of the most “beloved” letters of the Russian alphabet among learners is the letter Ы.

Those scare quotes are there for a reason. Most learners will sooner or later feel like it’s physically impossible for them to pronounce the sound Ы, which has become the butt of many jokes:

“To pronounce the an Ы, imagine that you were hit in the stomach!”

“Where you can find an Ы sound in nature? In the cries of a wounded seal.”

Learn the Russian Alphabet

The thing is, when Russian children have trouble learning certain sounds, those are usually Р, Л, Ш, Щ.

The letter Ы very rarely causes difficulties, a testament to the fact that our vocal apparatus is perfectly suited for pronouncing this tricky sound!

It takes some work, but you’ll get there. Practice makes perfect after all and the same applies with Ы

The Letter “Х”

Another tricky letter for English-speaking learners is Х.

Learn Russian | X

The sound would be filed under the velar fricative category. Whilst there is nothing quite like it in English though you can find similar sounds in many other languages.

English speakers might be tempted to pronounce it like the English letter H, but this is not the way to go. Instead, try to mimic the “ch” in the Scottish Loch.

You have good motivation to master this one quickly, as it appears in one of the most famous Russian words, Хорошо́ (kha-ra-sho), which means “good.”

Russian Alphabet | Common Mistakes

Here are two common mistakes Russian learners make.

If you understand and perfect these early on, you’re a step ahead.

Sneaky Letters

Russian Sounds
Watch out for these letters in Russian

Some Cyrillic letters resemble Latin letters but are actually associated with completely different sounds.

The ones you want to watch out for are:

  • Р – Pronounced like the r in restaurant
  • Н – Pronounced like the n in night
  • C – Pronounced like the s in saw (and never like the c in cat)
  • У – Pronounced like the oo in noon
  • В – Pronounced like the v in vault 
Russian Letters
K, M, T and N are your friends

Some letters are a bit less sneaky than those above, but can still throw you off:

  • И – Pronounced like the ee in meet
  • Я – Pronounced like the ya in yard

Next time you see the word Пушкин written somewhere, hopefully your mind will go straight to the famous Russian playwright Pushkin, and not Pyshkih. 

Pronouncing The Letter О

Stress plays a very important role in the pronunciation of the letter О.

An unstressed О will always be pronounced like an А.

The best example of this is the Russian word for milk, молоко́.

Rather than being read as mo-lo-ko, the correct pronunciation is ma-la-ko.

Челове́к – person (che-la-vek)

Similarly, be very careful with оди́н, which is the number one. It is read as a-din, and not o-din.

Russian Alphabet | First Words

Here’s a few common Russian words to help you get started.

Try seeing if you can pronounce them yourself!

Russian WordRomanisationMeaning
Челове́кche-la-vekPerson
Вре́мяvre-myaTime
ДеньdenDay
Рабо́таrah-bo-taJob
Сло́воslo-vaWord
Вопро́сva-prosQuestion
Жизньzhee-zenLife
ДругdroogFriend
Го́родgo-radCity
Маши́наma-shee-naCar

Our first words in Russian!

Now grab a post-it note, write them down and stick them around your house or office.

Repetition is key.

Russian Alphabet | Five Fun Facts

Your head may well be fried if you’ve gotten this far – so let’s lighten it up a bit.

Here are some fun facts about the Russian alphabet we think you’ll enjoy.

Fun Fact #1

Today, the Cyrillic script (and its various modified forms) is used as the writing system of many languages inside and outside the Slavic language family.

One of the benefits of learning to read Russian is that afterwards you’ll also mostly be able to read (though perhaps not understand) modern texts in languages as diverse as Bulgarian, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Mongolian!

Fun Fact #2

We don’t know much about the personalities of each Russian letter, but we can make some guesses about a few of them.

Russian Letters

Who are the popular kids? Among consonants “П” appears in the largest number of words, and among vowels “O” does.

Who are the loners? The consonant “Й” and the vowel “Ы” appear in the least number of words.

Are any of them scared of taking on leadership roles? Not a single word begin with the letter “Ь” or “Ъ”.

Fun Fact #3

The youngest letter of the alphabet Ё has its very own birthday on November 18th!

It was invented by Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova on November 18, 1783.

Her idea slowly caught on, and the writer and historian N.M. Karamzin later drew attention to the letter and helped popularise it.

Like all younger siblings, even today Ё sometimes struggles to get the respect it deserves, with many people (and publishers!) choosing to instead just use the letter [Е] to represent its sound. 

Fun Fact #4

Except for a handful of words, nearly all of the words that begin with the letter “a” are loanwords from other langauges.

Some examples are а́дрес (address), а́втор (author), and а́нгел (angel).

There is one exception that stands out however – а́збука (alphabet) is a Russian word.

Fun Fact #5

There is no single letter in the Russian alphabet that directly corresponds to the English H, often a source of confusion when discussing loan words.

For example, you have almost certainly been wondering, how do Russian speakers talk about eating a hot dog in Manhattan?

Simply put, the H turns into a Х, and so:

  • Manhattan becomes Манхэ́ттен (Mankhetten)
  • Hot Dog becomes Хот-дог (Khot-dog)

But wait! What if a Russian speaker wants to eat a Hamburger in Hollywood?

Naturally, in this case the H turns into a Г, and so:

  • Hollywood becomes Голливу́д (Gollivud)
  • Hamburger becomes Га́мбургер (Gamburger)

That’s plenty of information for you to get your teeth stuck into isn’t it?!

Now, how much did you remember?

Let’s find out…

Russian Alphabet | Quiz

Our quiz is nice and quick – with just 20 questions in total and your results are instantly shown on screen.

How many out of the 20 can you get right? Tell us how well you did in the comments below 😎

Welcome to your Russian Alphabet Quiz! Let's get going...

First Name
Email
What is the sound for Ц ?
What is the sound for Б ?
What is the sound for Г ?
How do you pronounce молоко́ in Russian?
What is the sound for ж ?
What is the sound for M ?
What is the youngest letter in the Russian Alphabet?
What is the sound for T ?
What denotes the hard sign in Russian?
What is the sound for B ?
What is the sound for H ?
How many Letters are in the Russian Alphabet?
How many Consonants are in the Russian Alphabet?
What is the sound for Р ?
What is the sound for З ?
What is the sound for ф ?
What is the sound for Д ?
How many Vowels are in the Russian Alphabet?
What is the sound for C ?
What is the sound for щ ?

Enjoy studying new languages? So do we!

We think you’ll also enjoy getting stuck into these wonderful languages too:

Learn languages 24/7 with LTL Flexi Classes

Russian Alphabet | FAQ’s

How many letters in the Russian alphabet?

The Russian alphabet has 33 letters, and this has been the case since 1918.

A previous version of the alphabet with 35 letters was approved in 1917.

How many consonants in the Russian alphabet?

Russian has 21 consonants which are б, в, г, д, й, ж, з, к, л, м, н, п, р, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ

How many vowels in the Russian Alphabet?

Russian has 10 vowels: а, о, у, ы, э, я, е, ё, ю, и.

Why is the X letter in Russian hard for English speakers to pronounce?

Simply because the sound doesn’t exist in English.

The sound would be filed under the velar fricative category.

Whilst there is nothing quite like it in English, you can find similar sounds in many other languages.

English speakers might be tempted to pronounce it like the English letter H, but this is not the way to go.

Instead, try to mimic the “ch” in the Scottish Loch.

What is the youngest letter in the Russian Alphabet?

The youngest letter of the alphabet is Ё.

DID YOU KNOW | Ё has its very own birthday on November 18th!

It was invented by Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova on November 18, 1783.

Her idea slowly caught on, and the writer and historian N.M. Karamzin later drew attention to the letter and helped popularise it.

How many letters did the Russian Alphabet have in previous times?

In the very beginning, there were as many as 43 letters in the alphabet, but over time 4 more letters were added and 14 were removed, bringing us to our current 33.

Initially, the letters appeared more similar to those of Greek, but they changed over time to become the way they look today.

What is Ь in Russian?

It may look a bit like a small English b, but actually it doesn’t produce any sound on its own.

Don’t forget: the equivalent of the English b in Russian is Б/б.

Softness in Russian refers to the palatalisation of a consonant sound.

DID YOU KNOW | Palatalisation is when the tongue moves closer to the palate which is located at the top of the mouth.

What does this sound like in practice? Consider the following two words: Мат (floor-mat) and Мать (mother).

Notice how they are written the same except for the soft sign at the end of the second one.

The т in Мат sounds a bit harsher, similar to the t in matter.

The т in Мать however is softer, and somewhat resembles the t in Matilda.

What is Ъ in Russian?

Similarly to the soft sign, the hard sign Ъ does not produce any sound on its own.

In fact, its main purpose in the language is to serve as a buffer.

Recall that soft vowels (я, е, и, ё, ю) typically force the preceding consonant to become soft.

However, there are situations where the preceding consonant should actually remain hard, and this is where Ъ helps separates hard consonants from the soft vowels that follow it when necessary.

Just like the soft sign, the hard sign doesn’t only change how words sound, it can also change their meaning entirely.

Which letters in Russian look like English letters but are pronounced differently?

The ones you want to watch out for are:

Р – Pronounced like the r in restaurant

Н – Pronounced like the n in night

C – Pronounced like the s in saw (and never like the c in cat)

У – Pronounced like the oo in noon

В – Pronounced like the v in vault 

What is O in Russian sometimes pronounced an A?

Stress plays a very important role in the pronunciation of the letter О.

An unstressed О will always be pronounced like an А.

The best example of this is the Russian word for milk, молоко́.

Rather than being read as mo-lo-ko, the correct pronunciation is ma-la-ko.

Let’s take another example:

Челове́к – person (che-la-vek)

Similarly be very careful with оди́н, which is the number one. It is read as a-din, and not o-din.

Want More From LTL?

FANCY LEARNING RUSSIAN? Check out our online Russian courses here.

We offer a 7 day free trial to all online students where you can study Russian 24/7.

To top it all off, it certainly doesn’t just end with Russian, in fact we also teach: 

Come and be a part of our amazing community.

I'm Interested In:
.
Ask us a question!
  • LTL Avatar Irene Magnosi
    Irene Magnosi , Irene Magnosi

    Welcome to LTL Language School!

    How can I help you?