Before we went to Russia, some members of my clan studied up on Cyrillic enough to know that ресторан means restaurant and is pronounced rest-oh-rahn in Russian. That didn’t stop us from referring to restaurants in St. Petersburg as pecktopahs, because it’s just very difficult to stop a family like mine from doing anything. But it did help us find somewhere to eat.
Our trip was much enhanced by the aid of a Russian-speaking niece, but since she seemed to feel an odd compulsion to attend classes from time to time, we went out on our own in St. Petersburg a bit. And knowing the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet helped us to avoid getting hopelessly lost most of the time.
The Cyrillic alphabet is not even that difficult to learn, especially if you’re a little word geeky. Take ресторан. If you know that р=r, c=s and н=n, it gets a lot easier:
Of course it gets more complicated than that, with letters like ж and Щ, which don’t really have Roman equivalents. And even after you translate the word into Roman letters, it’s still a Russian word. Even so, it works surprisingly well for some common words and proper nouns.
водка банк Африка
vodka bank Africa
(This is very handy if you want to go to the bank to get money to buy vodka to take to Africa. Which, in fact, my sister did. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, or series of stories. If you want to hear them you can go to Madagascar and ask her, but don’t expect her to share the vodka. I’m betting she drank it already.)
Anyway, here’s a great list of simple Russian-English cognates of that sort. Practice those, and after a while you may be able to figure out why Эрмитаж = Hermitage and Санкт-Петербурга = St. Peterburg. And, believe me, if you find yourself in the Russian метро system, you’ll find it very valuable to be able to decipher the signs in the stations.
If you’re looking for more formal instruction, check out this book. I found it very useful.
A book, by the way, is a Книг or roughly kneeg. This is not particularly obvious. A chocolate blini, on the other hand, is a Блин шоколадом, or roughly bleen shzockolaht, which is rather more parallel. (Mmmm. Blini.)
The point is this. You can’t read the Книг unless you really know Russian. But you can eat the Блин шоколадом if you can point to it on the menu.