Russian Language Blog

Learning Russian for Travel Posted by on Aug 20, 2010 in Russian for beginners

So far summer 2010 hasn’t been the best for travel to Russia. In addition to the usual visa-related headache, we have a heat wave, drought, wildfires, hurricane-force winds, and low air quality because of all the fires. «Такое вот лето фиговое.» [Such rubbish summer.] A once-popular and often-cited line from an old song – «у природы нет плохой погоды» [nature doesn’t have bad weather] – might finally be put to rest.

While we hope and pray that this unfortunate streak stops soon and Russians get some much-needed «передышка» [respite], we the tourists-to-be and the learners of Russian, have been given more time to learn at least some travel Russian. Today’s guest blogger did not have any extra time though and had to travel to Ukraine on a short notice. Ukraine, by the way, is one of the countries where knowledge of Russian can be especially handy.

Mark Resnicoff is a freelance writer and photographer living in a small city northwest of Detroit, Michigan. He traveled to Ukraine in 2006 to visit Kiev and Chernobyl, which is his obsession. Mark provides updated information about Chernobyl in his website/blog and will visit the area again in October to work on a personal project. This is his story (and pictures).


Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and couldn’t speak their language (or very little of it)? The last time I did this was «четыре года назад» [four years ago] when I took a short trip to Ukraine. The main purpose of this trip was to visit «Чернобыль» [Chernobyl] (a subject for a future post), but I also wanted to see «Киев» [Kiev] because «семья моего отца» [my father’s family] came from there.

I find it fascinating how the Russian and Ukrainian languages are uniquely intermingled in Kiev. This is not only because Kiev was «столица бывшей советской республики» [the capital of a former Soviet republic], but also due to «расположение города» [the city’s location] along a divide between the country’s Ukrainian-centric west and it’s more Russian-dominant east and south.

My trip was planned hastily, so I didn’t have much time to learn a language. I had previously tinkered with Russian since it can be used in many countries, but never seriously studied the language. The best I could do before my trip was learn «кириллица» [the Cyrillic alphabet] and a few key «слова и фразы» [words and phrases].

My adventure really began after getting through customs «в международном аэропорту Киева» [at Kiev’s international airport]. Since I couldn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, I arranged with my hotel to have a driver meet me at the airport. That was smart because I was able to ignore the throngs of obnoxious cab drivers throwing themselves at all the unsuspecting tourists.

Behind the exuberant crush of humanity, I spotted a heavy-set man holding a sign with my name. I quickly discovered that my driver, as well as most people in Kiev, did not speak English. Therefore, we had «очень тихая поездка в центр города» [a very quiet ride into the city center]. I felt myself «неловко» [awkward], but at least I knew he would get me to my hotel.

You don’t need to know another language to enjoy a good «парад» [parade]. Central Kiev’s Khreschatik Street is closed to automobile traffic on most weekends. I did not know it at the time, but this parade of high school students was part of the city’s «День Европы» [Day of Europe] and «День защиты детей» [Day of Protection of Children] celebrations.

Due to spending time in Chernobyl, I only spent one full day in Kiev, but made the most of my time by seeing as many sights as possible, including Khreschatik Street, St. Michael’s Monastery, St. Catherine’s Cathedral, St. Andrew’s Church and several public squares.  However, it was difficult not being able to speak with people.

Yes, I was able to read some signs and buy a few things in the shops, but it was awkward at best, and to be honest, somewhat «затруднительно» [embarrassing].  Overall, I had a good time, but the experience taught me that «конечно, всегда лучше говорить на местном языке при посещении иностранного государства» [of course, it is always better to speak the native language when visiting a foreign country].

«Бессарабский рынок» [Bessarabsky Market] in central Kiev. Everything looked so good. I remember seeing the meat counter, but didn’t know it was «баранина» [lamb]. I was able to sound out the word on the sign, but did not have a «словарь» [dictionary] with me.

I will be returning to Kiev and Chernobyl this October for a longer visit. I can only imagine how being able to interact with people will make this trip so much better and completely different than the last one. «Я не могу свободно разговаривать на русском языке» [I may not be fluent in Russian], but at least this time I will be better prepared.

«Андреевский спуск» [Andrew’s Descent], also known as Andriivsky Uzviz, is one of the oldest streets in Kiev and a great place «купить сувениры» [to buy souvenirs] from local artists that line «булыжная дорога» [the cobblestone road]. As I walked down this street toward «Подил район» [the Podil district], I wondered if I was tracing the steps «моих предков» [of my ancestors]. I must remember to stop by «дом Михаила Булгакова» [the Mikhail Bulgakov house] (now a museum) located on this street when I am in Kiev this October.

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  1. Little Miss Moi:

    Great post! I lived in Kyiv for almost three years, leaving in March last year. This post brought back many fond memories!

    (Not sure where St Catherine’s Cathedral is though – perhaps you mean St Sofia’s, with the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky outside it..?)

  2. anna_w:

    Very interesting post, thanks for sharing

  3. josefina:

    Thank you, Mark! This was a great post and really made me want to go back and visit Kiev once more. I was only there for a day – just like you – when traveling through Ukraine with my mother in the summer of 2004. At that time my knowlegde of the Russian language was very limited. This time I would be able to talk to people – maybe even make some friends!

    Спасибо! И я бы тоже хотела посетить город Чернобыль… так интересно!

  4. Mark:

    @Little Miss Moi – You are correct, I did mean St. Sophia’s Cathedral. I have no idea why I wrote St. Catherines. My memory must be fading as I get older. 🙂

    @Josephina – Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine spending only one day in a large city like Kiev. It’s almost inconceivable. I can’t wait to get back there in October. I hope you are getting settled in and comfortable in Berkeley!

  5. Lois Thorpe:

    If you have more time in Kyiv this fall, be sure to go out to the Architectural Museum in Peregova (usually referred to as just “Peregova”). The fall colors are beautiful and it’s just on the outskirts of the city. It’s a beautiful outdoor park with replicas of old homes from different regions of Ukraine.

    The World War II Museum, Родина Мать, and the Pechersk Lavra are definitely sites worth your time. And a walk through Marianski Park is always refreshing.

    And if you really have time, Sophia Park in Uman (3 hours south of Kyiv) is also spectacular in the fall.

  6. Natalie:

    Я очень скучаю по Киеве! Прошлим летом я там была и мне очень понравился. Андреевский спуск очень кравсивый. Моя гостиница была недалеко от этого района.

    (I hope all my Russian was correct…)

  7. Glavkos:

    Я никогда не ездил в Киевe , но я хотел бы посетить этот город. У меня есть хороший друг там, с кем я говорю на русском через Skype.

  8. Russia SIM Card:

    I traveled by Trans-Siberian Railroad over 1000 km. it was nice exp. with different nature view, culture. I am also agree to say this is world’s longest railroad.