Whether you’re hoping to discover the Russian countryside via the Transsiberian railway between Moscow and Vladivostok, or you’re hoping to dip into a bit of Russian culture in St Petersburg and Lake Baikal, it’s always best to do a bit of research before hopping on the plane! You shouldn’t plan any visits to Russia without learning at least a minimum about the country, including its language, culture, and history, and not just the most popular bars where you can go to drink vodka. Thankfully, Superprof is here to give you a quick recap of everything you need to know before boarding the plane.

History of the Russian Language

The Roman Emperor Charles-Quint used to say, “Speak Spanish with God, French with friends, German with your enemies, and Italian with women.” And where does that leave the Russian language?

The Novgorod Codex is the first written record of ancient Slav, modern Russian’s ancestral grandfather

The Russian language family

Russia is part of the Slavic family of languages, which is itself part of the Indo-European language family (where Germanic and Romance languages are also members). Russian is a Slavic language, but there are also many others, including:

  • Polish
  • Bulgarian
  • Ukrainian
  • Serbo-Croat
  • Czech
  • Belorussian
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Macedonian

It is possible to redivide the Slavic language family into 3 subgroups. Russian then belongs to the Eastern Slavic language group, along with Belarussian and Ukrainian.

The origins of the Russian language

The first traces of Russian writing, which will eventually evolve to become modern Russian, date from the end of the 10th century, after the conversion to Christianity of the region. Originally, it was liturgical Slavon, also called "Old Slavic" or "Old Bulgarian". As with most modern languages, there are differences between the languages written and spoken forms. Many phonological and morphological simplifications occurred as the language evolved. Slavonic remained the literary form of the language until the end of the 17th century. It was during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great that old Slavon was finally retired and replaced with the modern Russian that we know. The many new technological, scientific, cultural and political concepts of the period made it necessary to create a new written language. This language, of course, still has many similarities from old Slavonic, but also borrows from vernacular language and other Western languages.

The prolific Russian literature scene

In sharp contrast to other Western cultures, Russia did not have a written culture until the 19th century, and even then it was only religious tracts that were written. The oldest example of Russian writing seems to be the Novgorod Codex. Ilya Serman stated in 1992 :

“In Russia, it is impossible to study any trace of humanism, of the Reformation, or of the Renaissance.”

‘But why?’, you ask me. It was because of the Tatar Yoke. The concepts of princely chivalry popular in the rest of Europe was prohibited in Russia.

The origins of Russian literature

It was not until the arrival of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century that literature began to be allowed. Peter the Great was responsible for much cultural development! Above all, poetry marks this century. Gavril Derjavine is one of the first Russian poets. Other authors such as Antioch Kantemir, Vasily Trediakovski, and Mikhail Lomonosov form the first Russian literary wave.

A great author, although not the most approachable works, Dostoevsky.

The birth of the Russian novel

More and more Western novels were being translated into Russian, notably those of Abbé Prévost of France. The novel gave rise to a lot of debate in Russia, between conservative factions, who do not see the point in reading for enjoyment, and the progressives. It was during the nineteenth century that the first Russian authors flourished through the romantic movement. This was the true golden age of Russian literature. We thus find authors such as:

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (we recommend The Idiot to start, the author is not easy to read),
  • Alexander Pushkin,
  • Nicolas Gogol
  • or Leo Tolstoy (often studied in Russian classes).

But Russian literature is not just the romantics, it is also the symbolism and futurist works written by Leonid Andreyev, Anna Akhmatova or Ivan Bunin. Russian literary output suffers a dip when Stalin comes to power, forcing many writers into exile. However, it’s since undergone a renaissance in the late twentieth century and authors like Alexandra Marinina, Daria Dontsova or Vladimir Sorokine have helped create a revival of Russian literature.

What are the best authors to study to discover Russian literature?

Do you want to give yourself a crash course on Russian literature? Here are a few authors we’d suggest for a start:

  • Ivan Turgenev: very easy to read, he doesn’t get lost in philosophical questioning or too many side details. We’d advise starting with First Love or Fathers and Sons. Both deal with a generational story,
  • Leo Tolstoy: Years after its publication, many people still read Anna Karenina. And for good reason, have you seen the film, the balls, the dresses, the drama? However, despite all the glitz, at its heart, Anna Karenina is also the spiritual search for a lost young woman,
  • Anton Chekhov: as an author who mainly deals with current events, he’s sometimes an easy place to start. We recommend My Life, a first-person account of a young nobleman who prefers to choose a physical job rather than an office job,
  • Nadejda Dourova: unknown to many in the US, this figure wrote her memoirs, A Tsar’s Knight, where she recounts her career in the army and her travels. It's easy to read and so inspiring!
  • Andrei Kurkov: ok, he is Ukrainian but he writes in Russian so it counts! The Penguins Never Get Cold is an absurd epic between crooked businessmen, war survivors, and obituaries that have been written in advance. As you may have guessed, Kurkov, with his dark humor, highlights the absurdities of the former USSR.

If you google "russian classes london", you will find a Russian teacher to help you choose the best books to learn Russian.

Do you need a visa to go to Russia?

In order to travel to Russia, whether it’s to Siberia or Irkutsk, or via a cruise on the Neva, a Russian visa is required. The tourist visa costs $123 and is valid for 30 days (it must be requested at most 30 days before departure). Longer visas are available for higher costs if necessary.

How can you get a Russian visa?

Applying for a visa is necessary for all Americans who wish to visit Russia, no matter the length or purpose of their visit. The shortest tourist visa available is good for 30 days, which will generally be sufficient. There are several steps to complete to go about receiving your visa:

  • Complete the Russian visa form: you will find it online of the consular department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. You can complete it online, but will then need to print it out and sign. Best to get a couple extra copies too!
  • Provide a standard passport photo (4.5 cm high and 3.5 cm wide, also known, confusingly, as 2” x 2”),
  • Have a passport: Make sure it’s valid for six months after the end date of your visa and that there are at least two blank pages left for the visa. If not, you will need to apply for a new passport, which can take several weeks to months.
  • Have an invitation from a Russian: also called a “voucher" or ‘visa support document’. This is a tourist invitation that you can ask for from the hotel where you plan to stay.

Once all documents are together, present your file at a Russian embassy or consulate, together with a money order for the visa fees. Are you planning to visit Mongolia by the Trans-Siberian during your stay? You’ll need to apply for a double entry visa.

You’ll need to be organized in order to get your Russian visa!

What should you do when you arrive in Russia?

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy is not finished once you arrive in Russia. Upon arrival at the international airport, you will be asked:

  • To fill in the immigration form: one part has to be returned immediately, the other is to keep safe - you will need to hand it in to leave the country,
  • To register your visa: you must have your visa stamped at the establishment in which you are staying. Attention, the cheaper establishments do not always offer this service. You may have to go through an agency. Another difficulty: if you decide to visit several places in Russia, you will have to stamp your visa in each establishment where you stay for more than three days.

Protocol and administrative guidelines are no laughing matter for the Russians. Remember to keep copies of your official documents and to make sure you comply with all guidelines.

Another piece of advice: don’t wait until the last day on your visa to leave the country, you can never be too careful!

Is it better to arrive in Moscow or St Petersburg?

Before you travel to Russia, let’s just correct a common misunderstanding - life in Moscow or St Petersburg is much cheaper than in New York City, for example, and budget is no excuse not to visit both cities!

What’s the difference between the two cities?

Moscow is the capital of Russia and is many times the size of New York City. It would be impossible to visit without using the city’s subway at least a few times. Flights are also fairly affordable - prices to fly New York- Moscow direct start at less than $500 round trip! Food, transport, and hotels all cost 30% less than in the United States. Moscow is also well known as a city for partying. The inhabitants are considered friendlier, but also more superficial than in Saint Petersburg. However, there is also plenty of culture present in Moscow - the Kremlin, the red square, the Lenin mausoleum, Saint Basil's Cathedral ... Saint Petersburg is known as the capital of the Tsars. It is less extensive than its big sister and a bit smaller than New York City. The architectural style is, of course, similar to that of Moscow, but some differences are notable. St. Petersburg appears colder than Moscow with its highly organized architecture and its lack of small alleys and dead ends that make getting lost in Moscow a frequent but charming occurrence. The northern capital has remained close to its European heritage and its inhabitants are perceived as discreet and more cloistered than their Muscovite neighbors. But St. Petersburg is above all a center for Russian culture with its many churches and art museums, chocolate or torture, and especially its Hermitage Museum!

So what’s better Moscow or St Petersburg?

If you can’t make up your mind, why not do both?

The best way to make your own opinions about modern Russia is to visit both cities. Many tour operators will offer you a "Russia tour" that can include the two main cities. And if you do not want to go through a travel agency, it’s worth noting that you can travel between the two cities on the mythical Trans-Siberian railway. Why not hop on board! You could also take a cruise on the Volga to reach the two cities, which are only 600 kilometers apart. You will be able to discover pretty villages like Goritsy or the island of Kiji along the way. Finally, it’s easy to find low-cost flights that fly between the two cities for less than $40! It’s hard to find an excuse… In summary: 

  • Since Russia is a country where English is not widely spoken, it is better to know at least some of the basics of Russian before leaving. The history of the language can help you understand its origins and learn the subtleties.
  • Russian literature has a rich history and even if your Russian isn’t quite up to reading novels in the original Russian, reading the stories will allow you to soak up the culture of the country before going there.
  • The visa process is a bit more complicated than in most other countries. Think about it and plan for a month of admin before leaving the US for Russia.
  • Struggling to make a choice between Moscow and Saint Petersburg? Why not visit both!

The top 10 famous Russians you need to know!

To know Russia well and to be able to take advantage of everything you can learn by taking Russian courses online, you must also be interested in learning about the country’s culture. Our list of the top Russians to know covers everything from literature to the history of the country, but also its politicians, its geography, its regions, its cinema ... All important subjects and good things to be familiar with before you travel! Here is a small top 10 list of the Russians, men and women, who have helped form Russia in the modern and historical eras:

  1. Leo Tolstoy
  2. Yuri Gagarin
  3. Mstislav Rostropovich
  4. Maria Sharapova
  5. Natalia Vodianova
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. Igor Stravinsky
  8. Yelena Isinbayeva
  9. Irina Shayk
  10. Piotr Tchaikovsky
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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.