Russian is the lingua franca: across Russia, you'll find people who speak it. Russians are proud of their culturally diverse language. The language is a member of the Slavic language family, with the minor exception being that it is further sub-classified into the East Slavic family, thus being closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian. Although related to other Slavic languages such as Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, to name a few, they are not mutually intelligible, but still share a slight similarity. Russian is considered one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn, mostly because of a very complicated grammar. However, it is less difficult to learn than its other language neighbors, Ukrainian and Belarusian. You will not learn the language in a short time; concentrate on learning some key "courtesy" phrases, and the Cyrillic alphabet (e.g. "ресторан" spells "restoran" in the Roman alphabet, which means "restaurant") so you have a chance to recognize street names, labels and public signs.
Learning Russian is quite hard going, despite Russian sharing an ancestral Indo-European root language with English. The script, Cyrillic, uses many letters of the Latin alphabet but assigns many of them different sounds. The language employs three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), six grammatical cases, and free-fall stress, all of which conspire to make it a difficult prospect for the native English speaker.
English is becoming a requirement in the business world, and many younger Russians in the cities (particularly Moscow or St. Petersburg but also elsewhere) know enough English to communicate. Outside the major urban areas English is generally nonexistent, so take a phrase book and be prepared for slow communication with a lot of interpretive gestures.
Russia has hundreds of languages and claims to support most of them. Soviet linguists documented them in the first few decades of the USSR and made sure they were given Cyrillic writing systems (except Karelian, Veps, Ingrian, Votic and Ter Sami). Some were made local co-official languages. Southern Russia is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic language; the northern with Finnic and Samoyed tounges. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has a few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages. However, a smattering of Russian is will greatly aid travellers no matter where they are.
The Russian Orthodox religion is one of the oldest branches of Christianity in the world and continues to have a very large following, despite having been repressed during the communist period. The language spoken in Russian Orthodox church services is Old Church Slavonic, which differs considerably from modern Russian.
Russia hosts several cultural and educational centers of German, French, English, Spanish, Japanese and other foreign languages.
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