In my opinion, there's no dodging it - you have to learn to read Cyrillic if you plan to spend any amount of time in Russia. The Russian alphabet is much less daunting than it looks, consisting as it does of only 40 characters, many the same as the Roman alphabet. The difficulty comes not from the strange characters like the 'backwards R' (Я), easily learned as pronounced 'ya', but rather from the familiar Roman characters that are pronounced differently than we are used to - for instance, Р is an 'R' sound and С is an 'S' sound (as in РОССЯ - Rossiya - or as we spell it, Russia).

Once you've got your head around those, it's plain sailiing, and it opens up a whole new world to you. Suddenly, previously incomprehensible words such as РЕСТОРАН are identifiable not as American film directors, but rather as places to get some grub (РЕСТОРАН = RESTAURANT).

A few days of learning the characters beforehand will mean you hit the ground running. When you arrive in Russia, spend some time reading every sign you can and seek out the anglicised words you can identify in Cyrillic. Your comprehension will soon grow to a point where you can stop mouthing the words out loud. This Russian alphabet guide is as good as any to set you in the right direction.

A fairly comprehensive Russian phrasebook is essential, too; this Lonely Planet Russian Language Guide is a worthwhile purchase. If you ever have difficulties with pronunciation or being understood, you can simply hand over the book and point to the correct phrase. Whether you'll understand the answer, though, is another question - which is what makes travel in Russia so exhilarating and frustrating in equal portions!

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