The Ultimate Resource Guide for Learning

The Ultimate Resource Guide for Learning

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Knowledge of the Russian language opens up a vast, diverse world, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains to the expanses of Siberia.  As well as providing the traveller with the lingua franca of over 15 countries and unrecognised territories, the Russian language is intrinsically connected with a rich culture of world-class literature, art, music, cinema, and architecture.  Russian is an excellent choice for a new language to learn, and here we outline exactly how you should go about achieving this goal.



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Knowledge of the Russian language opens up a vast, diverse world, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains to the expanses of Siberia.  As well as providing the traveller with the lingua franca of over 15 countries and unrecognised territories, the Russian language is intrinsically connected with a rich culture of world-class literature, art, music, cinema, and architecture.  Russian is an excellent choice for a new language to learn, and here we outline exactly how you should go about achieving this goal.

How to Use This Guide

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For anyone learning a foreign language, nothing is more important than choosing the right learning resources.  However, as with most languages, the amount of available material for learning Russian is overwhelming, and the quality varies enormously.

So what should you buy?

Most resource guides on the internet simply throw together a vast list of virtually everything related to the language in question, leaving you just as bewildered as you were before.

But you don't need a list - you need a guide!
But you don't need a list - you need a guide!

We know from years of experience that the Pareto principle strongly applies to language learning: you really do get 80% of the results from 20% of the materials you buy.  If we had only known at the time how to separate the textbook-wheat from the chaff, we would have saved a considerable amount of money!

And so we have come up with the solution: an all encompassing, fully-updated handbook, advising you on the best books, videos, websites, podcasts and courses to help you on your path to native-level fluency.

Concept Online Learning

We appreciate that you may not have time to read through the whole of the guide, or may just be looking to improve a particular skills.  So, in order to help you find exactly what you need with ease, we’ve grouped our recommended material into the following colour-coordinated categories:

Grammar & Vocabulary

Reading

Writing

Speaking

Listening

Bonus

Grammar & Vocabulary

Reading

Writing

Speaking

Listening

Bonus

Of course, the material that you use will vastly depend on your current Russian level.  (After all, there's nothing more dispiriting than working through a course that's too easy or too difficult for you!)  That’s why we have divided the guide into three sections: beginners, intermediate, and advanced – showing you exactly what you need for the stage you’re currently at.


Beginners – Grammar & Vocabulary

Grammar and vocabulary are the skeleton around which your language skills develop - you can't do anything until you've got to grips with the basics.  Obviously it's vital to choose the right material for the job.  So let's dive straight in and look at the best textbook on the market for beginners

The New Penguin Russian Course: A Complete Course for Beginners

All-in-all the best course available for beginners. It explains all essential grammar points clearly and thoroughly. Its end-of-chapter exercises and the glossary at the back of the book are useful for building up a good stockpile of basic vocabulary. Should be all you need for grammar to take you up to intermediate level.

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The New Penguin Russian Course: A Complete Course for Beginners

All-in-all the best course available for beginners. It explains all essential grammar points clearly and thoroughly. Its end-of-chapter exercises and the glossary at the back of the book are useful for building up a good stockpile of basic vocabulary. Should be all you need for grammar to take you up to intermediate level.

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Pay no attention to its dreary cover - the Penguin Course is far and away the best Russian textbook on the market for beginners. Every fresh-faced language newcomer has to wade through a sea of trumped-up phrasebooks, masquerading as 'complete courses'. This, however, is the real deal and will get you to a solid B1 level.

Don't expect any cheer or colour though: the style is no-nonsense and could put some people off who need to be eased into a new language. Try to look past this: all of the grammatical points are explained extremely well, with plenty of examples and supplementary exercises. The glossary and grammar tables at the back of the book come in useful if you ever forget any material that you've already covered.

Warning
Unfortunately, many universities still insist on forcing new students to learn Russian with the Rus' series. Don't be fooled by this mammoth textbook: it is poorly organised and very difficult to follow.

Once you have worked your way through all 26 chapters (starting with the Cyrillic alphabet, and culminating in a short story by Chekhov), you should be able to hold your own in simple conversations and read newspapers (with the help of a dictionary).

The only thing that stops this being the ultimate Russian beginner's resource is the lack of accompanying listening exercises. But as we have that covered below, it really isn't too much of a problem at all.

The New Penguin Russian Course - Our Rating
96%

Of course, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t supplement The Penguin Course with other grammar guides. There are plenty of excellent free websites on the internet that go over all the grammar that a beginner needs to learn.

  • Our favourite ones are Russian Lessons and Russian Learn. They are organised in a neat and user-friendly way and are regularly updated.  Although they differ slightly in style and approach, both cover almost exactly the same content as each other, so just choose the one that appeals to you most.
  • Another option is Alpha Dictionary.  If you let your eyes adjust to the garish magenta colour-scheme and the hideous 90s interface, you’ll realise that this is a real gem of a website.  What we particularly like about it is that it actually goes slightly beyond the scope of the Penguin Course and provides explanations for some particularly tricky grammatical topics, such as correctly translating ‘for’ and setting up T-K clause constructions.

The Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs

Solid reference book, detailing the full conjugations of 555 common Russian verbs. Numerous example sentences demonstrate how each verb is used in various contexts (including idoms). There is also a sizeable dictionary of 4,000 additional verbs, showing which conjugation pattern each one follows so you know how to form them correctly. A worthwhile purchase for beginners.

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The Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs

Solid reference book, detailing the full conjugations of 555 common Russian verbs. Numerous example sentences demonstrate how each verb is used in various contexts (including idoms). There is also a sizeable dictionary of 4,000 additional verbs, showing which conjugation pattern each one follows so you know how to form them correctly. A worthwhile purchase for beginners.

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The Russian verb is undoubtedly one of the most challenging aspects of the language – crack it and everything else will soon fall into place.

This is easier said than done.  With a confusing array of conjugation patterns, verbs of motion, and countless irregulars, Russian verbs present a serious challenge to new learners. 

Thankfully, you have at your disposal the Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs. It explains how each verb’s conjugation follows one of six approximate paradigms, and shows that once you have memorised these patterns, the process of learning how to use individual verbs becomes infinitely easier.

It then delivers on its promise and sets out the full conjugations of 555 common verbs, as well as listing the infinitives to 4,000 other ones in the back of the back (with their pattern number next to them).

A warning though: the six-paradigm system is not universal – other books may state that there are really only three conjugation groups, with a few minor subgroups that only differ superficially. Be careful not to get mixed up!

The Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs - Our Rating
86%

There is a very useful online alternative to the Big Silver Book: Cooljugator allows you to simply type an English verb into its search bar, and you get the Russian translation in all of its conjugated forms.

It’s not as comprehensive as a dictionary or the Big Silver Book, so you shouldn’t completely rely on it. But it does have some nice features that make up for this downside: stress indicators, pronunciation hints, related verb lists, etc.

The site’s owner claims that he frequently adds new words to the database so this should become an even more powerful tool in time.


The Russian Grammar Channel

Concise videos on essential topics in Russian grammar from a doctor of Slavic linguistics. Presented in a clear, friendly manner, these are the best videos on YouTube to help beginners get to grips with the nuts and bolts of the language. An excellent supplement to the Penguin Course.

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The Russian Grammar Channel

Concise videos on essential topics in Russian grammar from a doctor of Slavic linguistics. Presented in a clear, friendly manner, these are the best videos on YouTube to help beginners get to grips with the nuts and bolts of the language. An excellent supplement to the Penguin Course.

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There are dozens of Russian language channels on YouTube, but none of them are as focused or as useful as Dr Curtis Ford’s Russian Grammar Channel. 

Dr Ford knows the Russian language inside-out.  But what differentiates his channel from the many other excellent alternatives is his ability to break down complex grammatical concepts into manageable chunks. 

The videos are all professionally produced and use plenty of fresh examples to solidify your knowledge.

The Russian Grammar Channel - Our Rating
83%

The Oxford Russian Dictionary

The undisputed king of dictionary series, the Oxford Russian Dictionary contains half a million words, phrases, and translations. Recent stylistic and layout improvements have made it much easier to find the word you need in its correct context. Fully updated to include contemporary business, technical and computing terminology. The best Russian dictionary out there.

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The Oxford Russian Dictionary

The undisputed king of dictionary series, the Oxford Russian Dictionary contains half a million words, phrases, and translations. Recent stylistic and layout improvements have made it much easier to find the word you need in its correct context. Fully updated to include contemporary business, technical and computing terminology. The best Russian dictionary out there.

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Dictionaries are expensive, so you don’t want to keep buying new ones on a regular basis. For this reason, it makes sense to get the best one available straight away.

With half a million words and phrases, you’ll almost certainly find a translation for whatever it is you need.  One of the best features of the Oxford series (that is often lacking in rival dictionaries) is the care they take to provide translations for words in all of their contexts, including idioms, sayings, and figurative usage. Look up a simple word, like ‘hand’, for instance, and you’ll see what we mean: it can be used in dozens of different ways, and doesn’t just refer to the human appendage.

Warning
Don't be tempted to scrimp and buy the 'Compact' version - it's surprisingly patchy. 

Dictionaries are often criticised for not keeping up to date with modern technology and innovation. The Oxford series, however, are frequently updated, meaning that if you get the most recent edition you can be sure that it will stay relevant for a good few years.

The Oxford Russian Dictionary - Our Rating
89%

Russian Learners' Dictionary: 10,000 Words in Frequency Order

Lists the 10,000 most frequently used Russian words (with English translations), starting from most commonly used downwards. The first 1,500 also come with example sentences. Excellent resource for filling in any important gaps in your vocabulary. Can also be used to provide a rough estimate of your vocabulary size.

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Russian Learners' Dictionary: 10,000 Words in Frequency Order

Lists the 10,000 most frequently used Russian words (with English translations), starting from most commonly used downwards. The first 1,500 also come with example sentences. Excellent resource for filling in any important gaps in your vocabulary. Can also be used to provide a rough estimate of your vocabulary size.

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When you consider that the average native speaker knows about 20-35,000 words, it’s clear that this book will do wonders for your Russian if you have the stamina to get to the end.

The dictionary allows you to follow a systematic programme of vocabulary learning – master the most common words and then move on to the rarer ones.

Minimum Vocabulary Required for Each CEFR Level

A1 Level:
0
Words
A2 Level:
0
Words
B1 Level:
0
Words
B2 Level:
0
Words
C1 Level:
0
Words
C2 Level:
0
Words

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One negative, however, is that it only gives limited definitions. You will probably want to cross-check with another dictionary to make sure you know what each word means across different contexts.

Russian Learners' Dictionary - Our Rating
82%

Anki

Anki is a spaced repetition flashcard programme. It uses an algorithm that learns which words you find easy to remember and which ones don’t, and adjusts how frequently it tests you on these particular words accordingly. It is completely free and easy to install.

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Anki

Anki is a spaced repetition flashcard programme. It uses an algorithm that learns which words you find easy to remember and which ones don’t, and adjusts how frequently it tests you on these particular words accordingly. It is completely free and easy to install.

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Everyone learns vocabulary in their own way – some people simply suck words in like a sponge and don’t need to make any active effort; for others, nothing seems to stick unless they learn it off by heart.

If you’re the former – great! If not, Anki will prove invaluable.

Essentially, Anki is a flashcard app. But what differentiates it from the hundreds of competitors is the spaced repetition algorithm that it uses. This means that it is able to remember which words you find more difficult to recall than others and to test you on them more frequently.   

While some of the settings can be a little fiddly, and synchronisation between phones and computers can play up, it is generally an extremely reliable app and one that we wished we had used from day one of our language learning.

Even if you only use Anki for half an hour each day, you’ll see marked improvements in your vocabulary. 

Anki - Our Rating
92%

The good thing about Anki is that sometimes you don’t even have to compile vocabulary decks yourself. If you search around on the internet, you can sometimes find pre-made decks that you can import into your folders.

One such deck, created by Neri, displays 5,000 Russian sentences sorted from easiest to hardest. It’s a great way to gradually build up set-phrases and connecting words. You can download the deck from here.


Beginners – Reading

Choosing reading material is not easy when you’ve just started learning a foreign language. The vast majority of books and newspapers available to you will be too challenging at this point, and yet, equally, you can’t stay tethered to the artificially simplistic exercises in your textbooks for too long.

So where is the best place to start once you’re ready to venture out into the world of literature?

Text

Many language guides come out with the same suggestion: start with children’s books. This is TERRIBLE advice. There is nothing easy about children’s literature – especially for learners of Russian! Although the concepts and storylines are simplistic enough to be enjoyed by toddlers, you face a number of surprisingly tricky linguistic challenges, such as a confusing array of diminutives, strange vocabulary, and irregular sentence structure.

A far better option would be to start off with something aimed at older children/teenagers. The vocabulary in these books is still pretty simple, but the grammar is often more regular than those aimed at younger readers.

The Adventures of Tintin

Classic comic book series by Belgian artist, Hergé. Fun and interesting stories with non-complex language and sentence structure. Excellent for beginner readers to build their colloquial comprehension. Entire series can be found here.

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The Adventures of Tintin

Classic comic book series by Belgian artist, Hergé. Fun and interesting stories with non-complex language and sentence structure. Excellent for beginner readers to build their colloquial comprehension. Entire series can be found here.

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If you’ve worked through about half of the Penguin Course, you should find it relatively easy to read one of the Tintin books.

As well as being great stories in themselves, the comic book format means that you’re reading succinct speech bubbles, rather than long sentences. This makes for good, easy practice texts while you’re still mastering trickier grammatical elements, like participles and relative clauses.

New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Russian

Classic short stories with the Russian original on the left hand page and the English translation on the opposite page. All stories are from the twentieth century and feature writers that readers may not be familiar with, giving a fresh perspective on Russian literature.


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New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Russian

Classic short stories with the Russian original on the left hand page and the English translation on the opposite page. All stories are from the twentieth century and feature writers that readers may not be familiar with, giving a fresh perspective on Russian literature.

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When you’ve finished the textbook the best thing to do is to read some Russian texts with parallel translations. Having to go back and forth between the book you’re reading and a dictionary can be incredibly frustrating, and often saps a lot of the fun out of reading.

This is the solution: collections of classic short stories from the Soviet and post-Soviet eras with English translations on the opposite page.

There are lots of these ‘parallel texts’ floating around the internet. Most of them are poor-quality and should be avoided. However, if you have finished Penguin’s collection and feel you need more practice before moving on to our intermediate section, Dover also publishes a very good volume with 12 parallel short stories from the Golden Age of Russian literature.


Beginners – Writing

At this stage, most of your writing needs will be taken care of by the Penguin Course, which contains plenty of sentence-formation exercises.  But if you want a little extra practice, you should investigate the Ruslan workbooks

Ruslan Student Workbook

A decent workbook with over 200 written exercises to supplement a beginner’s Russian course. The content is colourful and attractive, and features some interesting cultural insights. It is designed to be used alongside the Ruslan communicative course, but can also be used as a standalone product.

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Ruslan Student Workbook

A decent workbook with over 200 written exercises to supplement a beginner’s Russian course. The content is colourful and attractive, and features some interesting cultural insights. It is designed to be used alongside the Ruslan communicative course, but can also be used as a standalone product.

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Sadly, it’s a fact that there is a real paucity of material to help beginners improve their written Russian.  This means that the Ruslan series gets on our list by default, and not because we think it is an excellent workbook.

With around 200 written exercises it does what it says on the tin, and the attractive visual content and interesting cultural highlights mean that it is perfectly usable.  However, there is nothing particularly special about Ruslan, and it is as yet unclear how effective it is as a standalone product (there is a coursebook that you buy as well). 

Ruslan Student Workbook - Our Rating
70%

Russian Handwriting

A step-by-step workbook that teaches Russian cursive handwriting. Each letter is broken down into clear steps that show you how to write it cursively. Lots or practice in the form of example letters, words, phrases, and sentences. Three separate volumes in case you get through the first one and want more practice.

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Russian Handwriting

A step-by-step workbook that teaches Russian cursive handwriting. Each letter is broken down into clear steps that show you how to write it cursively. Lots or practice in the form of example letters, words, phrases, and sentences. Three separate volumes in case you get through the first one and want more practice.

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Handwriting is a bit like crooked teeth – the earlier you sort it out the easier your life will be in the future

The majority of Russian textbooks will only use the print alphabet and omit the cursive version entirely. The reason for this is obvious: cursive can be extremely confusing!  While each letter looks quite distinct in print, in cursive a lot of the letters look almost identical:

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This is just something we have to deal with.  And while the Penguin Course – to its credit – does have a chapter dedicated to cursive, it moves on from it pretty quickly, never to return.

Don’t let yourself experience the shock of sticking solely to print while learning, only to go to Russia to find that a huge amount of writing is done in cursive. These workbooks provide plenty of practice.  Although they are priced slightly cheekily, in the long run they are worth the initial investment.

Russian Handwriting - Our Rating
77%

Beginners – Speaking

Get speaking as soon as you can! It’s the hardest (and most important) language skill, but the one that we most often neglect.

Although you could get a private tutor straight off the bat, it may be cheaper and more constructive to enrol on an evening course in your city.

You may also like:

The hourly prices of these courses are often twice as cheap as those that a native speaker will charge for one-to-one tuition in your city. On the other hand, a large class will limit the amount of time you get to speak, and sitting patiently while the inevitable class laggard struggles through material that you mastered weeks ago can be incredibly irritating.

TextBut if you can find a course with a small-number of other highly motivated participants, your speaking will make incredible progress.

Well-reviewed Russian courses in selected cities include:


Beginners – Listening

Girl Laptop IllustrationGood news! The rise of computer technology and the internet means that there is now an enormous amount of listening opportunities out there for you to take advantage of.

Here we narrow down the best courses, channels, and podcasts for beginners to take their listening skills to the next level

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Rocket Russian

The best online Russian course for beginners looking to kickstart their listening skills. Packed full of targeted audio and writing exercises, all organised thematically. Seamless transition from desktop to mobile app, and vice versa. No subscription – a reasonable one-off fee unlocks the entire platform for life.

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Rocket Russian

Incredible online language learning system. Huge number of audio and video podcast lessons, extensive vocabulary lists, personalised learning programmes, PDF worksheets, review quizzes, and many more tools. Dedicated friendly staff and frequently updated content make this an excellent resource to get your listening off the ground.

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In compiling this guide we trialled over a dozen of the top online Russian courses.  Rocket Russian stood out as easily the best of the bunch – here’s why:

  • The content is thematic

    We are huge fans of thematic vocabulary learning (Using Russian Vocabulary, for instance, is an essential resource to get) as we have found that structured learning is the best way to keep words in your long-term memory. We were really pleased to see that the team at Rocket Russian share this viewpoint and organise their lessons along thematic lines.

  • The mobile app is brilliant

    Most language apps come across as little more than half-hearted afterthoughts. Some platforms even have the audacity to charge you extra for it. Rocket Russian’s mobile app (free for both iOS and Android) has been designed excellently and was far more intuitive than all of its rivals.

  • It doesn't smother you with unnecessary features

    Rocket Russian only provides you with the tools you need to make real progress with your Russian – interactive audio lessons, detailed writing exercises, and an excellent narrative story which solidifies your situational vocabulary.

  • Everything is 100% downloadable

    This means that you can sit down and get all of the material in one place – no need to keep going in and out of the site itself to use its contents.

  • Real-life audio from the start

    The sooner a student weans themselves off what we call ‘teacher-speak’, the sooner they will understand real conversations. This is what Rocket Russian does from the very beginning, using authentic dialogues to build your listening skills up.

  • No subscription

    Almost all online language courses nowadays charge for monthly/yearly subscriptions, meaning that over time they turn out to be very expensive. With Rocket Russian, however, once you’ve paid the one-off fee you get access to the full platform for life. Although the price may seem a bit steep, you then fully own all of the lessons and downloadable material inside – you’re not ‘renting it’. This means that in the long run Rocket Russian is probably the cheapest course on the market.

Give it a go!

Sign up for Rocket Russian's free trial here:

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Learn Russian with Free Daily Podcasts

RussianPod101

Incredible online language learning system. Huge number of audio and video podcast lessons, extensive vocabulary lists, personalised learning programmes, PDF worksheets, review quizzes, and many more tools. Dedicated friendly staff and frequently updated content make this an excellent resource to get your listening off the ground.

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Learn Russian with Free Daily Podcasts

RussianPod101

Incredible online language learning system. Huge number of audio and video podcast lessons, extensive vocabulary lists, personalised learning programmes, PDF worksheets, review quizzes, and many more tools. Dedicated friendly staff and frequently updated content make this an excellent resource to get your listening off the ground.

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We are naturally suspicious of online language courses, as the vast majority do not deliver on their promises – RussianPod101 is one of the few exceptions.

For a very reasonable price you gain access to a veritable treasure trove of Russian learning tools and resources, including:

High quality audio and video podcast lessons

Printable PDF Lesson Notes

2000 Most Common Words List

Entertaining Review Quizzes

Database of Russian grammar constructions

1-to-1 Direct Instruction From Native Russians

Interactive Pronunciation Comparison Tool

Portable Survival Phrases Centre

A personalised learning programme

Although the lessons are probably a bit on the easy side for advanced learners, for beginners this is an absolute must-have resource.  The sheer quantity of audio and video lessons alone makes it far and away the most efficient way to improve your Russian listening skills.

RussianPod101 has been expanding steadily for the last few years thanks to its dedicated team.  As it is continuously adding new content to the site you can be sure that you will always have fresh material to practice with.

RussianPod101 - Our Rating
93%

Interested?

If you want to make sure that RussianPod101 is the right product for you, have a look at our detailed review

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While the online courses that we’ve reviewed above are excellent, make sure you don’t neglect the thousands of free YouTube channels dedicated to teaching Russian:

Amazing Russian

Amazing Russian is hands down the best YouTube channel out there for beginners looking to improve their listening skills.

The reason why we are so enthusiastic is because it is rare to come across such a practical and educational channel on YouTube.  Most ‘learn Russian’ channels rely heavily on gimmicks and flashy appearances without delivering much substance.  But if you want to make real headway with your listening then this is the channel for you.

The videos, mostly dealing with everyday situations, effectively ease students into the listening comprehension with a steady speaking pace, core vocabulary, and optional subtitles.

Beginners – Bonus


Russian Keyboard Stickers

High-quality transparent stickers for laptop keyboards. Versions for both black and white keyboards available.

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Russian Keyboard Stickers

High-quality transparent stickers for laptop keyboards. Versions for both black and white keyboards available.

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Unless by some extraordinary coincidence you bought your computer in the former Soviet Union, your keyboard won’t have the Cyrillic alphabet on it.

In time, this will prove to be a real annoyance, especially as there are so many great resources on the internet that require you to type in Russian.

Fortunately, the solution is both simple and cheap: you can find a range of transparent Cyrillic stickers that sit neatly on your keyboard without obscuring the original Latin symbols.