You can’t lose a language.
Sure, you can learn Russian and then forget it.
You can let your Russian grow rusty and full of weeds, slowly abandoning it to the sands of time.
But you won’t lose it like that essay you forgot to back up the night before it was due.
It won’t vanish from your bank account like the paycheck you carelessly splashed out for a marked-up bottle of wine and an overpriced dinner.
Like a beloved dog-eared book tucked into your carry-on luggage, Russian is something that, once acquired, you simply get to enjoy.
In fact, the comfort of having a language you can call upon at any moment isn’t unlike the comfort of having a book on hand to stave off listlessness and boredom.
So if a book can transmit a language into your brain for safekeeping… well, that seems like a book worth having around, doesn’t it?
Today we’re going to look at some of the best Russian textbooks out there, ones that can give you knowledge of the Russian language that lasts.
Just don’t forget them in your hotel room.
What Should a Russian Language Textbook Do?
Russian textbooks come in a variety of different formats. But no matter how they’re organized, they should serve as a conduit between the Russian language and you.
We can go back and forth about whether textbooks are really necessary for language learners, but the fact remains that many learners simply prefer using books. And books offer some benefits that other resources don’t.
So, before we look at some of the best textbooks for Russian learners, let’s briefly explore what a Russian textbook should do for you.
- Provide comprehensive core knowledge. This is especially important for beginners. If you don’t learn the vocabulary that a language uses most frequently, you’re not going to progress very quickly.
That being said, simply force-feeding yourself a list of the most common Russian words will get old quickly. It’ll also leave you without much understanding of how that language should be employed. But textbooks can present you with core vocabulary in an organized, context-rich format.
Good textbooks keep you from being 100% focused on the individual words you’re learning and allow you to learn basic vocab through sentences.
- Reinforce knowledge through practical exercises. Using Russian is how the language becomes your own, so some level of interactivity is important. Some books encourage you to speak, others ask you to produce writing. Ideally, a textbook should provide multiple opportunities for output.
- Give you the guidance and momentum you need to establish a regular learning routine. Perhaps the most valuable thing a textbook can offer you is the ability to stop worrying about how to learn, and simply learn.
Once you’re in the habit of taking in a chapter or lesson a day and doing regular reviews, it’ll only be a matter of time before you’re capable of using the language on your own. The right textbook for you should make regular study feel manageable and realistic.
And now for the main event. The list below is made up of textbooks (both traditional and not) that are all at least somewhat beginner-friendly. Some of them will take you through the beginner level. At least one of them can see you all the way through to the advanced stages of learning.
All of them offer something unique and beneficial for the right learner.
So let’s take a look!
10 of the Best Russian Textbooks for Beginners and Beyond
“The Berlitz Self-Teacher: Russian”
This first book is from 1951—hear me out. The “Berlitz Self-Teacher” books exist in a world all their own. Modern textbooks can provide you more bells and whistles, of course: audio, color photographs, accompanying digital goodies. But just like no new food trend replaces your grandmother’s cooking, no new Russian learning book replaces the “Self-Teacher.”
Part of what makes the “Self-Teacher” format so ingenious is that it starts you off forming sentences that are likely to be relevant to you immediately:
What is this? This is the pencil. The book is red. The paper is white.
The “Self-Teacher” uses an interlinear text system, similar to that used by some dual-language readers and programs like FluentU (see below). You’ll find Cyrillic on top, a pronunciation key in the middle and an English translation underneath.
Sure, the pronunciation key won’t have you speaking perfect, native Russian. But it’ll get you speaking and using the language to interact with the world around you. Plus, you can easily slip the book into a piece of carry-on luggage, no headphones required.
To get a close-up look at the “Self-Teacher,” check out a review from polyglot Alexander Arguelles.
Although it comes from a time when textbooks were limited in terms of what resources they could provide learners, the “Self-Teacher” really does its darndest to be a simplified but complete learning system. It keeps things context- and dialogue-heavy, letting you progress naturally while sneaking in bits of grammar along the way.
Of course, you’ll still ideally want to supplement the “Self-Teacher” with audio and more modern learning materials.
If the idea of using an older textbook in the first place makes you uncomfortable, check out Natasha Alexandrova’s “Russian Step by Step,” a modern book that’s somewhat similar to the “Self-Teacher.” It’ll help you avoid the dated Soviet-era references and will give you downloadable native audio to boot. It’s pricier, though, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons and decide what’s right for you.
Also, either of these options will combine with FluentU for the perfect mix of structure and authentic, immersive Russian learning.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
If you’re looking to dive into the Russian language and gain confidence quickly, you need to look no further than one of these two books and a FluentU subscription.
“Complete Russian Beginner to Intermediate Course”
The “Self-Teacher” might be one of the best (and most time-tested) Russian textbooks out there but, of course, looking further is fun. Besides, you can always stand to know more about what learning options are out there, right?
This book is from the Teach Yourself series, and they take the “complete” part of their Complete courses seriously. It can be used by solo learners or alongside another course but no matter how you use it, it works to build your core knowledge and skills.
“Complete Russian” is organized into chapters, or “units,” that include cultural information, dialogues and various exercises. It comes with audio and is designed to teach all the main language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking).
It’s more explanatory than the “Self-Teacher,” and takes a more straightforward, traditional approach. For this reason, it’s probably best for learners who tend to be good classroom students and have the ability to self-motivate.
It’s worth noting that, as with this program, educational audio is still often distributed primarily via CD, even as CDs are becoming less and less standard from a tech perspective. Sometimes publishers offer a direct MP3 download option, but sometimes they don’t. So make sure you have the means to access the accompanying audio before buying this book or others on this list.
“Complete Russian” is meant to take you up to the intermediate levels of Russian proficiency.
“Russian in 10 Minutes a Day”
Don’t be fooled by the title. Despite the low suggested time commitment, there’s quite a bit of information packed into this casual-looking resource. “Russian in 10 Minutes a Day” is great if you want to treat learning Russian like a fun project. It’s more of a workbook than a textbook, but it has all the information you need in one place.
“Russian in 10 Minutes a Day” teaches you the language through a variety of tools and approaches that seem designed to make you feel like you’re not actually studying. It helps you build your Russian vocabulary with minimal effort through Russian-English cognates. It also comes with vocab stickers you can place on objects around your home and office and it gives you pre-made flashcards.
“10 Minutes” also comes with an interactive software download that you can use in addition to the book. If you like extra goodies and being heavily engaged by your learning materials, this might be the book for you.
“The Everything Learning Russian Book”
Here’s another title that may arouse your skepticism but still deserves your attention. It’s not so much that “The Everything Learning Russian Book” strictly teaches you more than the other books in this list, but it couches learning in plenty of background information. This can be both enjoyable and beneficial, especially if you want to savor the history and culture behind the language as you learn it.
I said that “Complete Russian” was best for good classroom students, by which I mostly meant people who perform well in classroom settings. This book, on the other hand, is better suited for those who actually like classroom learning. If you enjoy the insight and context around a field of knowledge that an experienced teacher can provide, you can get some of that here.
Chapters include thorough introductions to language concepts and cultural subjects, along with plenty of practice and quizzes. The book also aligns with practical concerns like actually getting around in Russia.
The print copy of “The Everything Learning Russian Book” comes with an accompanying CD. You can also get audio with the Kindle version on some Fire tablets and iOS devices.
“Learn Russian the Fast and Fun Way”
Like “Russian in 10 Minutes a Day,” this one from Barron’s might have you rolling your eyes at first, but reserve your scorn. This is an “activity kit,” or at least that’s what they call it, but really, it’s as much a textbook as your standard classroom fare.
It’s geared toward travelers, but can be used by anyone looking to get down their Russian basics with colorful illustrations, dialogues, grammar explanations and interactive exercises.
Also like “10 Minutes,” “Learn Russian the Fast and Fun Way” includes pre-made flashcards. These are quite jam-packed, with whole phrases and lists of related words printed on single cards.
While the cover may look kind of childish, this book will work well for people who want to be exposed to the language in an aesthetically appealing way. The cartoon illustrations aren’t exactly fine art but they’re well done, and the book provides an engaging and enjoyable atmosphere for learning.
There’s effectively no audio for this book (unless you want to grab a cassette version), so it’s best for those who like doing some learning unplugged.
Assimil “Russian With Ease”
Assimil is a well-established French language learning company that builds book-based courses. Their approach is a bit like Berlitz’s “Self-Teacher” in that they focus on practical language use from the very beginning and don’t rely heavily on grammar explanations. However, the “With Ease” series arguably delves a bit more into grammar than the “Self-Teacher,” and is more dialogue-forward.
Each chapter is based around a text dialogue with accompanying audio. These are followed by exercises. You’ll learn grammar points as they come up, and the difficulty level gradually increases. The dialogues are more beneficial for contextualizing vocabulary than teaching you practical phrases, though you’ll definitely learn some conversational basics.
Assimil books may not seem as actively engaging as some of the books above, but of course, engagement can be subjective. If you want to get right to seeing how Russian phrases and sentences are formed, this book can really pack a wallop.
Also, something that may seem trivial but that I really like is that the “With Ease” books are extremely travel-friendly. You can easily cram them into a backpack or even an average-sized purse.
The “Superpack” linked above comes with the audio on CDs. I’ve seen some newer versions that come with a USB key, but only for other languages so far. If you’re unsure of what type of audio you’re getting, you may want to check with the seller. Also, I’ve noticed Assimil books being sold on their own without audio—note that you’ll probably only find these helpful if you already have some knowledge of Russian.
“Illustrated Russian Grammar”
Many of the books above either have a limited emphasis on grammar or teach it in the context of practical usage. This can be great for making the language less intimidating, building your confidence and getting you started with Russian.
However, there’s a benefit to looking at Russian grammar right in its huge, gaping maw. Not only is it a monster that needs to be comprehended as a whole, but it’s actually quite a beautiful, well-organized monster. Staring at it head-on gives you the big-picture perspective necessary to unlocking its intricate logic.
Like any good beginner textbook worth its salt, “Illustrated Russian Grammar” presents the language from the logical starting point, first teaching the alphabet and then moving into basic vocabulary. However, rather than being divided into themed chapters or focusing on scenarios helpful to travelers, it’s formatted around Russian grammar.
The book starts you off with nouns and then almost immediately dives into the case system. This allows you to not only learn grammar in an order that makes sense, but also to learn vocabulary within the context of grammar.
This book would make an excellent supplement to one that isn’t as grammar-heavy, like the Assimil course above. However, it could also be useful for a beginner on its own, or for brushing up on Russian after having been away from it for a while.
“Conversational Russian Dialogues”
Out of all the books on this list, this one’s definitely the least like a traditional textbook. It’s essentially a dual-language reader, with dialogues presented in both English and Russian.
But what makes it more than just a reader is that it’s focused on practical conversation. It’s a bit like a phrasebook in the beginning, starting off with “survival phrases.” Then it jumps right into dialogues.
The reason why I’ve included this book on the list isn’t because it’s exactly a substitute for a “normal” textbook, but because it provides a bridge from textbook learning into real life. Grammar and vocabulary you learn from any of the other books in this list will be applicable to the dialogues you’ll find here. And if textbooks tend to lack anything, it’s enough examples of real-life usage.
That all being said, if you already have a beginning grasp of Russian—including the alphabet, pronunciation and some basic vocab—you could probably use this book as your main learning system, at least for a while, and provided you’re willing to do some research and work out the grammar on your own.
“Living Language Russian, Complete Edition”
Afraid of commitment? If so, you should probably stay far away from Living Language’s “Complete Edition,” because it’s intended to take you all the way from a beginner to an advanced level. On the other hand, if you want the all-in-one, three-course-dinner version of a language textbook, this is for you.
It’s worth noting that many learners find benefits in studying with a variety of resources, and that programs like FluentU can easily pick up where beginner and intermediate books like those above leave off. However, there’s still definitely something to be said for having it all. The “Complete Edition” doesn’t just consist of one book, but three books, along with nine CDs worth of audio (which you can, thankfully, download) and corresponding online materials.
The books include lessons that are meant to build your practical knowledge of the language gradually, integrating grammar and culture and giving you ample opportunities to review and retain what you’ve learned.
“Russian Full Circle: A First-Year Russian Textbook”
But maybe you’re not interested in messing around. You’re so over these new and old takes on making learning easier, more practical, etc. You just want a plain, regular, real textbook.
This one from Yale University has all the usual textbook essentials. It’s comprehensive. It paces you. It has a system and it’s sticking to it. Plus, it’s a Yale textbook, so you can feel cool studying with it even if you have no Ivy League credentials in your past or future.
“Russian Full Circle” is divided into lessons that follow a layered approach. Each lesson introduces new vocabulary and grammar, teaches culture, gives you some conversation practice and caps off with some exercises. This type of learning can be really effective because it pushes your limits but doesn’t give you too much of any type of information at once.
The thing is, a lot of time and resources go into crafting academic materials, so they can be really great for your studies even if you’re not the type of person who’d benefit from a college course. The main problem with college textbooks is trying not to spend $300 on one. “Russian Full Circle,” however, is more affordable than many college textbooks you’ll find widely available online (especially considering that it’s relatively recent and from a well-known university).
Ultimately, the best Russian textbooks can make learning easier.
So don’t just consider what you what to learn, but what book will inspire you to learn every day.
Once the habit is yours, the language will follow.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer and language learner who blogs about all kinds of books on Lit All Over.