How to Learn Russian by Reading: Maximum Fun, Minimum Frustration

According to a Russian saying, книга – ключ к знанию. (Books are the key to knowledge.)

That’s hardly news, is it? You already know you can learn a lot by reading.

But have you tried improving your Russian knowledge by reading?

It’s easy to get scared away by dense lines of alien-looking Cyrillic script. If you start small, though, you’ll gain confidence… and soon you’ll find reading is indispensable to your Russian learning routine.

It just takes practice—lots of it.

And the best way to get reading practice, and to maintain the habit, is to read what you love.

It doesn’t have to be a textbook or a huge novel, or even a book at all. If you’re reading in Russian and enjoying yourself, you’re doing it right.

Today I’ll show you seven places you can go to find reading material you love, so learning Russian through reading becomes that much more fun, that much more sustainable and that much more likely to actually work for you.


The Unabridged Guide: How to Learn Russian by Reading What You Love

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6 Reasons to Become a Voracious Reader of Russian

1. Make friends with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Don’t let those strange, blocky letters scare you off any longer. When you read extensively in a format you enjoy, you’ll quickly get familiar with the sight of the Cyrillic alphabet. Then, sooner or later, it will be second nature to you.

As with most things, the key is to start with small pieces—excerpts, comics, lines of dialogue—and build your confidence for longer blocks of text.

2. Immerse yourself in a Russian-speaking world without leaving your armchair.

There’s nothing quite like long-term travels in a country to give you a feel for the language and culture. In reality, though, not all of us have the resources for that.

That’s where your reading skills come to the rescue. By reading Russian news, blogs and books that you enjoy, you’re immersing yourself in authentic language without dropping a dime for airfare. And just as reading a book in your native language can transport you to another place and time, reading a story set in a Russian-speaking country immerses you in a new culture whenever you lose yourself in its pages.

3. Increase your reading stamina and speed over time.

If your goal is to eventually break out the big guns (like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”) or to study in a Russian-medium university program, you’ll need to build up your reading stamina. The only way to do that is—you guessed it—through consistent practice.

If you start where you’re comfortable and increase the challenge bit by bit, you’ll read faster, understand more and learn to sort out what’s important from what’s not. Those skills will serve you well for the more serious and heavy-duty reading.

4. Develop an instinctive “feel” for Russian grammar and structure.

Grammar exercises help you learn the rules, but in order to get a feel for Russian grammar, you need to see how it’s really used in context. The more you encounter it, the more natural it seems.

You can get that context either by reading or listening, but when you read, it’s in slow motion. You have more leisure to notice things, re-read, compare things and mentally file away what you learn.

5. Expand your vocabulary (and solidify what you already know).

One obvious benefit of reading in Russian is the exposure to useful new words, which you can add to your vocabulary. Be careful, though—too many new things can frustrate you.

If you’re reading at or near your current language level, the real benefit to your vocabulary is the repetition of words you already know. Why? Because it engraves the words in your memory. It’s hard to forget things you’ve seen 100 times.

Then, as you recognize more and more words on sight, you’ll also start reading faster.

6. Learn how to write better in Russian.

Just as reading in your native language helps you become a stronger writer, reading a lot in Russian will boost your writing skills. Not only will your vocabulary improve, as we saw above, but you’ll also see how to connect sentences and paragraphs in elegant ways you won’t hear in everyday speech.

How to Maximize Fun and Minimize Frustration While Reading

Read what you like, even if it’s not “serious.”

If you’re going to keep this reading habit long enough for it to be useful, you need to read things you actually enjoy. Forget what you “should” do for a bit and be honest. What are your hobbies and interests? What do you normally like to read in English? Try to find similar reading material at your level in Russian.

Read extensively at your level and intensively at your level +1.

Do you know your level of Russian? If you’re not sure of your exact CEFR level, you can test yourself by reading a text and seeing how well you can summarize it afterward. If you understand about 98%, it’s perfect for extensive reading. That means reading a lot for pleasure, rather than a little for study.

Understanding a little less than 98% may still work for you. The key is to avoid texts that force you to the dictionary all the time. No matter how studious you are, it wears down your motivation.

Save intensive reading—a slower, more thorough approach where the dictionary is permitted—for short spurts with a clear purpose. When you’re reading to study, choose something slightly above your level, so that you have something to learn—but not so far above that you give up after a few paragraphs.

Instead of looking up everything, mark words you want to come back to.

As I mentioned in the last tip, constantly turning to the dictionary will wear down your motivation faster than мороженое (ice cream) melting in the sun.

If you can’t bear the thought of skimming past a word without unlocking its mystery, consider underlining it and coming back to it later. Granted, if the word seems important to the main idea, it’s worth a break for the dictionary. Otherwise, save it for later and focus on general understanding first.

Read aloud to yourself.

It may feel silly, but do try reading aloud. For one thing, it’s a great way to keep focused. (It’s my go-to technique whenever my mind wanders, even while reading English!)

Then, as you’re seeing, hearing and speaking the words all at once, the triple exposure helps you better absorb what you’re reading, especially if you’re an auditory learner.

Read along with audiobooks—or try to get Russian texts with stress marks.

If you can find an audio version, you’ve struck gold. Assuming it’s a human voice and not a machine, the reader’s pace, intonation and other vocal cues will give you hints on how to interpret what you’re reading. The pace also helps you avoid getting hung up on words you don’t recognize.

Audiobooks are especially valuable if you speak Russian but struggle with the Cyrillic alphabet. If you’re not used to reading Cyrillic letters, hearing the words aloud as you read will smooth out the process and speed up your ability to recognize words on sight.

If there’s no audio version, at least look for a text с ударениями (with stress marks). You’ll see accents or underlines that indicate where the ударение (stress) falls in a word. In Russian, word stress can be a little unpredictable, so stress marks are useful to make sure you’re saying new words correctly from the start. This is invaluable for reading aloud.

Turn useful new vocabulary into flashcards in order to recognize them in the future.

Once you’ve plundered the dictionary and have a nice trove of new vocabulary treasures, don’t let them slip through your fingers. Make a set of flashcards—maybe with a spaced-repetition program like Anki (free desktop software)—to quiz yourself on the new words. If you keep at it, you’ll find them easier to recognize in the future. Soon you’ll be breezing past them and diving into more new words, simultaneously increasing your vocabulary and your reading speed.

7 Places to Find Your Ideal Russian Reading Material

1. Readers and literature-based textbooks

If you prefer the traditional route of textbooks designed for Russian learners, you’ll have the benefit of vocabulary notes and exercises. Don’t spend too much time on the exercises, though—otherwise, you’ll miss out on the benefits of extensive reading.

To keep focused on reading skills (rather than grammar), look for textbooks with “reader” in the title, such as the “Routledge Intermediate Russian Reader” or “Stories From Today’s Russia: A Reader for Intermediate Students of Russian.”

You can also get general textbooks centered around literature. “Наше Время” (Our Time) is a good one, particularly at the B1 level. It includes excerpts and adapted works from a variety of authors and fields, along with vocabulary and grammar exercises. (This one is best used with a tutor, though, as all the explanations and directions are in Russian.)

2. Novels and short stories

Bookworms, rejoice! There’s plenty of Russian fiction to be found online—whether classic or contemporary, highbrow or lowbrow, long-form or short.

Novels can be difficult to get through if you’re not used to reading in Russian, so consider working your way up from easy short stories to easy books and beyond.

Then, if you dream of delving into the classics, you can delve to your heart’s desire at Public-library.ru and Klassika.ru. But don’t forget to check out the contemporary literary scene! Stories from modern Russian authors are available for free at Lib.ru. (Most will be under “Современная русская проза,” or Contemporary Russian Prose.)

If you prefer to read in print, you can also order books online. I recommend dual-language books, which offer side-by-side translations that get you out of tight spots without a dictionary. Two options on Amazon include Afanasyev’s fairy tales and a book of classic short stories.

Speaking of dual-language books, there’s a side-by-side translation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” you can read online with stress marks. One more reason to love the internet!

3. Your favorite novels translated into Russian

Here’s a thought—why not read a popular novel you’ve already read and enjoyed, but this time in Russian?

In today’s digital world, you don’t even have to go to Russia to get a copy in translation. Many are available online, including some of my personal favorites:

Research the Russian title of your favorite book, then search for it in the archives at Knizhnik.org.

4. Wattpad

Wattpad is better known as an online hub for free, independently published stories in English, but you can also find stories in other languages—including Russian.

The great thing about the indie stories on Wattpad is that they’re often written in simple, conversational language. Many also tend to be sensational, like soap operas. Those two factors together make Wattpad stories easy to binge-read for practice.

Unfortunately, Wattpad doesn’t seem to have a centralized way of finding foreign-language stories, but you can start by typing “русский” (Russian) in the search bar.

5. Webcomics in Russian

Yes, webcomics count! The visual element of the комиксы (comics), the entertaining storylines and the short, digestible speech bubbles make webcomics the perfect extensive reading material.

Very often, you can find popular webcomics translated into Russian, including Itchy Feet (my favorite language-learning comic) or The Dreamland Chronicles (for fantasy and RPG fans).

However, don’t forget to look for comics originally written in Russian—for example, Дары бродячих льдов (Gifts of Wandering Ice) or No Jam Today.

If comics are your jam, you’ll find the mother lode in the catalogue at Авторский Комикс (Author’s Comics), where you can filter your search to specific genres and styles.

6. Russian Blogs

I assume you’ve already read Russian learning blogs (after all, you’re here!), but now it’s time to break into blogs written for native Russian speakers. What better way to get a peek into daily life and popular culture?

There are blogs about pretty much everything known (and unknown) to man, so whatever you’re into, there’s probably a blog out there for it… even in Russian. Hop on over to Google and type “блоги о” (blogs about), then add the keyword of your interest. For example, health (о здоровье), travel (о путешествиях), fashion (о моде) or minimalism (о минимализме).

You’ll even find Russian versions of popular English-language blogs, such as Лайфхакер—the Russian Lifehacker!

7. Newspapers and News Sites

Why not brew yourself a nice cup of coffee, sit at the kitchen table and read the morning paper—in Russian?

You may not have access to a physical Russian-language newspaper, but in the digital age you can get all the current events you want online. Sort through suggested Russian news sites for learners, or jump directly into some well-known sites like ТАСС, Правда and RT Russia Today.


Now, these seven resources cover a lot of ground, but this list is by no means exhaustive. A little creativity and some Google search savvy will go a long way in helping you find the reading material of your dreams.

Just remember this triple-L rule of thumb: read a Lot of what you Love at or near your Level.

The vast world of Russian letters awaits!

Randi Anderson is a writer, teacher and traveler hooked on language learning. She has studied several languages, most recently Russian—which she learned while living and working in Siberia. You can follow her writing and other adventures on her website, RandiAnderson.com.


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