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Christianity and the Creation of the Russian Alphabet

Recently, I started learning the Russian language! It’s been a lot of work, especially to manage on top of schoolwork and other commitments, but it is very rewarding – I’m really enjoying the journey that comes with learning a new language. I’m currently working through UCLA’s first year Russian textbook, Beginner’s Russian, by Anna Kudyma, Frank Miller, and Olga Kagan, and I’m also using the interactive website that goes along with it. Right now, I’m on the 8th chapter. I try to do a little bit of it each day, which I find works pretty well.

The first few chapters of Beginner’s Russian introduced me to the Russian alphabet, derived from Cyrillic script, and also to some introductory words. In terms of the alphabet, as a native English speaker, something I found pretty confusing was that certain Russian letters are visually quite similar to their English counterparts, which makes them easier for me to remember, but others match with completely different English letters! For instance, ‘k’ in the Russian alphabet is ‘к’, as expected, but ‘n’ is actually ‘н’! I would have expected ‘n’ to be ‘и’ in Russian, but ‘и’ actually matches with ‘ee’. It took me a while to get a hang of such letters! Other than that, I find the process similar to that of learning any other new language.

I’m also continuing to read Phillip Longworth’s Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin, through which I’m learning more about the context surrounding the development of Russian culture. In the book, Longworth mentioned that it was actually Christian missionaries, not the Slavs, who created Cyrillic script. I found that really surprising!

For some context, according to Longworth, Olga, a powerful, vindictive Christian widow, ruled over Kievan Rus (the old Russian state) after her husband Igor died. She went to Constantinople, the “capital of the [Byzantine and] later Roman Empire and the greatest city in the world,” as stated by Longworth. Although her main purpose for the journey was to procure a more favorable trading agreement, Olga was re-baptized there (and that too, with the emperor as her godfather!), which first established a link between the Rus (early Slavic people) and Christianity. However, Longworth is careful to point out that she never forced Christianity upon the Rus due to their strongly conflicting divine beliefs; it was her grandson Vladimir who later baptized the Rus and solidified Russia’s entry into Christendom.

During her trip to Constantinople, Olga was shown the stunning imperial palace where, according to Longworth, there were “clockwork metal songbirds that sang like real birds; a pair of gilded lions which rolled their eyes and roared… [and even a] Church of the Holy Wisdom… with its immense dome.” Entranced, Olga brought word of these marvels back to Russia, eventually leading to increased Byzantine cultural and artistic influences there.

Soon, Byzantine Christian missionaries began to expand their reach to the Rus as well. According to the paper “Short History of the Cyrillic Alphabet” by Ivan G. Iliev (The International Journal of Russian Studies), it is thought to be Saint Constantine-Cyril, a 9th century Byzantine missionary (monk? I wasn’t sure), or his two disciples, Clement of Orchid and Constantine of Preslav, who invented the Cyrillic script. Due to the many conflicting accounts that Iliev highlights from the time, I get the impression that it has proven nearly impossible to narrow down the true creator out of the three! Anyway, according to Life of Cyril (the Saint’s biography, I presume?), Iliev writes, it was done at the request of the Byzantine emperor. Originally created for the Balkan Slavs (Slavonic-speaking people who resided in the Balkan Peninsula, a part of Eastern Europe), the alphabet represented the “sounds that Slavonic-speaking peoples made when they spoke,” Longworth writes in Russia. “It was to serve the Russians equally well,” Longworth continues, because “all Slavs, whether in the east, west, or south, spoke the same language at that time.”

I found this history behind the Russian alphabet really cool – it’s directly relevant to my introductory study of the language itself! I read a bit more about the alphabet in Iliev’s paper. Apparently, the Cyrillic script was not completely original, like the Glagolitic one (another Old Slavic script, also thought to be created by St. Cyril!). Rather, according to Iliev, it was mainly based on the Greek alphabet, with any missing letters borrowed from others. Then, the Cyrillic script travelled through Bulgaria (part of the Balkan Peninsula) to Russia, leading to the first Old Slavic texts (literacy!), the increased missionary action mentioned above, and eventually, diversification into the East-Slavic peoples we know today (Iliev mentions Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians…). Even nearby Uralic peoples adopted the script, Iliev notes. By the way, this separation of peoples happened mainly after Vladimir’s death, according to Iliev; I mention this to make it clear where the events stand in context.

For Russia specifically, the Cyrillic script further evolved and developed new modifications as time progressed. “In 1708, the Russian Tsar Peter I the Great conducted an orthographic reform,” Iliev writes, “introducing a new type of Cyrillic letters, called civil script, modelled in a Dutch workshop…” to take the place of some of the older ones. According to Iliev, civil script comprises the foundation of each and every modern-day Cyrillic alphabet – including Russian!

The first book written in civil script (Iliev 2013).

Finally, a quick observation about the picture above: Iliev notes that the inscription of “ГЕОМЕТРIА” translates to “geometry.” In modern Russian, “geometry” is “геометрия.” The old and the new are almost exactly the same, save for the last two letters: ‘I’ becomes ‘И’ and ‘A’ becomes ‘Я’ (for ‘y’). Cool, right? And the reappearance of ‘и’ brings us full circle with where my musings started.

I hope this was interesting! If you’d like, take a look at the Iliev paper (linked above) to get an even more in-depth look at specific events in the history of the Cyrillic script and its dissemination in other countries as well – I just focused on Russia here. Feel free to leave questions or comments down below, and stay tuned for a photo essay (!!!) next!