Transliterating Russian Cyrillic.
The Cyrillic alphabet is widely used by many languages in Central and Eastern Europe. It was brought to that part of the world in the 9th century by two Byzantine brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, who adapted the Greek alphabet to the Slavic languages.
The Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet has thirty-three letters comprising ten vowels, twenty-one consonants and two letters which do not designate any sound.1 Some letters look and sound like the Latin alphabet, but some familiar looking letters are false friends and have different sounds.2 In fact, some Cyrillic ‘letters’ are strictly speaking syllables, making Cyrillic script a hybrid alphabet-syllabary.3 It is confusing and unintelligible, but unlike say Chinese, it is easy enough for the English speaker to transliterate. Your stay in Russia will be made easier if you can make out the sounds of the words, as all signs are in Cyrillic with little concession to Latin alphabet users.4,5
The concert on my first night in Moscow was to be of Bach and Piazzola’s music, or so Yuri said. It was unusually organ and accordion only, Moscow’s pianists and other musicians being on their annual August holiday. The concert was to take place in the Church of St Peter and St Paul. It’s in the vicinity of the Kitai Gorod metro station we were told. We’re short of time so I hail a taxi. A non-Slav, possibly from one of the ‘Stans’ in an old Lada pulls up. Definitely not a taxi. We decide to take a chance on him for want of time. How much? He stretches out the fingers of one hand – five hundred roubles. No time to haggle so I agree and he drops us off at Kitai Gorod. We spot a beautiful Orthodox Church on one side of the square and make our way there.
It turns out it’s actually the Church of All Saints in Kulishki, dating from the 16th century. We were to find out the next day on a guided walking tour that it was used as a torture centre by the KGB in Stalinist times.
Today it’s again a fully functioning Russian Orthodox Church. The doors are open so I enter. There are low arched ceilings and the smell of burning candles. This is a precinct for the devout; the walls are covered with icons and murals. Supplicants and priests dressed in black robes mill around. I approach a grey bearded priest with black headgear, excuse myself, show him the programme and ask whether the concert is taking place here. He says something in Russian, indicates that I wait and summons another priest who, too, addresses me in Russian. I show him my ticket. He nods, beckons me to wait, and calls a tall, bearded longhaired man dressed in jeans and a black top over to us. We were to find out that he was connected to the church as he partook in the officiating of a service we happened upon in the same church the next day. It turns out my concert is at another church. The priest then asks, or more seemingly commands the tall man to take us there. He speaks English well and asks us to follow him. We do. Hardly outside the church, he stops to talk to a street person with all the calm in the world as time ticks by. He then walks with us for at least 800m I‘d say, chatting every now and then, and drops us right at the gate to the grounds of our concert venue.
“Thank you ever so much. How can we repay you? Could we perhaps buy you a drink or something?” “No thank you, just pray for me”, he asks. “I will”, I say. It is indeed the church of the concert. We take up our seats. I now notice from the programme, printed in Russian Cyrillic only, that the music is not by Bach and Piazzola, but music from Bach to Piazzola, with works of other composers also featuring. But which composers were these? Who were Й. Брамс, Дж. Д. СкарЛаттн, ф. МенДеьсон and C.B. Paxmaнинов amongst others?
To find out, I set about feverishly transliterating the Cyrillic alphabet from a chart in the guidebook I had. It’s not that simple and as I said, can be confusing, e.g. their P is an R and their H is an N etc. Programme in hand, I start the deciphering process.
Dear friends, you cannot imagine the indescribable thrill I get as one by one, the beloved names I know so well started revealing themselves…. Johannes Brahms, Domenico Scarlatti, Felix Mendelssohn and Sergei Rachmaninoff… like old friends who had been away for a while but had never deserted me (see appended music programme).
And their music is uplifting as always, and expertly performed. I experience accordion playing like I had never heard before, of classical music specifically transcribed for the instrument, as well as a lighting show that sways on the high ceiling beyond the altar. It’s all truly moving, and a good introduction to the Moscow cultural scene.
The concert over, I sit back in a contented glow for a while, to be finally nudged out of my trance by my partner. Everyone had left and we alone remain in the pew. “Time to leave”, she says. “Yes, but let’s first say a prayer for the man.” And in the aftermath of that glorious music, this agnostic closes his eyes and says a prayer for a stranger who had gone out of his way to show kindness to his fellow man.
The taxi ride home in a metered taxi costs 260 roubles. Of course we had been had on the earlier ride.
- Yes, curiously Ъ and Ь. The former is the ‘hard sign’; it hardens the preceding consonant or separates sounds. The latter is the ‘soft sign’; it softens or palatalises the preceding consonant or separates sound. Curious. If I had been asked to come up with an alphabet, I would always have one-to-one relationship of letter to sound, given my Latin alphabet background. The ways of the world are many.
- For the four similarities and differences between the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabets, see. http://masterrussian.com/russian_alphabet.shtml
- A syllabary is a writing system in which the symbols (units, characters) represent the syllables of a language rather than its letters. Syllabograms (the symbols of a syllabary, the equivalent of letters in an alphabet) usually consist of one symbol representing a consonant and a vowel. For example, there is a single syllabogram for ka another one for ke, ki, ko, ku etc. Syllabaries have more symbols than alphabets. The Cyrillic symbol ‘Я’ is pronounced ‘ya’ = ‘y’ + ‘a’. The famous 3000-year-old Cretan script Linear B, finally deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952, was found to be a syllabary. The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick was one of the most fascinating books I read in my late teens.
- Although, I heard that English signs might be put up in time for the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2018, especially in their underground with the world’s most beautiful stations where you currently have to transliterate if you want to get around! Also the names on statues will make more sense to you, so you can know whether it’s Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Gogol you’re looking at.
- The latest version of Google Translate seems to do a good job and is getting streets better all the time. You type in English on your phone and Russian appears, which you show to people who thereupon bring you икра on the quick. Or how? You can even speak into your phone, or hold it over a Russian sign and English will appear on the screen…