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The Russian Writing System

The Russian alphabet is based on a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet and contains 33 letters (21 consonants, 10 vowels and 2 symbols to indicate whether a preceding consonant in a word is “hard” or “soft,” i.e., palatalized or not).

The Russian writing system did not appear until the 17th Century. Up until that point, the written language in Russia was Old Church Slavonic, a liturgical language. With the introduction of a revised Russian alphabet by Peter the Great (1672-1725), as well as his championing of a literary style nearer to the vernacular, written Russian began to be much more common and then flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries1.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, early “Russian punctuation was based on Greek practice, since the Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek; and by the 17th century several quite elaborate systems had evolved in different areas.” However, starting in the 18th Century, the Russian writing system moved more toward punctuation conventions similar to those found in German (specifically, the use of commas to offset subordinate and coordinate clauses, and spacing of letters in different ways to show emphasis)2.

Modern Russian spelling rules follow major 1918 and 1956 reforms. Additional reforms were put forth in the 1990s, but have not been implemented due to the public’s negative reaction3.

Additional resources on the Russian writing system can be found on the Web at:

For information on The Russian Language, please see our Quick Facts Library.

1 “Russian (Русский)” Omniglot: A Guide to Writing Systems

[Accessed December 21, 2004]

2“punctuation” Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

[Accessed December 22, 2004]

3 “Russian Language” Wikipedia

[Accessed December 22, 2004]