Cyrillic Alphabet

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Russian and other Slavic languages are written using the Cyrillic alphabet. The letter system has been attributed to Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Greek Macedonia working as Orthodox missionaries in the ninth century. Cyril invented the Glagolitic (from the word glagoliti, "to speak") script to represent the sounds they heard spoken among the Slavic peoples. By adapting church rituals to the local tongue, the Orthodox Church became nationalized and more accessible to the masses. Visually, Glagolitic appears symbolic or

runic. Later St. Clement of Ohrid, a Bulgarian archbishop who studied under Cyril and Methodius, created a new system based on letters of the Greek alphabet and named his system "Cyrillic," in honor of the early missionary.

Russian leaders have standardized and streamlined the alphabet on several occasions. In 1710, Peter the Great created a "civil script," a new typeface that eliminated "redundant" letters. Part of Peter's campaign to expand printing and literacy, the civil script was designated for all non-church publications. The Bolsheviks made their own orthographic revisions, dropping four letters completely to simplify spelling. As non-Russian lands were incorporated into the Soviet Union, the Communist Party decreed that all non-Russian languages had to be rendered using the Cyrillic alphabet. Following the collapse of the USSR, most successor states seized the opportunity to restore their traditional Latin or Arabic script as a celebration of their national heritage.

Transliteration is the process of converting letters from one alphabet to another alphabet system. There are several widely used systems for transliterating Russian into English, including the Library of Congress system, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names system, and the informally named "linguistic system." Each system offers its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of ease of pronunciation and linguistic accuracy.

This Encyclopedia uses the U.S. Board of Geographic Names system, which is more accessible for non-Russian speakers. For example, it renders the name of the first post-communist president as "Boris Yeltsin," not "Boris El'tsin." The composer of the Nutcracker Suite and the 1812 Overture becomes "Peter Tchaikovsky," not "Piotr Chaikovskii."

See also: byzantium, influence of; nationalities policies, soviet; peter i


Gerhart, Genevra. (1974). The Russian's World: Life and Language. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1988). Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ann E. Robertson