Here are samples of Russian letters in action. In most cases, the first two letters in each series are printed upper case and lower case letters from a typeface used in the body of the Minsk Vedomosti, an official Russian government newspaper published in Minsk from 1838 to 1917. The third and fourth letters are examples of upper case and lower case italic letters from the Minsk Vedomosti. The remaining letters are examples of upper case and lower case cursive letters written in the 1870 death records for the Jews of Kremenets, Ukraine.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English A, and the Yiddish Aleph. Ordinary printed A's, italic A's and most cursive capital A's are usually easy to read. Lower case cursive A's sometimes look like lower case E's or E's. When the copy is poor or the clerk was careless, there may be a gap on top of a lower case cursive A, and it may end up looking like a Russian I.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English B, and the Yiddish Bet. Ordinary printed B's and italic B's are usually easy to read. A cursive capital B can look like an English S. A lower case cursive B can look a lot like a lower case cursive D. The ascender, or stem, of a lower case D will point to your left. The ascender of the B will point to your right, but it may curl back around to the left. At least it sticks up and waves at you.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English V, and the Yiddish Vet. Ordinary printed and italic V's are easy to read, except that they might drive a native English speaker nuts because they look like our B's. Cursive V's are also pretty easy to read. One issue: just as some English speakers make loopier loops than others, some Russians make loopier loops than others. One Russian might write a lower case cursive V with a stem that practically looks like a circle. Another might write a lower case cursive V with a stem that looks like a stick. Weird Russian V fact: sometimes Russians and other folks use the letter V where English speakers use the vowel U. So, the surname "Auerbach" in English might very well be spelled "Averbakh" in Russian.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English G, and the Yiddish Gimel. Ordinary printed G's and italic capital G's are easy to read. Lower case italic G's are hard to read because they look, basically, like little squiggly worms, or a little bit like backward S's. In Russian cursive, G's seem to be a kind of an ego-driven letter. The same clerk might write a capital G as a big version of a lower case G in one instance, then write it in a form that resembles an English cursive capital T or capital F in another instance. Whenever you see a hard to identify capital cursive Russian letter, think about whether it could be a G. Also, keep in mind that the Russians had no letter H. They often used the letter G in proper names in place of the letter H. The Yiddish given name Hirshs might be written Girsh in Russian.
This is the Russian equivalent of an English D, or a Yiddish Dalet. Ordinary printed and italic D's are easy to recognize because they look like triangles. Capital cursive D's are easy because they look like English cursive D's. Lower case cursive D's are confusing, because they can either look like an English lower case cursive D with a stem that curls to the left, *or* they can look like an English lower case cursive G. Of course, human personalities being what they are, the descender that dangles below the rest of the letter might look like a nice fat loop, or it might look like a stick.
This is sort of like an Russian equivalent of an E, but it is actually pronounced "ye" in a lot of cases. Russians also have a letter that looks like an E with two dots on top, which is pronounced "yo," but I didn't see any examples in the records I was looking at, so I haven't included that letter here. Printed E's and cursive E's are as easy to recognize in Russian as in English, but you should keep in mind that lower case cursive E's can easily end up looking like little bumps that are part of other letters. They can also end up looking like lower case cursive A's, O's and S's.
This is a letter that sounds like the S in the middle of the English word pleasure, or the initial J in the French name "Jean." (As in "Captain Jean-Luc Picard.") The printed letter is easy to recognize. Sometimes, the lower case cursive version looks like a lower case Russian M, T or SH. One clue: a clerk might put a horizontal bar below a lower case cursive M or SH, or above a lower case cursive T, to let you know what letter he meant to write. Clerks don't seem to mark their ZH's with bars.
This is the equivalent of the English Z and the Yiddish Zayin. This letter is usually easy to spot in both the printed and the cursive forms. Sometimes, the lower case cursive version looks like a lower case cursive z and has a descender that dangles beneath the rest of the letter.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English I and the Yiddish Yud. The ordinary printed version and the upper case italic versions are easy to spot, but the lower case italic and the cursive versions are a little hard for an English speaker to recognize because they look like U's. In messy handwriting, they may look like A's, L's M's, N's, T's, SH's, and SHCH's.
This is an obsolete Russian letter that used to be another equivalent of the English I and the Yiddish Yud. It looks like an English I, in both the printed and the cursive form. The Russian lower case J and the old Russian I are the only dotted Russian cursive letters.
This could be considered the Russian equivalent of the English letter J or the English Y and the Yiddish Yud. The printed versions are clear, but the upper case versions, which are rare, may not always have the tildes (squiggles) on top. The lower case versions are fairly easy to spot because of the tildes.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English letter K and the Yiddish letters Kof and Kuf. It looks like an English K, but messy lower case cursive Russian K's may look like lower case cursive Russian N's.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English L and the Yiddish Lamed. It always looks like a mountain, in the printed and the cursive forms. The lower case cursive version is supposed to have a little hook that comes before it, to the left, so that you can tell it apart from the letter that precedes it. Sometimes, clerks make the hook very tall, and their L's look like their I's. When a Russian lower case L looks sort of like an I, that means it also looks very much like five or six other letters. Because of this ambiguity, you may have to locate lower case cursive L's using your psychic powers rather than your eyes.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English M and the Yiddish Mem. This letter looks like a slightly pointier version of the English letter, in both the printed and the cursive forms. One issue: the lower case italic and cursive M's look like the lower case italic and cursive versions of the Russian letter T. Clerks are supposed to put little hooks before the start of their lower case cursive M's, but you may have a hard time spotting the hooks. For this reason, lower case M's may be hard to distinguish from lower case A's, I's, L's, etc.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English N and the Yiddish Nun. The printed versions and the upper case cursive versions of this letter look like the printed upper case English letter H. The lower case cursive version looks like a sort of pointy lower case cursive English N. If a clerk writes stick-like, non-loopy lower case K's, they may look almost exactly like his lower case N's.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English O and the Yiddish Vav, when Vav is turned into a vowel. This letter is usually easy to spot and looks just like the English version. In very messy handwriting, cursive O's might look like S's. Lower case cursive O's might look like A's.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English P and the Yiddish Pay. This letter is usually easy to recognize. One issue: the lower case italic version and the cursive versions look like the lower case cursive English N. You may have a hard time at first remembering that you are looking at a P, rather than an N.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English R and the Yiddish Resh. Both the printed and cursive versions of this letter are usually very easy to spot. Like G, though, capital cursive R can be an ego-driven letter. The clerk may bury it in curlicues.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English S and the Yiddish Samekh, or Sin. It looks like the English C. Both the printed and the cursive versions should be written about the same way, but the upper case cursive versions may look like O's, and the lower case versions may be indistinguishable from lower case E's. Sometimes, the S's look like lower case cursive English F's. I don't know why.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English T and the Yiddish Tet, or Tau. The lower case italic and cursive versions look like the lower case cursive English M, which is pretty darn confusing. Of course, lower case cursive English M's often end up looking like a lot of other letters, and a lower case Russian cursive T can also look like eight other letters. A careful clerk might throw you a lifeline by putting a horizontal bar over his lower case T's, to distinguish them from his M's and SH's.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English U and the Yiddish Vav, when Vav is written as a vowel with an oo sound. This letter looks like an English Y. It's usually easy to spot. A well-designed letter.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English F and the Yiddish Fay. This letter looks like a two-headed lollipop. It's usually very easy to spot. Sometimes a lower case cursive F might look a little like an O followed by an R.
This is the Russian equivalent of the Yiddish Khet, or Khof. The printed version of this letter looks like an English X. The upper case cursive version may look more like the Greek letter Lambda, and the lower case version may look like a lower case cursive English F. When in doubt, look for the given name Khaim. Once you find a Khaim, or maybe a Nakhman, you will see how the clerk wrote this letter.
This is the Russian equivalent of the Yiddish Tzadi. Both the printed and cursive versions look about the same, and the cursive versions are fairly easy to spot because of the squiggle dangling down from the lower right corner of the letter.
This letter has a Ch sound. The printed versions are very similar to one another. The upper case cursive version looks sort of like a 7 with a curled bottom, and the lower case version looks like a lower case English R. The cursive versions are fairly easy to recognize, but the lower case version might look sort of like a lower case cursive Russian G if the clerk fails to make the corners of the CH sharp.
This is the Russian equivalent of the Yiddish Shin. The printed versions are easy to spot because they look like English W's. The lower case cursive version can be tough to spot, because it can end up looking like or blending in with the A's, I's, L's, M's, T's and other letters in a word.
This makes the sound at the end of the Russian word "tovarishch" (comrade). It's like a shin with a little tail dangling from the lower right corner.
This is a symbol that lets you know that the consonant that precedes it is hard. It doesn't have a true upper case version, but, when newspapers print words entirely in upper case letters, they use a big version of the lower case letter. In the 1800s, Russian used this sign a lot more than they do today. Transcribers tend to ignore this symbol when transcribing Russian into English characters.
This is the Russian equivalent of the English Y. It's easy to spot because it looks like a B followed by an I.
This is the soft sign, which lets you know that the preceding consonant is "soft." To an American, this means the consonant sounds as if it has a "yuh" after it, but Russians hear something different. This sign often follows the L in Jewish names such as Yankel (Jake) and Shovel (Shaul). It doesn't really have an upper case version, but newspapers use a big version of the lower case version when they write words entirely in upper case letters. Transcribers often use an apostrophe to represent this symbol. To be blunt, I have a very hard time distinguishing a soft sign from a hard sign. Please don't base your answers to a Russian spelling or grammar exam on my attempts to tell them apart!
This is the Russian equivalent of the English E, without a Y sound before it. Example: "elephant," not "yelephant." This letter is easy to recognize, but I didn't see any lower case examples, so I haven't included any here.
This represents the sound Yu, as in the Jewish given name "Yudko." It's easy to recognize in both the printed and the cursive forms, because it looks like an I followed by an O.
This represents the sound Ya. It's usually easy to recognize in both the printed and the cursive forms. I think the last example I include here is a cursive version of this letter that comes at the end of words, but maybe it's actually another letter, so please check this with an expert if figuring out exactly what this letter is is really important to you, for some reason.
This represents the sound Th. It's no longer used in modern Russian. It seems to be very rare in Jewish names, but it was once used in a lot of Russian Orthodox and Catholic given names.
This is an obsolete letter that once seemed to represent the vowel E. The ordinary printed and italic versions look like lower case printed English b's with crossed stems. The cursive versions and lower case italic version look like a lower case English N with a loop on the lower right corner.
Example of letter-by-letter transliteration - Ievel Manis Shtern
Sample entries - Ester Fishman and Freude Tzitrin