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Making sense of old handwriting

Russian Language and Grammar

Russian/1721 Grammar Book
Грамматика. 1721 год. М.Г. Смотрицкий, Sergeev Pavel. Public Domain.

Russian is an East Slavic language spoken by millions worldwide today. It is an Indo-European language, which means it shares some roots with the Germanic and Romance languages, among others. It is a constantly evolving language with a variety of borrowings from other languages and a writing system inspired by the Greek alphabet. Understanding the basic historical usage and grammar of the Russian language will help you to more effectively navigate the records written in it.

Historical Usage of the Russian Language

Russian was one of several languages used in the former Russian Empire. In fact, even some of the royalty of Russia historically used other languages of commerce, such as German or French. In handwritten records, however, Russian was the standard. Documents written in other languages, such as German, can be found in certain contexts (like German-language church books in the Volga and Black Sea regions), but more commonly you will find records written in the Russian language across the former empire as a whole. Once the Soviet Union was established, other languages were occasionally recognized, but Russian remained the primary language for record keeping.

Written Russian has been heavily regulated over time, especially in the format of official documents. This can be an enormous help for researchers, as there is little variation in the type of language used between a record from one part of the former Russian Empire/USSR and another. Another positive point for researchers is that Russian is a phonetic language, meaning that things are generally spelled how they sound. Because of this, there are fewer variations in the way a sound can be spelled out than in a language like English, where one sound could be expressed in a myriad of ways (consider "love," "rough," and "stuff," all of which have the same vowel sound but spell it differently) . Between the phonetic nature of the language and government spelling reforms in the 18th and 20th centuries, spelling stays relatively consistent, especially across records from the same time period. Many of the same grammatical constructions have also been maintained for the past few centuries, adding consistency to that aspect of written language as well.


Nouns and Cases

Russian is a highly inflected language. That means that many word endings change to reflect the roles of those words in a sentence. To a certain extent, English follows a similar pattern. Consider, for example, the verb "to walk":

  • past tense: I walked
  • present tense: I walk, she walks
  • future tense: I will walk

In English, the ending "-ed" is often attached to verbs in past tense, while the word "will" is added before verbs in the future tense. Even in the present tense, the ending changes depending on who is performing the action. Similar changes are made in Russian with a greater variety of verb endings than English has. Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns also change their endings based on their grammatical case. For example, watch the last letter of the word книга change in each of the following examples:

  • Книга на полу. ("A book is on the floor." "Book" is the subject of the sentence.)
  • Я читаю книгу. ("I am reading a book." "Book" is the direct object in this instance.)
  • Очки на книге. ("The glasses are on the book." "Book" is the location of the subject.)

The root of the word usually stays the same, but you can see from these examples that the last letter or letters may change, or additional letters may be added, to show how the word is being used in a sentence. Importantly, even names of people and places will take on these ending changes. The following are the main six cases used in Russian today, each of which is used in certain grammatical constructions:

Grammatical CaseUse in Russian Language DocumentsExample
NominativeThis is considered the "dictionary name" of the word ("nom" comes from the Latin "nomen," meaning "name"). Usually this case is used when stating the subject of a sentence, including any adjectives attached to it.Anya is reading.
Аня читает.
AccusativeThe direct object, or the thing being acted upon, is stated in accusative case. The endings for accusative case may change depending on whether that object is animate (either a person or animal) or inanimate.

Animate: Alexander loves Anya.
Александр любит Аню.
(nominative: Аня)

Inanimate: Anya is reading a magazine.
Аня читает журнал.
(nominative: журнал)

GenitiveGenitive case often expresses possession. Basically, it shows that something belongs to someone or something else or is a part of another entity. It is the ending of the person/thing doing the possessing that changes (see example). Some prepositions are also used with genitive case.This is Anya's book.
Это книга Ани.
(nominative: Аня)
PrepositionalCertain Russian prepositions (though not all of them) are used with prepositional case. The concepts of "about," "in," and "on" are all expressed through this case.Anya lives in Minsk.
Аня живёт в Минске.
(nominative: Минск)
DativeUsed with the indirect object of a sentence, the dative case shows how another party is affected by the subject's action on the direct object (see example). Certain prepositions are also used with dative case.Alexander reads the book to Anya.
Александр читает книгу Ане.
(nominative: Аня)
InstrumentalInstrumental case is used most often to show when something is done with another person or object. It is also used with certain prepositions.Alexander reads the book with Anya.
Александр читает книгу с Аней.
(nominative: Аня)

The following notes about noun usage can be used to better understand the models above, as well as examples you will find in your research:

  • In the second example for accusative case, you may have noticed that the ending for журнал remains the same as it is in nominative case. Be aware that some case endings do look identical, though the cases being expressed may be different.
  • Multiple cases will show up in the same sentence. For example, in the sentence "Anya reads the book with Alexander," "Anya" would be in nominative case, "book" would be in accusative case, and "Alexander" would be in instrumental case.
  • Word order can be a little different in Russian than it is in English, and it can vary much more as well. Because the role of the word is expressed through the case ending, word orders that are important in English can be changed in Russian:
    • "Anya loves Alexander" could be written as Аня любит Александра or Александра любит Аня. Even though Alexander's name comes first in the latter version of the sentence, the name endings make the meaning the same.
  • Russian does not have the articles "a," "an," or "the." This is why "Anya is reading the book" is translated as Аня читает журнал—literally, "Anya is reading magazine."


Word endings also depend on the gender of the word being used. In Russian, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Gender in grammar usually has nothing to do with the meaning of the word, but rather refers to the way the word ends:

    • Masculine nouns usually end with a consonant; sometimes -ь (soft sign) or -й (ee kratkoye): город (city), день (day), Май (May)
    • Feminine nouns usually end with an -a or -я but may end in a -ь (soft sign); книга (book), деревня (village): дочь (daughter)
    • Neuter nouns usually end with a -о or -е: село (village), крещение (baptism)


Adjectives, which are used to describe nouns, also take on different endings depending on the case and gender of the nouns they describe. Here are some examples:

  • старый человек- old person (nominative case)
  • книга старого человека- the old person's book ("old person" is in genitive case)
  • Я люблю старую женщину- I love the old woman ("old woman" is in accusative case)
  • мы подарили цветы старой женщине- we gave flowers to the old woman ("old woman" is in dative case)

Even though the adjective endings and noun endings don't change in the same ways, you can still see in these instances that both change when the role of the words in the sentence changes.

How do I know what endings are used for each case?

You can use the Word Endings and Spelling page of this tutorial to determine which case ending is being used for a certain word. They are organized by gender, case, and number (singular or plural). There are different charts for nouns and adjectives, as the endings of each are different.


Prepositions in Russian trigger a certain grammatical case for the nouns that follow them. Some prepositions have more than one meaning and may even use multiple cases, depending on the context. Use the table below to learn more about which preposition goes with which case:

вat, intoaccusativeHe was born at nine o'clock.
He came into the room.
вinprepositionalHe was born in July.
He is in the room.
заforaccusativeThanks for the help.
заforinstrumentalThis is for you.
изfrom/ofgenitiveHe is from Tallinn.
кtodativeHe went to his father.
междуbetweeninstrumentalShe lives between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
на(go) on/onto/toaccusativeHe is going onto the field.
наon/atprepositionalHe is on the field.
о/обaboutprepositionalbook about marriages
околоnear/aboutgenitivenear the forest; about 50 years old
отfromgenitiveHe drove from Lublin.
передin front of/beforeinstrumental The witness appeared before us.
поvia, bydativecome by sea; speak via telephone
под(go) under/belowaccusativeShe is going below Riga.
подunder/belowinstrumentalShe is below Riga.
приat/at the time ofprepositionalThe house is at the lake.
at the time of Peter the Great
с/соfrom/sincegenitivefrom 1917
since 2 o'clock
с/соwithinstrumentalHe lives with his mother.
уat/bygenitiveThey live at their grandma's house.
By me (I have) 3 children.
черезthrough/acrossaccusativea bridge across the Volga.


Like in English, verbs are conjugated in Russian to reflect who or what is performing an action and when it is performed. While Russian has present and future tenses, the genealogical records you encounter will almost exclusively use past tense, as they describe previous events. The following endings indicate past tense actions:


One common verb you will see in the past tense is быть, which means "to be." Here are some examples of how you would see this verb in context:

  • отец был- the father was
  • крещение было- the baptism was
  • невеста была- the bride was
  • свидетели были- the witnesses were

Additional Resources

This brief overview of Russian grammar, combined with the other resources on this tutorial, should give you a good foundation when approaching common genealogical documents, such as birth records, revision lists (taxation records), the 1897 Russian Empire census, and other similar handwritten sources. For further Russian language instruction and practice, you can visit the following links:


Paleography Introduction