skip to content

Part IA Option A

Beginners' course in the first year

The first year of the ab initio Russian course is intended to introduce students to the basics of the Russian language in papers SLA1 and SLA2, as well as to the interdisciplinary study of Russian culture in paper SLA3.

By the end of the year students should be able to use elementary grammar and syntax with a reasonable degree of confidence and accuracy, and should have sufficient vocabulary to be able to engage in simple conversation, tell a story, and translate simple texts. Students will also have read a range of short 19th and 20th-century texts in Russian and will have studied key events and issues in Russian cultural history from the 11th through the 20th centuries. They are thus prepared to continue with language study and to select from a range of scheduled papers on Russian literature, history, and culture in Part IB

Allocations to language classes

Allocations to ab-initio language classes usually takes place on the Wednesday before the Michaelmas teaching terms starts. An introductory meeting for paper SLA3 usually takes place on the same Wednesday. The meeting dates, times and locations etc. will be sent to students. Students should check their emails regularly as they will receive details for attending from their Directors of Studies or alternatively they can contact the Slavonic Studies Secretary. [Please note that timings of meetings are subject to change. Students and Directors of Studies are asked to refer to the start of term arrangements as listed in the Faculty's information packs or contact the Slavonic Studies Office]

Before you start: Summer Preparation for the ab initio course

Russian belongs to the Slavonic group of the Indo-European languages, and although there are many similarities between Russian and Romance and Germanic languages, there are many differences too, so the learning curve in the first year is very steep. Students are strongly advised to study as much basic Russian grammar as possible before you arrive in Cambridge. This can be done by independent study and/or by attending language courses either in Great Britain or abroad.

You will be asked to do an online exercise prior to coming to Cambridge. (Information will be sent out in late August). Even though this is an ab initio Russian course, students arrive with different levels of basic Russian. The aim of this exercise is to assess how much grammar and vocab you know and allocate you to the right group. The exercise will be based on the material covered in the first few chapters of the textbook (as outlined below).

In order to be ready for the rapid pace of the course, you should complete the following minimal preparatory work by the start of the Michaelmas term:

  • Work through at least first six lessons of the ab initio textbook, Colloquial Russian by Susan E. Kay and Svetlana Le Fleming (Routledge, 4th edition). The following links will take you to Quizlet, which contains exercises to help you learn vocabulary from the first six units. 

  • Read the following:

    1. An overview of Russian history from the 9th to at least the 19th centuries (and preferably into the 20th century)
      • Two good, basic (short) introductions are:
      • Geoffrey Hosking, Russian History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012)
      • Stephen Lovell, The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008)
    2. Some background on Russian literature:
      • Caryl Emerson, The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (Cambridge, 2008): this book may be overwhelming as a whole before you have begun the course, but you would do well to look at Chapters 3 and 4 before you arrive, as these will provide useful background for the material we will be covering in the first term.
    3. ALL of Mikhail Lermontov, Geroi nashego vremeni [A Hero of Our Time] IN ENGLISH.
    4. As many as possible of the following (in English):
      • Alexander Pushkin, ‘Медный всадник’ [The Bronze Horseman]
      • Ivan Turgenev, ‘Свидание’ [The Encounter] and ‘Касьян с красивой мечи’ [Kas’ian from the Beautiful Lands] from A Huntsman's Sketches
      • Nikolai Gogol, ‘Шинель’ [The Overcoat]
      • Anna Akhmatova, ‘Rekviem’

Language Work

You will be attending five weekly classes:


  • Svetlana le Fleming, Susan E. Kay, Colloquial Russian (Routledge), textbook and recordings

Recommended reference works:

  • The Oxford Russian Dictionary (Russian-English, English-Russian OUP)
  • Terence Wade, A Comprehensive Russian Grammar (Blackwell)
  • James S. Levine, Schaum’s Outline of Russian Grammar. (McGraw-Hill Education)
  • Russian online dictionary 
  • The Russian Dictionary Tree (a learner grammatical dictionary) 

Introduction to Russian Culture: Paper SLA3

Teaching provision for paper SLA3 consists of 8 weekly lectures and 2 supervisions in Michaelmas; 16 weekly lectures and 8 weekly supervisions in Lent; and 4 revision supervisions in Easter. Supervisions for paper SLA3 in Lent and Easter will integrate language work with literary and cultural analysis of short Russian texts. Supervisions for paper SLA3 are organized centrally through the Section on behalf of your college. For details of this paper, see Introduction to Russian Culture (SLA3) .


At the end of the year you will take one oral exam and three written exams:

  • SLA1: Use of Russian
  • SLA2: Translation from Russian and Oral A
  • SLA3: Introduction to Russian Culture

Previous years' examination papers are available from the MML Library for ab initio Russian. Please note that past exam papers for SLA3 (previously RuA3) before Tripos 2010 are NOT relevant. Students will receive access to the password-protected Moodle sites at the beginning of the Michaelmas term.

Additional Resources

In addition to working through the first 6 chapters of Colloquial Russian before starting your course, you may find it helpful to explore the aspects of the Russian language on some of the available websites:

As a supplement to the grammar work and reading recommended above, try to develop a good basic knowledge of the main features of Russian literature, history and culture. You may do additional reading from the bibliography posted on line for SLA3, or simply look for the following:

  • Auty, R. & Obolensky, D., eds. Companion to Russian Studies, vols. 1-3 , (Cambridge).
  • Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis (eds.), National Identity in Russian Culture: an Introduction (Cambridge)
  • Daniel H. Kaiser and Gary Marker (ed.), Reinterpreting Russian History, Readings 860 - 1860s (Oxford)

Read newspapers, watch films and documentaries! The following English-language online newspapers offer good coverage of events in Russia:

The best-stocked bookstores for Russian books in the UK are: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 55-57 Great Marlborough Street, London W1V 2AY (tel: 0207-734 2012). They will provide information and catalogues on request. Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge will have copies of some set texts by the beginning of the Michaelmas Term. Many Russian books are available for downloading free on the web. The Colloquial Russian course book can be purchased from the Waterstone's or Blackwell's online shops or from

Keep in touch


Slavonic News

Translating Russia's Greatest Forgotten Novelist: Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (1821-1889), hosted by Pushkin House

24 March 2023

An event celebrating the 200th jubilee of one of Russia's greatest nineteenth-century novelists, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (1821–1889). Organised in part by Slavonic Studies' Dr Anna Berman and hosted by Pushkin House.

'Narratives of the Nineteenth Century: New Directions', a cross-faculty book launch & research workshop

24 March 2023

We are happy to share the upcoming book launch event featuring Dr Anna Berman on Thursday 27 April, 12:45-4 pm, at Gonville & Caius College, Senior Parlour.