Addressing letters to countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet

If you are writing to a woman in a country that normally uses the Cyrillic alphabet, how should you address your letters?

Executive Summary


You must write the city, post code and country in Latin script if the letter is quickly going to get out of your own country in the first place. If you write the rest of the address in Western script, it is just as likely to be delivered as if you write it in Cyrillic.

The Details


This question pops up from time to time and people often focus on the wrong end of process and worry about the letter being delivered in its destination country. They forget about the letter managing to leave their own country!

If you live in a Western nation, all of your letters will be sorted by a machine. Even handwritten addresses are scanned by computer and are normally successfully recognised. While there are a few minor variations in the process, the operation is focussed on the last few lines of the address. There, the system will expect to see the postal code, Zip Code or whatever depending on the country and some other corroborating evidence.

For example, if a letter in Germany carries a postal code ot 89073, then after it has recognised this, the system will look to see if it can find a reference to Ulm which is the city to which this code belongs. If so, it will then feel confident that it has the correct code and, from its database of codes and streets, it will try to decide which possible street name is the best match for the scrawl on the envelope. If the letter is to an international destination, it will try to find a valid combination of a country name, postal code and city.

If the computer system fails to recognise this information, it will divert the letter for manual intervention. That is almost certain to introduce a delay which could be quite substantial around holiday times.

So, it is important the you make sure that, even if you include a Cyrillic address, you also write the city, postal code and country in western script in the centre of the envelope.

Having said that, the next question is how you should go about writing the rest of the address. Cyrillic, Latin or both?

Clearly the simple route is to write the address in Western script but is that good enough?

I have heard the following three arguements raised in favour of writing the address in Cyrillic:

The letter is more likely to be delivered as the postman may not understand the Western version of the address.

The letter is less likely to be opened and stripped of valuables because it does not stand out as being from a Westerner.

The use of Cyrillic addressing is more likely to impress the woman to whom you are writing.

Personally, I find the first two of those to be laughable.

I'll consider the matter of the recognition of the address first. Western script is very common all over the world. Almost every literate human being on the planet reconises in Latic script the brand names for the leading soft drinks, tobacco products, fuels and lubricants.

In countries that use the Cyrillic script, half the consumer products in the shops are labled in whole or in part in Western script. Indeed, half of the products that I buy in Germany are labelled in Russian and Ukrainian. The point of this is that even if a postman in Russia cannot speak anything but Russian, he knows what the addresses on his round look like when they are written in Western characters.

I have never seen any hard evidence that there is a problem delivering letters addressed with Western script anywhere in the world. I would be a lot more worried about an envelope addressed in Cyrillc which was impossible to decipher because the letters were written wrongly.

As for the matter of making it less likely that your letters will be opened because they do not stand out as foreign I find this even more strange. Your letter will carry a number of obvious signs that it comes from the Western world.

The most obvious is the stamp followed closely by the return address and the blue air mail sticker.

After that comes your handwriting. The chances of a Western man addressing an envelope in Cyrillic without the result looking worse than the efforts of a small child are close to zero and the alternative of a nice laser printed address is equally attention grabbing.

As for impressing the recipient, well perhaps you will but perhaps you will make a mess of the address and just look silly.

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