In this overview guide to Russian language exams, I’ll show you the Russian language exams available for adult independent learners and give you some practical information as to how to go about taking one.
You may need a Russian exam as a prerequisite to matriculation at a Russian university. Maybe you want to live and work in the Russian Federation or another country where a knowledge of Russian is useful or even obtain Russian citizenship.
If you’re a regular on the site, you’ll know that I have taken language exams even though I had none of these external reasons.
To me, a certificate can be a great objective yardstick of your attainments so far. I’ve used registering for an exam to provide a focus and a medium-term target to work towards in the foreign language; a motivational tool rather than an end in themselves. You might fancy doing the same.
You may fancy trying a Russian test but be unsure about which Russian language exams on offer. If you’re asking yourself “Which Russian exam is best for me?”, you’re in the right place to get your initial questions answered. In the same way, if you’re wondering about where and when you could take a Russian language exam, read on!
TRKI Russian exams
TRKI stands for Тест по русскому языку как иностранному (Test in Russian as a foreign language) and is also known by its English acronym ToRFL.
The framework of the TRKI Russian tests is set out in Russian federal legislation.
There is no one body that runs the exams, such as the Goethe Institut for German. Instead, administration and the setting of papers is the responsibility of thirteen nominated lead institutions. These are the universities of Kazan, Tomsk, People’s Friendship (Moscow), Tyumen, Volgograd, Penza, Pskov, the University of the South West (in Kursk), the Herzen Pedagogical University (St Petersburg), the Pushkin Russian Language Institute (in Moscow), Moscow State University, Moscow Pedagogical University, Saint Petersburg State University).
The levels and structure of the papers set by each lead institution, strictly follow the centrally set framework.
There are six TRKI/TORFL levels. These did not originally reference the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficiency/mastery) but have now been brought into line with it.
Elementary Level (TEL/A1) (ТЭУ: элементарный уровень). This aims to show competence in elementary communicative needs in a limited number of everyday situations. Minimum vocab: 780 words.
Basic Level (TBL/A2)(ТБУ: базовый уровень). The “Basic” level indicates that you can satisfy your communicative needs in a limited number of situations in everyday life and culture. Minimum vocab: 1300 words.
I’ve looked into this level in more detail here on the site in a post on the vocab and grammar that you need.
Look out too for my “Focus in Five” A2 Russian Grammar Revision Course. To be informed of when the course next runs, make sure you’re signed up to the free Howtogetfluent Email Club (and you’ll also get my language learner pro video training when you do). Sign up box at the bottom of this post.
The First Certificate (TORFL-I/B1) (ТРКИ-I: первый уровень). The First Certificate qualification is intended to show that you can meet your main communicative needs in everyday, cultural, educational and professional areas of life. Minimum vocab: 2300 words.
You generally need this certificate to apply to study for a first degree at a Russian higher education institution (though to graduate, you’ll need the Second Certificate).
Always be sure to double check the precise, current requirements of the institution you’re applying to as requirements vary and can change.
The Second Certificate (TORFL-II / B2)(ТРКИ-II: второй уровень). The Second Certficiate evidences a high level of competence in Russian. It shows that you have the Russian skills to cope in a wide range of different contexts situations. Minimum vocab: understand 10,000 words (active ability to use 6,000 of them).
You need this certificate to receive a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD degree from a Russian university (though the third certificate is needed to graduate in certain philology-related subjects).
This level also allows you to carry out professional activities in Russian in the social sciences and humanities (except for philology), engineering, natural sciences and so on.
I took this exam in London back in 2015 as a refresher to get my Russian back into gear (I have been a fluent Russian speaker for several decades).
The Third Certificate (TORFL-III / C1)(ТРКИ-III: третий уровень). The Third Certificate shows “a high level of language command in all communicative contexts”. Minimum vocab: understand 12,000 words (active ability to use 7,000 of them).
It’s a level which shows that you have the Russian skills needed to conduct professional activity in area where a good command of language is central: linguistics, translation, editing, journalism, international relations and management.
Many overseas translation/interpreting courses will require the Third Certificate (or equivalent), though some, for example the Masters course in Conference Interpreting at Heidelberg requires the Fourth Certificate:.
Here on the site. I’ve shared lots of info on my first attempt at the Third Certificate (passing four of the five sub-tests) and about how, a year later, I prepared for and passed the writing sub-test on the second attempt.
The Fourth Level Certificate (TORFL-IV / C2) (ТРКИ-IV: четвертый уровень). Meet the ultimate Russian “proficiency” exam. The fabled “Fourth Certificate” is supposed to provide evidence of competence close to that of a well-educated native Russian-speaker.
It also enables its holder to receive a Master of Arts degree in philology, undertake all forms of work in Russian philology.
I was so frustrated at the lack of information out there about this exam and the hype around its alleged difficulty that I jumped at the chance to interview three successful candidates here on the site. You can check out my first Russian TRKI 4th Certificate successful candidate interview, with Daria, the second candidate interview, with Barbara and the third interview with Aga.
TRKI/TORFL approach and content
The six exams all consist of five parts. These cover the “four skills” reading, writing, speaking and listening. So far, so usual.
Then there is a fifth part, which is more unusual: the vocabulary and grammar paper, which is a multi choice format.
Where and when can you take the TRKI/TORFL Russian exams in Russia?
Each of the leading institutions holds the exams themselves at their “home base”.
So, if you want to sit them there, you need to check the latest information on the website of the relevant institution for dates, fees and other requirements.
However, the info available online is not always up-to-date or complete (especially in English).
The St Petersburg State University website suggests that they hold the exams weekly
The most user-friendly site I have found is the Pushkin Institute’s. Even here, I have only found upcoming dates and start times (so I presume you need to call or email to book in advance or – if they have a system where you can just turn up – to check what you need to bring (passport, fees etc) and that they are holding the exams on the advertised date.
Moscow State University’s pages are Byzantine in their complexity, for example and I still haven’t found when then next test dates are and how to apply as a “walk in” examinee. “MGU” (as the university is known) has a long-standing Institute of Russian Language and Culture but it isn’t possible to find up-to-date information about when the exams are held from its website in English or in Russian.
Kazan University has info here while Moscow’s Peoples Friendship University administers the tests through its Horizon Education Centre in Moscow and it appears to be possible to register for upcoming dates.
In all cases, don’t rely on the websites. Check directly with the institution before you plan your trip to Russia.
Most foreign visitors will probably be looking to take the exam in Moscow or St Petersburg, given their status as international travel hubs. However, many of the lead institutions also offer the exams in different places throughout Russia as well (for example, the Pushkin Institute lists a great many partners in the provinces).
Taking the TRKI/TORFL exams outside Russia
You can take the TRKI exams abroad
Each leading institution is free to authorise other bodies inside and outside the Russian Federation to run the exams under their supervision. This means you may be able to sit one of the exams without going to Russia (if it is easier for you to visit another country, for example because of travel costs or visa requirements).
The current list of St Petersburg State University’s current foreign partners are listed here, for example. None of the centres are in North America. This may explain why when I sat the TRKI third certificate in London, a young guy had flown in specially from Canada to take the second certificate (!).
To find out about dates and the cost of sitting the exam abroad, you therefore need to check the info of the body outside Russia that offering the exam.
Barbara, one of the successful TRKI Fourth Certificate candidates I’ve interviewed here on the site, took the exam at the Maxim Academie in Hamburg, which is a commercial school specialising only in Russian and a partner of St Petersburg State University. They list dates in March and May 2019 for all six TRKI levels and you can register online (presumably the site will be updated for 2020).
I have taken the two TRKI exams at the Russian Language Centre in London. The RLC is a commercial school, located in the Puskin Institute (a charity that promotes Russian culture) in Bloomsbury, central London.
The first exam I took (TRKI 2nd Certficiate) was set by MGU but by the second one (TRKI Third Certificate), the RLC had come to a new partner arrangement with StPGU.
The RLC only offers the exams twice a year (usually January/early summer).
Be aware that these external bodies may also impose their own requirements.
For example, at the RLC the price varies according to whether or not you have done a language course with them.
If you are an “external candidate” you may also be required to take a RLC assessment before they enter you for the exam. I had to do this for TRKI 2nd Certificate as I came to the RLC “cold”. By the time I took TRKI 3rd Certificate, I had already done a summer class with them.
Some language schools outside Russia seem reluctant to offer the Fourth Certificate. This was certainly Aga’s experience (candidate interview). One reason for this, I suspect, is simply that there is a very small number of potential candidates.
If you contact local exam centres that are offering the other levels, they may be able to arrange for you to take the Fourth Certificate. Otherwise, you will need to travel to Russia (or Hamburg – see above).
Period of validity/Retaking the TRKI/TORFL Russian exams
Given this conflicting information, I would check with the lead institution/local partner on the precise situation when you first do your exam.
You can, of course, retake the whole exam as many times as you want (though you should expect to have to pay full fees each time).
Keep in mind that the TRKI qualifications are only valid for two years after you pass. This is of no practical relevant for me, but it could be for you if you need a TRKI certificate for university entrance/graduation in Russia (check with your institution, in Russia or abroad).
TRKI – the verdict
The TRKI is the official Russian exam and this obviously counts in its favour even if the layout of the exams is rather staid.
The system suffers from the lack of a dedicated cultural organisation to market it and provide easily accessible information. For example, there was uncertainty about the format of one of the writing exercises before I took the Third Certificate.
The Russians are missing a trick here if you compare the big business and boost to culture around high level English or German exams, for example.
That said, the TRKI has the ultimate brand recognition that comes from that official certificate. You know where you stand and you have the option of doing it in various places around the world, such as London, if getting here is easier for you than a trip to Russia.
Practice exam papers for the TRKI/TORFL Russian test
There is only one “model” paper published for each level and they are all old (early 2000s).
However, St Petersburg University has worked up a second example paper (except for TRKI IV/C2) . You can see both sets of papers on St Petersburg’s site.
In comparison with other “big” languages such as French, Spanish, German or Japanese, there are far fewer commercially published textbooks for Russian as a foreign language and for exam preparation.
There are, however, some volumes of “mock” papers on sale for the various levels (except the Fourth), published by the commendable Zlatoust publishing house. The relevant volumes were central to both my Second and Third Certificate preparation. I am not aware of any other publisher who has brought out any practice materials.
The Russian Citizenship Exam
The state test of Russian as a foreign language for acceptance for citizenship is a an official Russian state exam but separate from the TRKI system.
It is described as “bazavoi”, suggesting that it is at the same level as the TRKI “basic” (A2) level.
The structure is the same as the TRKI exams: a “sub test” for each of the four skills, plus a vocab/grammar multi-choice test. There is some variation in the time allowed and the type and number of the tasks/questions, though.
The Pushkin Institute links to a fragment of a paper.
St Petersburg University has a full paper up on its site.
Both institutions (and others on the list) stage the exam and it can be taken in many other places in the Russian Federation.
The State Pushkin Russian Language Institute Exams
The Pushkin Institute has developed its own parallel system of exams.
These are general exams for adult learners which have a very similar five-part structure to the TRKI exams (which the Institute also offers), although with some variation on the time allowed and the number/design of the tasks.
In addition, the Pushkin Institute has its own specialist exams. There are exams for for school-aged children, both A1 to C2. Then there are three business Russian exams (B1 to C1) and four Russian language for international tourism exams.
You can take the exams at the Institute in Moscow or on one of its partner centres abroad. These are all in European countries (plus Turkey and Egypt).
As already mentioned (and potentially confusingly), the Pushkin Institute also offers the TRKI exams and the Russian citizenship exam.
Telc Exams for Russian
The other open-access Russian language exams that I’ve found are the Telc exams. Telc stands for “The European Language Certificates”. Telc is a non-profit company (gemeinnützige GmbH) based in Frankfurt-am-Main and belonging to the German Adult Education Association. German exams are Telc’s main focus but there are now exams in nine other languages as well, these include A1 to B2 levels in Russian.
The approach and feel of the Telc general exams seems have a more user-friendly, contemporary feel than the TRKI exams.
The Telc Russian exams consist of four modules (reading, writing, listening, speaking) with the length of time for each part increasing as you move up the scale.
You can see general material on the telc website though the detail and the mock papers (including audio material) are in Russian only.
Telc seems to be well-known in Germany and are well-respected exams.
There are over two thousand Telc test centres in over 20 countries (including in community colleges and in commercial language schools) and these set their own fees for the exam.
Despite this network, Telc is less widely known abroad, especially outside Europe. There are three exam centres listed for the UK on the website none of which I had ever heard of (which, of course, should not be held against them (!)). It is not clear whether they just offer the Telc exams for students of the English language. There is no US, Canadian, Australian or NZ centre listed.
It is also not clear that the Telc qualifications would be accepted as a B1 qualification for study in a Russian higher education institution. You should certainly check with your institution before you apply.
Despite all these caveats, if you have found a centre offering the exam, it could be a good choice if your main reason for doing an exam is to have a clear, objective medium term goal to spur you on.
Have you taken any of these Russian language exams? Do you plan to? Are there other exams out there that we Russian students should be looking at seriously? Let us know in the comments and questions below!