The Russian language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, as everyone knows. But this can be a problem when Russian words and names come up in texts written in the Latin alphabet. They can't just be inserted in Cyrillic letters, since more often than not, someone reading a non-Cyrillic text cannot read the letters since they probably don't speak one of those languages. Luckily, there is a system of transliteration for the Cyrillic alphabet into the English one, which has become quite standardized, thank God. The following system is the one used by the American Library Association and approved by the Library of Congress for transliterating Russian into English (Cyrillic, IPA, English]):
* The letters E,Ë,И,Ю,Я are considered soft vowels, with the counterparts Э,O,Ы,У,A as hard vowels. This refers to the fact that the soft group palatizes the preceding consonant, which is perhaps the single most typically Russian phonological feature. Palatization is distinctive in Russian, meaning it can be the difference form one word to another. I simply write 'e' and 'ë' as transliterations of the first two, since palatization can be amost understood with these, especially if the syllable is stressed. Also, 'ë' is always grammatically related to 'e,' and is always stressed. 'Ja' and 'ju' need to always be written with the 'j' in order to distinguish them from 'a' and 'u.' I would write 'je' and 'jë' at the beginning of words, though, to distinguish them from 'e,' which only really occurs at word initially. After a hard sign, I'd write all of these letters as 'ye,' 'ya' etc., so that it's clear that the preceding consonant is not palatized. But after a soft sign they should be written with the 'j,' so that 'in July' is 'v ijul'je' and 'of July' is 'ijul'ja'.
** This sound is usually used in diphthongs. I like using 'y' for this one, since it is a yod, the same sound that begins a syllable after a hard sign when the vowel is soft
*** The hard sign, and more importantly, the soft sign have been the subject of vast amounts of linguistic debate and discusson in Russian. The hard sign used to occur at the end of many words, but now it's really only used when a prefix ends in a hard consonant and the stem begins with a soft vowel , so that rather than palatizing the preceding consonant, the soft vowel is pronounced with a yod.
The soft sign is the opposite: it palatizes a consonant in a situation where it normally wouldn't be palatized, such as in the word 'письмo' (mail;letter). In this case, it is spelled as an apostrophe -- "pis'mo." Most Russian verbs end with this letter, as in 'писaть'(to write), which would be transcribed as "pisat'." When the soft sign is followed by a soft vowel, the soft sign does the palatizing, and there is a glide /j/ between the soft sign and the soft vowel. The name 'Илья' is transcribed 'Il'ja.'
**** This is a high central vowel. It's basically somewhere between /i/ and /u/, and is the RussianЫ. It's transcribed as 'y,' which is unfortunately the best way to represent this sound, which has no equivalent in English as a phoneme.
***** Someone asked me to explain this one, but there's not much to it. None of the phonemes of Russian (or any othee language) are identical to their English counterparts. But as for the 'l', I think I know what you're thinking of. In Russian as in English, there are twos l's, it's just that the difference is more pronounced in Russian. The first one is the l that is followed by a soft vowel or a soft sign. This l is similar to, but more much more palatalized than the English l in 'leave' and 'lit.' In fact, it's almost like if not exactly like the sound in the middle of 'million.' The other one, the one people do when they are trying to make a Russian accent, is what we call dark l or a velarized l. This one is similar too, but slightly deeper sounding that the l's in 'lull' and 'all.'