10 Diverse Countries that Speak Russian: A Grand Tour of the Russophone World
Spanish students may talk up how their language of choice is spoken all over the Western Hemisphere.
French students might be proud that they can communicate with people throughout Europe, Canada and much of Africa.
But Russian students have their own bragging rights.
While many people only associate the Russian language with Mother Russia herself, it’s actually spoken in far more countries than that. You may find yourself whipping out your basic Russian vocabulary in countries you may not have expected, thereby enriching your travels.
While Russian dialects vary between locations, the language is common in many different countries.
Read on to find out all the different places you can flex your Russian skills!
Why Is Russian So Widely Spoken?
- The USSR encouraged its spread. The spread of the Russian language and culture has occurred throughout history. Much of this process occurred due to policies designed to assimilate diverse populations under one shared language. The Soviet era massively contributed to the spread of the Russian language since it was the main working language used across the USSR’s vast swath of territory.
- Official UN status. Today, Russian remains one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Because of this, many people looking to work in an international setting choose to learn Russian.
- Sphere of influence. Russia is a big country. And like any big country, it has a sphere of influence. People in neighboring countries often learn the Russian language to expand their opportunities to work, study and travel.
- Russian immigrants. Russian immigrants have relocated to virtually every corner of the world, and some of them choose to continue using their native language. Because of this, you can typically find pockets of Russian speakers wherever there’s a large Russian immigrant population.
Russia is the ninth-most common language studied in U.S. primary schools, and it’s also the fifth-most common in the EU. That means the number of Russian speakers is only going to grow over time.
A Quick Note About Sources
Before we dive into the meat of the article, we want to let you know where we got our information. Many websites are all over the board with population and number-of-speaker estimates, so we used The CIA World Factbook for population counts and Wikipedia for the number of speakers in each country to try to keep things consistent.
You can access these resources for free to do more research at home. For background information, we referred primarily to Wikipedia, The CIA World Factbook and Encyclopedia Britannica.
10 Diverse Countries that Speak Russian: A Grand Tour of the Russophone World
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 118,581,514
It should come as no surprise that Russia is home to the largest population of Russian speakers.
Russia spans 11 timezones in Europe and Asia, occupying more land than any other country in the world. The vast majority of Russians speak the Russian language. In fact, Russian is the only official national language, though it’s estimated that Russia’s ethnic groups speak another 100 languages, most notably Tatar and Chechen.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 6,672,964
Belarus is an Eastern European nation that was part of the Russian Empire for a time and later part of the USSR. While it declared independence in 1990, the nation’s linguistic ties to Russia remain strong. Most Belarusians speak Russian, and some consider it their primary language. Both Russian and Belarusian enjoy official status, but Russian is dominant in entertainment, education and many other facets of daily life.
Luckily, Belarusian is one of the languages most similar to Russian, so Russian speakers may understand some Belarusian even if they haven’t studied it.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 3,793,800
Kazakhstan is a diverse Central Asian nation with approximately 130 ethnic groups. This includes a sizeable Russian population that has made the language quite common in the country. This can be explained in part by the fact that Kazakhstan was part of both the Russian Empire and the USSR.
Russian isn’t an official state language in Kazakhstan, but its constitution provides for Russian to have equal status to Kazakh for administrative purposes. Many residents use it as the main language at home and work, and the vast majority of the population speaks at least some Russian.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 482,200
Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian country that was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR.
The Russian language enjoys official status in Kyrgyzstan alongside Kyrgyz. A relatively small portion of the population considers Russian their native language, but many others speak it fluently as their second language. Russian is commonly used for both business and high-level government discussions.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 14,273,670
Ukraine is home to the largest population of Russian speakers outside of Russia. This Eastern European nation was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR. In 2014, Russia attempted to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian is the state language of Ukraine, but some Ukrainians consider Russian their native language and most others know it as a second language. Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine tend to have the highest number of Russian speakers due to their proximity to Russia.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 698,757
Latvia is a Baltic nation and member of the European Union that was once part of the Russian Empire and later the USSR.
While Latvian is the nation’s only official language and Russian is considered a foreign language, over half of the population is fluent in Russian and about a quarter of the population uses it as their primary language. However, recent education reforms aim to make Latvian the only language of instruction for higher education, so the Russian language may fade in years to come.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 264,162
Moldova is an Eastern European country wedged between Ukraine and Romania. Like much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Moldova was once part of the Russian Empire and the USSR.
There’s some debate about the official language since the Declaration of Independence named it as Romanian and the Constitution declared it Moldovan. Moldovan is more widely spoken than Romanian, but the Constitutional Court of Moldova ruled that Romanian is the official language. While Russian isn’t as widely spoken as either Moldovan or Romanian, it remains the main language of some of the population, and many Moldovans are fluent in the language.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 383,118
Estonia is a Baltic nation that was part of the USSR and is now a member of the European Union.
Estonian is the country’s official language, and Russian is considered a foreign language. However, many residents use Russian as their main language at home or work. This is especially common in the Eastern part of the country that borders Russia. Many Estonians also speak at least some Russian as a second language.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 900,205
Compared to the total population of the United States, the number of total Russian speakers is quite small. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter them. In fact, the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn is home to a sizeable population of Russian speakers.
Like most languages spoken in the United States, Russian was brought in by immigrants, so your language skills may come in handy wherever there are large Russian immigrant communities.
Estimated Number of Russian Speakers: 1,155,960
Israel is a Middle Eastern nation. While you might not expect to hear Russian spoken in the deserts of the Middle East, you very likely will.
Russian Jewish immigrants from the USSR moved to Israel, bringing their language with them. Hebrew is the official language, but Russian is widely spoken, and there are Russian-language TV channels, newspapers and schools in the country.
While these 10 countries represent some parts of the world where Russian is spoken, this list isn’t comprehensive. The Russian language is also common in other countries that are located near Russia, countries and regions that were once part of the USSR and areas that are home to large immigrant populations. So the next time you travel, listen up! You may hear Russian when you’re not expecting it!