ISO Code: rus
Native name: русский
Family: Indo-European
Est. L1 speakers: 150,000,000
Est. L2 speakers: 110,000,000
Est. total speakers: 260,000,000
(Co-)official in:
  1. United Nations


Interest in the Russian language seems to closely track the overall influence of the Russian state (or, during much of the 20th century, its supranational ersatz substitute). Having reached the high point during the Cold War era, it then declined quite precipitously – at least as measured by the number of US college students enrolled in Russian classes. Nowadays, the state is once again reasserting its influence and the interest seems be picking up again.

But you are not one to study a language purely for geopolitical reasons, are you? Well, even if you are, you’ll do well to pick Russian as it offers a nice, balanced mix of the familiar and the exotic. The language belongs to the Indo-European family, and while it’s not that similar to, say, English, German, or Spanish, it does have a common ancestor with them… as well as with most other languages spoken in Europe today. In other words, it’s not that different, either. Sure, the alphabet is different, but even there, this “difficulty” affects only the first weeks/months of study. There are more serious obstacles lurking along a learner’s path, though, and probably the biggest one is Russian's case system, which obliges the speaker to modify nouns depending on the role they play in a sentence. In English, a chair is a chair (is a chair), regardless whether you observe it, sit on it, or hit somebody with it. Not so in Russian. However, nothing is impossible, comrade!

Adding Russian to your repertoire of languages will give you access to the treasures of Russian literature and open up the country of over 144 million, whose rebounding economy appears to be poised to break into the Top 5 globally (at least as measured by PPP) any day now. The language itself is used well beyond the borders of the motherland with millions of speakers residing in the countries of the region (Ukraine, the Baltic states, etc), as well as in most urban centers of the English-speaking countries. You will never run out of conversation partners… or depressing literary masterpieces.

Where Russian Is Spoken

Russian-language Writers

  • (20th century:) Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Bulgakov
  • (19th century:) Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol

Well-Known L2 (Non-Native) Speakers

  • Politics: Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany), Condoleezza Rice (fmr. US Secretary of State)
  • Academia: Prof. Stephen F. Cohen (author, professor emeritus), Marshall Poe (historian, author)