Estimated native speakers: 175 million
Estimated total speakers: 300 million
Official/de facto official language in: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Gagauzia, Transnistria, Ukraine
Language family: Indo-European - Balto-Slavic
A brief history:
The most widely spoken of the Slavic languages and one of the six official languages of the United Nations, Russian is a language that can’t be ignored. The distinctive sound, rhythm and Cyrillic orthography of Russian became prominent around the world in the 20th Century, but the language itself dates back to around 1000AD and the Slavic tribes of what is now Eastern Europe.
Until the 14th century, the “ruskiye” spoke dialects of the Old East Slavic language, but by the end of the century Moscow had become the most prominent city in the region and its dialect became the most important in European Russia. The political reforms of Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century were accompanied by orthographic reform and aimed to “Westernize” Russian, including plenty of vocabulary imported from Western European languages. By the turn of the 19th century, many wealthy Russians spoke French or German on a daily basis. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains whole pages in French with no translation given, under the assumption that educated readers would understand.
Aleksandr Pushkin is seen as the father of modern Russian. He revolutionised Russian literature in the early 19th century by writing in the everyday grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time, thus making the language far more accessible. The spelling reform of 1918 further modernised Russian. This was the language that became a lingua franca across Eastern Europe during the Soviet period and remains hugely important to this day.