Can you speak Russian in Europe?
Russian is, and has long been, one of, if not the most geographically prevalent languages on the planet. Russian as a language stretches from the freezing yet astoundingly beautiful Finnish and Estonian borders in the west, to the infinitely distant east of China and Japan. Undoubtedly, it crops up everywhere in between, but can you speak Russian in Europe?
There is ample choice for anyone ambitious enough to undertake Russian as an academic endeavour to immerse themselves first-hand with native speakers, not to mention the vast number of Russian speakers that find themselves in English-native countries. But should you want keep to the comfortable familiarity of Europe, there is a wealth of opportunity (despite what some people might have you believe) in the inimitable convenience that is the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
As a student of Russian and someone who has travelled extensively in these countries, I believe my insight into the nature of spoken Russian in the Baltics might be of use to those seeking to hone their language skills.
Estonia is the smallest of the three in both land area and population, though this shouldn’t discourage anyone seeking to immerse themselves in Russian from visiting. Around a quarter of Estonians are native Russian speakers and having spent time in Tallinn myself, I can safely say that though Russian may not be as prevalent as in primarily native Russian speaking countries, almost everyone is comfortable speaking it as a second language. That being said, a three-hour bus journey east from Tallinn will land you in Narva; Estonia’s easternmost city and one in which Russian is the native tongue. Narva is a quiet place, but invaluable for anyone seeking Russian speaking practice with European natives; a must see for any hopeful Russianists.
In comparison, Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius feels huge and on the surface, Russian doesn’t seem to be much of a dominant language. Like any language however, it is there if you know where to look, that is, amongst the older generation. As daunting as the prospect of accosting a Lithuanian бабушка may seem, they are generally extremely friendly and happy to help you practice your Russian. Similarly, one of the best opportunities for Russian language immersion in Vilnius is the Halle Market, a proper русский рынок, where you’ll find every variation of Russian speaker imaginable. From Armenians to Kazakhs, the market will undoubtedly equip any Russian speaker with a brace of novel, if not specific vocabulary.
Latvia – Daugavpils
Much like Estonia, Latvia is graced with two fruitful opportunities for Russian speakers: the capital Riga, where you’ll find Russian’s distinct tones common on the street, and Daugavpils, which is to Latvia what Narva is to Estonia. That is, Latvia’s second largest city and one completely populated by native Russian speakers; after all, for a time it was known as Dvinsk… Though like Narva, Daugavpils suffers from an aging population and lack of social opportunities, there are a few gems to be found in this provincial exclave of Russian speakers. Namely, the commanding collection at the Mark Rothko Art Centre, the staggering beauty of the surrounding Latvian countryside and, of course, the Russian language’s ubiquity.
Latvia – Riga
Finally, there is Riga. Arguably the best choice for any future Russianists’ European endeavours. Russian is as common here, it seems, as Latvian. Indeed, simply walking through the streets will elicit a blend of the two, both equally dominant. Admittedly, much of the practical language like advertising and tram announcements are in Latvian, but this is beside the point when the city is so rich with носители языка. After all, the most important component to learning Russian is, in my opinion, speaking the language.
This notwithstanding, Riga too has a wealth of places populated by dominant Russian speakers. One of the best examples of this is the Riga Central Market; housed in four former aircraft hangars, the market is vast, and is as diverse in products as Russian is itself. From illicit Russian medicine, to fish so fresh they’re till twitching, the market has it all, and is united by Russian as a means for its patrons and proprietors to haggle over prices.
Clearly the belief in Russian being impossible to experience within Europe is an ill-founded one. Russian is a broad language, and its speakers have a habit of situating themselves across the globe. The Russian speakers are out there, it just takes a bit of looking. Удачи в путешествии!
Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.