During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian, although it was declared the official language only in 1990. Following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national discourse throughout the region has continued.
In 2010, there were 259.8 million speakers of Russian in the world: in Russia - 137.5, in the CIS and Baltic countries - 93.7, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans - 12.9, Western Europe - 7.3, Asia - 2.7, Middle East and North Africa - 1.3, Sub-Saharan Africa - 0.1, Latin America - 0.2, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - 4.1. Thus, the Russian language is the 6th largest in the world by number of native speakers, after English, Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish and Arabic.
According to the census of 2010 in Russia Russian language skills were indicated by 138 million people (99.4% population), while according to the 2002 census - 142.6 million people (99.2% population). Among the urban residents 101 million people (99.8% population) had Russian language skills, while in rural areas - 37 million people (98.7% population).
In Latvia its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third of the population is Russian-speaking (see Russians in Latvia). Similarly, in Estonia, ethnic Russians constitute 25.5% of the country's current population and 58.6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian. In all, 67.8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian. Command of Russian language, however, is rapidly decreasing among younger Estonians (primarily being replaced by the command of English). For example, if 53% of ethnic Estonians between 15 and 19 claim to speak some Russian, then among the 10- to 14-year-old group, command of Russian has fallen to 19% (which is about one-third the percentage of those who claim to have command of English in the same age group).
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russian remains a co-official language with Kazakh and Kyrgyz, respectively. Large Russian-speaking communities still exist in northern Kazakhstan, and ethnic Russians comprise 25.6% of Kazakhstan's population.
Those who speak Russian as a mother or secondary language in Lithuania represent approximately 60% of the population of Lithuania. Also, more than half of the population of the Baltic states speak Russian either as a foreign language or as a mother tongue. As the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1918, a number of Russian speakers have remained in Finland. There are 33,400 Russian-speaking Finns, amounting to 0.6% of the population. Five thousand (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants or their descendants, and the remaining majority are recent immigrants who moved there in the 1990s and later.
In the 20th century, Russian was mandatorily taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be satellites of the USSR. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania, former East Germany and Cuba. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey, though, fluency in Russian remains fairly high (20–40%) in some countries, in particular those where the people speak a Slavic language and thereby have an edge in learning Russian (namely, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria). In 2005, it was the most widely taught foreign language in Mongolia, and was compulsory in Year 7 onward as a second foreign language in 2006.
Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, according to the 1999 census. The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian. Russian is also spoken as a second language by a small number of people in Afghanistan (Awde and Sarwan, 2003).
The language was first introduced in North America when Russian explorers voyaged into Alaska and claimed it for Russia during the 1700s. Although most colonists left after the United States bought the land in 1867, a handful stayed and preserved the Russian language in this region to this day, although only a few elderly speakers of this unique dialect are left. Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver and Cleveland. In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live in ethnic enclaves (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early 1960s). Only about 25% of them are ethnic Russians, however. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in New York City were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterward, the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat, with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians immigrating along with some more Russian Jews and Central Asians. According to the United States Census, in 2007 Russian was the primary language spoken in the homes of over 850,000 individuals living in the United States.
Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century, each with its own flavor of language. The United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, and Austria have significant Russian-speaking communities. Germany has the highest Russian-speaking population outside the former Soviet Union with approximately 3 million people. They are split into three groups, from largest to smallest: Russian-speaking ethnic Germans (Aussiedler), ethnic Russians, and Jews. Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney also have Russian-speaking populations, with the most Russians living in southeast Melbourne, particularly the suburbs of Carnegie and Caulfield. Two-thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Azerbaijanis, Armenians or Ukrainians, who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed, or are just looking for temporary employment.
According to the 2011 Census of Ireland, there were 21,639 people in the nation who use Russian as a home language. However, of this only 13% were Russian nationals. 20% held Irish citizenship, while 27% and 14% were holding the passports of Latvia and Lithuania respectively. Some are Russian speakers from Latvia and Lithuania who were unable to obtain Latvian or Lithuanian citizenship. There were 20,984 Russian speakers in Cyprus according to the Census of 2011, accounting for 2.5% of the population. The Russian language in the world is reduced due to the decrease in the number of Russians in the world and diminution of the total population in Russia (where Russian is an official language). The collapse of the Soviet Union and reduction in influence of Russia also has reduced the popularity of the Russian language in the rest of the world.
Russians in China form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by mainland China.