If you’re studying Russian, you’ve got a pretty good numerical case for its utility. There are roughly 166 million native Russian speakers in the world, placing it at number eight in the list of most widely spoken languages in the world. Better yet, there are multiple Russian-speaking countries around the globe (most, if not all of them part of the former USSR), which means knowing this language will open doors for you across a pretty significant swath of the map.
All of this is to say that if you’re trying to book your next vacation with your language studies in mind, you’ve got some fairly compelling options beyond Mother Russia (which isn’t a bad place to start either).
Here are some of the best alternative Russian-speaking countries to visit on your travels.
Russian is one of the official languages of Belarus, which shares a border with Russia and contains notable remnants of its shared Soviet history, such as the old KGB headquarters and Lenin Monument in Minsk. It used to be kind of walled-off from visitors, but relaxed visa requirements are making Belarus increasingly popular as a travel destination, whether you’re coming for the art and nightclub scene in Minsk or the ancient castles and forests that surround it.
Though the main language spoken in Georgia is, well, Georgian, many people in Georgia speak Russian (especially the older crowd). And as it so happens, Georgian food is majorly popular in Russia, so in some ways, visiting Georgia is like visiting the source (or at least giving yourself a chance to understand what all the fuss is about). Come here for the delicious food and seriously breathtaking mountainous vistas.
Estonia sits at an interesting cultural crossroads between former Soviet rule and even more former Scandinavian rule. Tallinn especially is the stuff of rave reviews, featuring Russian Orthodox architecture throughout and a colorful, medieval Old Town nestled among steep staircases (which is also a well-preserved UNESCO site). Estonia is also home to Lahemaa National Park, Europe’s largest national park.
If unspoiled natural beauty is more your schtick, you won’t want to sleep on Kyrgyzstan’s mountains and verdant pastures — home to semi-nomadic shepherds who live in yurts and breathtaking panoramas in every direction. Though this may not be the place for you if trekking expeditions aren’t really your idea of fun, Kyrgyzstan is a popular entry point for travel around Central Asia, where many other Russian-speaking countries are located.
For an experience of Central Asia but with a little bit of city life, Kazakhstan has mountains and valleys galore, in addition to a fairly happening urban oasis in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. Almaty is a city that makes few attempts to downplay its taste for the finer things in life, so you can experience fine dining, shopping malls and nightclubs after experiencing the more rural, rugged side of the country.
Russian is one of the largest minority language spoken in Lithuania, which is home to the popular travel destination of Vilnius. Characterized by its Baroque and Gothic architecture and its contemporary cultural pulse, Vilnius is easy to bike around and absorb for all its complicated history. Elsewhere in Lithuania, you can check out Nida, an old fishing village and UNESCO World Heritage site that’s shared by Russia and Lithuania.
Russian is only granted official regional status in a certain part of Moldova, but this is a good spot to put on your list if you’re into wine, trawling through the countryside, and gawking at haunting-looking monasteries. The Oreil Vechi Monastery, which is etched into a limestone cliff, is a big draw for tourists.
Visitors to Ukraine often end up in Kiev, where there are cathedrals, ruins, museums and old Soviet architecture to explore. There’s even an Alice in Wonderland-themed park for the fantasy-inclined. If you venture outside of Kiev, there’s also Lviv, Chernobyl and the port town of Odessa.