Wikipedia says that about a quarter of total population in Estonia, Latvia are Slavonic people like Russians, Ukrainians etc., and I wonder if Russian is well-understood and how natives treat tourists who speak Russian? Relationships between Russian Federation and Baltic countries seem to be quite cold.

The question is, which language better to use in day-to-day communications - Russian, Ukrainian, or English?

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    The Russian population is huge in Latvia, but possibly resented by the Latvians from what I've seen about language laws in the news. In Ukraine it seems that Russian is somehow more useful than Ukrainian, which surprises me. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 12:43
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    Regarding Russian language in Ukraine: it depends on the region - Russian is widely spread and used in South and East regions (the ones close with Russian Federation) while Ukrainian is more spread in West and Central parts of Ukraine. This can be explained by historical influences, left part was under Russian Empire rule, and right part under Polish, Austrian and Hungarian Empires. Our people got through a long road before becoming an independent state. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 12:57
  • Can you be a bit more precise on where you want to go and what you want to do? Although the three Baltic states are often cited in the same breath, they are surprisingly different in many aspects. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 13:04
  • I'm still planning, but first-priority locations I want to visit in Estonia - Tallinn/Tartu/Pärnu; and in Latvia - Riga/Jurmala; spending 3-4 days in each country. Currently, my plans are not very special, and include, but are not limited to visiting main places of interest in both countries, taste national food, travel on car from Estonia to Riga and Pärnu. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 13:17
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    In soviet Russia, language speaks you.
    – travelot
    Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 15:04

4 Answers 4

  1. Definitely not Ukrainian
  2. If you know Russian AND English you will be able to communicate with the vast majority of people.

Now choosing the language to try first is a little bit tricky. I would say that with people who are definitely under 30 try English first. With people over 40 try Russian first.

In Riga (not sure about the rest of Latvia) almost everyone speaks Russian on some level. Most Latvians there speak extremely good Russian.

In Estonia it's hit and miss but I would try English first. I've experienced unwillingness to speak (or even understand) Russian from people who, I would assume, should at least understand it. But these are obviously anecdotal cases.

Not sure about Lithuania since I live here and never experienced the issue first hand (since I speak Lithuanian). From what I see, majority of 20-30 year-olds don't speak and quite often don't understand Russian. So I would definitely try English first with younger people. Most of the 40+ population knows Russian on some level. Willingness to use it varies from person to person, though, but I wouldn't say that these days there's any serious bias towards pretending not to understand it. A lot of older people wouldn't understand English though.


So then, let's look to official statistics.

Lithuania - According to the Lithuanian population census of 2001, about 84% of the country's population speak Lithuanian as their native language, 8.2% are native speakers of Russian and 5.8% of Polish. More than 60% are fluent in Russian, while only about 16% say they can speak English.

Latvia - In the 2000 census, 37.5% of the population listed Russian as their mother tongue, whereas Latvian was recorded as the mother tongue for 58.2%. Latvian was spoken as a second language by 20.8% of the population, and 43.7% spoke Russian as a second language. While it is now required that all school students learn Latvian, most schools also include English and either German or Russian in their curricula. The English language is widely accepted in Latvia especially in business and tourism.

Estonia - looking at the languages of Estonia, aside from Estonian, the official language, 66% speak Russian, 46% English and 22% German. There is also some Finnish spoken.

Until 1991, Russian was taught as a compulsory language in all three, so naturally there are a lot of people who still speak it, especially among the older age groups.

In 2011 I went through the Baltics - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

For the record, I learned a couple of words in their local languages, and had a few Russian words in my vocabulary from past travel.

As it happens, English was pretty well spoken, especially among the younger crowd. A bit harder in Lithuania, but very easy in the other two. Admittedly these were the capital cities, and it's harder in small towns usually. But even at the cinema in Riga, the movie was in English with Latvian and Russian subtitles.


That is true that relationships are a little cold, but I didn't notice any open hostility while traveling to Baltic countries. Since people there have different attitude to Russian language (some may consider it as language of their oppressors), I try by default to start conversation in English (it is spoken at sufficient level by many people), if the person I wish to speak to starts conversation in Russian, or expresses that he/she prefers Russian, I use Russian. Source: I am Russian who traveled to different Baltic countries.

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    For comparison, everybody in Armenia and Georgia seems to speak and enjoy Russian, but I never met anybody in Hungary or Romania who used it or admitted to understanding it. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 1:51
  • @hippietrail Hungary and Romania weren't part of Soviet Empire, so Russian was learned there in schools (well, you know how it is with things you've learned in school) but was never an official or even half-official language. Commented Jul 31, 2013 at 17:45
  • @ŁukaszLech: Yes I suppose that did make the difference. But if I find Russian widely used in Mongolia I reserve the right to update my opinion on that again (-: Commented Aug 1, 2013 at 15:21

In Russia, there are still a lot of people who don't understand English for good. Ukrainian language is better here, but also not perfect. In Baltic, Russian may be problematic inside youth. ">30" people mostly can to use this language.

I think best choice is Russian language. English as a second.

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