Russian is spoken by approximately 300 million people worldwide, and is the world's eighth-most spoken language by number of native speakers. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and classified by the United States's Defense Language Institute as a "Level III" language, meaning that it is of average difficulty in comparison to all languages worldwide.
The history of the modern Russian language began as Russian culture started to centralize in Moscow during the 15th century. Peter the Great successfully made major changes to the everyday Russian language at the end of the 17th century, while the Russian empire was forming. By the 19th century, due to continued modernization, along with literary contributions from Pushkin and others, the Russian language had largely assumed the form it still holds today. The Soviet period also made important contributions to the Russian language, including a major spelling reform in 1918 as well as the standardization of the language throughout the then-USSR.
Russian is an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and is spoken widely in many post-Soviet republics. Russian is also spoken among many Russian immigrants worldwide. In particular, the exodus of much of Russia's Jewish population has led to the development of large Russian-speaking enclaves in Israel, the United States, and Canada.
The modern Russian alphabet has 33 letters and is based on the Cyrillic alphabet, which was itself a local adaptation of the ancient Greek alphabet. Thus, the Russian alphabet has some similarities with the English alphabet, which can also trace its origins, via the Roman alphabet, to ancient Greece. In terms of vowels, Russian contains between five and six of them (depending on one's perspective on the language), and some words can contain up to four consonants in a row before a vowel is needed.
Russian grammar features both a gender aspect, as words can either be masculine or feminine, and lacks definite articles. Definite articles are inferred from context, however. For example, word order can tell a Russian speaker whether a speaker is referring to "a chair" or "the chair." In fact, while Russian sentences are generally built by starting with the subject of a sentence, then following it with a verb and an object, Russian sentence structure is considerably more flexible than that of English. Therefore, Russian speakers can shift words around for emphasis or to make subtle changes in meaning. Russian also features the double negatives common in languages other than English. For example, a literal translation of the sentence "Nobody did nothing today" would be grammatically correct in Russian.
Finally, Russian language and culture continue to inform each other in many ways, with the language continually adapting to meet the needs of the people who speak it. While many people have seen Russian culture and its legacy as dark and gloomy, considering the country's long tradition of war, dictatorship and strife, the language continues to change as Russia and its neighbors find their way in the post-Soviet era.