Russian Language Blog

Famous People Who Learned Russian as a Second Language Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 in Culture

I’m sure you sometimes get discouraged when learning Russian. There are so many challenges, and it sometimes feels like you’ll never get it. While your outcomes depend on many factors, such as your effort, the time spent studying, practice, and instructional materials and methods, please don’t think that only native or bilingual speakers of Russian can achieve a high degree of proficiency. As a little pep talk for all the Russian learners out there, I would like to share the stories of a few people who learned Russian later in life and made a career speaking that language. Perhaps their experience will inspire and encourage you to keep learning and practicing languages!

Catherine II

One of the most famous Russian rulers abroad is Catherine II, also known as “The Great”, (Екатерина Вторая/Великая). She is known for her reforms, but also for taking away liberties from peasants and aggression towards Russia’s neighbors.

Cathrine was actually born in what was then Germany. Her hometown Szczecin is now in Poland. Her name at birth was Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (София Фредерика Августа Анхальт-Цербстская).

She arrived in Russia at the age of 15 to marry the heir to the throne. She was so determined to fit in her new home that she embraced the Russian language, converted to Orthodox Christianity, and did everything to be liked at court. It is rumored she stayed up all night studying Russian and caught pheumonia. According to Wikipedia, she mastered the language but had a German accent.

Edita Piekha

Edita Piekha (Эдита Пьеха, born Edith-Marie Piecha) is a famous pop singer in Russia, whose career spans several decades. She was born in France to a Polish family. She grew up speaking French.

At the age of 8, she moved to Poland with her family, where she majored in Russian in school. Piecha ended up going to college in what was then the USSR. She was in several bands before launching her solo career and was popular abroad thanks, in part, to her ability to perform in other languages. Piekha now lives in Russia and is a matriarch of a singer/actor dynasty, with both her daughter and grandson being performing artists.

In this song by the young Piekha, you can hear her accent, which is almost unnoticeable when she speaks nowadays.

Ville Haapasalo

Imagine you’re a Finnish high school graduate who wants to become an actor. Where would you go to make it big — Hollywood, London, at least Broadway? Finnish actor Ville Haapasalo (Вилле Хаапасало) decided St. Petersburg was a closer shot.

He enrolled in the Saint Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy — without knowing any Russian! He learned it during his first year in Russia. In 1995, Ville became famous over his role in the comedy Peculiarities of the National Hunt (Особенности национальной охоты). He has since become a household name in Russia and has taken part in a few game shows on Russian TV.

Ville learned to speak Russian fluently, although he still makes grammar errors. Here is a cute clip about Ville bemoaning noun gender in Russian (start at 1:11).

Vladimir Pozner

Vladimir Pozner (Владимир Познер) was born in France to a French mother and a Russian emigré father. The family later moved to the US. Since French was the language spoken at home, he didn’t learn Russian until he moved to the USSR later in life.

He became a prominent reporter, for a long time (in)famous for trying to justify the USSR’s policies but later respected in his own right as an independent journalist.

Thanks to his multicultural background, Pozner speaks three languages fluently.

Are you feeling inspired yet? Are there any other celebrities that learned Russian that you admire?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Fer:

    I know this post is supposed to be motivating, but the fact that all of them moved to Russia/USSR is kinda discouraging for those who prefer not to move there :/

    Do you have counterexamples?

    • Maria:

      @Fer Fer, thank you for your comment. I see what you mean. It’s easy to make the conclusion that these people were able to master Russian precisely because they moved to Russia — and I’m sure the immersion and practice helped — but motivation and consistency probably also played a role.
      While I concentrated on the people who became famous in Russia, there are a few celebrities and countless non-famous people living elsewhere who learned it. Condoleezza Rice comes to mind off the top of my head.
      Brandon (see comment above) also gave an interesting example. I hope this helps you stay encouraged!

  2. Brandon Price:

    Very interesting list! I’d add Odin Lund Biron, an American who now stars on the show “Interns.” Here’s an interesting interview with him from a few years ago (before he was cast on “Interns.”):

    • Maria:

      @Brandon Price Brandon, thank you for your comment. That is, indeed, inspiring for all the Russian learners out there! I’ll be sure to check him out.

  3. Fer:

    Well, Maria, Condoleezza Rice did also go to Russia to learn the language 🙂

    But even if I can’t find a counterexample I’d like to become one.

    Thanks for the blog!