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POPULATION: 142.9 million [Russian 79.8%, Tatar 3.8%, Ukrainian 2%, Bashkir 1.2%, Chuvash 1.1%, other or unspecified 12.1%]
LANGUAGE: Russian (official); more than 140 other languages and dialects.
RELIGION: Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, other Christian, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, other


The Russians are a people of mixed origins. Although they are primarily eastern Slavs, many Russians have a Finnish, Siberian, Turkish, or Baltic heritage. Since the Russians' domain has historically covered such a large territory, many culturally distinct subgroups have developed. These subgroups formed because of ethnic mixing, cultural assimilation, or isolation and include the following: Meshcheryak, Kerzhak, Bukhtarman, Semeisk, Polyak, Starozhil, Russkoustin, Markov, Yakutyan, Kamchadal, Karym, Kolymchan, Zatundra Peasants, Pomor, Polekh, and Sayan groups. Many of these smaller groups are Russian Orthodox Old Believer communities or mixed Cossack-Siberian peoples.

The Slavic ancestors of the Russians are believed to have first settled in the area north of the Black Sea. The ancient Greeks and Romans made mention of these ancient Slavic tribes in their writings, but little was known about them. By the 7th century ad, there were many Slavic tribes in the region between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, living in autonomous villages that cooperated in areas such as defense. The " Varangians" (the old Slavonic term for Vikings) came to rule over the Russians in Novgorod, and the Rurik dynasty was established as the first ruling family of Russia as head of the Kievan Rus state. Trade between the Kievan Rus state and Constantinople exposed the Russians to Byzantine culture and religion. Eastern Orthodox Christianity was introduced during the mid-900s, but it was not until 988 that the largest conversion to Christianity happened.

An event that had a profound effect on the development of Russian culture was the Mongol occupation (c. 1240–1480). For over two centuries, the Mongols used threats and force to make the Russians pay them tribute and taxes, but the Mongols let the ruling princes and the Russian Orthodox Church remain in power. At that time a very strong Tatar/Mongol admixture began with the Russians. Some scholars think that the occupation helped unify local leaders against a common foe, which led to the strong tradition of autocracy in later centuries. Other historians believe that the period of Mongol rule disrupted cultural links with the rest of Byzantium and Eastern Europe and is part of the reason why Russia was not influenced by the Renaissance, Reformation, or Industrial Revolution when those events occurred in Western Europe. By the end of the occupation, the village of Moscow had positioned itself as an important political and religious center.

The Rurikovich dynasty that claimed its Viking origin ended in 1598 when Fedor died with no heir. Then, a period of tumultuous power struggles ensued, which the Russians call the "Time of Troubles." In 1613, order finally returned to the throne as the nobility elected Michael Romanov as the new tsar (a term taken from the Roman title "Caesar," meaning "emperor"). During the 1600s, the Russian conquest of Siberia began. Out of the Romanov dynasty came the man who is usually considered to have been the greatest tsar in Russian history, Peter I (1672–1725), called Peter the Great. Peter instituted many policies to change or modernize Russian culture so that it would be more like that of Western Europe. During the reign of Catherine II (r.1762–96) the Russian Empire added substantial territory through conquest, and there was a mass migration and heavy presence of Germans in Russia.

For centuries, serfdom was a way of life for most Russian peasants who did not own any land. Serfdom was a feudal form of bonded servitude similar to slavery, except that a serf belonged to the master's land. Whenever land was sold, the serfs who worked on that land became the property of the new owner. The victory over Napoleon's army in the War of 1812 was one of the most important events to consolidate the Russian people in the early 1800s. Throughout much of the 1800s, the Russians (especially the nobility) held a passion for French culture and language. After the French retreated, the tsar, Alexander I (r.1801–25), tried to return to business as usual but eventually abolished serfdom in a few small areas near the Baltic Sea.

In 1825, the first organized revolt against the imperial government was instigated by a group of army officers called the Decembrists, who wanted to abolish serfdom and set up a constitutional government. Although the revolt was small and unsuccessful, its memory served to rally the people in later years. In 1861 Alexander II (1855–81) emancipated the serfs. By the late 1870s, however, there were already revolutionary stirrings present within Russian society that grew out of the nihilist and populist movements. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists. Industrialization helped improve the economy, but a financial crisis in 1899, crop failures, and a humiliating defeat in a 1905 war with Japan led to more civil unrest and strikes by organized labor. Millions of Russian peasants were moving from the country into cities. The urbanization made it possible for Russians to mobilize. At the turn of the 20th century, many Russians had come to believe that the imperial government was incompetent.

Relations with Germany and Austria had been tense in the 1880s and 1890s, and problems flared up again in 1908. A complex system of treaties and alliances caused the unrest in the Balkans to inflame tensions throughout Europe, which led to World War I. By 1914, the Russians found themselves fighting in a useless war that plunged the nation into economic turmoil and chaos. Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917) abdicated the throne. A provisional government was formed to be replaced by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin (r. 1917–24). In 1918, Lenin had the entire royal family executed.

The Soviet era lasted from 1917 to 1991. During the Soviet years, there was a massive mixing of Russians with Ukrainians, Belarusans, Jews, Finno-Ugric peoples, etc. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Communist Soviet government under Stalin (r.1924–53) instituted policies of terror and persecution to consolidate its power. The government tried to control all property and access to information in order to keep people in line. Millions of Russians were eventually imprisoned, exiled, or executed on fabricated charges and suspicion. It has been estimated that as many as 20 million Soviet citizens died during the period of 1928–38 from Stalin's reign of terror and a series of famines that Stalin could have prevented.

The most profound event to unite the Russian people during the Soviet years was World War II, which Russians call "the Great Patriotic War." An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war, half of which were civilians or prisoners. After World War II, the Soviet Union quickly rebuilt its military and became a leading ideological and military rival of the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev (r.1953–64), and the United States began stockpiling nuclear weapons to use against each other in the event of warfare. However, the horror of mutual destruction served to prevent either nation from starting such a war.

The losses from World War II and the focus on the military afterwards deeply affected modern Russian culture. During the 1970s, political and economic stagnation in the Soviet Union became rampant, and daily life for many Russians reflected the spirit of those times. In the mid-1980s, widespread reforms began under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev (r. 1985–91), and these reforms ushered in a new optimism among the Russian people that eventually challenged the very existence of the authoritarian Soviet government.

When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the Russian people (as well as those from the other republics) were filled with hope for a glorious future. The Russian people now had their first chance in history to freely choose their own leadership through democratic elections. During the 1990s, however, the naive expectations for many Russians disappeared when it became apparent that the transition from central planning to a market economy would not be quick and painless.

President Boris Yeltsin's era brought Russia a democratic constitution and economic reforms resulting in a deep financial crisis and regional disintegration. Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 just in time to implement a series of liberal economic reforms that rescued a faltering economy and stopped the spiral of hyperinflation. Putin achieved wide popularity among the Russian population by stabilizing the government. The economy grew both due to Putin's reforms in banking, taxation, labor, and private property and rising oil prices. Putin's political and economic policies were predicted to continue with his successor, Russian president Dimitry Medvedev.

In 2002, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Russia Council was established, giving Russia a voice in NATO discussions. Russia is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the leading nation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a member of the Group of 8, and other international organizations as well. Recently, Russia moved closer politically to the United States, especially after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks. At the same time recent consolidation of presidential powers, certain nationalistic movements, and instances of violation of human rights and freedom of expression prompt the West to question Russian democracy.


The Russian homeland traditionally extended from the easternmost parts of Europe to the Ural Mountains. Beginning in the 1500s, Russia experienced a massive acquisition of territory. By 1600, Russia was already larger than any other country in Europe and extended eastward all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By 1800, Russia consisted of much of Eastern Europe, extended well into Central Asia, and even had territorial claims in North America.

As of 2008, Russia is the largest country in the world. It occupies about 17,075,000 sq km (6,592,700 sq mi), covering nearly 12% of the world's land surface. Russia shares land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. It is in near proximity (by Russian standards) to the United States, Sweden and Japan. Stretching from Europe to Asia, Russia envelops 11 time zones.

Russia is divided into a complex system of 83 distinct administrative units. This includes 46 oblasts (provinces), 9 krais (territories), the metropolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, 16 self-governing autonomous republics, 5 autonomous regions, 1 autonomous province (the Jewish Autonomous Oblast) and 4 autonomous okrugs (autonomous districts). Until recently, Russia had more units, but after several subsequent merges beginning in 2005 the number of units shrank to 83. Russia's population is about 140 million, and it has been estimated that about 80% of the population consists of ethnic Russians. There are also approximately 3 million people in the United States who claim Russian ancestry. About 74% of the population lives in urban areas.

For many decades, most Russians were not permitted to freely emigrate from the Soviet Union. Many Russians did settle in the other republics of the Soviet Union, especially in urban or industrial areas. Since the end of the Soviet era, there has been a massive movement of Russians to and from the homeland. Many ethnic Russians in the other former Soviet republics chose to go back to Russia because some of those new governments were pressuring them to leave. At the same time, large number of Russians left and continue to leave Russia for the United States and Europe. Educated but unemployed or underpaid Russians (such as scientists) are now emigrating to the West in search of jobs to match their expertise.


Russian is the official language of Russia. In addition, Russia has more than 140 other languages and dialects. Modern Russian is an Eastern Slavic language. During the 10th century, two Orthodox monks, Cyril and Methodius, wanted to translate the Bible into the Russians' native language. This older language later came to be known as Old Slavonic, and it is still used by the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the Russians had no written language, the monks created a new alphabet from parts of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets to represent the sounds of Old Slavonic. The Cyrillic alphabet, as it is called, is used in Russian and some other Slavic languages (such as Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, etc.). During the Soviet era, many of the other languages used within the Soviet Union were changed to the Cyrillic alphabet (and now many have changed back), and so there are many other ethnic groups familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Common male first names include Aleksander, Boris, Dmitri, Ivan, Leonid, Mikhail and Sergei. First names for women typically end with an "a" or "ya" sound and include Anastasia, Maria, Natalya, Olga, Sophia, Tatyana, and Valentina. Most of those names come to Russia with Christianity and therefore of Jewish, Greek or Roman origin. Furthermore, there are a few Slavic Russian names dating back to thousand years ago. Among them are Svetlana (of light), Lubov (love), Vera (hope, faith) and Ludmila (beloved by people) used by women and Vladimir (one who owns the world), Svyatoslav (holy glory), Vechelsav (eternal glory), Bogdan (given by God) used by men.

Examples of everyday Russian words include Kak delah? (How's it going?), da (yes), nyet (no), pozhaluistah (please), spaseebo (thank you), and do sveedanniya (goodbye).


Russian oral folklore fall into several categories: bylinas, legends, fairy tales, animal tales, and tales of everyday life.

Traditional Russian fairy tales are just as likely to have a sad ending as a happy one. A fairy tale hero is usually a prince such as Ivan Tsarevich or a simpleton, such as Emelya Durak (Emelya the Fool). Prominent evil figures include Baba Yaga, a witch who lives in a house on chicken legs; and Koshchey the Immortal, a dragon that can only be killed if the egg that holds the essence of its death is found. More often than not, Russian fairytale is a story about a young man's or a young women's venture into the outer world, often dangerous and unpredictable. As a quest, this venture may take spiritual, intellectual or physical forms. Along the way, the hero or heroine is required to perform various tasks ranging from the trivial to the breathtaking. Russian fairy tale heroes often overcome a dangerous quest through the help of magical animals or objects.

Russian heroic tales narrate the epic deeds of bogatyrs (mighty warriors). This genre consists of epic songs, known as bylinas and legends. Bylinas were sung by peasants and date back to before the 16th century. Some of the bylinas and legends such as those about Svyatogor the Giant or Volk Vseslavich (Wolf the Almighty) are probably over 1,000 years old. Many of heroic tales are set in an idealized vision of the Kievan Rus age or in Novgorod.

The heroes and heroines of bylinas and legends are diverse. Yet they have many commonalities in their goals including the main goal—to defeat the insidious and formidable adversary and liberate the homeland. As a rule, bogatyrs from their very birth demonstrate excessive physical strength and innate intelligence. Since their childhood they are local favorites and acclaimed community leaders admired by both men and women.

In the well-known story "Ivan Tsarevich and Storm Bogatyr" three identical heroes are born at the same moment as a result of their three mothers drinking a fine soup made of golden-finned pike: Ivan Tsarevich, Ivan the Maid's son, and Storm Bogatyr, who is also known as Ivan the Cow's son. They have adventures, such as the mighty struggle on Kalinov Bridge with three Dragons who devastated the county side. All struggles are won by Storm Bogatyr. The dragons' mothers and wives, powerful witches, try to work the ruin of bogatyrs, but Storm Bogatyr outsmarts them and destroys their plots.

Exaggeration of physical strength in Russian heroic tales is typical not only for male, but also for female personages. Thus, women-warriors, such as the sisters Polyanitsas, easily beat male bogatyrs in multiple contests. No bogatyr except for the main hero can withstand Polyanitsas. In addition to distinguished strength, the woman-bogatyrs are known for their loyalty, extraordinary beauty, and intelligence

Animal tales often deal with humorous interactions among animals that possess human qualities. Two of the most popular animal characters are Lisa Patrikeevna, a smooth-talking and cunning fox, and Mikhail Ivanych, a sometimes clumsy, sometimes wise bear. Through these anecdotes, Russian people convey absurdity of certain situations; laugh at foolishness; praise wisdom and kindness; and address other situations common in life.

More recent in folklore history are tales of everyday life. Such tales often incorporate practical jokes and satire. They illustrate people's daily troubles and concerns and reveal their hopes and aspirations. It is common for these stories to see an underdog succeed despite great odds.


Initially followers of paganism, Russians converted to Christianity in the 10th century. In ad 988, Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus state proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the realm in order to ally his kingdom with the powerful Byzantine Empire. Although keeping close connection with Byzantine canons, Russian Orthodoxy developed its own distinct features and traditions. A typical Russian Orthodox Church is adorned with many icons (images of persons who are revered as holy). Most icons are of biblical characters or saints, but some are of prominent clergy or leaders. Large churches often display an iconostasis (a wall of arranged icons) between the sanctuary and the rest of the church.

Lavish ceremonies on holy days (such as Epiphany and Easter) are well incorporated into Russian Orthodox tradition. Russian Orthodox worship services follow a liturgical format with heavy usage of choirs. The congregation typically stands for the duration of the service (many churches have no pews) and move to various stations around the sanctuary. It is common to see a person of the Russian Orthodox faith cross himself or herself using three fingers, touching first the forehead, then the abdomen, followed by the right shoulder, and ending at the left shoulder (because it is closest to the heart).

During the Soviet era, religious intolerance became official policy. It has been estimated that 85% of all churches were shut down and the property seized. Communist leaders were atheists who perceived the Russian Orthodox Church as a player in the corrupt imperial system of the tsars. The tsars had claimed rule by divine right and were endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church. To eradicate the Church's influence, the Soviet government encouraged discrimination against Russians with religious beliefs, and some Russians were imprisoned or killedfor their faith. Ironically, the Soviet regime tried to establish its authority by manipulating and utilizing many of the traditional Russian religious symbols, customs, and beliefs to give them a new, Soviet-style meaning. For example, the people represented on icons changed from religious to ideological and political figures (such as Marx, Lenin, and Stalin).

However, the Soviet era did not eradicate religion completely. Many religious activities were conducted secretly. For many people religious and spiritual matters became a strictly personal rather than public affair. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union many of the closed churches reopened. Today, with nearly 5,000 religious organizations, the Russian Orthodox Church accounts for over half the total number of religious groups registered in Russia. Next in numbers come Muslim communities amounting to 3,000. Other religious organizations include Baptists, 450; Seventh Day Adventists, 120; Evangelicals, 120; Old Believers, over 200; Roman Catholics, 200; Krishnaites, 68; Buddhists, 80; Jews, 50; and Unified Evangelical Lutherans, 39.

Muslims are the second largest religious community in Russia. Current estimates indicate that Russia has over 19 million Muslims. They have over 800 parishes and mosques, mostly in Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Kabarda-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Tatarstan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya. Most prominent organizations include the Muslim Board for Central European region and the Moscow Muftiyat. Additionally, Russia has 42 Jewish communities. Moscow alone accounts for over 10% of Russian Jews, and has three synagogues, one of which is Hasidic.

In recent decades, Buddhism has risen in popularity among Russians. Pockets of newly initiated Buddhists are spread across the whole country, while traditional Buddhism is reestablishing its prominence in Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva, and the Irkutsk and Chits regions. The Russian Federation currently has ten datsun monasteries and multiple Buddhist centers, with the total monastic body approaching 200. Another 10 monasteries are under construction.

Despite several decades of Soviet pragmatism and atheism, superstition and mysticism have long been an integral part of Russian spiritual culture. The Russians today are often more open than other people to the possibility of paranormal activities, such as psychic experiences, mental telepathy, and extraterrestrial life.


There are several religious holidays that have been celebrated in Russia for centuries. Among them are Orthodox Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. The origin of one of the world's most famous Christmas traditions began with St. Nicholas of Myra, a patron saint of Russia. For centuries, St. Nicholas was honored in the Russian Orthodox Church with dignity and devotion, playing a central role in Christmas festivities. On Christmas Eve it was customary to fast until after the first service in the Russian Orthodox Church. With the appearance of the evening star on Christmas Eve, the fast was over. Following the meal, families would walk around the neighborhood singing carols, dressed as the stable animals present at Bethlehem. Meanwhile, St. Nicholas would reward good children with presents.

However, under the Soviet regime, many religious holidays were lessened in importance or forgotten, while new holidays were created. New Year's Day became a major holiday among Russians. It adopted the St. Nicholas tradition replacing St. Nicholas with Grandfather Frost. Marked with conviviality, wonderful meals with friends and family, and songs and fireworks, this holiday is equally loved by children and adults. On New Year's Eve children eagerly await for the Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. The two weeks preceding January 1 and a few days after are full of festivals. Crowds flock to the city square to celebrate with each other the end of the year and to enjoy illuminations, ice sculptures, ice slides, New Year skits, free concerts, champagne, food, and everything else that the festival has to offer.

February 23 or the Day of the Protector of the Motherland honors Russian men. All men receive presents, cards and appreciation. Children make handmade gifts for their fathers and grandfathers. Women's Day, another holiday remaining from Soviet times, is celebrated on March 8. This holiday celebrates women. Mothers, daughters, girlfriends, wives—all women— receive gifts and flowers. Loving husbands and fathers try to grant any wish their wives and daughters might have. First of May is no longer International Workers' Solidarity Day as it was during the Soviet era, but is now a festival known as Labor and Spring Day. Victory Day on May 9 commemorates the end of World War II in Europe and is usually observed as a time to solemnly honor those who died during that war. During that day each city holds numerous parades. The highlight of the day is fireworks. November 4, the Day of National Unity, is the newest Russian holiday. It allows Russians to celebrate their country and pride in their culture and traditions.

Recently, church feasts also have been revived. The Orthodox Christmas is gaining in popularity. It occurs on January 7 (the Russian Orthodox Church still follows the old Julian calendar, which differs from the modern Gregorian calendar by 13 days). Involving church rituals, Christmas is especially honored by the Christian community, but being an inseparable part of Russian culture for centuries, it is currently recognized nationwide. Often a day off, Christmas became another holiday to spend with family and friends. The Russian Church of course honors this day with elaborate rituals and extravagance. Epiphany, which occurs 12 days after Christmas, is another major holy day in the Russian Orthodox Church and is celebrated with much pageantry and symbolism. Easter (in March or April) is the most popular religious holiday. It was celebrated even under the Soviet regime, but now people try to revive Easter customs and traditions that were abandoned after the revolution. Importantly, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists also celebrate their holidays without fear of secular authorities.


Completion of high school or university are important moments that mark the passage into independent live. Entrance into military service is regarded in the same way. Weddings symbolize path into adulthood and are usually followed by a trip in a special black limousine (crowned with two large interlinked rings on the top) to pay homage and leave flowers at a local memorial. The birth of one's first child and one's first professional job are other events that indicate a change of social status.


Generations of authoritarian influence have helped form a distinct division between public and private behavior in Russian society. This contrast came about because, until recently, people were often hesitant to speak freely in public because of what the government might do to them. In public situations, Russians are often very reserved and formal. However, in private and informal settings, Russians are very cordial and sincere. They often openly show deep feelings of affection when guests arrive and depart.

In public, (i.e. in the street, on the bus), Russians might appear cold and reserved. However, once the ice is broken—for example when a passerby asks for directions, Russians instantly display friendliness and eagerness to help. Russians place a great value in friends. People enjoy visiting each other. It is common to drop by unannounced and share a meal with the host. It is customary for Russians to treat their guests with tea and pastries, cookies, preserves, jams etc. Russians are especially hospitable to the foreigners. For centuries, foreigners and travelers have been revered in Russia. Foreign guests are sure to get the best meal and best possible accommodations.

Russians use patronymics (where the father's first name forms the root of the child's middle name) in formal and business situations. For example, the patronymic for the son of Pavel (Paul) is "Pavlovich," and "Pavlovna" for a daughter. Among adult acquaintances, even casual friends will usually address each other using the first name combined with the patronymic. Among family and friends, many common first names are shortened. For example, a man named Aleksander is often called "Sasha" by his friends and family. Sasha's parents or wife may sometimes call him "Sashen'ka," which would be a term of endearment. However, if they called him "Sashka," it would indicate anger or disappointment with him.

When one Russian asks another "How are you?" there is a genuine and sincere interest; it is not done merely as a courtesy. When asked such a question, it is not customary for Russians to feel compelled to give a short and positive response. To ask someone how they are doing and then to ignore or trivialize their response is considered rude.

War veterans are extremely revered in Russia, particularly anyone who defended or aided Russia during World War II. Along with handicapped persons and expectant mothers, veterans are commonly given preferential seating on public transportation. It is not unusual to see elderly Russian women and men wearing their medals in public, especially on national holidays.

Flowers are an important token of admiration or affection. Flowers are often given as presents when visiting friends, either in a bouquet or as a single blossom. Visiting a local monument or memorial to leave flowers has become a tradition among newlyweds. After an opera or dance performance, Russians often shower the stage with flowers as a sign of delight.


During the Soviet years, Russians received health care from a large state-run system that provided service free of charge. In theory, this socialist system supposedly served everyone equitably, made use of the most recent technology, promoted preventive medicine, and was open to recommendations from the population. In reality, however, resources were distributed unequally, with political elites receiving the best care and rural citizens served with the least adequate equipment and undertrained personnel. Although medical care was free, many health care professionals moonlighted to make some extra money because official health care usually involved long lines and waiting lists. Although the number of doctors doubled from the 1960s to the 1980s, health indicators such as illness rates, mortality rates, and life expectancy worsened during that time. After the 1990s the situation changed. Now people have to pay for almost all medical care and the system of medical insurance is being established. The visit to renowned specialist is the most expensive. There are still some free services offered for the poorest population, but those serves are of inferior quality.

Pregnant Russian women go to special maternity homes for delivery. Newborns are wrapped in swaddling clothes because of the traditional belief that it will help the infant's fragile bones to grow straight. Russian women receive two months of paid maternity leave before delivery and two months of paid leave afterwards, in addition to another year of leave at half-pay.

The communal banya (bathhouse), where bathers soak and sweat together, has been a mainstay of Russian culture for centuries. The banya is like a large sauna and is especially popular in the winter. Some banyas may be open only to either men or women on certain days of the week, while others may have some separate and some combined facilities for both sexes. Russians often carry small birch brooms in the banya and will lightly swat themselves and others (if asked) with the birch because they believe that it helps improve circulation and draws out toxins from the body.

Standing in long lines to buy consumer goods was a fact of daily life during the Soviet era. Russians became used to the idea of on-the-go shopping, constantly keeping alert for anything they might need. Some families would even rotate the responsibility of a designated shopper—someone who spent the day standing in lines and looking for available items. Now things are changing. Many supermarkets and new stores are open. They operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week and carry all possible goods. However, not everyone can afford to shop in such stores. The average price for certain foods and other consumer items is higher than in the United States while the household income is much lower.

Today, Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world. In 2008, 7 out of the 25 wealthiest people in the world lived in Russia. Still 15% of the population lives below the subsistence level and very few have savings. The gap between rich and poor is rapidly growing and experts estimate that the middle class ranges from one-fifth to one-third of the population. That said, statistics indicate that in 2006 there were 112 fixed-line and mobile subscribers per 100 people in Russia. Purchase of clothes and footwear and other consumer goods has grown. In short, in contemporary Russia people put a lot of value in material things and work very hard to get them.


Russian women typically get married between the ages of 19 and 22, while men are usually between 20 and 24 years old at marriage. Marriages traditionally involved high ceremonies in the Russian Orthodox Church. During the Soviet era, celebration in the church was largely abandoned. Civil marriages became common, and new Soviet marriage customs developed. Couples who decided to marry would have to register at a local office, where they would be assigned a wedding date in advance with enough time to let them reconsider. These new marriage customs included a brief civil ceremony at a town "Wedding Palace," officiated by a woman from the local political council. Today many people include in their wedding a ceremony in the church. Although honeymoons are not a tradition among Russians, due to Western influence they have gained in popularity.

Despite the general lack of housing, Russian society highly reveres parenthood and large families. During the Soviet era, women who gave birth to five or more children were awarded medals and given special titles by the government. Although Russian society favors large families, the birth rate among Russians has been low since the 1970s, as a result of economic uncertainty and a high frequency of abortions among Russian women. This was especially true during the Soviet years, when contraceptive devices were often unavailable. Most urban Russian families have only one or two children, but rural families frequently have more. Recent governments have attempted to ameliorate the low birth rate by giving special rewards and privileges to parents with newly born babies. However, the birth rate is still low.

Russian society often focuses on children, who have a privileged role of honor. Russian adults typically do not hesitate to assist any child in need, and parents will often make tremendous personal sacrifices for their children. It is also common for Russian adults to scold any misbehaving child, regardless of relation.


Most Russians wear European-style clothing on a daily basis and for special occasions. Jeans and other types of practical work clothes are often preferred as well. Russians usually try to appear as neatly groomed and dressed as possible when out in public. It is considered important, especially among women, to have clothes of the newest fashion. Many Russians cannot afford an extensive wardrobe, and demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity in getting and wearing garments of high quality. Well made, fashionable shoes are praised both by men and women.

During the winter, it is customary for Russian men and women wear the ushanka (fur hat), which has ear flaps that can be tied up or down depending on how cold it is. Many Russians wear fur in the winter—not as a status symbol but because of the harsh climate and the practicality of available fur. Today though, more and more Russians, especially teenagers, wear lighter sporty jackets and winter coats made of synthetic fabrics.

Traditional costumes are usually seen during cultural performances. For young girls costume items include colorful ribbons in the hair and for older women large kerchiefs. Other female garments comprise a long, loose, usually white robe and a bright colored tsarafan (dress) worn over the robe. Often times robe and dress would have elaborate embroidery or lace on them. For men, a traditional outfit consists of a white or red spacious hip-long robe tied on the waist with rope and voluminous pants. Today, traditional headscarves are still widely worn by elderly women. Ethnic patterns are becoming increasingly incorporated into modern clothes. Also, in a recent Miss Russia beauty pageant, there was a traditional dress contest, for which the women had to appear in ethnic attire.


Russians greatly enjoy drinking chai (hot tea). A typical Russian meal consists of pervoye (first), vtoroye (second), zakuski (side dishes), and sladkoe (dessert). Zakuski usually include salads, fish, cold cuts and pickles. Bread is an essential indi-gent of every meal. "No dinner without bread," goes the Russian saying. There are multiple varieties of wheat loaves, rye bread, and other types of bread. Also, Russians eat more rye bread than any nation in the world—a peculiarity of the Russian diet. Kartoshka (potatoes) are often served at meals, either boiled, mashed, as pancakes, or as a kugel (baked pudding).

Russians can boast an extensive list of traditional soups. Borshch is just one of the everyday Russian soups, made with red beets and beef, usually served with a dollop of sour cream. Shchee is another popular Russian soup, made from cabbage and meat stock. Another favorite soup is solyanka, which is tomato-based and has pieces of fish or meat, olives, and lemon. Okroshka is an exquisite cold soup with chopped-up meat, vegetables and broth made of kvass (traditional Russian drink made from rye).

Bliny, also a part of the national cuisine, are thin crepes served plain or with different types of fillings, and pirozhki are fried or baked pasties that usually have a meat or vegetable filling. Russians are great lovers of pel'meni—small Siberian meat pies boiled in broth and many enjoy varenniki—pot stickers with vegetable feeling. Often times pel'meni and varenniki are served with mustard, horseradish, and/or sour cream. Ikra (caviar), a famous Russian appetizer made from harvested sturgeon eggs, is also a part of formal Russian cuisine. Morozhenoye (ice cream) is a popular year-round treat.

As the Russian custom has it, a festive table is not worth much without a bottle of good vodka. It is considered that Russian wheat vodka is the world's best. Vodka varieties range from the clear, colorless Moskovskaya and Stolichnaya to all imaginable flavored kinds with herbs and spices. Of ethnic Russian soft drinks, kvass is the best-known. Made of brown bread or malted rye flour, it is particularly appreciated on a sultry summer day.


After Russian children are about 1 year old, they go to a day nursery called a yasli until they are about 3 years old. From ages 3 to 6 or 7, Russians attend detski sad (kindergarten). Elementary school (grades 1–4) is called nachalnaya shkola. At age 11, Russian children enter the fifth grade and stay in srednaya shkola (high school) through the tenth grade, usually at age 17. At the start of the middle school years, students typically study history, geography, biology, and begin a foreign language. In the eighth and ninth grades, physics, chemistry, and electives are taught. After the ninth grade, a student may follow one of three educational paths: vocational school, professional training at a tekhnikum (secondary specialized school), or two years of general high school as preparation for university studies. In order to go to a high school, students need to pass an exam in language and mathematics at the end of the ninth grade. In addition to advanced studies of subjects taught in the middle-school years, Russian high school students study information systems and computer technology, social studies, and astronomy.

Attending a university or science institute is difficult because there is much competition just to get in. There are a series of special examinations, and many students will spend an entire year studying for those tests. A college program takes five years for a masters degree (there is no equivalent to a bachelor's degree in Russian universities) or six years for a medical degree.

Children are often exposed at an early age to systems that stress or value collective efforts. For example, young children in nurseries are typically toilet-trained in large groups. Students in schools often perform in groups and are graded as a team rather than as individuals. Oral and written examinations are given frequently. Teachers will often tell students their grades out loud, so that each person knows what grade the others received. Schools are often open 12 hours per day, but classes only take up about half of that time. The rest of the time, the school acts as a community youth and recreation center. Russian education emphasizes history, science, and math, and frequent homework assignments usually keep students busy in the evenings. Students are responsible for keeping the classrooms and hallways clean. Extracurricular activities that are not sports (such as clubs, bands, and drama groups) are usually sponsored by the community and not by the school.


Russian cultural heritage goes back over 1,500 years. One of the typical Yuletide observances by Russians is the singing of kolyadi, carols that have their roots in pagan culture. The verses usually have no connection to the Nativity but come from old sacrificial songs to the sun, moon, and stars. The themes relate to various gods and goddesses, and typically express the hope for abundant crops. When Russians converted to Christianity, some of the kolyadi incorporated Christmas words.

Russian folk music is often played with a variety of instruments. The most well-known folk instruments are probably the balalaika (a triangular guitar with three strings) and the garmon' (concertina). Some instruments, such as the gusli (psaltery), gudok (similar to a rebec, a primitive violin), rog (horn), wooden spoons and treshchotka (rattle) have been a part of Russian folk music for centuries.

During the Soviet years, the government tried to control and direct the types of music available. Popular Soviet music featured hundreds of ideological songs for youths, workers, and soldiers. In the 1970s and 1980s, official control over popular Soviet culture began to decrease and some imports of Western music were allowed. Jazz, which had been officially denounced in the past, saw a revival and is very popular among today's Russians. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a surge in the amount of shocking and provocative music in Russian popular culture. This trend is probably a consequence of the decades of censorship that suppressed erotic, religious, and nonconformist artistic expressions.

Classical Russian literature plays a significant role in Russian culture. Poetry recitals, going to plays, and discussing novels are all popular activities for Russians. These activities are enjoyed by Russians of all social levels, not just by an educated elite. Russians usually refer to Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) as the single most influential poet of the Classical era. Other important writers of the Classical era include Ivan Turgenev (1818–81), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), and Anton Chekov (1860–1904). Russians revere their poets, playwrights, and authors as popular celebrities.

Each city and town has an impressive array of theaters and cultural centers. The country's most renowned theaters are of course located in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thus, the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg are two centers that have always been and remain the major cultural symbols of the Russian nation. Being centers of the Russian and international traditions of opera and ballet, the Mariinsky and Bolshoi bring the Russian classical heritage into the context of changing cultural demands of Russian society.

St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum and Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery are among the world's greatest art centers. While the Hermitage offers an impressive collection of world art, the State Tretyakov Gallery is the national treasury of Russian fine art. The Tretyakov's collection consists entirely of Russian art and artists who have made a contribution to the history of Russian art or have been closely connected with it. The Gallery is home to over 130 000 works of painting, sculpture, and graphics, created throughout the centuries by successive generations of Russian artists.


During the Soviet years, the government controlled the labor market by setting wages and conditions of employment. Individuals, however, did have the freedom of choosing where they wanted to work in later years. The Soviet labor market in the early years was focused on the rapid growth of heavy industries (such as coal mining and steel production) and the collectivization of agricultural production into kolkhozy (huge collective farms). Most workers were members of trade unions. The problems that came with bureaucratic control over the labor market, however, were immense. The system was such that workers had no incentive to be productive, while factory managers had little motivation to operate efficiently. A popular saying by workers during the Soviet years that summarizes the situation was, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." If there was one good thing about the Soviet system it was that it gave almost equal employment opportunities for women and men.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many workers found themselves without an employer. As a result, unemployment and destitution became visible in post-Soviet society. However, private business and entrepreneurial enterprises blossomed. The transition to a market-oriented economy greatly impacted the work ethic and working style of the Russian population. If before Russians would often work inefficiently and sluggishly, now many employers require their staff to be efficient, detail-oriented, punctual, and hardworking

Since 2000 the Russian economy has undergone continuing expansion and growth with the annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging at 6.4% per year. However, this growth is mainly due to the development of the oil and gas sectors. Construction is the fastest growing sector of the economy, expanding by 14%. The main private sector services, including wholesale and retail trade, banking and insurance, and transportation and communications, amount to about 10% of economic growth. In contrast, public sector services such as education, health care, and public administration suffer low investment and low growth.

In general the Russian population is highly educated and skilled. Yet it is largely mismatched to the rapidly changing needs of the Russian economy. Official unemployment has dropped in recent years to 6.9%. At the same time, unemployment remains high with many Russian workers being under-employed. Unemployment is particularly felt among women and young people.


About one-fourth of all Russians participate in some kind of sport. Soccer and hockey are popular team sports that Russians (primarily men) enjoy playing as well as watching. Russians usually do not have to look very hard to find a soccer or hockey match on television. Sports societies and organizations were prominent in the Soviet years, and the government liberally advocated public participation in a wide variety of sports. Many of the former "sports palaces" built by the Soviet government have been converted to health clubs. The role of sports in Russian life makes international competitions, such as the Olympics, very important social rallying events.

Skiing and ice skating are popular recreational activities. Tennis has become increasingly more popular since the mid-1950s. Gymnastics and acrobatics are also prominent, perhaps due to the influence of ballet and the circus on popular culture. Baseball, basketball, and golf have been growing in popularity as well. Women's boxing has attracted its share of fans in recent years.

Physical activity is stressed as a part of education. When a student is about 11 years old and shows special ability in a particular sport, he or she is often encouraged to switch over to a "sports school." This type of school has regular academic classes in the mornings and special sports classes in the afternoons.

Russian society is known for its penchant for shakhmahty (chess), qualifying it as a sport. The Soviet government began promoting chess in the 1920s as a way to emphasize discipline and training. As its popularity grew, chess masters became highly respected members of society and often received special privileges and honors. Chess instruction starts in kindergarten, and children study the strategies and techniques of champions before they begin serious competition at around age 10. There are thousands of Russian children who have achieved the International Chess Federation's rank of chess master.

Although Russians are in general avid sport lovers and strive to participate and win gold medals in all possible world contests, such as the Olympics and World Cup, in recent years there has been a shortage of funds for sport clubs and other athletic activities. As a result, many of the best Russian hockey and soccer players take contracts with professional teams abroad.


Russians are fond of outdoor activities. It is not unusual to see people outdoors playing chess or musical instruments and singing, even during the cold winters. The circus is traditionally a popular form of entertainment enjoyed by Russian families. Russia has hundreds of circus schools, where performers train for up to four years to develop and perfect their acts.

Russians also have a strong ballet tradition, which started in 1738. During the reign of the tsars, ballet schools became prominent and were patterned after the classical French style. During the 1800s, many new ballets were choreographed using traditional Russian themes and compositions. Russian ballet is known for its elaborate choreography and stages.


Traditional Russian folk art often utilizes elaborate designs on everyday objects such as wooden spoons, bowls, magazine tables, plates, cutting boards, jewelry boxes, brooches—the list goes on. Ornate designs placed on wooden objects are typically covered with lacquer to ensure the longevity of colors. The patterns sometimes resemble whimsical spirals or other nonrepresentational shapes from fantasy land, but they might also be scenes from fairy tales or of famous people or places.

Some regions and villages in Russia developed their distinct craft tradition. Over the centuries, a given location would perfect the craftsmanship it is known for. Thus, the most popular handcrafts in present-day Russia are named after the region they originated from. For example, the vivid and fanciful gold and red drawings on wood (spoons, bowls, jars etc.) are called Golden Khokhloma (after the village of Khokhloma). Gzhel village gave its name to artistic ceramics of blue and soft pink patterns on white surfaces. Ethnic clay toys are called Dymkovo and Filimonovo after their respective towns.

Perhaps the best-known lacquered Russian folk art piece is the matryoshka, a series of wooden dolls that nest inside each other. The dolls usually depict a woman in traditional dress, but in recent years other themes have become popular, such as political figures and holiday motifs.

Lacquer painting on jewelry boxes and chests portraying various scenes from Russian fairytales and legends is known as Palekh, Mstera and Kholui. The colors employed by Palekh artists are so vivid and drawings are so elegant and magical that one can easily perceive the centuries of Russian soul invested in this art. The harmony of colors, cheerfulness, and creative patterns found their way into the decorative tray painting of Zhostovo and Troitskoe. Then there are of course some regions, including Vologda, Vyatka, and Yelets, that are renowned for their lace making and some that are acknowledged for their imaginative embroidery, golden thread needlework, pattern weaving, and rug making.

Russians also take pride in their artistic metalworking. The most famous metal crafts include Veliky Ustiug silver, Rostov enamel and Kazakovo filigree. Mountain regions in Russia have first-class masters in stone work. Tyva is recognized for carved sculpture while the Ural region can boast its jewelry, sculptures and other articles made of malachite, garnet, and other semiprecious stones. The Ural stonework impresses with its grace and lightness. When one looks at this sculpture long enough, it seems that it is coming to life.

In sum, the expanses of land and centuries of history allowed Russia's regions to create and master their unique craft traditions, whether they be wood carving, earthenware, artistic ceramics, metalwork, stonework, or lace making. Whatever kind of folk art is regarded, it reflects the richness and diversity of Russia's soul and the splendor of the works crafted by Russian hands.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have been forced to confront many of the old social problems that existed during the Soviet era, as well as a new set of problems brought about by the rapid changes in opening up the society. Privatization across Russia has created new opportunities but has also resulted in high unemployment in many areas. Because of high inflation and economic instability, many elderly persons who live off of a government pension are now impoverished. Life expectancy and health rates have plunged as well. Reduced funding for road maintenance and rehabilitation over the last few years and the poor quality of roads and bridges have caused deterioration in Russia's road network and a growing backlog of needed repairs.

Ethnic hostilities have begun flaring up in some parts of Russia that were either taken over by the Soviet government or conquered during the imperial Russian era. When the Soviet government collapsed, it provided the instability for some areas to distance themselves or even try to break away from the Russian government. The fiercest fighting of this type so far has occurred in Chechnya, a region in the Caucasus Mountains near Georgia. Thousands of Russian troops have been sent into the area, and many people on both sides have been killed.

Alcohol abuse has traditionally been a problem for the Russians. Temperance movements were not prominent in Russia's history. Family violence in households is often a consequence of alcoholism. Crime rates have risen rapidly in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, which has made the economic situation even worse. Much of the crime problem is due to the extortion and violence caused by organized crime, which has considerable power in some areas. Organized crime is also aided in some places because of corruption among local politicians and officials. Decades of socialism have encouraged a manner of thinking where class envy is common. Russians, therefore, often scorn the "new rich," who are assumed to be racketeers. Vladimir Putin put significant constraints on oligarchs and the "new rich," but organized crime and corruption remain significant problems.

Right after the breakdown of the Soviet Union prostitution become a popular way for women to make money. Many teenage girls believe that a career in prostitution will pay more than most legitimate professions ever would, regardless of education. About one-fourth of Russia's prostitutes have received some sort of higher education. Although since 2000 the economic situation has improved, female unemployment is still high. The number of girls going into the hospitality business is gradually decreasing, but not very significantly.

Furthermore, currently Russia faces a serious demographic crisis. Russia's population of 142.9 million is rapidly falling. Births lag far behind deaths, the population is aging, and the average male hardly lives to age 60. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, traffic injuries, suicide, alcohol poisoning, and violence are some of the major causes of death. In 2007 life expectancy at birth was only 59 years for men and 73 years for women. In the past 20 years, lower birth rates and higher death rates have reduced Russia's population at nearly 0.5% per year. A substantial increase in HIV/AIDS infections and tuberculosis worsens the problem. Some reports indicate that Russia has one of the highest growth rates of HIV infection in the world, with the estimated number of HIV-infected persons at approximately 3 million.

The Russian government acknowledged that Russia is facing a demographic crisis. President Putin initiated a series of reforms attempting to improve the situation. Reforms included measures to improve birth and mortality rates and increase population through immigration, primarily the return of Russian-speaking foreigners.


The Soviet ideology promoted equal rights for all, opening the doors for women to enter higher education and professional careers. Continuing this trend, in the period from 1992 to 2000, the number of female students at higher educational establishments rose by 50%. In fact, in 2008 approximately 57% of university students were women and 43% men.

However, despite possessing a higher average level of education, women in Russia earn less than men, averaging 60–70% of men's wages. Women are underrepresented in legislative bodies and are not represented in the government at all. Female workers face discrimination in employment-related matters, including promotion. Furthermore, most women have to combine professional work with the lion's share of work at home.

At the same time, the unemployment rates of women and men have been roughly equal, standing at 6.7% and 6.5% respectively in 2006. In 2006 women comprised over 48% of the economically active population. In the face of recent political and economic change, men have retained their economic advantage, but women have maintained their presence in the labor market. In fact, some men were experiencing greater problems in adapting to the new Russia than women. Meanwhile, the gender restructuring of employment during transition favors men in a sense that men increased their presence in the now-lucrative, but once female-dominated, spheres of banking and commerce, while women continue to make up the overwhelming majority of employees in the poorly-paid "budget sector" areas of health care and education.

Although women are in a disadvantaged economic position, they appear to be healthier and emotionally happier than men. Data indicate that in 1989 male life expectancy was at 64.3 years of age while in 2008 it barely reached 59. However, female life expectancy proved to be more constant, declining from 74.4 years in 1989 to 73 in 2007. Bearing the main responsibility for the well-being of a family binds women to a web of on-going relations with family members and female acquaintances. By contrast, men's social networks tend to revolve around their workplace. While this undoubtedly has positive effects in terms of job search and promotion prospects, it entails that men's safety networks can be endangered in the face of changes in employment status. Men who become unemployed or marginalized at work can find themselves cut off from their contacts causing men great mental distress. Distressed men often turn to drinking which further intensifies the problem. Alcohol consumption in Russia is 10 times higher among men than among women.

In sum, women in Russia are more likely to live in poverty, but it seems that men are more vulnerable to its effects. Women have to cope with the double burden of work and household management, but this has turned out to have hidden benefits in a period of economic crisis, while men's freedom from domestic responsibilities and license to drink have proved very dangerous to their health. Women and men have almost equal opportunities for education, and women have increasingly higher prospects of career advancement, yet men still earn more and dominate in certain positions, including positions in administration and government. Women still have to confront negative gender stereotyping. However those trends are gradually changing. While competition for top jobs and other opportunities is always fierce, the right mindset combined with an excellent education and good contacts can be and is the hammer in women's hands that shatters the foundation of a traditionally patriarchal society.


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—revised by A. Golovina Khadka