The country of Russia started a long time ago. Russia began with the establishment of the Rus’ state in 862 at the time when most of Europe was a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire fell, but Russia survived. The word Rus’ comes from an ancient Norse word. It means “rowers,” such as the men who row in longboats.
Our team member Dmitry, who is of Russian descent, kindly shared with us interesting facts about his native country.
21 Facts about Russian Culture
Are you ready to learn some extraordinary Russian cultural facts and enjoy some stories that babushkas (grandmothers) love to tell their grandkids?
1. Russian Cats with Jobs
Some cats in Russia have actual jobs. Achilles the cat works along with about 60 other cats at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to keep the rats under control. The museum is enormous, and it would cost a fortune to do pest control without the cats’ help.
Another employed cat is Bársik. Bársik earns 33,000 rubles per month. This amount is the equivalent of around 370€ monthly. Bársik earns this money for fulfilling a superstitious need of the home buyers. A Russian tradition says that a cat should be the first one to enter a newly-constructed home before a family moves in. The cat is supposed to scare away any evil spirits who may be lurking around. Where the cat decides to lie down is the best place to put a bed—people who don’t have a cat rent one for this purpose.
Half the money the cat earns goes to the construction firm that lends out the cat to do the spiritual cleansing work for the company’s clients. The remaining half goes to the cat’s owner, Vasili Kuchomov. Kuchomov’s portion of the money is used to provide food and shelter for stray cats. Can I hear a collective, “Ah, that’s so sweet!”
2. The Russian Soul
Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, set in an enigma.” Do you want to know more about Russia from one of the greatest writers of all time? Enjoy Tolstoy’s perspective on the period during Napoleonic times by reading the massive novel War and Peace, or listen to the 15-hour audio book of War and Peace if you prefer, or view the eight-hour movie. After this effort, you will have a hint at the depth of the Russian soul.
In the film War and Peace, you will be enthralled by the lead characters with a supporting cast of thousands. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is a good man who loves his country. His best friend is Count Pierre Busukhov, who is clumsy but virtuous. The story also shows the character of Natasha Rostova, starting from age five, running through a beautiful field, and then growing up.
Natasha’s character is such a young, pure, innocent girl at the start of the film. Coming after that for her is a life full of gut-wrenching challenges as she matures into a woman. The theme of this classic story is how the characters suffer and grow as people.
In this video, a history professor from America, Dr. Pat Willerton, discusses War and Peace while describing the beauty of the Russian soul that is often misunderstood.
3. Russian Ballet
There is no equal to the ballet dancers from Russia. They make up six of the world’s top-ten ballet dancers of all time.
Here are the greatest Russian ballet dancers (listed in the order of their birth):
- Anna Pavlova (1881 to 1931): She is recognized for her performance of The Dying Swan, which was captured on the new medium of her time, movie film.
- Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 to 1950): He is celebrated for his intense emotional performances and characterizations.
- Galina Ulanova (1910 to 1998): She was a Prima Ballerina Assoluta at the Bolshoi Ballet for 16 years, famous for her performance in Swan Lake.
- Rudolf Nureyev (1938 to 1993): This Soviet-born dancer is credited for expanding the role of the male ballet dancer who previously served only in a supportive role for the ballerinas.
- Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948 to present): He left Russia to popularize ballet to a massive international audience and eventually to become the Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre. Baryshnikov is known for his effortless-looking jumps.
- Natalia Makarova (1940 to present) She also left Russia. She partnered with Baryshnikov. She matched him with her incredibly high leg extensions, making her look like she flies across the stage suspended in the air. Watch history being made with their performance of Giselle for the American Ballet Theater at the Lincoln Center in 1977. It is my absolute favorite.
4. Russian Contributions to Science and Technology
Russians made so many great contributions to science and technology that I can only list a few of my favorites here about space exploration as the full list would take up volumes.
I love the history of Russian space exploration.
Here is a short list of a few of Russian “firsts”:
- 1957 – First satellite: Sputnik
- 1959 – First Unmanned Moon Landing: Luna 2 Probe
- 1960 – First animals (dogs) to survive orbiting Earth: Belka and Strelka
- 1961 – First male astronaut to orbit Earth: Yuri Gagarin
- 1963 – First female astronaut: Valentina Tereshkova
- 1965 – First to spacewalk: Alexei Leonov
- 1970 – First remote-controlled robot rover to land on the Moon: Lunokhod 1
5. Traditional Russian Drinks Besides Vodka
The Russians drink not only vodka but many other drinks like kvass, made from wheat, buckwheat, rye bread, and water. Russian tea is very popular, both hot and iced. Enjoy kompot made from fruit for lunch. Mors is similar to kompot but made from berries.
Sbiten is made with honey and spices. Medovukha was popular before vodka. It is a strong alcoholic drink made from honey, yeast, and water with flavoring added. Zvar is a thick drink made with berries, herbs, and sometimes wine.
Kissel is thicker than most drinks and is almost like a jelly. It is made from starch. Kefir is a fermented dairy drink. Another must-try drink is Ryazhenka. It is like kefir but has a caramel flavor. Oh goodness, now I am getting thirsty!
6. Russian Sports
The Russians are really good at sports. In Russia, sports training begins in the womb. Russian athletes hold world records in so many sports I cannot name them all here. A few examples of world records held for many years are speed skating, weight lifting, pole vaulting, hammer throw, and shot put.
Living up to their heritage of being Rus’ (rowers), Russian athletes how the world record for the most distance rowed by a team of 120 kilometers in open water for 12 hours. This record was set in 2018, when the four rowers and one coxswain (a non-rowing leader who calls out the strokes) made it all the way from Trabzon, Turkey, to Sochi, Russia.
7. Alaska was Russian Territory
Many Alaskans say that they can look out their back windows to see Russia. Russia sold Alaska to America for US$7.2 million in 1867. The price paid was one cent per acre. The land was 586,412 square miles. In today’s money, this is only a measly US$125 million. Of course, this was before oil was discovered in Alaska.
I think Russia received far too little for this land worth trillions now.
8. Russian Tea
Tea drinkers will love the strong tannic bite of Russian black tea. It is tea with a punch that is on the level of caffeine-laden espresso. To make it, use a slow cooker for about three hours.
Mix pure water, sugar, pineapple juice, orange juice, and lemon juice with plenty of Russian black tea bags. Add clove and cinnamon sticks according the recipe for Russian Tea.
9. Grumpy, Generous Russians
It is not easy to be both grumpy and hospitable. It takes living in Russia for a long time to master the art of being both annoyed and delighted to see someone simultaneously.
Russians are spirited people, and the emotional rivers run deep. Don’t be offended if Russians seem a bit standoffish at first. They warm up to you when you get to know them better.
Images, statues, and portraits of Comrade Lenin are everywhere! He was the founder of Soviet Russia and was the head of the government from 1917 to 1924. He also served as the first Premier of the Soviet Union (USSR) from 1922 to 1924.
Vladimir Lenin’s body is preserved for viewing at his tomb in Red Square. Upon his death in 1924, he was embalmed and laid to rest in a glass sarcophagus, where he remains to this day.
11. Russian Churches
During the time of the USSR, religion was not supported by the government. Communist regimes had a disdain for religion. Chairman Mao famously said in China that religion is the opiate of the masses. In China, they destroyed everything to do with religion, but in Russia, they left the beautiful churches alone and simply banned the services for a time.
After the USSR broke into smaller pieces in 1991 and Russia reorganized itself, there was a huge re-emergence of religious activities. Luckily, except for those who did not survive WWII, all the beautiful churches and cathedrals of Russia remained intact. They lasted through the atheism period because they were considered to be national treasures.
Just saying the word babushka makes me want to hug my grandma. She died many years ago, yet I can still imagine the feeling of her warm, loving embrace and the sweet smell of her Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) perfume, which always reminded me of orange blossoms blooming during spring. A babushka is also a popular symbol used for the sets of nested wooden dolls of decreasing size, which stack one inside the other.
Here is my favorite babushka joke. Why is a babushka always in a hurry? Because she is Russian everywhere(a pun on “rushing”).
13. Stoic Russians
Russian youngsters are taught not to smile in school. Smiling is considered to be rude and misbehavior. It is one reason why Russians grow up to be more guarded about expressing emotions in public. This may be off-putting to some visitors who are unaware of the veil that Russians normally put up to mask their feelings.
A woman that a guy just met might look at him with disdain in public and with adoring eyes in private. Nyet, which is “no” in Russian, might also mean “not yet.”
14. Russian Superstitions
Superstitious Russians are the norm, like using a cat to enter a newly-built home to find a safe place to put the bed.
Other superstitions are that whistling will blow away your money, ghosts live in the garbage bins, wearing your clothes inside out or breaking mirror is bad luck, knock on wood to protect yourself, step inside the house to give something to a person, and a young unmarried woman should not sit at the corners of a table unless she wants to be an old maid (not get married).
15. Russian Brides
Russian brides go on a city tour after getting married to show off in front of the other young women who are not yet married. They also make the guys, who did not win her hand in marriage, jealous of her new husband.
16. Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
If you spent two minutes looking at each of the over three million exhibits in the Hermitage Museum, it would take you six years to see everything.
The Hermitage is the second-largest art museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris.
17. Russian Women are Beautiful
Russian women almost always wear makeup and are dressed to kill. This is true for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes except for the ones who do construction work. They only put on their makeup when they get home from work to go out with their hubby, who spent all day cleaning the house.
Yes, you will see Russian women running jackhammers to repair Moscow’s streets, and you will see those who look like supermodels walking in the parks.
18. Russian Dachas are not Just for Having a Rest
A “dacha” is like a summer cabin that sits on a small plot of land given to the Russians during Soviet times. It is used to have a small garden farm.
The houses are usually very simple and might have a Russian steam bath called a “banya.” People work a lot there, as everybody in Russia loves home-grown vegetables and home-made preserves.
19. Victory Day (May 9)
On May 9 each year, Victory Day is still one of the most important days for Russians because it celebrates the surrender of Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1945 that brought about the end of WWII.
The world is so grateful to the Russians who sacrificed so much to defeat Hitler. Russia lost more people than any other country, with an estimate of over 20 million up to 27 million Russians (civilians and military) who died in WWII.
20. Never Give an Even Number of Flowers
If you want your new girlfriend to shriek in horror, send her an even number, like a dozen, of roses. This is the equivalent of cursing her to death, according to Russian tradition. An even number of flowers are placed only on graves in Russia, giving her thirteen roses instead.
21. Don’t Say No to Food and Don’t Come Empty-Handed to a Party or Event
If offered some food, always accept it. Take a small plate if you are not that hungry but never turn it down. There were times in the past when food was so scarce and valuable. Millions of Russians died of starvation during WWII. To be able, in contemporary times, to offer food to another person is a matter of national pride. To refuse it is very rude.
Also, be sure to bring a bottle of something to drink when coming for a visit. Vodka is fine if you are running low on money, but it is better to be more original and bring a fine sweet wine or an after-dinner aperitif.
Time to Say Good-Bye — Da Svidaniya
Da svidaniya means “see you later” or “until we meet again.” Or I could just say Paka Paka, which means “bye-bye” if I know you well enough. That is the cute way kids say good-bye.
I plan to visit the Hermitage soon, so you will find me there, wandering the museum halls, enjoying my retirement, and looking at the beautiful art for the next ten years or more. I want to spend more than two minutes at each exhibit since I am no longer required in my retirement to be “Russian” (rushing) around. Da Svidaniya.