How Russian Traditions Work


St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow is a fine example of Russian culture in action. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
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Separating Russia's history -- a rich and deeply ideological one that includes more than a millennium of rule at the hands of the czars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War -- from the traditions and customs of its people is no simple task. Russians, as a culture, an empire and a country, have been shaped by religion, conflict, war and peace since the 16th century [source: Hosking].

To much of the world, Russia represents the crown jewel of the former Soviet Union, the world's first recognized socialist state and superpower [source: Pugh]. Beginning in 1917 when revolutionary Vladimir Lenin executed what would become the largest imperial expansion ever, the Soviet Union and its Iron-Curtain image overshadowed Russia as a culture. But since the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991, Russia has reemerged [source: Hosking]. And outside of the shadow cast by nearly a century of this ruthless legacy, the culture is blossoming as the country rebuilds its national identity.

Like the United States, Russia is a melting pot, originally settled by groups from northern Europe and Asia who had to tame vast wilderness isolated from the rest of the world [source: Longworth]. And just like the original colonies settled in the New World, these first Russian outposts helped instill in the people a strong sense of community, self-reliance and fierce patriotism. Maybe it should come as no surprise then that these two nations would eventually grow into the bookend superpowers that they became.

In this article, we'll explore some Russian traditions and discuss the unique geopolitical, environmental, and cultural influences that shaped these practices. So disregard the images you may have of the hammer and sickle, the Red Army or Russian Bears and read on to discover how Russian traditions work, where they came from and the role they are playing in helping a nation rebuild its national identity.

Traditional Russian People

Just as a mix of Native Americans, early European explorers and eventually settlers from Spain, England and France, shaped the United States, Russia shares a similar history in that people groups from all over the supercontinent of Eurasia found their way to this region [source: Crozier].

Slavic tribes, nomads that made their territory the eastern part of the country near what would eventually become Poland, are some of the first permanent settlers in the area [source: Britannica]. Though the Slavs were never permanently forced from this land, they were often overtaken by invading groups that included the Khazars and Scandinavian Vikings [source: Britannica].

In the 13th century Russia was in the hands of the Mongols, a powerful invading force that significantly altered the country's history. And even though this "Golden Horde" was eventually defeated, they never fully disappeared and managed to maintain a presence in Russia for nearly a century [Source: Crozier].

From these early and violent origins, a fantastically diverse Russia was born. But the loss of the Russian Empire in World War I, the rise to power of Joseph Stalin and his harsh authority stunted the cultural development of the country until 1991 when communism lost its hold and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was dissolved.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union created hardships including the loss of some basic social services, it also gave birth to an environment of cultural freedom that didn't exist before. But for all of its struggles, Russia has some of the most colorful ways to express itself. Its iconic, onion-domed architecture and Soviet Realistic artwork, which the oppressive Communist party championed because it felt art belonged to the people and should focus on education and inspiration, are just a couple of examples.

Culture and education are two additional areas in which Russia has left an indelible impression. Catherine the Great first introduced ballet in an effort to emphasize culture and education, and this art form blossomed with the influences of Italian and French dance companies in the 19th and 20th centuries [source: Hosking]. Today Russian ballet is considered among the purest expression of the art. And Russia's emphasis on science and education date all the way back to Peter the Great, who instituted reforms that focused on higher education in order to carry out his vision for modernization [Source: Hosking].

Such an interesting culture must have something to offer in the kitchen, right? Check out the next section and learn about some traditional Russian cuisine.

Traditional Russian Food

Russians love their vodka.
Russians love their vodka.
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As the largest country on the planet, spanning terrain ranging from frozen tundra to lush forests, it should come as no surprise that this geography produces a wide range of cuisine.

But it took time for Russia to develop its palate. You might even say that Russian flavors in the Middle Ages were boring. A predominantly agricultural society, the early Russians typically went very light on meat and heavy on the veggies. Cabbage, turnips and beetroot were the staples, supplemented by rye grains, which were used for bread and beer (in that order) [source: Chamberlain].

Oddly enough, it was enslavement to the invading Mongols in the 13th century that brought some culinary variety. These foreign influences opened up a new world from the East, where exotic spices like cinnamon and ginger, as well as fruit preserves and pasta, were introduced to the Russian diet. The country has developed a reputation over the centuries for having co-opted many of the things now considered traditionally Russian from its neighbors. For example, Russia hijacked beef stroganoff, thin strips of sautéed beef served over noodles, from the French, and the idea for zakuski, small, flavorful hors d'oeuvres or salads, originated in Germany, but both have come to be known as decidedly Russian contributions to global cuisine [source: Perelman].

Borscht, one of the most recognizable Russian dishes, is the result of making lemonade out of lemons. Or rather beets, which were plentiful and cheap. Ukrainian (not Russian) cooks used them to create a soup that could be served hot or cold, and seasoned to taste with the modest spices they had available. From these modest beginnings borscht trickled into Russian homes and eventually became the quintessential dish of Russia, crossing class lines and finding its way into every kitchen and restaurant [source: Schultze].

Another important staple in the Russian diet is the potato. In 1839 Russian grain crops failed, causing the government to implement mandatory growing of potatoes on available land to build up a food reserve in the event of famine. Even though this move was initially unpopular among farmers, the potato produced yields up to four times that of grain and eventually became the dominant food crop in not only Russia but also all of Eastern Europe [source: Hosking].

So what do you wear to cover up a physique shaped by a steady diet of starches and grain alcohol? We'll try on some traditional Russian clothing on the next page.

Traditional Russian Clothing

This lady's rocking a traditional sarafan and kokoshnik.
This lady's rocking a traditional sarafan and kokoshnik.
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Just as the food choices in Russia are shaped by equal parts landscape and European input, clothing trends and traditions move along the same lines. Probably the most iconic Russian garment – well, more of an accessory – is the ushanka . These distinctive, fur-lined caps with their trademark earflaps protect Russians from brutally cold winters. They also included a heavily padded leather crown that not only provided vital warmth to the head, but also protected it from blunt force trauma, such as slipping on the ice. Comfortable and practical!

Working our way down, the kosovorotka is a traditional shirt that may be worn by men or women that typically extends down past the waist and is usually long-sleeved. The sleeves served dual purposes; first, to offer protection from the elements and second, to show off, as they were sometimes elaborately decorated with embroidery . The kosovortka fell out of popularity for everyday use when simpler, more functional garments became more readily available [source: Schultze]. Today, the kosovortka is mostly ornamental, reserved for celebrations or Russian folk festivals.

Peasant girls in the northern part of Russia got to saunter around in sarafans. These were long, simple dresses that usually consisted of thin shoulder straps and a bell-shaped gown designed, quite possibly, to be the least flattering garment a Russian woman would ever wear. And sarafans were usually accompanied by a kokoshnik, a traditional headdress patterned to match the dress. Kokoshniks came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but are most recognizable as halo-shaped, spanning ear-to-ear over the crown of the head. This shape is the reason kokoshnik is also the term used for a specific type of arch-shaped decorative element in Russian architecture. The popularity of the kokoshnik infiltrated other cultures over time, influencing styles in the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. The style expanded even farther away, being worn by Padme Amidala in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

Today’s Russia is a country and society in transition, and this article has only touched on some of the many influences that have come to bear on Russian traditions.

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Sources

  • Chamberlain, Lesley. "The Food and Cooking of Russia." Bison Books. June 2006.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Slav." (August 4, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/548156/Slav
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Viking." (August 4, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/628781/Viking
  • Hosking, Geoffrey. "Russia: People and Empire." Harvard University Press. 1997.
  • Makhonko, Elena. "The Food & Cooking of Russia: Discover the rich and varied character of Russian cuisine, in 60 authentic recipes and 300 glorious photographs." Anness. September 2009.
  • Perelman, Deb. "Zakuski: Mighty Russian Morsels." National Public Radio. March 14, 2007. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7870158
  • Pokhlebkin, William. "History of Vodka." Verso. April 1992
  • Pugh, Michael; Williams, Phil. "Superpower Politics: Change In The United States And The Soviet Union." Manchester University Press. 1990.
  • Schultze, Sydney. "Culture and Customs of Russia." Greenwood Publishing Group. April 2000.