Russian Culture: Facts, Customs & Traditions

Russian culture has a long and rich history, steeped in literature, ballet, painting and classical music. While outsiders may see the country as drab, Russia has a very visual cultural past, from its colorful folk costumes to its ornate religious symbols. Here is a brief overview of Russian customs and traditions.

russianculturefactstraditions_mediumPopulation and ethnic makeup

Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of territory, with a total area of 6,601,668 square miles (17,098,242 square kilometers). By comparison, the United States comprises 3,794,100 square miles (9,826,675 square km).

According to the 2010 census, the population of Russia is 142,905,200, which has been declining since its peak of 148,689,000 in 1991, the year that the USSR was officially dissolved.

The ethnic makeup of the Russian population is 82 percent Russian. The largest minority group is Tatars (4 percent), which are natives of  the Volga, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan regions. That is followed by Ukrainian (3 percent); Chuvash (1 percent); Bashkir (1 percent); Belarusian (1 percent) and Moldavian (1 percent).

Languages

While Russian is the official language, and Russia has an almost 100 percent literacy rate, many Russians also speak English as a second language. More than 100 minority languages are spoken in Russia today, the most popular of which is Tartar, spoken by more than 3 percent of the country's population. Other minority languages include Ukrainian, Chuvash, Bashir, Mordvin and Chechen. Although these minority populations account for a small percentage of the overall Russian population, these languages are prominent in regional areas.

Religions

Orthodox Christianity is Russia's largest religion with 75 percent of the population belonging to the Orthodox Christian denomination. About 5 percent of the population identifies as Islam. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Buddhism make up 1 percent of the population each. About 8 percent consider themselves atheists.

Russian Society & Culture

The Russian Family

The Russian family is dependent upon all its members. Most families live in small apartments, often with 2 or 3 generations sharing little space. Most families are small, often with only one child because most women must also work outside of the house in addition to bearing sole responsibility for household and childrearing chores.

Russian Pride

Russians are proud of their country. Patriotic songs and poems extol the virtues of their homeland. They accept that their lives are difficult and pride themselves on being able to flourish in conditions that others could not. They take great pride in their cultural heritage and expect the rest of the world to admire it.

Communal Mentality

For generations until the 1930's, Russian life centred on the agricultural village commune, where the land was held in common and decision-making was the province of an assembly of the heads of households. This affinity for the group and the collective spirit remains today. It is seen in everyday life, for example most Russians will join a table of strangers rather than eat alone in a restaurant. Everybody's business is also everyone else's, so strangers will stop and tell someone that they are breaking the rules.

Etiquette and Customs in Russia

The most significant elements of etiquette are the verbal markers of social status. People use the second person plural pronoun when addressing elders except for parents and grandparents, persons of higher status, strangers, and acquaintances. The informal second person singular is used only among close friends, within the natal family, and among close coworkers of equal status. The more distant two people are socially, the more likely it is that they will address each other with full formality. Addressing someone formally also entails using the person's full name and patronymic. Misuse of the informal mode is extremely insulting.

Meeting Etiquette

The typical greeting is a firm, almost bone-crushing handshake while maintaining direct eye contact and giving the appropriate greeting for  the time of day. When men shake hands with women, the handshake is less firm. When female friends meet, they kiss on the cheek three times, starting with the left and then alternating. When close male friends meet, they may pat each other on the back and hug.

Naming Conventions

Russian names are comprised of:

  • First name, which is the person's given name.
  • Middle name, which is a patronymic or a version of the father's first name formed by adding '- vich' or '-ovich' for a male and '-avna' or '- ovna' for a female. The son of Ivan would have a patronymic of Ivanovich while the daughter's patronymic would be Ivanovna.
  • Last name, which is the family or surname.

In formal situations, people use all three names. Friends and close acquaintances may refer to each other by their first name and patronymic. Close friends and family members call each other by their first name only.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Gift giving using takes place between family and close friends on birthdays, New Year, and Orthodox Christmas. If you are invited to a Russian home for a meal, bring a small gift. Male guests are expected to bring flowers. Do not give yellow flowers. Do not give a baby gift until after the baby is born. It is bad luck to do so sooner. Russians often protest when they are offered a gift. Reply that it is a little something and offer the gift again and it will generally be accepted.

Dining Etiquette

If you are invited to a Russian's house, arrive on time or no more than 15 minutes later than invited. Remove your outdoor shoes. You may be given slippers to wear. Dress in clothes you might wear to the office. Dressing well shows respect for your hosts. Expect to be treated with honour and respect. Offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served. This may be turned down out of politeness. Asking 'are you sure?' allows the hostess to accept your offer.

Table Manners

Table behavior is circumscribed by a code of manners. Hosts and hostesses must show unfailing generosity, even with unexpected guests, and guests must receive that hospitality with a show of willingness to be served, fed, and pampered. Drinking together and toasting are important aspects of these rituals.

Table manners are generally casual. Table manners are Continental -- the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating. The oldest or most honoured guest is served first. Do not begin eating until the host invites you to start. Do not rest your elbows on the table, although your hands should be visible at all times. You will often be urged to take second helpings. It is polite to use bread to soak up gravy or sauce. Men pour drinks for women seated next to them. Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that your hosts have provided ample hospitality. Do not get up until you are invited to leave the table. At formal dinners, the guest of honor is the first to get up from the table.

Cleanliness

The filthiness of urban surfaces means that one never sits on the ground or puts shod feet on a table. Proper feminine behavior requires the observance of a number of specific practices: clothes must always be immaculately clean and pressed, fastidious grooming is critical, and comportment should be elegant and reserved. However, in crowds, lines, and public transport, active shoving and pushing are the norm.

Dress Code

In Soviet times, being demure and not drawing attention to oneself through dress or behavior were highly valued, but this norm has vanished with the explosion of fashion and attention-getting subcultural identities.

Social Customs

The word "uncultured" is used by grandmothers and older people as a reprimand for behavior on the part of their charges or total strangers that are considered uncouth or inappropriate. The use of this reprimand has diminished as the social status of elders has fallen and as blatantly offensive behavior in the cities has become a mark of the power and "coolness" of youthful traders and "toughs."

The growth of the Russian middle class has generated dramatic changes in Russia’s lifestyles and social customs. Travel abroad has become popular, and consumption, particularly of imported luxury goods, has increased. Many wealthy individuals have purchased private land and built second homes, often of two or three stories. Russia’s middle class has adopted values that are distinctly different from Soviet practice. The new values include self-reliance and viewing work as source of joy and pride; the middle class also tends to avoid political extremes, to participate in charitable organizations, and to patronize theatres and restaurants. Estimates of the size of the middle class vary (as do definitions of it), but it is generally assumed that it constitutes about one-fourth of Russian society, and much of that is concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other urban areas.

The rebirth of religion is another dimension of the changed lifestyles of new Russia. Although a majority of Russians are nonbelievers, religious institutions have filled the vacuum created by the downfall of communist ideology, and even many nonbelievers participate in the now-ubiquitous religious festivities.

Food Customs

Although a wide array of imported packaged products are now found in Russian cities, traditional foods and ingredients remain popular, including cabbage, potatoes, carrots, sour cream, and apples—the principal ingredients of borsch, the famous Russian soup made with beets. Normally, Russians prefer to finish their daily meals with a cup of tea or coffee (the latter more common in the larger cities). Also popular is kvass, a traditional beverage that can be made at home from stale black bread. On a hot summer day, chilled kvass is used to make okroshka, a traditional cold soup laced with cucumbers, boiled eggs, sausages, and salamis.

Vodka, the national drink of Russia, accompanies many family meals, especially on special occasions. The basic vodkas have no additional flavouring, but they are sometimes infused with cranberries, lemon peel, pepper, or herbs. Vodka is traditionally consumed straight and is chased by a fatty salt herring, a sour cucumber, a pickled mushroom, or a piece of rye bread with butter. It is considered bad manners and a sign of weak character to become visibly intoxicated from vodka.

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