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Russian Culture: Facts, Customs & Traditions

Russian nesting dolls, matrioshka dolls
Matrioshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, are wooden figures that open to reveal a smaller figure inside. The next doll has a smaller figure inside, and so on.
Credit: ketsu | Shutterstock

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.

Population 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.

Arts, literature and architecture

Ballet is one of the most notable art forms coming out of Russia. Founded in 1776, the Bolshoi Ballet is a classical ballet company based at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and known throughout the world. The Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg is another famous ballet company in Russia.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the 19th-century Russian composer, is world renowned for "Swan Lake" and the "1812 Overture," among other pieces. There are several museums, including his childhood home, showcasing his personal belongings and musical artifacts.

Russian literature has also had a worldwide impact, with writers such as Leon Tolstoy ("Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace"), and Fyodor Dostoevsky ("Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov") still being read around the world.

Russian nesting dolls are well-known symbols of the country. These sets of dolls, known as matrioshka dolls, consist of a wooden figure that can be pulled apart to reveal another smaller version of the same image inside, and so on, often with six or more dolls nested inside one another. The painting of each doll, which can be extremely elaborate, usually symbolizes a Russian peasant girl in traditional costume.

Colorfully painted onion domes, which first appeared during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, are commonplace in Russian architecture and are predominant atop church structures. It has been speculated that they represent burning candles or vaults to heaven and often appear in groups of three representing the Holy Trinity. The domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral, one of the prime examples of onion domes, have not been altered since the 16th century.

St. Basil Cathedral, russian culture
The onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow are emblematic of Russian architecture.
Credit: Vladitto | Shutterstock

Russian food & drink

One of the most well-known traditional Russian foods is borshch, also spelled borscht, a beet soup that is full of vegetables and meat and typically served with a dollop of sour cream, a staple of many Russian dishes.

Pirozhkis (not to be confused with pierogis), are small pastries that can be filled with potatoes, meat, cabbage or cheese.

Caviar, or ikra, traditionally made from the eggs of sturgeon found in the Black Sea or Caspian Sea, is often served on dark, crusty bread or with blini, which are similar to pancakes or crepes. Blini are also served rolled up with a variety of fillings, ranging from jam to cheese and onions, or even chocolate syrup.

Vodka is a popular alcoholic drink traditionally made from the distillation of fermented potatoes. Beer and tea are also widely consumed.

Holidays and celebrations

Russians observe Christmas on January 7 as a public holiday according to the Julian calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church. The public holiday was re-established in 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Similarly, Easter is celebrated according to the Russian Orthodox calendar.

Russia Day is celebrated on June 12. This marks the day in 1990 that the Russian parliament formally declared Russian sovereignty from the USSR. Initially it was named Day of the Adoption of the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Russian Federation, but was renamed to Russia Day, a name offered by Boris Yeltsin, in 2002.

Russian business etiquette

Russian business dealings place a high value on structure and rules, as they do in other aspects of their lives. They expect others to be on time, but may test the patience of their foreign colleagues by having them wait for as long as several hours.

Russians appreciate time to debate, contemplate and digest negotiations, so high-pressure tactics are considered rude. However, it is not unusual for Russians to get heated when negotiating and walk out of a meeting in an effort to gain the upper hand.

Business meetings and businesses themselves retain many of the characteristics of the Soviet era, most notably an autocratic management style. Decisions are made by the leader, not by committee, and communication tends to be more formal than in U.S. companies.

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