Russia is the largest country in the world by area, and spans Europe and Asia from west to east. Because Russia encompasses so much land, it also exhibits great geographical and ethnic diversity. Though generalizations about Russian culture can be made, the size and diversity of the country allow regions in Russia to maintain specific cultural elements that aren't typical of other areas.
For travelers to Russia, this range of diversity affords chances to experience many different aspects of Russian life, from its cosmopolitan cities to its traditional rural villages.
Those who live in Russia are called “Russians,” but about 160 various ethnic groups can be found in Russia. While Russian is the official language, more than 100 languages are spoken by its peoples. The majority of Russians identify with the Eastern Orthodox (Christian) religion, but Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism are also practiced in Russia.
Each city in Russia is unique and exhibits its own culture. Russia's capital city, Moscow is home to nearly 12 million inhabitants along with many important symbols of Russian culture, such as the Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Tretyakov Gallery, the top repository for Russian fine art in the world. To the north, gorgeous St. Petersburg previously served as capital of the Russian Empire from 1713-1918, and is now considered unofficially as a “second capital.” It's a cultural jewel of a city, a UNESCO World Heritage site with more than 200 museums, 2,000 libraries, and roughly 4,000 historical monuments.
Away from the two main cities, travelers can experience different shades of the Russian experience. Cities along important trade routes, like the Volga River, preserve elements of ancient Russia. For example, Kazan has a strong Tatar heritage and is the capital of the semi-autonomous Republic of Tatarstan, about 444 miles east of Moscow. The realities of living in the far east of Russia are reflected in Siberian cities, where travelers find ethnic communities living amid bitterly cold winters.
Food and Drink
Russian food and drink are a central part of life in this vast country. Rich and comforting, Russian foods focus on the flavors favored over generations. Special holiday foods in Russia, like kulich and paska, grace tables seasonally, and their preparation and consumption are surrounded by ritual. Most people are familiar with Russian vodka, that clear, flavorless spirit that encourages conversation and warms the blood. But Russians are also avid tea drinkers, and Russian tea culture is as strong as vodka culture.
Russian families don't differ drastically from families around the world. Both the mother and father typically work, and children go to school (where they typically learn English and other languages) to prepare them for university. The babushka, the Russian grandmother, fills the role of the wise woman, curator of memories and traditions, and baker of favorite comfort foods.
Russian families sometimes keep a dacha, or summer cottage, where they escape for the weekends or the summer and where they tend vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
When addressing friends or family, it's important to know a little about Russian names, which don't follow English-language conventions. First names are followed by a middle name that's based on the father's given name, followed by a suffix such as -ova or -evich. You may hear the same person called by a variety of names which sound nothing alike!
Russian culture is often tradition-driven. Traditions govern everything from how many flowers to give a woman (the more the merrier, but always give an odd number of flowers as even numbers are for funerals) to how to drink a bottle of vodka (typically for a specific reason, like a birthday or closing a business deal). Learning about Russian traditions will enrich your experience in Russia because you'll be able to navigate social situations more confidently.
Standard Western holidays such as Christmas, New Year's, and Easter are celebrated in Russia, but other holidays take on special emphasis, like Victory Day (May 9) and International Women's Day (March 8.) Russian holidays also recognize uniquely Russian achievements and events; for example, Cosmonaut Day (April 12) celebrates Russia's achievements in space exploration. In spring, Maslenitsa is Russia's version of Mardi Gras, more or less, a pre-Lenten celebration of the end of winter.
The Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, with 33 letters. These letters are derived from an old Slavic alphabet developed when Cyril and Methodius spread Christianity to the southern Slavic people in the 9th century. If you're traveling in Russia, it helps to know which letters in the Cyrillic alphabet are analogous to Latin letters. This makes reading signs and maps easier, even if you can't speak the language.
Russian language itself is a Slavic language and shares some root words and sounds with other Slavic languages.
Russia has one of the great literary cultures and languages. Most people are familiar with Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the formidable War and Peace and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote another weighty book, Crime and Punishment. Theatergoers still laugh at Anton Chekhov's plays, and poetry enthusiasts swoon over the verses of Alexander Pushkin. Russians take their literature very seriously, and many Russians can easily recite passages from famous works at the drop of a hat. Learn a little about a few Russian writers and poets to really impress your Russian friends. Then, when you travel, visit the former houses of Russian authors; many are preserved as museums.
Arts and Crafts
Handcrafted souvenirs make wonderful gifts and home decorations. The most well-known Russian craft is the matryoshka doll, or painted nesting doll. Finely decorated lacquer boxes also make special souvenirs. These can be purchased at souvenir markets. Some are of heirloom quality and bring enjoyment to multiple generations.
Russian history begins with Kievan Rus, which existed as the first unified, Slavic Christian state and was a great center of politics and learning from 862-1242. After Kievan Rus fell as a result of Mongol invasion, the Grand Duchy of Moscow gained might and power in the region. Peter the Great established the Russian Empire and moved the capital city to St. Petersburg in 1703, determined to make Russia a westward-facing nation.
With the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 20th century, the Russian monarchy disintegrated and 70 years of Communist rule followed. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and in the ensuing years, Russia has continued to develop politically and economically as a world power.
Many aspects of Russian history are important to Russian culture because they have made Russia (and its people) what it is today. The culture of St. Petersburg is uniquely “European” due to the efforts of Peter the Great; Eastern Orthodoxy is the most prevalent religion in Russia because of the Christianization of Kievan Rus; the Revolution of 1917 changed Russian literature, art, and attitudes. Just as any country is shaped by its past, so has Russia been molded by nation-changing events.