Russia, officially referred to today as the Russian Federation, is the largest country in the world by area. It boasts a population of almost one hundred and forty-four million people, spread out across six and a half million square miles. Its government is considered a constitutional republic with the presence of a president, currently Vladimir Putin, as well as a prime minister, currently Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s land spans across nine time zones, and the country has the eighth largest economy in the world, according to gross domestic product. Having gone through a multitude of governmental and political changes throughout its history, from the early days of tsar rulers, to the height of the Russian Empire, to the Russian Revolution, the formation of the Russian Republic and the Soviet Union, and the breaking apart of the USSR, Russia is a place of mixed heritage and a variety of traditions, making the study of Russian culture a fascinating and intriguing endeavor. Whether you are planning to travel to Russia, studying the Russian language, or simply interested in this huge and historically significant country, becoming familiar with the aspects of Russian culture will benefit you in your studies or travels.
Many aspects of Russia’s culture are informed by the Russian language. Roughly one hundred and sixty-seven million people worldwide speak Russian, making it the ninth most widely spoken language in the world. It is one of the six recognized official languages of the United Nations, and more than twenty-five percent of the world’s scientific writing is published in Russian. There are about one hundred and sixty unique ethnic groups in Russia, and those groups speak a variety of languages numbering around one hundred, but Russia remains the official language of the nation, and it is spoken throughout the country homogeneously, meaning that the language does not vary noticeably based on geographic region.
Russian is a Slavic language, specifically the most widely spoken Slavic language in the world. Slavic languages were developed, and are still distributed, throughout the regions of Central and Eastern Europe. Contemporary Russian is derived from a language termed Old East Slavonic, of which there are written examples that date all the way back to the tenth century. Russian is considered the largest native language in Europe, as a majority of the Russian population considers Russian their first language, and it is also widely spoken in other countries such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus.
The Russian language’s most prominent and noticeable feature is the use of a Cyrillic alphabet. Cyrillic is a writing system that is commonly used in languages in the regions of Eastern Europe and Asia. The Russian Cyrillic alphabet has thirty-three characters, and each is associated with a specific sound and symbol. Students of the Russian language whose native languages employ the Latin alphabet must learn the characters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet before mastering even the basics of Russian speech or writing.
To Westerners, including English speakers, Russian names can look and sound very exotic and unique. Russian naming practices are a treasured part of Russia’s cultural history and traditions. The most important naming practice in Russia is the use of patronymics. Patronymics are components of one’s name that incorporates the name of that person’s father, most often, but sometimes grandfather or other important male relative. This practice can be found in a variety of forms all over Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In Russia, patronymics are placed between someone’s first and last names. A patronymic is most often derived by taking a male or female’s father’s name and adding one of several traditional endings to it. These endings include –ovich, -yevich, and –yich, when the name is given to a male. For example, if a boy were named Alexei and his father were named Peter, his name would be Alexei Petrovich. If a man were named Ivan and his father had the same name, the man would be called Ivan Ivanovich. Patronymic endings for females include –yevna, -ovna, and –ichna. A woman named Anna with a father name peter would be called Anna Petrovna. A woman named Sofia with a father named Sergei would be called Sofia Sergeyevna. People in Russia almost never address others by their first name only, but rather by their first name and patronymic together. These patronymic endings are common throughout most of the East Slavic languages.
Russia’s history and culture has been hugely influenced by the development of its literature, perhaps more than any other aspect. Russian literary history dates back to the Middle Ages, when epic poetry, folk stories, and fairy tales were written in Old Russian. Literature underwent a few changes in Russia after this time, becoming much more religious in nature, then becoming modernized in the eighteenth century, after Peter the Great became Russia’s ruler and did his best to modernize the nation. When the tsarist government was overthrown and the Soviet Union was created in the early twentieth century, literature became very censored and regulated. Arguably the most important and lasting literary accomplishments in Russia, however, occurred during the nineteenth century, often called the Golden Age of Russian literature; it is widely thought that the development of a cohesive Russian identity is due largely in part to the literature produced during this time period. Alexander Pushkin, who wrote Eugene Onegin and The Bronze Horseman, is often considered the writer who began this golden age. The Bronze Horseman is a poem that describes the city of St. Petersburg, and by so doing it provides a kind of identity for those living in the city and under Russian rule in general. Nikolai Gogol followed Pushkin, perfecting the art of the short story, Anton Chekhov contributed to Russia’s dramatic literature, and of course Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, respectively, made history by producing two of the world’s most popular novels, which still allow foreign readers to understand the intricacies of life in the Russian nation. Common Russian literary themes focus on the former isolation of the country, the disparity between the rich and poor classes, and the rigidity of the social structure, particularly in the large cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russian literature is still considered unique among world literatures, and it is a great source of pride within Russian culture even today.
Even to those who are not very familiar with Russian culture, the Russian ballet is a familiar term. Russia’s ballet dancers are considered by many to be the best in the world, undergoing rigorous training to qualify for the national companies. Before Peter the Great took the Russian throne in 1682, the country had undergone a long period of isolation from the rest of the world. For this reason, Russia was late to the game in terms of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but Peter the Great wanted to open up Russia’s doors to the West (building St. Petersburg was an integral part of this practice), resulting in a surge of European influence in Russia during his rule. Among these influences was the introduction of ballet into the Russian consciousness. This was all part of Peter’s desire to incorporate Western culture into Russian society, along with the building of fantastic palaces, and creating court structures similar to those in Western European nations. While arts such as ballet enjoyed a kind of freedom in other parts of Europe, those arts were more regulated in Russia. Because the arts in Russia were under such strict governmental rule, the ballet in particular became incredibly impressive in terms of the discipline and control in the companies and the dancers themselves. This led to the development of the distinguished Russian Ballet, or Ballets Russes, in the early twentieth century, which was embraced in Paris, the popular hub of ballet at the time. Ballet has continued to flourish in Russia, and is a treasured cultural phenomenon today. Two world-famous Russian ballet companies that are still active are the Mariinsky Ballet, originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet.
Now that you’ve explored some of the most famous aspects of Russian culture, you have broadened your knowledge on the intricacies of this fascinating country. With Russia’s long history, and the strong sense of tradition among its citizens, there is always more to learn about this large and powerful nation. Interest in Russia has intensified recently due to the current crisis in the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Though Russia is proving itself a worthy political and military adversary for its fellow world powers, and increasingly distancing itself from the bleak historical context of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the rich history and unique culture of the country is still a very important concept for anyone studying world history or Russian language. Whether you’re preparing to travel to Russia or its surrounding regions, or trying to provide a cultural context to your study of Russian language or literature, this nation has plenty of information to provide about its cultural history and traditions.