LOCATION: Russian Federation
POPULATION: 150 million [total population of country: 80 percent are ethnic Russians]
RELIGION: Russian Orthodox; Baptist; Seventh-Day Adventist; Jehovah's Witness
Ethnic Russians account for about 80 percent of the Russian Federation's population, but the country is very diverse. There are many language groups represented by over one hundred different ethnic groups. Besides the Russians, this article also contains profiles on five other ethnic groups, each from different linguistic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds: the Chechens (a Caucasian group), the Chukchi (Paleo-Siberian), the Mordvins (Finno-Ugric), the Nentsy (Samoyedic), and the Tatars (Turkic).
The Russians are primarily eastern Slavs, but many also have a Finnish, Siberian, Turkish, or Baltic heritage. Since the Russians have spread over such a large territory, many culturally distinct subgroups have developed because of ethnic mixing or isolation.
The Slavic ancestors of the Russians may have first settled in the area north of the Black Sea. The culture and religion of this early Russian state was influenced by the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) empire. During the Mongol occupation (c. 1240–1480), the Mongols made the Russians pay them tribute and taxes, but the Mongols let the ruling princes and the Russian Orthodox Church remain in power. The period of Mongol rule disrupted cultural links with the rest of Europe and is part of the reason why Russia was not influenced by the Renaissance, Reformation, or Industrial Revolution when those events occurred in Western Europe.
After a dozen years of power struggles, in 1613 the Russian nobility elected Michael Romanov as the new tsar (emperor—the empress was called tsarina ). The Romanov dynasty produced Tsar Peter I (1672–1725, better known as Peter the Great), considered the greatest tsar in Russian history. During the reign of the Tsarina Catherine II (who ruled 1762–96, also known as Catherine the Great), the Russian Empire added substantial territory through conquest.
For centuries, serfdom was a way of life for most Russian peasants who did not own any land. Serfdom was a form of bonded labor similar to slavery, except that a serf belonged to the master's land. Whenever land was sold, the serfs who worked on that land became the property of the new owner. After the Russians defeated Napoleon's army in the War of 1812, Tsar Alexander I (who ruled 1801–25) eventually abolished serfdom in a few small areas near the Baltic Sea.
In 1825, a group of army officers called the Decembrists organized the first revolt against the imperial government. Although the revolt failed, its memory served to rally the people in later years. In 1861 Tsar Alexander II (ruled 1855–81) freed the serfs, but in 1881 he was assassinated by terrorists. Industrialization helped improve the economy, but a financial crisis in 1899, crop failures, and an embarrassing defeat in the 1905 war with Japan led to more civil unrest and strikes by organized labor. Millions of Russian peasants were moving from the country into cities, which made it possible for them to get politically organized. At the start of the twentieth century, many Russians had come to believe that the imperial government was incapable of properly running the country.
During World War I (1914–18), the Russians found themselves fighting in a useless war that plunged the nation into deeper economic and social problems. Tsar Nicholas II (who ruled 1894–1917) gave up the throne, and a temporary government briefly had loose control. Then the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (governed 1917–24), took over the government. In 1918, Lenin had the entire royal family executed. Russia was called the Soviet Union after that time.
The Soviet era lasted from 1917 to 1991. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet government under Josef Stalin (governed 1924–53) instituted policies of terror and persecution to keep its power. The government wanted to control all property and information in order to keep people in line. Millions of Russians were eventually imprisoned, exiled, or executed on made-up charges and suspicion. An estimated 20 million Soviet citizens died during 1928–38 from Stalin's reign of terror and from preventable famine.
The most profound event during the Soviet years was World War II (1939–45), which Russians call "the Great Patriotic War." An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war, half of whom were civilians or prisoners. After World War II, the Soviet Union quickly rebuilt its military and became a rival of the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev (governed 1953–64), and the United States began building nuclear weapons to use against each other in the event of warfare.
During the 1970s, there was political and economic stagnation (lack of movement or progress) in the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, widespread reforms began under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev (governed 1985–91), and those reforms brought a new optimism to the Russian people. However, the Soviet administration had always relied on a strong central government to control the people, and the reforms and the economic problems eventually caused the Soviet Union to split apart.
When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the Russian people were filled with hope for a bright future. They had their first chance in history to freely choose their own leadership through democratic elections. During the 1990s, however, the people realized that the transition from central planning (socialism) to a market economy (capitalism) would not be quick and painless.
By 1800, Russia extended into much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and even had territorial claims in North America. At that point, Russia was the largest country in the world to cover a single land mass. Russia is still the largest country in the world, covering about 12 percent of the world's land surface. Today, many of the country's eighty-nine administrative regions are considered ethnic homelands and have various degrees of independence and control over their own affairs. For this reason, the country as a whole is known as the "Russian Federation."
During the Soviet years, most Russians were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union. But many did settle outside of Russia in the other republics of the Soviet Union, especially in urban or industrial areas. Since the end of the Soviet era, there has been a massive movement of Russians to and from the Russian Federation. Many ethnic Russians in the other former Soviet republics have moved to Russia because some of those new governments have pressured them to leave. Some Russians have left the homeland altogether since now they are free to emigrate.
Modern Russian is an Eastern Slavic language. During the tenth century, two Orthodox monks, Cyril and Methodius, created a new alphabet in order to translate the Bible into the Russians' native language. The Cyrillic alphabet, as it is called, is used in Russian and some other Slavic languages.
Common male first names include Aleksander, Boris, Dmitri, Ivan, Leonid, Mikhail, Sergei, and Vladimir. First names for women typically end with an "a" or "ya" sound and include Anastasia, Maria, Natalya, Olga, Sophia, Svetlana, Tatyana, and Valentina.
Examples of everyday Russian words include Kak delah? (How's it going?), da (yes), nyet (no), pozhaluistah (please), spaseebo (thank you), and do sveedanniya (goodbye).
Traditional Russian fairy tales are just as likely to have a sad ending as a happy one. A fairy tale hero is usually a prince or a simpleton, such as Ivanushka Durak. Famous evil figures in Russian fairy tales include Baba Yaga, a witch who lives in a house supported by chicken legs; and Koshchey the Immortal, a dragon that can only be killed if the egg that holds the essence of its death is found. Animal tales deal with funny encounters between animals that have human qualities.
The origin of one of the world's most famous Christmas traditions began with St. Nicholas of Myra, a patron saint of Russia. According to legend, Prince Vladimir (who declared Christianity the official religion of Russia in AD 988) personally selected the generous Nicholas to be the advocate of the people and protect the oppressed. From Russia, the fame of St. Nicholas spread to other peoples.
In AD 988, Prince Vladimir proclaimed Christianity as the religion of his realm in order to ally his kingdom with the powerful Byzantine Empire. Russian Orthodoxy grew out of this Byzantine influence. A typical Russian Orthodox church usually has many icons (images of persons who are revered as holy). Magnificent ceremonies on holy days are a well-known part of the Russian Orthodox tradition. The congregation typically stands during the service (many churches have no pews) and move to various stations around the sanctuary.
During the Soviet era, religious intolerance became official policy, and some 85 percent of all churches were shut down and the property seized. This was because the communists were atheists who saw the Russian Orthodox Church as a player in the corrupt imperial system of the tsars. The tsars claimed that their authority was God-given and they were supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Soviet government encouraged discrimination against those with spiritual beliefs, and Russians were even imprisoned and killed for their faith. Many religious activities were conducted secretly during that time.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, many of the closed churches have begun to reopen. For many, Russian Orthodoxy is a cultural as well as a religious institution, and it serves as a link to a pre-Soviet heritage. The Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet era and for many Russians is a symbol of the Russian national spirit and identity. There has also been a recent interest among Russians in faiths more common in the West (such as Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Jehovah's Witness).
Superstition and mysticism have also long been a part of Russian spiritual culture. Russians today are often very open to the possibility of psychic phenomena, mental telepathy, and UFOs (unidentified flying objects).
Orthodox Christmas occurs on January 7 (the Russian Orthodox Church still follows the old Julian calendar, which differs from the modern Gregorian calendar by thirteen days). Epiphany, which occurs twelve days after Christmas, is a major holy day in the Russian Orthodox Church. Easter (in March or April) is the most important religious holiday and is highly revered by the Russian Orthodox Church with elaborate rituals and extravagance.
Russians also celebrate holidays that became prominent during the Soviet era. New Year's Day is a major holiday among modern Russians, and usually the week preceding January 1 is full of festivals. Women's Day is celebrated on March 8, and women usually get gifts and do not work on that day. May Day, on May 1, is no longer International Workers' Solidarity Day as it was during the Soviet era, but is now a festival known as Labor and Spring Day. Victory Day on May 9 commemorates the end of World War II in Europe and is usually observed as a time to solemnly honor those who died during that war.
Completion of high school or university are important moments that mark the passage into adulthood. Entrance into military service was also revered in the same way. Weddings are usually followed by a trip in a special black limousine (marked with two large interlinked rings on the top) to pay respect and leave flowers at a local memorial.
In public situations, Russians can be very reserved and formal. In private and informal settings, they are very friendly and sincere. Russians use patronymics (where the father's first name forms the root of the child's middle name) in formal and business situations. For example, the patronymic for the son of Pavel (Paul) is "Pavlovich," and "Pavlovna" for a daughter. Adult acquaintances and casual friends usually talk to each other using the first name combined with the patronymic.
Veterans are highly honored in Russia, particularly anyone who defended or aided the Soviet Union during World War II.
During the Soviet years, Russians received health care from a large state-run system that provided services free of charge. In theory, the socialist system was supposed to serve everyone fairly, use the most recent technology, promote preventive medicine, and be open to recommendations from the public. In reality, however, resources were distributed unequally. Political leaders received the best care and rural areas got poor equipment and inexperienced personnel. Although medical care was free, many health care professionals moonlighted to make extra money because official health care usually involved long lines and waiting lists. Although the number of doctors doubled from the 1960s to the 1980s, health indicators such as illness rates and life expectancy worsened during that time.
Russian women typically get married between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, while men are usually between twenty and twenty-four years old at marriage. During the Soviet era, nonreligious marriages became common, and new Soviet marriage customs developed. Couples who decided to marry would have to register at a local office, where they would be assigned a wedding date that allowed them enough time to reconsider.
Although Russian society favors large families, the birth rate among Russians has been low since the 1970s, due to economic uncertainty and a high frequency of abortions among Russian women. This was especially true during the Soviet years, when contraceptives were often unavailable. Most urban Russian families have only one or two children, but rural families frequently have more.
Russian adults typically do not hesitate to assist any child in need, and parents will often make tremendous personal sacrifices for their children. It is also common for Russian adults to scold any misbehaving child, regardless of relation. Since so many households have only a single child, Russian parents are often accused of raising a generation of spoiled children.
Most Russians wear Western-style clothing on a daily basis and for special occasions. Jeans and other types of practical work clothes are often worn as well. Russians usually try to appear as neatly groomed and dressed as possible when out in public. Many Russians do not possess a large wardrobe, but will often try to have just a few garments of high quality.
Traditional costumes are usually only seen during cultural performances or sometimes in the country. Young Russian girls often wear huge bows in their hair. Older women often wear a large kerchief or scarf over the head and tied under the chin. This headcovering is often referred to as a babushka, named after the Russian word for "grandmother." Men and women wear fur hats to keep warm during the frigid winter months.
Russians typically drink chai (hot tea). A typical Russian meal has four courses: zakuski (appetizers), pervoye (first), vtoroye (second), and sladkoe (dessert). Zakuski usually include fish, cold cuts, or salads. Alcoholic drinks such as pivo (beer), vodka, konyak (brandy), or kvass (made from rye) are customarily served during a formal meal. Ikra (caviar), a famous Russian appetizer made from harvested sturgeon eggs, is also a part of formal Russian cuisine. Borshch (borscht) is a traditional everyday Russian soup, made with red beets and beef, usually served with a dollop of sour cream. Blini are small crepes served with different types of fillings; pirozhki are fried rolls that usually have a meat or vegetable filling. Morozhenoye (ice cream) is a popular year-round treat. Kartoshki (potatoes) are often served at meals, either boiled, mashed, as pancakes, or as a kugel (baked pudding).
After Russian children are about one year old, they go to a day nursery called a yasli until they are about three years old. From age three to age six or seven, Russians attend detski sad (kindergarten). Elementary school (grades one to four) is called nachalnaya shkola. At age eleven, Russian children enter the fifth grade and stay in srednaya shkola (high school) through the tenth grade, usually at age seventeen. After the ninth grade, a student may follow one of three educational paths: vocational school, professional training at a tekhnikum (secondary specialized school), or two years of general high school as preparation for university studies. In order to go to a high school, students need to pass an exam in language and mathematics at the end of the ninth grade.
Attending a university or science institute is difficult because there is much competition just to get in. There is a series of special examinations, and many students will spend a whole year studying for those tests. A program of college takes five years for a master's degree (there is no equivalent to a bachelor's degree in Russian universities) or six years for a medical degree.
Children are exposed at an early age to systems that stress or value collective efforts. Students in schools often perform in groups and are graded as a team rather than as individuals. Teachers often tell students their grades out loud, so that each person knows what grade the others received.
Russian epic songs, known as byliny, were traditionally sung by peasants and date back to before the sixteenth century. Some of the byliny are probably over a thousand years old. One of the typical Yuletide observances by Russians is the singing of kolyadi, carols that have their roots in pagan culture. The verses typically come from old songs about the sun, moon, and stars.
The most well-known folk instruments are probably the balalaika (a triangular guitar with three strings) and the garmon' (concertina). Some instruments, such as the gusli (psaltery), gudok (similar to a rebec, a primitive violin), and rog (horn) have been a part of Russian folk music for over a thousand years.
Classical Russian literature is an important part of Russian culture. Poetry recitals, going to plays, and discussing novels are all popular activities for Russians. These activities are enjoyed by Russians of all social levels, not just by an educated few. Russians often revere their poets, playwrights, and authors as popular celebrities.
During the Soviet years, the government controlled labor by setting wages and terms of employment. The problems that came with government control over the labor market, however, were huge. Production goals were set by the state and were supposed to replace profit as a motive. Consumer goods were often given a low priority for production, which meant that there were often shortages of everyday items. Workers had no incentive to be productive, while factory managers had little motivation to operate efficiently. A popular saying by workers during the Soviet years summarizes the situation: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many workers found themselves unemployed. As a result, unemployment and homelessness became visible in post-Soviet society. However, private businesses and money-making opportunities have also risen out of this situation.
Soccer and hockey are popular team sports that Russians enjoy playing as well as watching. Sports societies and organizations were prominent in the Soviet years, and the government promoted participation in a wide variety of sports. The role of sports in Russian life makes international competitions, such as the Olympics, very important social rallying events.
Skiing and ice skating are popular recreational activities. Tennis has become increasingly more popular since the mid-1950s. Gymnastics and acrobatics are also prominent, perhaps due to the influence of ballet and the circus on popular culture. Baseball, basketball, and golf have been growing in popularity as well.
Russian society reveres shakhmahty (chess) as a sport. During the Soviet years, chess masters became highly respected members of society and often received special privileges and honors. Chess instruction starts in kindergarten, and children study the strategies and techniques of champions before they begin serious competition at around age ten. There are thousands of Russian children who have achieved the International Chess Federation's rank of chess master.
Russians are fond of outdoor activities. It is not unusual to see people outdoors playing chess or musical instruments and singing, even during the cold winters. The circus is traditionally a popular form of entertainment among Russians.
Russians also have a strong ballet tradition, which started in 1738 and was patterned after the classical French style. During the 1800s, many new ballets were choreographed using traditional Russian themes and compositions. Russian ballet is known for its elaborate choreography and stages.
Traditional Russian folk art often uses elaborate designs on everyday objects. The designs are sometimes simply spirals or other patterns, but they might also be scenes from fairy tales or of famous people or places. Perhaps the best-known lacquered Russian folk art piece is the matryoshka, a series of wooden dolls that nest inside each other. The dolls usually show a woman in traditional dress, but in recent years other themes have included modern political figures, celebrities, and holiday designs.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have been confronted with many of the old social problems that existed during the Soviet era, as well as with a new set of problems brought about by the rapid changes in society. The change to private ownership created new opportunities but also resulted in high unemployment in many areas. Because of high inflation and economic instability, many elderly persons who live on a government pension are now very poor. Life expectancy and health rates have plunged as well.
Ethnic hostilities have flared up in some parts of Russia that were conquered either by the Soviet government or during the imperial Russian era. When the Soviet government collapsed, there was enough instability for some areas to gain partial independence or even try to break away completely from the Russian government. The fiercest fighting of this type occurred in Chechnya, a region in the Caucasus Mountains near Georgia. Between 1994 and 1996, thousands of Russian troops were sent into the area, and many people on both sides were killed.
Alcohol abuse has traditionally been a problem for the Russians. Alcoholism was prevalent during the Soviet years and is still a problem today. Family violence is often a consequence of alcoholism.
Crime rates have risen rapidly in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, which has made the economic situation even worse. Much of the crime problem is due to the threats and violence caused by organized crime, which has gained considerable power in some areas. Organized crime is also aided in some places because of corruption among local officials. Russians often look down on the "new rich," who are assumed to be criminals.
Unemployment is high for women, and prostitution has become a popular way for women to make money. Many teenage girls believe that a career in prostitution will pay more than most legitimate professions ever would, regardless of education. About one-fourth of Russia's prostitutes have received some sort of higher education.
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