Russian culture, Ukrainian and Belarusian cultures,
all originated from common
roots - those of Kievan Rus'.
Its true that each nation, throughout history,
has also been influenced by other nationalities, both
external and those absorbed by the larger Russian
empire. While this "foreign" influence has added to
distinct cultural differences from nation to nation,
region to region, similarities still abound.
Below we explore both the common and distinct
characteristics of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian
culture. These include cultural traits of East
European origin, as well as those from non-Slavic
ethnic groups who've had an important role in
molding the broader Russian culture.
Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian are the three
living members of the East Slavic language
subgroup. This subgroup is the largest member of
the Slavic language group, which
itself is a "subgroup" of the greater
Indo-European language family.
While Russian is the only official
language used throughout Russia, there are
another 27 co-official languages
which are recognized in their respective
Republics or regions. A few of the larger
regional languages include Tatar
(Republic of Tatarstan), Bashkir
(Republic of Bashkortostan) and Chuvash
(Chuvash Republic). While these three belong to
Turkic language family, there
are also members of the Uralic,
Mongolic, and North
Caucasian language families, as well as
Chukchi, a member of the
family of northeastern Siberia. For more
information of languages
in Russia, please follow the link.
Ukraine is quite an interesting country in
regards to language. Officially,
Ukrainian is the only official
language. In practice, however, Ukraine is very
much a bilingual country with a roughly 50-50
split between Russian and
Ukrainian. According to an
official 2001 Ukrainian population census,
67.5% of Ukraine's citizens consider Ukrainian to be
their mother tongue, versus 29.6% of citizens who consider Russian to be their
mother tongue. And while an outsider may consider
this breakdown to be a good representation of
language usage in Ukraine, these numbers are rather
Belarus, unlike Russia and Ukraine, has two
official state languages, Belarusian
and Russian. While virtually
everyone speaks Russian, only half of Belarus's
population can read and speak Belarusian (52.5%
according to a 2009 gov't study). The same study
states that 72% of Belarusians speak Russian at
home versus just 11.9% who use Belarusian. As
such, apart from schools and some government
institutions, the spoken language in public and in
business, is generally Russian.
Religion has played a very important role in the
evolution of Russian culture. Traditional religions,
those deemed part of Russia's "historical heritage",
include Orthodox Christianity (63% of the
population), Islam (6% of the population), Buddhism
Judaism (<1%). (VCIOM 2006)
The largest of the religions, Orthodox
Christianity, is predominantly represented by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has
over 95% of registered Orthodox perishes in Russia (Federal
Registration Service 2006). A few of the
smaller, yet notable Orthodox denominations include
the Old Believers, Russian True Orthodox Church,
Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church,
Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate.
Altogether, approximately 100 million citizens
consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians,
roughly 70% of the population. (International
Religious Freedom Report 2007).
Religion in Ukraine has a somewhat different
"mix" of faiths as compared to religion in
Russia. Although the region was once home to
rather large Muslim and Jewish communities,
Islam and Judaism have diminished significantly
from their historic heights. Ukraine, unlike
Russia, is predominately Christian, with greater
than 90% of religiously active citizens
belonging to Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant
denominations (2006 Razumkov
Religion in Belarus is predominantly split
between two Christian denominations, Eastern
Orthodox and Roman Catholic. While the
Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church
account for roughly 94 percent of those who
profess a religious faith (80% and 14%
respectively), there are remnants of the the
Protestant Church, Islam and Judaism as well.
According to January 2007 census figures from the
Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for
Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA), the
breakdown of religious faith in Belarus is as
about Religion in Belarus
Every culture has its unique etiquette and
customs. For the most part (with slight
variations from country to country - region to
region), Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet
nations all share similar "rules" of social
behavior. First time visitors to Russia and
Ukraine are often pleasantly surprised,
sometimes confused, and in certain cases, taken
back by the peculiarities of Russian etiquette.
To minimize the culture shock for first time
visitors, we've outlined some of the more prevalent
conventions of social
behavior. Simply follow the links to learn more
about Russian (and Ukrainian)
Etiquette and Customs.
Superstition is a very big part of Russian and
Ukrainian culture. While many superstitions are
largely ignored, many more are so common that they
have become an inseparable part of everyday
So while Russian friends may joke about them, it may
be courteous to be aware of common superstitions and
show respect for them just the same. After all,
do you really want look disrespectful, or worse,
risk bad fortune on yourself?
Origin of Russian Superstition
While Russians and Ukrainians are
predominantly Christian, its important to
remember that Kievan Rus' didn't turn to
Christianity until the end of the 10th century.
As such, pagan tradition and beliefs remained
entrenched in Russian culture. The
remnants of these pagan beliefs form the
foundation of superstitions so prevalent in
Russia and Ukraine today.
Its also important to point out that
superstitions often vary region to region. Russia, after all,
absorbed many pagan cultures over the
centuries, all of which had their own unique
traditions and beliefs. Local traditions are
so varied that they even produced a popular
Russian television program that traveled
around the country exploring the diverse
range of unique, often humorous,
Like Russian superstition, Russian Fairy Tales
have their origins in the pagan beliefs of ancient
Slavs. Grand tales of heroes and heroines, animals
and "mystical" beings, were passed down through the
generations. These folk tales, or skazki
(сказки) as they are known in Russia, were
eventually recorded - many in poetic verse. Today,
as much as ever, Russian skazki remain an integral
part of Russian culture.
All Russians and Ukrainians are familiar with
traditional fairy tales. Parent's (who
themselves listened to skazki when they were
practically recite each tale by memory when
reading to their children. Russian folklore is
engrained in the psyche of all Russians - it is
evident in many forms of Russian art, crafts,
music and literature.
The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka -
Once upon a time there lived an old man and woman
who had always regretted that they did not have any
children. One lovely winter day they make a girl out
of snow. The snow maiden comes alive and becomes the
daughter they never had. They call her Snegurochka.
She is very beautiful and sweet. But when spring
begins to warm the land, the girl becomes quite
depressed. When the summer arrives, she becomes even
more sad. One day she goes to the woods with a group of
village girls to pick flowers. She has a good time
for the first time since the winter. It begins to get
dark and the other girls make a fire and begin
playfully jumping over the flames. Snegurochka also
jumps, but suddenly she melts and evaporates into a
Known for their colorful patterns of red and gold, Khokhloma are painted
ornamental dishes, spoons and bowls. The name itself is derived from the name of
the settlement where the craft got its start (in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast), as
far back as the 17th century.
Wood carving has always been an essential part of Ukrainian life. Farm tools,
household items and instruments were traditionally constructed from wood. To
give these items more character, many were decorated with elaborate designs,
mostly of geometric patterns.
A traditional craft of the Tula region, the Samovar was originally produced
as a practical device - to boil water, make tea and coffee. Today, although
functional, they serve more of an ornamental role.
The traditional Russian art form of painting on enamel (often on jewelry -
brooches, rings, earrings). Had its origin in Rostov in the 18th century when
artists first painted small icons for the church.
Fur Coats and hats are an important part of Russian clothing and culture. Fur is one fashion apparel
that has been in Russia since the beginning, and so long as Russian winters are
cold, its a "trend" unlikely to change.
Another wintertime apparel is the suede, or sheepskin leather jacket known as
a dublyonka (дублёнка). Like fur, the natural material provides a layer of
warmth and defense from bitterly cold Russian winters.
Traditional folk costume plays an important role in Ukrainian national
identity. Distinguished for it's elegant embroidery and rich motifs that vary
region to region, taken on the whole Ukrainian clothing maintains a definitive
national style. Typically, traditional shirts and blouses of white are
embroidered with red, red-black, or red-blue motifs while the entire costume
includes woolen skirts, trousers, belts and aprons, red necklaces, wreaths,
ribbons and countless other accessories.
Shawls have long been a part of Russian fashion, and the most famous of all
is the Orenburg Shawl. Made from a blend of silk and indigenous goat fiber, the
knitting is so fine that the shawl can literally be pulled through a ring,
earning it the nickname - "wedding ring shawl".
Like the shawl, the scarf was traditionally an important part of every
woman's attire. A married woman was supposed to keep her head covered, and a
colorful scarf was a cherished possession. A place synonymous with the production
of quality scarves is the town of Pavlov Posad.
Sarafan is a Russian dress - long and shapeless. Kokoshnik is the head-dress
that accompanies the Sarafan. Together they form a Russian folk costume that was
traditional dress for peasant women up until the 20th century (middle and upper
class ladies until the 18th century).
Kosovorotka is a traditional Russian shirt commonly worn up to the early 20th
century. The shirt has long sleeves and reaches down to the middle thigh. Men
traditionally fasten the shirt at the waist with a belt or rope, while women
tuck it in their skirt or wear it under the sarafan.
An essential part of the communist uniform during the Russian Civil War, the
Budenovka is a soft, woolen hat that can fold down to cover the ears and neck
and can be worn under a helmet. The distinct hat was almost entirely phased out
by the ushanka (above) by 1941.
The Gymnastyorka is Russian military shirt that was used by Red Army up until
1965. First worn by the Czar's army in the late 19th century, the Gymnastyorka is a
loose fitting pull-over with a standing collar, provisions for shoulder boards
and reinforced elbows and cuffs.
There is a myriad of traditional dances that have
originated from Eastern Europe. Most recognized are
the Ukrainian folk dances that include world famous
Cossack dances, as well as a broad range of regional
Ukrainian dances (from the Carpathian highlands to
the Polesian lowlands in the north). Less
well-known, but equally diverse, are the folk dances
of Russia. Dances that are influenced by
Cossack and Ukrainian ancestry, as well as those of
Russia's diverse ethnic minority.
which literally means "landlady", is a traditional
Russian folk dance that combines chastushka
(a traditional folk poem that is often in the form
of satire) with spirited dancing. The dancing
usually has no set choreography and consists mostly
of fancy stomping and squatting. The refrain "Barynya,
barynya, sudarynya-barynya" (landlady, landlady,
madam-landlady), is also typically repeated
throughout the course of the dance.
which is often referred to as the National
Dance of Ukraine, is a Cossack dance that
has its origins in the early 16th century. Popular
with amateur and professional Ukrainian dance
ensembles, several composers have also incorporated
Hopak into opera and ballet. While not standardized
by melody or tempo, a 2/4 time predominates most
arrangements, with the pace of the music changing
from segment to segment. Such variation evokes a
sense of improvisation, allowing dancers to
distinguish themselves, and usually culminates with
a fast paced, boisterous finale.
An art form founded by the peasantry, Russian and
Ukrainian folk music long played an integral role in
village life and tradition. While there's no doubt
that ethnic folk music became more "academic"
during the 19th and 20th centuries, the influences
of traditional folk music still endure. Folkloric music
in Russia and Ukraine still maintains the rich
melodies and characteristic vocals that distinguish
it from traditional music in other parts of Europe.