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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a nation (natsiia; “nation” in the historical sense) in the USSR. The total number of Russians in the country exceeds 129 million (1970 census). In the RSFSR, Russians constitute 82.8 percent of the population; in the other Union republics, the figure ranges from 2.7 percent in the Armenian SSR to 42.4 percent in the Kazakh SSR. Some 68 percent of the Russians live in cities, and 32 percent live in rural areas (according to the 1959 census, 57.7 percent and 42.3 percent, respectively). The spoken language is Russian, which with Ukrainian and Byelorussian forms the East Slavic group of Slavic languages. Abroad, Russians live chiefly in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The Russians, like the Ukrainians and Byelorussians, are descended from the old Russian nationality (ninth to 13th centuries) that had formed from the East Slavic tribes upon the dissolution of clan and tribal relations and the creation of the ancient Russian state around Kiev. In the opinion of many researchers, the name of the Russians derives from that of the Slavic tribes of Rodii, Rossy, or Rusy. Along with the ancient name “Russians,” the name “Great Russians” (velikorusy) was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The formation of the Russian, or Great Russian, nationality took place against the background of both the fierce struggle to throw off the Mongol-Tatar yoke and the creation of the centralized Russian state around Moscow in the 14th and 15th centuries. This state included the northern and northeastern lands of ancient Rus’. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the boundaries of the Russian state expanded considerably. Russians began settling the Lower Volga Region, the Urals, the Northern Caucasus, and Siberia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the further expansion of the state’s boundaries was accompanied by the settlement of Russians in the Baltic region, the Black Sea region, Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East. Russians came into close contact with the peoples of these regions, exerting an economic and cultural influence. They also assimilated the achievements in culture and the practical skills of the indigenous populations. Russians aided in the transition of the nomadic tribes and peoples to a settled way of life and in the development of crop cultivation. They contributed to the improvement of tools, the development of handicraft production and trade, and the rise of permanent settlements—villages and cities.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Russian Empire entered the capitalist socioeconomic stage. This period also saw the formation of the Russian bourgeois nation. Progressive segments of the Russian people led the national liberation struggle of the peoples of the Russian Empire against tsarism. The Russian working class was in the front ranks of the proletariat in the struggle against capitalism.

The Russian people developed science and created a very rich culture. Russia was the homeland of the most advanced doctrine of the 20th century—Leninism.

In 1917 the Russian proletariat, led by the Communist Party and supported by the impoverished peasantry and the workers of other nationalities in Russia, carried out the Great October Socialist Revolution, overthrowing capitalism in the world’s first victorious socialist revolution. In all stages of socialist construction, the Russian people provided fraternal aid to the other peoples of the USSR in carrying out revolutionary changes and in overcoming economic and cultural backwardness. They played a leading role in the creation of a new, socialist society. With the victory of socialism, the working class and the kolkhoz peasantry became the main classes of the new society, the people’s intelligentsia forming its important layer. The Russian people were leaders in the defeat of fascism in World War II, in the postwar reconstruction and further development of the national economy, and in the creation of a developed socialist society.

In the course of the socialist transformations, the Russians have become a socialist nation and together with other socialist nations and nationalities of the USSR have formed a new historical community—the Soviet people.

In the period of Soviet power, such social and economic changes as industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and the cultural revolution have brought about fundamental transformations in the material conditions of the life of the people. These transformations have in turn led to an unprecedented flowering of science and culture and to great advances in education.

Ethnographic groups. Owing to differences in the conditions of development in the various regions of the country, a number of Russian ethnographic groups had formed by the mid-19th century. The largest of these groups, distinguished by dialect (pronunciation of the unstressed “o”) and particular features in architecture, clothing, and certain rituals, are the Northern and Southern Great Russians. Between these groups is the Central Great Russians, who occupy the central region formed by part of the Volga-Oka interfluve (with Moscow) and the Volga Region. The Central Great Russians share certain linguistic and cultural features with both the Northern and Southern Great Russians. Smaller ethnographic groups of Russians include the Pomory, who live along the White Sea; the Meshchera group of Russians, who inhabit the northern part of Riazan’ Oblast; and various groups of Cossacks and their descendants, who live along the Don, Kuban’, Ural, and Terek rivers, as well as in Siberia. Groups of Old Believers include the Poliaki (in the Altai), the Semeiskie (in Transbaikalia), and the Kamenshchiki (along the Bukhtarma River in Kazakhstan). Russians constitute distinct groups in the Far North along the Anadyr’, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers, although they have assumed many traits of the surrounding peoples.

The material and spiritual culture of the Russians is unique and rich. Its best aspects have become traditional and have survived to the present, particularly among the rural population.

Settlements and dwellings. The rural settlements of Russians in the northern part of the country usually consist of only a few households; in the south, the settlements are larger. The layouts of streets and houses vary. In socialist society, there has been a marked change in the aspect of rural settlements. Housing, public buildings, and production complexes are being built at a rapid pace. The difference between rural and urban housing, particularly with respect to furnishings, is becoming less marked. However, certain traditional features have been preserved, features related both to geographic and ethnographic factors. The specific features of folk architecture are manifested mainly in decorations (nalichnik [decorative window frame], carving, patterned trim, and brightly colored exteriors, sometimes in various hues), in the height of the buildings, and in the construction materials. Typical for the northern regions is the tall (sometimes two-storied) log izba (seeIZBA) having a substructure, a gable roof, and a fenced-in backyard. In the southern regions, the dominant types of dwellings are the relatively low, log or frame izba, having walls of timber filled with clay or, sometimes, adobe or brick walls, and the khata, a dwelling having a pyramidal roof and an open yard. There is at present a gradual convergence of these types of dwellings. Pyramidal roofs are becoming more common in the north, and the izba in the south now often has a substructure.

A farmstead usually consists of a house and yard. The house includes the living quarters and an adjoining seni (covered entranceway) or hallway having a klet’ (shed) or chulan (pantry); the yard has outbuildings, the number of which has declined significantly with the collectivization of agriculture. In the north and in the Volga Region, as a rule, the farmstead also includes a bathhouse (bania), which is often built on the shore of a body of water.

The layout of modern houses is diverse, and there is usually more than one room. The izba proper or a kitchen with a Russian stove or stoves of other types still forms the basis of the dwelling. The front part of the dwelling is called the gornitsa, zalo, or chistaia polovina and is separated from the bedrooms by partitions. The former handmade furniture has been replaced by the factory-produced furniture common to urban dwellings. Electricity, radio, and television have become part of rural life.

Cities and industrial settlements have experienced both growth and reconstruction during the postwar decades. The central parts of old Russian cities retain traces of the old layout, sometimes with the remains of a feudal fortified center (usually preserved as monuments of history and culture) and often with a main square situated in front of the fortress walls, from which the streets fan out toward the periphery of the city. New cities have a modern regular layout. A new type of settlement, referred to as urban-type, has become common. This classification is applied to settlements that are becoming urbanized.

Clothing. At present there are no pronounced differences in the clothing of residents of rural and urban areas. The traditional costume even before the revolution survived mainly in the countryside. Among members of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), traditional Russian clothing was worn only until the 18th century; among members of the merchant class and certain strata of the urban population, it was worn until the mid-19th century.

Peasant women in the northern and central Great Russian regions wore a sarafan (sleeveless dress) over a linen shirt; in the southern regions, they wore a poneva (skirt) made of a woolen, usually checked, fabric. Young girls wore a headband in the form of a ribbon or crown and braided ribbons into their hair; married women were obliged to wear headgear that covered their hair, for example, a kichka, a kind of headdress with a length of embroidered fabric. On holidays, chiefly in the north, married women wore a kokoshnik (headdress with a crest). Traditional headgear in the north was decorated with freshwater pearl; in the south, beads of different colors were used. In the late 19th century and early 20th, all types of traditional headgear were replaced by the kerchief. The male costume almost everywhere consisted of a rubakha-kosovorotka (shirt fastened on the side), which was worn over narrow trousers and was gathered at the waist with a belt.

The outer garments of men and women were the cloth caftan, the zipun (made of homespun cloth), and the ponitok (summer caftan). In winter, a shuba, polushubok (short shuba made from sheepskin), or tulup (floor-length coat) was worn. For footwear, the peasants usually wore lapti (footwear woven with bast or birch), with cloth wrapped around the feet. Gradually, leather sapogi (high boots) for men and, for women, koty (warm footwear) became more common. In winter, valenki (felt boots) were worn.

The traditional costume has survived only in some places among women, chiefly in the southern regions and more rarely in the north and in Siberia, for example, among the old residents of Transbaikalia. Certain methods of finishing folk clothing, methods that included the use of embroidery and lace, survive in the manufacture of modern urban dress. In an altered form, the Russians have adopted such elements of clothing of other Soviet peoples as the tiubeteika (embroidered skullcap) from Middle Asia, the ukrainka and gutsulka shirts from the Ukraine, and patterned knitted articles.

Food. Although Russian food has changed a great deal with an increase in the standard of living and the development of trade and the food-processing industry, many traditional features have survived. In the cities and, to a significant degree, in the countryside (particularly through the establishments set up by the food service industry), Caucasian, Middle Asian, European, and other dishes have become more common. But the most typical foods remain those prepared from flour and bread. Typical examples of traditional Russian cuisine are shchi (cabbage soup), borscht, pokhlebka (soup made with flour, groats, or potatoes), tiuria (onions and crumbled bread in water or kvas), various types of porridges, kisel’ (a kind of gelatin prepared from milk, fruit syrup, and starch), and various types of meat, dairy, and fish dishes. Beverages include kvas, beer, and, in the distant past, mead. Examples of the foods prepared for festive occasions or holidays are pirogi, bliny, kut’ia (a food made from rice or wheat and mixed with honey or raisins, prepared at Christmas and also for funerals), paskha (a mixture of sweetened milk curds, butter, and raisins, prepared at Easter), Easter eggs, various types of karavai (bread in round loaves), prianiki (sweet cookies with spices, prepared for weddings), and kulich (a sweet cake, prepared at Easter). Religious Russians abstained from certain foods during Lent and on other fast days.

Religion. In the past, Orthodoxy, introduced into Russia in the tenth century, was the official religion of the Russians. Belief in spirits, however, survived to a certain extent until the October Revolution of 1917. These spirits were connected with the home (domovoi [house spirit], gumennik [barn spirit]) and with nature (leshii [forest spirit], vodianoi [water spirit], rusalka [river or tree nymph]). There was also belief in witches. The official church was forced to adapt its teachings to the ancient beliefs and to allow the Christian saints to assume the functions of ancient Slavic deities. For example, the prophet Elijah was associated with the god Perun, and St. Blasius with the god Veles. The church also combined its holy days (Christmas, Easter) with pre-Christian observances. Thus in winter Christmas merged with Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), and in spring and summer Semik (summer equinox rites) merged with Troitsa (Pentecost) and with the holiday Ivan-Kupala.

In modern times, with the elimination of illiteracy and the growth of culture and material prosperity, the overwhelming majority of Russians have become atheists.

Folk arts. The folk arts of the Russian people are striking and original. The applied decorative arts are represented by wood carving and painting on wood, by the artistic working of metal, bone, and stone, the production of ceramics, embroidery, patterned fabrics, and the making of lace. Traditional ornamentation includes diverse geometric (mainly in the southern regions) and plant motifs, as well as images of birds, animals, and people. These images are used to form complex compositions, particularly in the northern regions. The finest traditions of folk art have been developed in modern skilled crafts. Included here are the production of ceramics (Gzhel’, Skopin), silver engraving (Velikii Ustiug, Sol’vychegodsk), painting on wood (Khokhloma), painting of miniatures on lacquered papier-mâche articles (Palekh, Kholui, Mstera, Fedoskino), the making of toys (Moscow and Kirov oblasts), embroidering (Zaonezh’e, Mstera), sewing with gold thread (Torzhok), and lace-making (Vologda, Kirov, and Lipetsk oblasts).

The Russian people have created a rich folklore. The byliny (epic folk songs) extol the feats of bogatyri (warriors) from the times of Kievan and Novgorod Rus’. Historical songs tell of the struggle against the Tatars and of the peasant wars fought under the leadership of Stepan Razin and Emel’ian Pugachev. In addition to fairy tales, fables, narrative accounts of past events, maxims, and proverbs, there are also diverse songs (peasant, worker, and soldier), including songs of everyday life, dance songs, and lyric songs. A particular type of short song, the chastushka (folk ditty, often humorous) arose in the villages in the 19th century. In the second half of the 19th century, revolutionary songs were first heard; in the period of Soviet power, songs have been written extolling the October Revolution of 1917 and the heroism displayed during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45.

Even in the Middle Ages, folk theatrical performances, based on folk poetry, were common. They had a lyrical and dramatic as well as a sharply satirical character (anticlerical, antifeudal). Such were the performances of the skomorokhi (itinerant performers) involving the puppet character Petrushka, performances that have had a great influence on the modern puppet theater.

The folk music, unique in its harmony (predominantly diatonic), is marked by a richness of rhythms and a diversity of genres; in choral singing, polyphony is developed.

After the October Revolution of 1917, various types of amateur artistic activity were widely developed.

The influence of folk art can be clearly felt in many masterpieces of Russian and Soviet literature, music, and painting.

Prerevolutionary Russian and Soviet science, literature, music, theater, and fine arts have made enormous contributions to world science and culture. They have also had a great influence on the cultural and scientific development of other peoples of the USSR, as well as on peoples in other countries.

For more detail on the history, economy, science, and culture of the Russians, seeRUSSIAN SOVIET FEDERATED SOCIALIST REPUBLIC.


Narody Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964. (Bibliography.)
Ocherki obshchei etnografii: Evropeiskaia chast’SSSR. Moscow, 1968.
Russkie: Istoriko-etnograficheskii atlas, [parts 1–2.] Moscow, 1967–70.
Titova, Z. D. Etnografiia: Bibliografia russkikh bibliografiipo etnografii narodov SSSR (1851–1969). Moscow, 1970.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
"As thou hast said, they seek for us even now, these Russians. Show them the way, Negore, even as Old Kinoos showed them the way, so that they come, unprepared, to where we wait for them, in a passage up the rocks.
"I go now to make talk with the chiefs, so that they may know I am gone to show the Russians the way."
It was in the old days of the Russian occupancy of Alaska, when the nineteenth century had run but half its course, that Negore fled after his fleeing tribe and came upon it this summer night by the head waters of the Pee-lat.
In that place there be many Russian folk, and their rule is harsh.
"But wherever we fled, and however far we fled, always did we find the hated Russian folk.
I saw the Russian, Ivan, who thrust out my father's eyes, lay the lash of his dog-whip upon thee and beat thee like a dog.
Then, dry-eyed but suffering, she rose and followed the Russian through the Stygian blackness of the jungle, along the winding, leafy corridor that led from the village of M'ganwazam, the black cannibal, to the camp of Nikolas Rokoff, the white fiend.
She did not know that the Russian had talked with the savage a few minutes before the chief had come to her with his tale.
At last they reached the rude boma that Rokoff's porters had thrown up round the Russian's camp.
Rokoff's boy had lighted the Russian's lamp, and now at a word from his master he made himself scarce.
Now the Russian was lifting her to her feet and attempting to drag her to the camp cot that stood at one side of the tent.
Quickly she returned to the side of the unconscious Russian. In his belt her groping fingers came upon the hilt of a long hunting-knife, and with this she cut a hole in the back wall of the tent.