Foreigners have many stereotypes about Russian life. Alexander Dumas the Elder, a French novelist who managed to travel through Russia, may have paved the way for some of them. The author of Les Trois Mousquetaires (“The Three Musketeers”) described in one of his novels how he rested “under a patulous cranberry.” It is hard to imagine the author fitting underneath such a small bush, and even stranger is why he found himself in a Russian swamp, where cranberries flourish. Since that time, the phrase “patulous cranberry” has become an idiomatic expression in Russian meaning an incompetent or perfunctory judgment. The stereotypical vision of Russian lie is as follows: in a faraway, snowy country, where one must wear a fur coat and valenki (felt boots), people do nothing but drink vodka and play balalaikas, while bears are leaving their forest homes to go walking in village streets. However, the reality of our life is very far from this idyllic myth: balalaikas, bears and felt boots have already become symbols of Russia rather than part of its obligatory everyday attributes.
Russia is the coldest country in the world, where winter lasts for four to five months in the larger part of its territory, about seven months in Central Siberia and ten months in the transpolar areas, It is in Russia, in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), where the northern hemisphere’s coldest point is located: the mercury can go down to 72 C there. Severe frost can also be felt in Moscow, where a record low temperature of 42C was entered in the winter of 1942. The Russians are used to frosty weather, enjoying winter sports and festivities such as skiing, skating and sledding. However, the severe climate does create many problems in everyday life. Buildings must be built with very thick walls to insulate them for effective heating and protection from the cold, roads must be regularly freed from ice and snow. All of this requires money and effort, not to mention the extra warm clothing and footwear that one needs to survive the winter months.
Life in Russia has been affected by roads since the old days; many fairytales are based on journeys, legends tell of hermits, pilgrims and wanderers that one can meet along the way. At the same time, Russians themselves often criticize their roads. As early as the 19th century, Nikolai Gogol, the famous writer, noted Russia’s who biggest problems: fools and roads. Russians still use the word “road” for any type of way that you can go through to get to someplace else. Our immense country has many territories where there are no people, not to mention roads. However, the developed areas have undergone many changes in recent years: roads are either built or being built, though distances are so enormous that it is hazardous for the federal budget. One can still wait for a letter to get from one place in Russia to another for many weeks, as even express mail does not work as fast in Europe for lack of ways to easily get to certain destinations.
These felt boots are considered to be Russian national footwear. A pair of valenki is traditionally made of at least a kilogramme of milled fleece which must undergo a long processing treatment. First it must be combed out, made into thin strips of felt, given a specific form, boiled and dried out. In the old time, the centre for valenki production was Uglich, a small city in the Upper Volga area; currently, this footwear is made all over Russia. In the 18th century, felt boots were an expensive, luxury gift: Peter the First and Katherine the Great would order specially made valenki for their personal wardrobes. Soviet leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchyov and Marshal Zhukov appreciated valenki as well. Today, valenki are still irreplaceable footwearin the countryside and in the army: felt can resist 40 degree frost and protect the soldiers feet in combat.
This is one of the most sensational and joyful folk holidays in Russia. It symbolizes the end of winter and occurs at the end of February or beginning of March. During Soviet times, Shrovetide was celebrated as a family holiday – but today, it is more of a holiday for the people, with promenading, sledding and the riding of troikas providing fun-filled festivities for the whole family. The main special treats associated with Shrovetide are bliny (pancakes). They are round, ruddy and hot like the sun, the symbol to which this rite has been devoted since the Slav’s pagan past.
This plucking string instrument resembles a guitar but has a triangular form and only three strings (or two in some cases). Nowadays, the balalaika has disappeared from peopleâ€™s everyday life almost completely. Only professional musicians in Russian folk music ensembles and folk instrument orchestras play the balalaika now.
The animal preferred by most Russians is the bear, a hero of many legends and fairy tales Russians tenderly give bears the human name of Misha (sometimes adding a patronymic name out of “respect” – hence, Mikhali Potapych). They also apply bear-like qualities to people: a clumsy but kind person is referred to as a “bear”, The little bear cub was chosen to be Russia’s mascot in the 22nd Olympic Games held in Moscow in 1980. Bears live throughout the territory of Russia, and there are two main kinds: brown bears who are forest dwellers (the bear in those areas is also nicknamed the “chief of the taiga”), and white bears who dwell in polar areas. Notwithstanding the popular view of foreigners that one can encounter a bear in the street here, in today’s Russia one can meet a bear only in the circus or at the zoo.
Shapka-oushanka (a hat with earflaps)
A winter hat with earflaps and warm covering for the back of the head can protect one against the severe Russian frost. In the past, only peasants would wear such hats – they called it the â€œthree-eared hat.â€ In 1940, the Red Army substituted the winter helmets in use at the time with earflap hats, and since then they have become popular among women as well. Most foreigners buy black-grey military hats with fake fur, but Russians prefer earflap hats with expensive real fur such as mink, nutria, muskrat or fox. During the Soviet times, such hats were difficult to find, and state officials would wear them with a varying type of fur trim depending on their rank.
This Russian word literally means “self-boiling.” The very item consists of a metal container for boiling the water and a fire-pan with a tube. Samovars appeared in Russia in the second quarter of the 18th century and, in the course of one hundred years, became an integral part of any Russian household, restaurant or hotel. The samovar had both a practical and spiritual function: it became a unifying symbol for people when they gathered to have tea-parties and provided the right atmosphere for friendly conversation. Though samovars first appeared in the Ural area, their production blossomed in Tula, an old city to the south of Moscow also famous for its armouries and special cakes.
Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden
Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is a fairytale character that brings New Year and Christmas gifts to children every year. He is a big and stately man with a deep voice, dressed in felt boots, a fur cap and a coat that reaches to his heels. He either puts the gifts under the tree or hands them out to the children himself: in this way, he is different from Santa Claus who puts the gifts into the Christmas stockings. The Russian Grandfather Frost has a granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), with whom he comes to wish children a happy New Year. The homeland of Grandfather Frost is Veliky Ustyug, an old town in the Vologda Region.
This is a typical kind of national triple harness. The horses are tackled up in the sleighs, carts or covered wagons (kibitka). This sort of travel has been recognized the jauntiest, fastest and funniest one: it is very much akin to the Russian nature and spirit. The mentioned Nikolai Gogol said a phrase that later became an aphorism. “What kind of a Russian man doesn’t like a pin!” Troika has become one of the most famous symbols of Russia, as well as a most attractive winter entertainment for tourists.