Russian Hospitality

There is a big difference between the Russian tradition of hospitality and a friendly attitude towards guests in other countries of the world. The legends about the breadth of the Russian soul have a very good reason to exist. Russians love to accept guests and make great hosts. When in Russia, you don't need to wait for a special occasion like a birthday or a holiday to visit a friend or a neighbor. Russians like visiting each other, meeting in friendly companies for dinner, or just stopping by to catch up on what's going on. The latter is called "to drop in for a cup of coffee"

Do I need an invitation?

Russians often visit each other's homes without a special invitation. Just let the hosts know about your plans in advance and they'll be very happy to accept you. It is considered rude to leave guests without a treat. A host may offer the guest a cup of tea with cookies or set the table with snacks and serve cocktails—everything depends on the company, the time of the day, and the financial well-being of the host. In the least, you will always be offered something to eat or drink when visiting Russians at their homes.

Gifts for the Hosts

Just like it would be rude to leave a guest without a treat, it is considered rude to make a visit without a gift for the hosts. Russians even have an expression "to come with empty hands". It is used to describe guests who didn't bring any gifts to the hosts. You don't have to buy expensive souvenirs when being a guest. A box of chocolates or a bottle of fine wine will make a good gift. If you are visiting a family with children make sure to bring a treat for the kids—a candy, a chocolate bar or fruits.

Holiday Celebrations

Russians like to serve a festive dinner for the guests on occasion of such holidays as birthdays, New Year and Easter. The necessary attributes of a holiday dinner include meat and cold appetizers (jellied minced meat known as "kholodets" is very common), one or more hot dishes, and cake for dessert. Russian housewives prefer to cook everything themselves and it is expected that a real Russian woman should be a good cook. Alcohol is another important attribute of a holiday dinner. Russians do not usually follow the habits of serving wine with meat dishes or hard liquor with dessert. Instead, all types of alcoholic beverages are served on the table and guests may pick their favorites themselves.

Foreigners and visitors from other cities

Russians display special generosity and goodwill to guests from other cities and countries. A real Russian is more than happy to accommodate a new guest in his or her house instead of reserving a hotel room for the guest. Many Russians who live in small apartments and don't have an opportunity to accommodate a guest will feel very upset about that. If you are visiting Russia and staying with a Russian friend, they will be very pleased to show you around, accompany you during sightseeing, and guide you to the most interesting places in their city.


Russian Banya

Banya (a Russian type of sauna, a kind of steam bath) is one of the oldest Russian traditions. Despite the fact that this tradition is several centuries old, the banya is popular even today. You can find banyas in large cities and small towns. Usually those Russians who have summer cottages, almost always build their own banya there.

How a Russian banya is set up

A Russian banya has a special room, where a large amount of hot steam is created with the help of water and hot air. A classic Russian banya is heated with firewood, but modern versions might use electric heat as well. Inside the banya, which is usually built of wood, there are wide wooden benches along the walls. They are built up one above the other like steps. You can sit or lay on the benches. The higher up the bench the hotter the air is. Once someone has warmed up well enough, he or she leaves the steam room and dips into a pool of cold water. You can also pour water over yourself from a tub, while in Siberia it's common to walk right out of the steam room and jump into the snow.

What do you need a venik in the banya for?

At Russian banya there are special bath brooms that are used. These brooms or veniks are bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together from some kind of tree—usually they are from birch or oak trees. The veniks are dipped into cold water and then smacked briskly all over the body. There is a special person who is responsible for this, called banschik . But usually people don't need banschik's help because groups of friends typically go together and are able to smack each other with veniks.

Banya is a place for communication

Friends go to the banya with a special purpose in mind. It’s considered that the banya atmosphere brings people closer together, allows them to communicate and interact on a more common level. Russians don't spend all their time in the parnaya (a room with hot wet steam). During a break they walk out to another room which is called predbannik (a room before the steam room). Usually, that room has a large long table and a few benches. In the predbannik, people take a break from the hot temperature and relax, drink aroma tea or special herbal tea, have conversations about life and share their ideas or beliefs to each other.


Matryoshka – The Russian Nesting Doll

It's hard to find a symbol of Russia more popular than the traditional Russian nesting doll. These decorated wooden dolls "with a secret" are also called matryoshka dolls or babushka dolls. They are recognized even in the countries thousand miles away from Russia. Taking a Russian nesting doll back home is a must among tourists, the simplicity and originality of matryoshka dolls attract the fans of Russian folk art from around the world. Bright and picturesque Russian nesting dolls decorate the fireplaces and bookshelves in the homes of thousands of Russians.

Despite the fact that first matryoshka dolls were intended for children, their price was so high that only adults could afford to buy them on special occasions. Matryoshka dolls were often given as a present to young women from their beloved ones. In 1900, the dolls earned a bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. Soon after, Russian nesting dolls became wildly popular. The toys were being produced in several well-known manufacturing centers, the most famous of them being Sergiev Posad and Semenov. In the early twentieth century, Russian nesting dolls were being exported abroad in large quantities. The popularity of the dolls even gave rise to a few companies in Germany which produced counterfeit nesting dolls and sold them as Russian toys.


Russian Samovars

Samovars and tea-drinking are an indispensable element of Russian culture. In modern Russia, samovars are rarely used to boil water for tea as originally intended, however many families place samovars in the center of the table during holiday celebrations. Reserving pride of place for a samovar at the festive table is both a tribute that Russians give to their ancestors and a ceremony that embodies warm-hearted hospitality.

What is a Samovar?

A samovar is a device traditionally used to heat and boil water for tea. The word samovar in Russian can be translated into English as "self-boiler". Samovars are made from metal and consist of a large urn-shaped container and a metal pipe running vertically through the middle. To boil the water inside a samovar, the pipe is filled with solid fuel such as pine cones, charcoals and wood chips which are set on fire. A small tea pot is used to brew a tea concentrate. The tea pot is often placed on top of a samovar to keep it heated with the passing hot air.

The tea is served by pouring tea concentrate into a cup and diluting it with boiled water. The water is released through a faucet at the base of the metal container. Samovars were one of the earliest home appliances in Russia. Families and guests would sit at a large dinner table to have a leisurely talk and discuss the latest events while drinking hot tea.


Russian Holidays

Russian holidays reflect all aspects of Russian history, customs and traditions. Here's a quick list of official public holidays.

     January 1-5 - New Year (the biggest Russian holiday)
     January 7 - Christmas (Orthodox Christmas)
     February 23 - Defender of the Motherland Day
     March 8 - International Women's Day
     May 1 - May Day
     May 9 - Victory Day
     June 12 - Russia Day
     November 4 - National Unity Day

Russian Festivals

Ivan Kupala

Since ancient times all peoples of the world have celebrated the peak of the summer. Russia’s version of such a holiday is Ivan Kupala. On the night of 6 July, everyone celebrated this mystical but at the same time jolly holiday full of ritual acts, rules and prohibitions, songs, chants and all kinds of fortune-telling, legends, and beliefs.

Even in the time of the ancient pagan deity Ancient Russians used to have Kupalo, the God of summer fertility. In his honor people of sang songs and jumped over the bonfire. This ritual act has become an annual celebration of summer solstice, combining a pagan and Christian traditions. Kupala got the name Ivan after the baptizing of Russia, when he was replaced by John the Baptist (the way he was percepted by common people), who baptized Christ and whose birthday was celebrated on 7 July.

On that day people wore girths of flowers and wreaths of herbs. They reeled, sang songs, stoked bonfires with poles topped by burning wheel, the symbol of the sun.

Songs that were sung in villages mentioned Kupala as loving, clean, and cheerful. On the day of Ivan Kupala girls made wreaths of herbs, and in the evening let them float on the water watching them go away. The sinking wreath meant the end of love and that there would be no wedding.

Another tradition was to pour dirty water on everyone in sight. It was believed that the more often people run to swim the purer their souls would become. The most healing swimming was considered at dawn.

The swimming night was lit with purifying bonfires to dance around and jump over. The highest jumper was the luckiest. Mothers used to burn the shirts of their sick children in those bonfires hoping to get rid of the awful In diseases. Young people participated in noisy games, brawls, running competitions. The most played was the game of race-and-catch.

People believed that all the miraculous and healing herbs bloomed during Ivan Kupala night. Therefore, knowledgeable and experienced people, and especially the village healers never missed that night and collected medicinal roots and herbs to keep for the whole year ahead.

There was a rumor that at midnight fern starts to bloom. Miraculous fiery flower could point to a buried treasure no matter how deep it had been hidden. Around midnight a bud appeared on the wide leaves. It rose higher and higher and then started to ”jump” around. As midnight came, the ripe bud burst and a fiery red flower came out. No man could pick up the flower. But if you saw it any wish would come true.

There was always something miraculous about the day of Ivan Kupala. No one slept at night, since it was believed that all evil became active: witches, werewolves, vampires, mermaids ... People thought that Ivan Kupala was the day when witches had their holiday too, trying to cause as much harm to humans as they possibly could.

That was how the holiday of Ivan Kupala used to be - rituals, divination and other cheerful and lovely pranks...

Maslenitsa – Spring welcome

The tradition of Maslenitsa (also called Shrovetide in English) dates back to pagan times, when Russian folk would bid farewell to winter and welcome spring. As with many ancient holidays, Maslenitsa (the stress being on the first syllable) has a dual ancestry: pagan and Christian.

On the pagan side, Maslenitsa was celebrated on the vernal equinox day. It marked the welcoming of spring, and was all about the enlivening of nature and bounty of sunny warmth. On the Christian side, Maslenitsa was the last week before the onset of Lent (fasting which precedes Easter), giving the last chance to bask in worldly delights.

Once Lent itself begins, a strictly kept fast excludes meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs. Furthermore, parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life are also strictly prohibited.

In the eyes of the church Maslenitsa is not just a week of merrymaking, but a whole step-by-step procedure to prepare oneself for a long and exhausting fasting, which, if observed properly, may be a real challenge.

Originally, the pagan festivities were held to honor the pagan deity Veles (or Volos also), the patron of cattle and farming. People associated him with a bear, or leshy (wood-goblin), therefore, the bear was a sacred animal possessing magical healing power. Some even thought of a bear to be a creature stronger than the Devil himself. Dancing like a bear around the house was supposed to protect it from burning down.

Such behavior was considered sinful and therefore condemned by the Church. It tried to uproot the tradition, but, confronted with the all-embracing popularity of the Veles character, it capitulated by shifting the focus of the celebration from the pagan God to the Christian saint Vlasiy. It is customary for devout Christians to bring pancakes to his icon during Maslenitsa to please him and assure plentiful crops and healthy livestock in the coming summer.

The name of the holiday, Maslenitsa (derived from maslo, which means butter or oil in Russian) owes its existence to the tradition of baking pancakes (or blini , in Russian). They are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Blini are thin pancakes made of yeast dough. They are the main component of Russian board at Shrovetide, served as a symbol of Sun and Spring. Blini are also popular throughout a year, being served with different fillings and topped with sour cream or butter.

Ingredients

     3 cups wheat flour
     3.5 cups milk
     3 eggs
     0.5 teaspoon salt
     2 teaspoon sugar
     0.5 lbs. butter
     sour cream
     3 cups wheat flour
     3 cups wheat flour
     3 cups wheat flour

Preparation

     Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1 cup of warm milk.
     Add another 2.5 cup of milk.
     Add salt, eggs, butter, 3 cups of flour and mix until the mixture is smooth.
     Cover with a cloth and set aside in a warm place.
     When the batter becomes bubbly, begin to bake blini on a pre-heated pan. Try not to disturb the batter as you bake blini.
     Spread the blini with melted butter.

Tips for Serving Blini

     Serve the blini hot, topped with a spoonful of sour cream.
     You may also serve the blini with red or black caviar instead of sour cream.