The Beauty and Tradition of the Russian Village

Smithsonian Journeys: Waterways of Russia

Resources for Further Study

I. Principal Terms:

1. Русский Дух – Russkii dukh – Russian Spirit/Soul 
2. The word “rod” and some significant words that result:

род rod kind/type
родить rodit’ to give birth (to)
родина rodina native land
народ narod the people


II.  The Russian изба (izba, traditional Russian wooden house)


House of Poor Peasant – (cc) EugeneZelenko

There is so much tradition associated with the traditional Russian izba and Russian village life. Begin here and you can follow the links.

More Traditional Items and Features of Russian Life

Samovar – (cc) Benito Bonito

1. Самовар / Samovar

This wonderful pot is for boiling water, not tea. Hot water is poured into a small tea ceramic or china pot which can sit right on top to keep warm. A strong tea is brewed in the little pot, a small amount of the tea is put in a cup (or bowl, in traditional Russian practice), and then boiling hot water is added to the cup to make a proper strength of tea. Samovars were fired up outside, traditionally, and then carried inside to be set on a table for service.

See the wonderful painting by Boris Kustodiev called The Merchant’s Wife (1918) below.


Kustodiev, The Merchant’s Wife


2.  Pech’ Печь  Traditional Russian Stove

The Russian stove provided the centerpiece for the house, the internal piping was cleverly designed and highly efficient as a source of heat for cooking and heating the house. At night, people would sleep on top of it for the warmth. Nothing was more important in a Russian household than the stove.

John Augustus Atkinson, Izba, 1803

Samovar in Goritsy Izba © 2013 Carol Reynolds

Samovar in Goritsy Izba © 2013 Carol Reynolds


3. Баня  Banya

The Russian “banya” (baths) are a tradition common in many northern countries (Scandanavia, for example). The entire experience of the dry bath, the “beating” with the birch branches, the camaraderie, and the leisurely period of relaxation. Part of having a good banya involves storing up enough firewood! (Also think about the massive amount of wood needed for the household.)


Mandrogi Sauna – © Carol Reynolds 2013



Banya – (cc) Expectmohr



Banya – (cc) Expectmohr


4. Берёзки   Beryozki                 Birch Trees

You can start here to learn about Russian birch trees, their meaning, their importance in Russian culture.

Here’s a clip that presents nice images of birch trees to accompany the most famous Russian folk song about them: Vo pole beryozka stoyala.



What Gives Russian Music Its Distinctive Sound?

Smithsonian Journeys: Waterways of Russia

Resources for Further Study

The most wonderful source of Russian Orthodox music (CDs and music itself) is here, in the US. It was created by a scholar named Dr. Vladimir Morosan who, even as a graduate student, was determined to protect this (then endangered) tradition of Russian church singing. He built this company over many years: In decades when there was very little access to recordings of Russian church singing, he found and made available recordings from all over the world. He started reprinting scores (musical editions) of the old music, in new, modern, beautifully edited publications. He included helpful notes for church choirs. He has dedicated his life to a labor of love.

So, enjoy the fruits of his labor. Visit the website. You can read helpful commentary about the different recordings, purchase the actual “sheet music” (scores) for a vast body of Russian sacred songs, buy CDs, and buy downloads.


Музыка Muzyka Music
Колокола Kolokola Bells


Bells are a central element in Russian music. Here is a fine clip showing the history of Russian church bells, bell restoration, and the astonishing techniques of Russian change ringing. I can’t think of a better introduction plus it gives you a real feeling for the devotional, reverential attitude that accompanies the training with and ringing of the bells.


Знак znak Sign (for notation of music)
Знаммены Znamenny Type of chant singing using these signs


Also, visit this site to learn a lot more about the beautiful Znamenny singing (Ancient Russian Chant). You can read a great deal about early sacred music in several traditions here.

Be mindful that sometimes examples of a cappella Russian sacred singing from later periods (18th, 19th centuries) get labeled “znamenny” but aren’t. Here’s an example: a beautiful rendition of a 4-part harmonized setting of The Lord’s PrayerOtche nash by Nikolai Kedrov. It’s one of the most beloved settings in the Russian repertoire, and it’s beautifully sung here, but it absolutely is not ancient Russian znamenny. It’s in a fully 19th-century Russian romantic style. Now, compare what you just heard (4 singers) with this rich, thick rendition, done by a full choir. You’ll enjoy the nice pictures too!

  • Orthodox Church Singing
  • Style brought from Byzantium
  • Service is sung/chanted throughout, including prayers and readings
  • Single-line melody originally
  • Free-flowing and independent of Western harmonization and Western-style notation practices until 17th century
  • Unaccompanied (a capella)

Russian Literary Tradition

Smithsonian Journeys: Waterways of Russia

Resources for Further Study

The Russian literary tradition is rich in folk art and fairy tales.

1.  Лубок  Lubok

Lubok or Lubki (plural) arose in folk art primarily in the early 18th century as savvy and often cutting-edge commentaries on politics and society. They have a very old “look” to them, but are filled with contemporary commentary about events people would have known and cared about. They also illustrate edge takes on familiar folk and fairy tales. The one below is called “The Mice are Burying the Cat’ and makes reference to the policies of Peter the Great.


The Mice are burying the Cat


2. Сказки – Skazki (singular skazka) / Fairy Tales

This name comes from the Russian verb “to tell”  сказать. Russian fairy tales often feature as the hero the youngest son of the tsar (tsar-evich) known as Ivan Tsarevich. He battles evils of all kinds, including the archetypcal characters Baba Yaga, the classic Russian witch, and Koschei bessmertny or Kaschei the Immortal.


Bilibin, Kaschei the Immortal, 1901


Ivan Tsarevich is aided in his tasks by archetypcal magical creatures including the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.


Vasnetsov, Ivan Tsarevich on the Grey Wolf, 1889


We owe a great deal to the great 19th-century collector of Russian fairy tales, Alexander Afanasiev (Алекса́ндр Афана́сьев, 1826 –1871). He assembled so many of these tales, published them, and helped preserve the legacy. His work is on the same par as that of the Brothers’ Grimm.

3. Folk Tales

Of great importance, and a testament to Russian romantic stirrings, is a collection of verse folk tales collected by Ivan Krylov (1769-1844). They are short, rhymed, and punchy in their meaning, similar to Aesop’s Fables. My favorite is Kvartet, in which a quartet made p of a rascal monkey, donkey, billy goat, and klunky bear tries in vain to play a string quartet. They keep rearranging who sits in which chair, but  to no avail. It concludes: “And you, my friends, no matter your positions, 
Will never be musicians!’ You can read more about Krylov’s importance and wit here.