Fun and curious facts about Russian history, culture and people

13. May, 2016

One of the most common standing jokes about Russia has to do with bears roaming the streets of its towns and cities.  How did this ‘bear myth’ come about? 

There are various explanations. One has a very old origin. Back in the IX century, Byzantine historians mentioned in chronics that “in a barbaric land of the Slavs, people worship bears as gods, and bears live among humans and roam their settlements”.  This myth stemmed from the fact that the Slavic god Veles had, among others, a bear incarnation.

The bears actually did roam the streets of Russian medieval towns and villages but only show actors at numerous town fairs.

And here’s another the possible explanations suggested in a book “In the Woods”  by Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski (written in 1871-1874).

In his book, he presents the following most curious fact.  During the war with the French in 1812, many French prisoners were sent around different towns and settlements of Russia to winter.  Several officers ended up in the town of Sergach.  This town historically was home to hundreds of bear keepers, the so-called ‘sergachi’, who wandered from one Russian town to another during warm season with their tamed bears and the so popular bear shows.  The local country gentlemen of Sergach were very hospitable to the French officers, gave them food and shelter. It was around Maslenitsa (Pancake holiday) when everyone eats and drinks plenty so the local aristocracy were treating the French to generous holiday meals. During one such meal they got to talk about the future of the Napoleon campaign. The French officers expressed skepticism about Russia’s military success in summer. The Sergach police captain surprised the French by saying the Russians don’t have enough people they will then send bear regiments to fight, and that he himself is currently training a bear battalion and the training is going well.  He then invited the French officers to see the training for themselves. 

The bear keepers were all home for the winter season. They were told by the town governor to get their tamed bears in one place, ‘arrange troops for battle’ and demonstrate the command: ‘Shoulder, arms!’ - which the trained bears easily did!  The French were beyond amazed!  After the show they wrote letters back home about how they saw a Russian bear regiment with their own eyes. 

And that’s very likely how the French (and other Europeans) started calling the Russians bears and spreading myths about bears and humans cohabitaion in Russia.


Adapted from “In the Woods” by Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski.

Photo from:


For photos and videos of bears roaming the streets of Russian towns, see:

20. Apr, 2016

The Russian banya, or steam/bath house, is not traditionally thought of as the most sophisticated type of bathing.  Traditions of bathing were, alas, almost lost in the Soviet times.  However, as we learn from old texts, it was a fine art, a profound science even. The use of natural scrubs, soap massages was masterful, especially in the houses of boyars and merchants.  The old believers who cherished the ancestors' ways, preserved these bathing traditions, carrying them way into the end of the 19th century.  In his novel, "In the Forests", Melnikov-Pecherski, an expert of the old believers and their lifestyle, meticulously describes the bathing process.  


"…The bathhouse was large, bright and spacious, with lime tree sweating  benches that were replaced almost every year. <…>  As he walked into the bathhouse, Patap Maksimych was struck with wonder: the benches in the dressing-room were covered with felt pads with white sheets upon them;  the floors were covered with felt and fragrant hay also covered with sheets.  The sweating shelves inside the steam room were covered with thick layers of mint, savory, sweet clover, costmary and other fragrant herbs.  There were bath besoms lying on the benches, and bowls with fluffed soap and large birch-bark baskets filled with heated kvass (rye beer) with mint. Many bath cloths, lime bast and chunks of kazan’ egg yolk soap were laid out  on a special table. <…>  Two hefty fellows used up four bath besoms on Patap Maksimich while he was melting in delight and shouting:  “Steam it up, sons!”  The fellows splashed the kvass on the hot cobblestones jar after jar and smacked him hard with the bath besoms, hot as fire.  Suddenly, Patap Maksimych jumped off the sweating-bench and ran out of the steam room.  Flinging the front doors open, he jumped into a snow pile.  The snow burned his overheated skin, and with a loud laughter Chapurin started rolling in the snow. A couple of minutes later he ran back into the steam room and straight on the sweat bench.  “Smack it harder!”, he shouted with all his might, and the boys began to hit him with besoms harder than before.  Patap Maksimych rolled in the snow three times, drank a whole jug of kvass, a dozen besoms were used up by the hefty boys, before he was fully content…"

From "In the Forests", Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski, 1871-1874 

Translated by Lyubov Zolotova 

Photo:  "The Russian Venus", a painting by Boris Kustodiev

16. Apr, 2016

If you're into nostalgic old time photos and are curios to see what Moscow looked like some 100+ years ago, check out this excellent project,  This is a major online archive of private and public photos of literary every corner of Moscow and beyond dating from 1826 till our times! 

Those living in the present-day Moscow suburbs can discover their residential compexes  stand where beautiful dachas and summer estates used to be.  My house, as I recently discovered, stands on the spot where the Shotkmann pharmacist's country house used to be!

Update: As it turns out, the project has now spread globally, and you can now find it and, luckily, it's got an English version.   Enjoy the old views worldwide!!

Photo: An early 20th century mansion, north-east Moscow 

10. Apr, 2016

Did you know that before the Soviet revolution 1917-1921 there was no electricity in the Russian  countryside.  Radio was a powerful propaganda tool, so one of the first things the Soviet government did was 'radiofication' (installation of wired radio units and a loudspeaker system) of the villages.  

Here is an extract from the "Radiolyubitel" ("Radiolover") newspaper (dating 1925, № 21-22) about the significance of the radio for the Soviet people and its fight against superstitions. 

"The radio generates huge interest on behalf of the common people. Experience shows that the radio helps fight superstition and beliefs in supernatural forces.  Let's look at the farmers' lifestyle.  Imagine there's been no rains for many days, the crops are drying up, and the 'kulaki' (wealthy farmers) are encouraging the krestyane (farmers) to arrange a religous procession around the fields to asperse the crops. The priest, sitting at home and looking at his barometer, is trying to figure when when to best hold the procession - and then, suddenly, this damned radio ruins all the priest's plans.  The loudspeakers go:  "To everyone.  Tomorrow, in such and such locations, rains are expected"! This is a major blow to the priests with their 'cunning schemes'. There are many more examples that show how the radio reveals the religious narcotic and fights the people's ignorance, their belief in demons, bogies etc., and the Soviet farmers are getting the right track, working in close contact with science..." (translated by Lyubov Zolotova). 

Photo: A Soviet farmer listening to the radio, 1925 (Museum of Russian Modern History, Moscow Russia)