National Russian customs, manners and traditions

Manners emerged in Russia through social, political or economical events

European influence on Russian way of life in the 19th century

1. If a young man used to visit the house where girls of marriageable age (16-17 years old) lived, he was obliged to negotiate a marriage with one of them[i].


Commentary: This phenomenon is rooted in old Slavonic custom when the father of the fiancé came to the father of the bride to propose for the girl for his son. Such negotiations did not necessarily depend on whether the young people knew each other or not. In this way parents, normally fathers, took care of their children’s future and looked for the proper match for their daughter or son.

1. The sledge stops in front of the theatre. A nobleman takes off his fur coat and throws it to the coachman. The coachman wraps himself up in the coat and takes place on the coach driver’s seat. It often happened that the serfs paid for the pleasure of their lords with the frozen noses, toes, and fingers[ii].



Commentary: Such self-sacrifice is rooted rather in the epoch of the first Romanovs, especially in the era of Peter І who finally consolidated serfdom in Russia and made the serfdom more severe. That is why there is no wonder about such slave-like behaviour among the serfs: such servile mentality was established in the 18th century and took root up to mid. 19th century when serfdom was canceled by tsar Alexander ІІ in 1861.

1. To  remove bad mouth odour, it was advisable to brush all one’s teeth, not only the frontal ones. The dandy followed this recommendation scrupulously[iii].


Commentary: In the time of Peter І who worshipped Europe, Russia was extremely influenced by European fashion, languages, food, everyday manners etc. In the 19th century, the nobility in particular used to follow European standards. So in Pushkin’s Russia of the 19th century the European way of life was cultivated among the nobility shift. Such a phenomenon as dandyism emerged. As for the advice to brush all one’s teeth, so this passage from A. Corbin’s book (see note 13) was rather addressed to the European audience. For example in France people neither washed themselves nor brushed teeth for centuries because water was considered life-threatening. But in Russia brushing teeth and bathing has always been cultivated. For example Princess Anna Yaroslavna, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, was very surprised that her husband, French King Henry І, neither brushed his teeth nor washed himself nor could write or hold the fork in his fingers. Princess’ letters to her father Yaroslav the Wise are a good evidence of this fact.


2. During her life the woman had her menstruation about 20 times (about 2 years). In between she was pregnant or had a birth behind her. The woman had to expect to have 10 or more children. Marriage fundamentally changed the life of a woman[iv].


Commentary: Healthy posterity always has been considered priority in Russia. Married women expected to have 10 – 15 or more children indeed. According to heathen faith a family had to have 16 children.  

2. To pass time, Onegin shattered the old world view: he let his peasant pay lower charges and released them from corvee[v].


Commentary: Corvee existed in Russia as well as in Europe. In Russia corvee was finally established under the first Romanovs. All attempts of tsar Alexander І (who reigned from 1801 to 1825) to release peasants were limited by mere permission to release villages but not to cancel corvee in the whole country. Pushkin described exactly such a case when Onegin as landlord was empowered to release his peasants from corvee. Peasants were allowed to pay to Onegin in food, self-made wares or other products.    

2. The dandy needs three hours for his morning rituals and to get dressed. Some famous dandies asserted that they needed five hours. They were served by not less than three hair dressers: one for the forehead, the second for the temples, and the third for the back of the head[vi].


Commentary: Russian aristocracy inherited traditions from the European dandyism and followed them scrupulously in every single detail. Pushkin included many traditions of dandyism into his description of Onegin’s morning toilet and his preparations for the ball.

3. In Russia there always has been a tradition to go to the bathhouse (banya) where they washed themselves at least once a week. Western Europe should have learned something from such cleanliness[vii].


Commentary: This statement is true and corresponds with my comment about princess Anna Yaroslavna in point 1, column 3.

3. The children of the landed gentry like the Larins were taught at home in painting, dancing, foreign languages, and they also got lessons in relationship skills and manners of social communication. In a kind of space theatre, they might train the appropriate behaviour in the presence of a young man or the correct acceptance of the invitation to the mazurka, etc[viii].


Commentary: Homeschooling or tutoring was the only kind of education among the gentry in Russia in the 18th – 19th centuries. Before Peter І, it was only Russian teachers who had licence to teach children. Foreigners were not permitted to teach in Russia at all. Under Peter І foreign tutors were allowed to teach children of the nobility.

3. Hair was not washed but powdered. From time to time dandruff was scraped away. The hair fat gave the hairstyle a flexible hold[ix]. 


Commentary: This description also refers to the French author Alain Corbin – see note 9.

4. A lot of women had corpulent figures: they had massive necks, upper arms, thighs, hips[x].


Commentary: This statement is relative. Women’s corpulence depended on many factors such as heredity, way of life, activities, pregnancy, food etc. For example the canvas by Boris M. Kustodiev “The Merchant’s wife” – which was projected on the wall during the performance – shows a massive woman holding a saucer with tea in her hand. In front of her porcelain tea set there are cakes, cookies, bread, jam, big water melon, grapes, red and green apples. Judging from her husband’s income and her way of life reflected on the canvas, her corpulence could be easily explained. On the other hand, peasant women had to complete a lot of physical work and could also be massive but not because of consuming fat food but because of hard physical work in housekeeping, cattle-raising, agriculture etc.      

4. The painters of that time used to give the women the appearance of being more massive on the portraits. The focus of woman’s beauty lay on a narrow waist, not on the breast[xi].


Commentary: This statement is also relative. Boris M. Kustodiev’s “ The Merchant’s wife” shows a massive woman indeed. (In fact this canvas was painted much more later than Pushkin lived. It emerged in 1918.) But there are a lot of women portraits in Russian painting of the 18th – 19th centuries on which images of slim women are represented. Among them “Portrait of A. P. Struiskaya” by Fyodor S. Rokotov (1772). Or “Portrait of M. I. Lopukhina” by Vladimir L. Borovikovsky (1797). Or various women portraits by painter Alexey G. Venezianov (first half of the 19th century): practically every portrait reveals women of normal body type.      

4. Plague and cholera gave the dubious reputation to water. Over many centuries people did not wash themselves as water was considered to be life-threatening[xii]. But gradually they started to wash visible body parts: hands, feet, décolleté, face[xiii].


Commentary: It is remarkable that Alvis Hermanis used in his performance references such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Alain Corbin, Joh. Georg Meisinger etc. who wrote about the hygiene conditions and body care exclusively in European countries like France, Germany, England. The actors used texts written about Europe but they were supposed to speak about Russia where bathing – on the contrary –  has belonged to culture since time immemorial. However, there was later a mentioning that bathing (banya) has always existed in Russia. See column 1, point 3.

5. According to the old custom, guests were always provided with festive meals.


Commentary: This custom always has existed in Russia. There is even such an expression "pir na ves' mir" (“пир на весь мир”) which in literal translation means “feast for the whole world”. This expression reflects the tradition to provide guests with the most delicious food one has in his house.

5. Olga went to a so-called bride market to Moscow. If it was time for a young girl to get married, her parents brought her during the season to Moscow. She danced at as many balls as possible until she met a fiancé for her[xiv].


Commentary: “Blagorodnoye sobraniye” – the Moscow Assembly of the Nobility – was originally constructed in the first half of the 18th century as house of the Governor. In the 1780-s it was redesigned, rebuilt and served in the 19th century as a clubhouse for nobility. Balls (called among common people as well as in Pushkin’s work “bride markets”) and other meetings were arranged for nobility there. 

5. The dandy flouts all these concerns and grants himself a bath every day.


Commentary: see the comment in column 3, point 4.

6. During the twelve holy nights (from the orthodox Christmas, January 7, to Epiphany, January 19, together called svyatki), people tried to become susceptible to the powers from the other side, to witches, ghosts, magic. People took belts off as belts were supposed to protect one from evil. (Usually belts were worn all the time, even while bathing). The crosses were also taken off as people opened themselves to the spiritual side. The dreams seen during the twelve holy nights were noted: every dream was supposed to reflect the events of every month of the coming year. And every dream would come true in the proper month[xv].


Commentary: The described fortune-telling rituals apply to the heathen times when people believed in the direct connection of the man with nature and its elements and in power they give to the human. Through the elements – water, fire, air, wood, earth – people supposed to appeal to the gods and to ask them about future events, about the proper way of taking decision etc.

6. Lensky was buried as a suicide victim. In Russia the duel carried the death penalty. As a deterrent, every survivor of a duel had to write a farewell letter. In this letter he had to explain the motives of his suicide[xvi].


Commentary: Despite numerous tsar’s edicts which warned with death penalty and seizing of the property for the duel, many people felt obliged to take vengeance on their hurt honour. So Lensky was not an exception and felt obliged to duel with Onegin.

6. A special feature of men’s beauty was a narrow waist. That is why men wore corsets too. Pushkin tended to dandyism too. He wrote to his brother: “These days I measured with a belt my waist and that of a 15-year-old girl. They turned out to be of the same size. It shows that either it is me who has a waist of a 15-year-old girl, or it is the girl who has the waist of a 25-year-old man”[xvii].


Commentary: Fashion for corsets, wigs, stockings and tobacco was introduced in Russia by Peter І after his diplomatic mission to Western Europe, called the Grand Embassy (1697 – 1698). Before that time people used to wear typical Russian clothes.     

7. Traditional folk wisdom during the twelve holy nights (rituals):

a) You can see the future while looking in the mirror. A young girl lights a candle and looks in the mirror until she sees her future husband behind her.

b) One pulls out a hair, builds a ring on it, shuttles the hair and asks questions for the future[xviii]. 


Commentary: Fortune-telling rituals inherited from the heathen times were also preserved in Christian tradition. Even nowadays some interesting rituals are pursued by young girls during the twelve holy nights.


7. The corset gave a person an upright posture. Women wore corsets even during pregnancy: the corsets were laced less tightly[xix].


Commentary: see commentary in column 3, point 6.

8. Despite all of Lensky’s tenderness towards Olga, she remained untouched by him and was virgin before her marriage. Olga was noble and so this was normal and usual. Every little step in the relationship between young people was something special.


Commentary: In Russia children were brought up in chastity. It was common knowledge that any intimate connection between man and woman was possible only after marriage for them to have healthy posterity.


8. Very few doctors recommended one or more baths in a month. Gynaecologists asserted that “indiscreet body care”[xx] could lead to infertility. A special problem was drying the genital organs[xxi]. One women’s magazine recommended their readers: “Close your eyes until you have finished the process”[xxii]. Involuntarily, water could act as an indiscreet mirror and confuse young ladies[xxiii].


Commentary: see comment in column 3, point 1; in column 1, point 3 and in column 3, point 4.



9. “We think in German, make jokes in French, and in Russian we pray or quarrel with our servants”[xxiv]. There were no prose in Russian literature, and the language did not develop further. Tatyana did not have command of written Russian. For her correspondence, she used ready French samples. Normally, women sent ready sample letters taken from special books: the books included letters for any occasion. So the fact that Tatyana wrote a letter to an older nobleman herself and confessed her love, was unthinkable and astonishing for that time. Besides,  Tatyana could not find a proper sample letter in her book for such an occasion.


Commentary: First of all, prose in Russian in the first half of the 19th century (and even at the end of the 18th century) did exist. Near Alexander S. Pushkin such great authors like Alexander S. Griboyedov (1795 – 1829),  Mikhail J. Lermontov (1814 – 1841), Nikolay V. Gogol (1809 – 1852) have to be mentioned in Russian literature. At the end of the 18th century – Dmitry I. Fonvizin (1745 – 1792).

But the statement that Tatyana did not have command of written Russian is true: Pushkin himself mentioned this fact in the sonnet before “Tatyana’s Letter to Onegin”. The reason for that referes to the fact that the Russian nobility of the 19th century preferred languages other than Russian. And those preferences were rooted in the times of Peter І who permitted foreign tutors to teach in Russia, and who – on the whole – let foreigners settle in Russia and spread their languages, customs and manners there.   



10. Fainting was a deep seated expression of the feelings in society. Women used to faint one by one: it was somehow contagious. Physically it could be explained through the wearing of the corset: it prevented them from breathing normally. Besides, in high society it was considered to be elegant to faint. Women used to faint on the left side and in the manner of ballet. There must have been many kinds of fainting[xxv].



Commentary: Russian noble women copied the European patterns of fashion, also of fainting in the society.



11. The outer barriers marked the positions of the duellists from the beginning. The barriers were fixed at 30 steps. The inner barriers marked the minimal distance for shooting. Zaretsky fixed this distance at 10 steps: a sure fatal distance. The coach measured the inner distance: 5 steps for one duellist, 5 steps for the other. The duel was considered as evidence of despising death and overcoming the fear of death[xxvi].  


Commentary: In Russia first duels took place under Peter І who admired and copied all Western patterns even if those phenomena had life-threatening consequences. But duels broadly spread in Russia just in the time of Catherine ІІ.









[i] See video Schaubühne-1.

[ii] See video Schaubühne-2.

[iii] See video Schaubühne-3.

[iv] See video Schaubühne-4.

[v] See video Schaubühne-5.

[vi] See video Schaubühne-6.

[vii] See video Schaubühne-7.

[viii] See video Schaubühne-8.

[ix] Comp. Corbin, Alain, Pesthauch und Blütenduft. Eine Geschichte des Geruchs. Aus dem Frz. von Grete Osterwald. Berlin 1996, p. 238.

[x]See video Schaubühne-9.

[xi]See video Schaubühne-10.

[xii]Spanish Queen Isabella І of Castile took bath only twice in her life: after birth and before marriage. The Sun King Louix ХІV bathed also only two times: he had to do it after doctor’s strong recommendations. Pope Clement V died of dysentery, and King of France Philip ІІ and Pope Clement VІІ – of scabies.  

[xiii]Comp. Corbin, p. 101.

[xiv] See video Schaubühne-11.

[xv] See video Schaubühne-12.

[xvi] See video Schaubühne-13.

[xvii] See video Schaubühne-14.

[xviii] See video Schaubühne-15.

[xix] See video Schaubühne-16.

[xx]Comp. Delacoux, Alexis, Hygiène des femmes, Paris 1829, p. 223-224.

[xxi]Comp. Corbin, p. 236.

[xxii]Comp. Madame Celnart (pseudonym of Élisabeth Félicie Bayle-Mouillard), Manuel des dames ou l’art de l’ élégance, Paris 1833, p. 37. 

[xxiii] Comp. Corbin, p. 236.

[xxiv] Comp. Lotman, Jurij, Rußlands Adel. Eine Kulturgeschichte. Aus dem Russ. von Gennadi Kagan, Köln, Weimar, Wien 1997, p. 8.

[xxv]See video Schaubühne-17.

[xxvi]See video Schaubühne-18.