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Russia has a long, rich history and cultural heritage, which can be seen in the official and unofficial symbols of the country. Apart from the flag, coat of arms and the national anthem, all the other symbols on this list are unofficial emblems of the country. These are cultural icons, popular because they represent Russia and are instantly recognizable. From stacking dolls, to brown bears and vodka, here’s a list of Russia’s most popular symbols followed by their origins, meanings and significance.
- National Day: June 12 – Russia Day
- National Anthem: The State Anthem of the Russian Federation
- National Currency: Russian Rouble
- National Colors: Red, white and blue
- National Tree: Siberian fir, Silver Birch
- National Animal: Russian Bear
- National Dish: Pelmeni
- National Flower: Camomile
- National Sweet: Tula Pryanik
- National Dress: Sarafan
The National Flag of Russia
The national flag of Russia is a tricolor flag consisting of three equal-sized horizontal stripes with white on top, red on the bottom and blue in the middle. There are various interpretations as to what these colors mean but the most popular is that white symbolizes frankness and nobility, blue honestly, chastity, faithfulness and impeccability and red love, courage and generosity.
The tricolor flag was first used on Russian merchant ships as an ensign and in 1696 it was adopted as the official flag of the country. Since then, it went through several modifications with a number of elements added and removed and the current design was finally re-approved in 1993 after the Russian constitutional crisis.
Coat of Arms
The Russian coat of arms depicts two main elements: a two-headed eagle defacing a red field with three crowns above its head, symbolizing the regions of the Russian Federation and its sovereignty. In one claw the eagle is holding a sceptre and in the other an orb, which represent a powerful, unified state.
In the center there is a mounted figure slaying a serpent (though some say it’s a dragon). This symbol is one of the most ancient Russian symbols, representing the struggle between good and evil as well as defending the Motherland.
The coat of arms with the two-headed eagle first appeared in 1497 on the seal of Ivan III after which it was modified several times. The current design was created by the artist Yevgeny Ukhnalyov and was officially adopted in November, 1993.
The Statue of Peter the Great (The Bronze Horseman)
The Bronze Horseman is a statue of the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, mounted on a horse. It’s located in the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg. Erected in 1782 and opened to the public that same year, the statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great.
It’s said that the horse on its hind legs represents the Tsardom of Russia and the horseman, Peter the Great, is the monarch who controls it. The horse can be seen trampling a serpent which represents Russian victory over superstition under the rule and guidance of Peter. He looks ahead with his arm outstretched and gestures towards the future of Russia.
The statue is set on an enormous Thunder Stone pedestal, said to be the largest stone ever moved by humans. It originally weighed 1500 tonnes, but during transportation it was carved down to its current size. It’s now one of the most important and official symbols of the city of Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Matryoshka dolls, also known as ‘Russian nesting dolls’, are some of the most popular souvenirs that are unique to Russia. They come in sets of 5 -30 dolls of decreasing size, each one placed inside the next. These dolls are commonly used as toys for children, but in Russian culture, they’re much more than that.
The most popular type of Matryoshka doll is the traditional design of a young woman wearing the national costume with a scarf. The biggest one portrays the stout figure of a mother and her role in the family by nesting her children inside. It’s symbolic of fertility and motherhood – in fact, the word ‘matryoshka’ literally means mother.
The first Matryoshka doll was created in 1890 with eight figures and ten years later it received a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in France. Shortly afterwards the dolls began to gain popularity and soon they were manufactured all over Russia and exported to various parts of the globe.
There’s some contention that the idea for Matryoshka dolls originated in Japan, and was copied by Russian artists, but this continues to be a source of debate.
The Russian Bear
The Russian brown bear is the national environmental symbol of Russia. It was nearly adopted for the coat of arms, instead of the double-headed eagle.
The Russian bear is native to Eurasia and has brown fur which ranges from a yellowish-brown to a dark, red-brown. In some cases it’s almost black and there have also been reports of albinism. The bear is a carnivorous animal with 80% of its diet consisting of animal matter and symbolizes strength, power and endurance.
The bear, although cute, attractive and seemingly friendly is a dangerous beast with astounding strength, large claws, scary teeth and a terrifying roar. Today, it’s regarded as a symbol of Russian might (political and military) and is revered by the native people.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral
A Christian church located in the Red Square of Moscow, Saint Basil’s Cathedral has long been regarded as a cultural symbol of the Tsardom of Russia. And little wonder! The cathedral is stunning in its bright colors, complex architecture and intriguing motifs.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1555 and was completed 6 years later, commemorating the capture of the Russian cities Astrakhan and Kazan. Once complete, it was the tallest building in the city, until 1600 when the Ivan the Great Bell Tower was built.
According to certain theories, it symbolizes the Kingdom of God where the walls are decorated with precious stones. The breathtaking beauty of the cathedral once it was completed caused Ivan the Terrible to blind the architects who designed it so that they wouldn’t surpass it or replicate it anywhere else.
In 1923, the cathedral was converted into a museum of architecture and history and in 1990 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it’s one of the best known and photographed sights in the city of Moscow.
The national dish of Russia, Pelmeni, is a type of pastry dumpling filled with minced meat or fish, mushrooms, spices and seasonings and wrapped in thin, unleavened dough similar to pasta. It’s served on its own or topped with sour cream or melted butter, resulting in a delicious, mouth-watering dish, a favorite among the people of Russia.
Described as the ‘heart of Russian Cuisine’, the origin of Pelmeni remains unknown. Throughout the history of Russia it was prepared as a way of quickly preserving meat during the long winter and was greatly influenced by Siberian cooking techniques.
Pelmeni can be found anywhere in Russia as well as where Russian communities exist. Although certain changes have been made to the original recipe, it’s a much-loved dish that’s still prepared and eaten in all corners of the country.
Vodka is a distilled odorless and flavorless alcoholic beverage, originating in Russia in the latter half of the 14th century. Composed of water, ethanol and certain grains like rye and wheat, vodka has long been associated with Russia. Although it’s not the national drink, it’s the trademark alcohol of Russia. So popular is the drink that the average Russian is said to consume roughly half a liter of vodka a day.
Vodka was used in the past by Russians for medical purposes, since it made an excellent disinfectant and also worked well as a mild anesthetic. Vodka is drunk on special occasions such as at weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, a successful harvest or any religious, national or local holiday. Russians also consider it extremely important to finish a bottle of vodka once it’s been opened and not leave any of it undrunk.
Today, vodka has an iconic status in Russia and its consumption remains an important part of special events and celebrations throughout the country.
The Sarafan and the Poneva
The traditional dress of Russia has its roots in the 9th century and can be divided into two types: the sarafan and the poneva, both worn by Russian women.
The sarafan is a loosely fitting long dress, similar to a jumper, worn and belted over a long linen shirt. It was traditionally made from inexpensive cotton or homespun linen but for special occasions, sarafans made from silks or brocades and embroidered with silver and gold thread were worn.
The poneva is a lot more ancient than the sarafan and consists of a striped or plaid skirt either wrapped around the hips or gathered on a string. It’s worn with a long loose-fitting shirt with embroidered sleeves and heavily decorated apron with colorful lace trims. The most important element of the poneva is the traditional headdress, or the scarf, without which the outfit wouldn’t be complete.
The sarafan and poneva form an important part of Russian folk costume and continue to be worn for carnivals, holidays as well as for casual wear.
The Siberian Fir
The Siberian fir (Abies sibirica) is a tall, evergreen, conifer, named the national tree of Russia. It can grow up to 35 meters tall and is a frost-resistant, shade-tolerant tree, tough enough to survive temperatures down to -50 degrees. It has a bright, citrus smell like the smell of pine but with a little extra sharpness.
Native to Russia, the Siberian fir tree is used for many purposes and no part of it is allowed to go waste. Its wood is lightweight, weak and soft, ideal for use in construction, making wood pulp and furniture. The leaves of the tree contain essential oils which are ideal for cleaning, inhalation, reducing germs, skincare and relaxed energy that helps with building concentration and focus. These oils are extracted and used in the making of perfumes and aromatherapy.
To the Russians, the Siberian fir symbolizes perseverance and the power of determination. It’s found all over the country and is common since 95% of the country’s closed forest area contains Siberian firs along with several other types of trees.
We hope you enjoyed our list of Russian symbols, which, while by no means exhaustive, covers many of the famous cultural icons Russia is known for. To learn about the symbols of other countries, check out our related articles: