Intriguing Facts About the World's Largest Country, Russia

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:44:35 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS/Getty Images

How much do you know about the intriguing society, landscape and people of Russia? While Russia is well known for its vodka production, stunning scenery, chilly weather, intense athletics and vibrant wildlife, the country contains a multitude of fascinating attractions, historical markers and extreme social customs that set it apart from the rest of the world.

From feline museum monitors to a landscape of hidden cities, these are some engrossing facts about the planet's largest country, Russia.

The Hermitage Is a Cat Palace

Of all the historical landmarks in Russia, there is no better place to witness breathtaking artifacts, artwork and other items of importance than Russia's treasured museum, the Hermitage. However, if you are allergic to cats, you might want to steer clear of this location!

Cat Russia
Photo Courtesy: @letsgo2russia/Twitter

The Hermitage houses over 70 cats. They have been tasked with guarding the museum's precious inventory against rodents since the 1700s. While it may seem like the cats could cause damage to the 14-mile marble corridors, they take their jobs quite seriously. However, despite being professional rodent-hunters, they're typically friendly to museum guests.

An Insane Way to Beat Traffic

No one enjoys being stuck in a traffic jam. Moscow roads characteristically become parking lots during rush hour(s). How do Moscow's citizens cope? While the working class must simply wait out the traffic, uber-rich Russians employ a unique (and illegal) method of breaking through the crowd: fake ambulances.

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Photo Courtesy: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS/Getty Images

Yep — for the low price of approximately $200, you can hire a siren-equipped "taxi ambulance" to help you get around the nasty traffic on Moscow's roads. While they look like normal ambulances on their exteriors, the interiors are filled with luxury items, including caviar and alcohol.


Smiles Aren’t Welcome

Why do Russians often hold back their smiles? While Americans citizens may be accustomed to smiling in a wide variety of situations, Russians are more reserved with theirs, even when surrounded by loved ones. They also don't smile at strangers; it is not considered polite to do so.

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Russians only smile when they have a reason to do so. If they find something genuinely funny or amusing, you'll probably catch them grinning. However, Russians don't simply smile to appear more friendly. If you smile at a Russian stranger, you might put them on edge.


The Christmas Schedule Is Different From Ours

In the U.S., most people celebrate Christmas on December 25th. However, in Russia, they follow the Julian calendar of holidays, causing Christmas to fall on January 7th. While this might seem strange to Americans, it’s still better than not celebrating Christmas at all — and for a long time, it wasn’t.

Xmas Russia
Photo Courtesy: @XHNews/Twitter

In 1929, Christmas was banned as a holiday in Russia, causing all symbols of Christmas — including the evergreen tree — to also be banned with it. This didn't change again until 1991. As a result, citizens were typically more excited to celebrate New Year's Eve rather than Christmas … and many still are.


The Bears Are Addicted to Fuel

The Russian wilderness can be a bizarre place, especially with fuel-addicted bears dominating the landscape. After helicopters in eastern Russia began to dump kerosene containers into the wilderness, bears got in the habit of climbing into old fuel barrels to sniff the jet fuel.

Bear Russia
Photo Courtesy: Igor Shpilenok/Barcroft Media/@AnanceLLC/Twitter

Many Russian bears now huff it, particularly those that occupy the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. Those who are truly desperate for a fix will browse the area for fresh fuel barrels. Many bears also stalk active helicopters and planes, waiting for fuel to trickle down from the sky.


Stray Dogs Catch the Train

Let's face it: Russian winters can be ruthless, and most people — including animals — try to escape the cold however they can. As a result, many of Russia's stray dogs have developed a fascinating means of keeping themselves off of the freezing streets: riding the underground trains.

Dog Russia
Photo Courtesy: Adam Baker/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

These brilliant canines have memorized the metro stops, sometimes even better than most humans! They are aware of their next destination based on which train stop they depart from or hop off at. Many of them have also befriended security guards, metro workers, and everyday travelers, becoming friendly, fluffy faces on the citizens' busy commutes.


Russians Have a Strange Variation of Golf

Moscow may be known for football and ice hockey, yet they have one variation of golf that is purely Russian: helicopter golf. What does this game entail? Just like its implied, helicopter golf is a blown-up version of golf… only the players are piloting a helicopter as they smack the ball.

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Photo Courtesy: @RT/YouTube

Helicopter golf takes place in the snow rather than on a green. Massive paddles are used to steer a large ball towards a hole — all from the comfort of a helicopter, of course. Would you want to try to play golf while steering a massive piece of machinery?


There's a Holiday for Cleaning

Have you ever heard of Subbotnik? Originating during the October Revolution, subbotniks (rooted in the Russian word for Saturday) were days set aside for volunteer work during the weekend. Who came up with this chore-based holiday? The revolutionaries, who wanted to promote the positive impacts of socialism.

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Photo Courtesy: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS /Getty Images

Enthusiasm for subbotniks died once the Russian working class realized they were performing free labor under the guise of communism. As a result, most people stopped participating in the frequent subbotniks. These days, Subbotnik has become a once or twice-yearly event where citizens come together for mass cleaning and volunteer work.


The Underground Isn't Grimey

Imagining the underground in cities like New York or Chicago doesn't exactly produce images of glamour, cleanliness or grace. More like concrete, dirt, and chaos, right? However, Moscow's underground is surprisingly polished, architecturally gorgeous and aesthetically pleasing. Some of the stylish stations put the MET to shame.

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What makes Moscow's underground so breathtaking? High ceilings, gorgeous artwork, snazzy stairwells, crystal chandeliers, marble walls and unique train cars all contribute to the beauty of the Moscow subway. Many terminals also feature statues of animals and famous figures that are meant to inspire luck on your travels.


A Bizarre Number of Time Zones

Do you think all of the U.S. time zones are difficult to keep up with? Try living in Russia. In the United States, there are only four time zones to juggle: Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. How many did Russia start with? 11. Fortunately, Russia cut down to nine time zones in 2010.

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The original list included Kaliningrad, Moscow, Samara, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Yakutsk, Vladivostok, Magadan and Kamchatka Time. The government got tired of juggling that many time zones and combined several of them through a legislative act in 2010.


Beer Was Once 'Non-Alcoholic'

The citizens of Russia are the fourth-biggest alcohol drinkers on the planet. Russia is also the birthplace of vodka, one of the strongest types of alcohol ever produced. This might be why beer used to be considered a non-alcoholic drink. Surprisingly, this wasn't corrected by law until 2011.

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What disqualified beer from being considered alcoholic? Technically, beer contained less than 10 percent alcohol, which caused it to be classified as an everyday foodstuff. However, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wanted to place restrictions on its sale and reduce alcohol abuse, so he pushed it to be reclassified as an alcoholic beverage.


Refrain from Whistling Indoors

Have you ever whistled to call your dog, kid, or spouse to dinner? You don't want to try this in a Russian household — unless you want to get kicked out. Whistling indoors in Russia is considered extremely unlucky, and it can, say the old legends, lead to great financial misfortune.

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According to Russian folk belief, whistling inside can send any money in a home flying out of the house's windows. This superstition may have roots in a variety of sources, including the concept that whistling calls to evil spirits or invites in the sea wind to sweep possessions away.


The Landscape Is Record-Breaking

Russia has some of the most breathtaking natural settings in the world. From vast steppes to the Ural Mountains, Russia’s landscape is amazing. Over half of the country is covered in lush greenery and expansive wilderness. Russia holds up to 20 percent of the world's forests.

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One natural feature that’s truly unique to Russia is Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. It contains 20 percent of the world's freshwater. The lake also houses about 1,700 species in its waters, two-thirds of which are only found in the lake.


There’s a Radioactive Lake

You want to steer clear of the water in Lake Karchay. It became a dumping ground for radioactive waste in 1951 when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. Additional waste has been accumulating from nearby nuclear weapons facilities for the past 70 years.

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Unfortunately, a swim in this radioactive lake will not turn you into a superhero. Instead, it's very likely to kill you if you spend as little as an hour within the proximity of the water. Even the dust at the bottom of the lake has retained radioactive qualities during droughts.


Many Men Die Young

While Russian men are notoriously tough, their inability to turn down a drinking challenge may have consequences. Based on their average life expectancy, Russian men can expect to live nearly a decade less than Russian women (64 compared to 76). One out of every four Russian men can expect to pass away before their 55th birthday.

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What causes Russian men to have such short lifespans in comparison to their female counterparts? Alcohol plays a large role. Men who drink excessive amounts of vodka each week are more likely to pass away before hitting the big 6-0.


Russians Love McDonald's Shrimp

Russians have plenty of eclectic foods on their menus (including pancakes with sour cream, chicken foot stew, and meat or egg gelatin), yet they love fast food as much as the next guy. The most popular fast food restaurant among Russians is McDonald's. In fact, the country is home to the largest McDonald's in the world.

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This McDonald's location can house up to 700 customers. Of course, the menu wouldn't be complete without a distinctive Russian item: the McShrimp. This unique dish is a breaded ball of shrimp served with a side of six dipping sauces. To each their own?


There Are Rules for Flowers

Have you ever gifted a bouquet of flowers to a loved one to celebrate an anniversary, graduation, or other cherished event? While Russians citizens also consider flowers to be a lovely show of affection, their flower-gifting is accompanied by ultra-specific rules, particularly regarding the number of flowers in a bunch.

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What's the biggest no-no? Never buy flowers for a happy occasion in even numbers. Odd-numbered bunches are considered appropriate. Why? Even numbers are reserved for funerals. If you're trying to be romantic, avoid asking for a dozen roses from a florist — they'll warn you against it!


'Russian Nesting Dolls' Are from Japan

Russian nesting dolls, known formally as matryoshkas, have always been credited to Russia. However, these nesting dolls got their start in Japan. The designer of the first matryoshka, Sergey Malyutin, was working on a wooden doll when he was gifted a Japanese doll with eight bodies inside of it.

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After encountering the doll, Malyutin drew a design for his own, although he never constructed the toy. However, in the 1890s, doll master Zvyozdochkin stumbled across his blueprints for the doll and decided to build it himself. He was successful, and the dolls became a major cultural item throughout Russia.


The Railway Is a Week's Commute

It's no secret that Russia has accomplished some major feats in transportation, including a record-setting railway. The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the longest train track on earth, spanning over eight separate time zones and 6,152 miles. Do you know how long it would take to ride the train from start to end?

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If you wanted to travel the length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, you would have to surrender an entire week of your time to stick it out. That's right — the railway takes seven whole days to travel in its entirety. Is it worth taking a week off to test it?


There Are Plenty of Billionaires

Russia is known for three b's: booze, bears, and billionaires. Their capital, Moscow, is home to the largest number of billionaires in a single city in the world. Moscow houses over 70 of these ultra-rich people. Do you think they all get together to grab a yearly bite?

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It's not completely surprising that there are a ton of billionaires in Russia's hub of commerce. Many Russian billionaires make their cash in commodities from Russia's many natural resources. The top billionaires earn all or part of their riches through involvement in the oil and steel industries.


The Strange Exchange for Pepsi

Back in the 1980s when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, the government aided PepsiCo in forming the seventh largest submarine fleet in the world. Yes, you read that right. The citizens of Russia adored the taste of Pepsi, yet their money wasn't accepted worldwide. As a result, they acquired Pepsi products through trade. They typically exchanged their treasured vodka for Pepsi products.

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However, in the 1980s, they didn't have enough vodka to cover their Pepsi needs. To get around this, they gave PepsiCo 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate and a destroyer to cover the cost. How much Pepsi did Russians get in return? Three billion dollars worth of soda.


There Are Hidden Cities

Most of Russia consists of tiny villages and vast landscapes, and there are plenty of cities hidden away in the wilderness. Created during the Soviet era, these "closed cities" served many purposes, from housing research facilities and nuclear weapons to promoting Russian academia.

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These cities were also kept off the map, along with any roads leading to them or landmarks signifying their location. They were guarded by the Russian government and kept secret from citizens and tourists alike. Soviet rule is over, yet many of these hidden cities still exist and are closed off to foreigners.


A Cat Was Almost Mayor

Who says the top dog can't be a cat? In the Siberian town of Barnaul, a feline mayor almost became a reality. In 2015, Barnaul's citizens were sick of local government corruption. As a result, when they were polled for their votes for the next mayor, the majority nominated a cat.

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The cat, Barsik, won 91.2 percent of the 5,400 votes that were cast in Barnaul. Barsik's owner had a blast with his cat's campaign after the poll, posting interviews and advertisements supporting the political feline online. What was Barsik's slogan? "Only mice don't vote for Barsik!"


Fish Farts Nearly Started a War

In the 1980s, the Swedish Navy began to pick up on bizarre sounds in the ocean. They interpreted them as hostile Russian ships attempting to conduct surveillance against Sweden. It led to a great deal of tension between the two countries before escalating into a full-blown diplomatic conflict.

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Magnus Wahlberg, a bioacoustics expert, decided to investigate. He soon discovered that the strange noises weren't coming from warships. Rather, they were the result of a noisy school of herring farting under the waves. The situation between Russia and Sweden was safely defused, and for his trouble, Wahlberg won the Ig Noble Prize, an award for bizarre or trivial scientific discoveries.


Soviet Prison Tattoos Told a Story

Soviet prisons were some of the most oppressive in the world, but the prisoners inside still found ways to communicate. How? Through tattoos. These markings allowed criminals to display their crimes (murder, assault, etc.) and criminal status (guilty, not guilty) for all to see. Most tattoos were inked by other inmates.

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What happened if you didn't have tattoos? You would open yourself up to targeted violence. All Russian prisoners were expected to have tattoos that told the tale of their road to incarceration. From mermaids to stars to playing cards, prisoners knew exactly what each symbol meant, and their reputations depended on their ink.


Facial Hair Used to Come at a Price

By the end of the 17th century, facial hair was no longer considered suitable for modern men in European countries. As a result, the Russian czar, Peter I — a.k.a. Peter the Great — wanted to ban facial hair, or at least discourage men from growing beards and moustaches.

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In 1698, Peter I instituted a "beard tax." This required all men who had facial hair to pay a fine. As proof of payment, they had to carry around a copper or bronze token. If they were found without a tax token, they would be forced to shave by authorities.


One Russian Broke a Crazy Childbirth Record

One 18th-century Russian mother broke the record for number of children birthed by a singular woman. Considering how dangerous childbirth was in the 1700s, this is pretty impressive. Just how many children did she have? 20? 30? Nope — 69.

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It's hard to imagine surviving that many childbirths, yet a woman named Feodor Vassilyev from Shuya, Russia did it. Altogether, she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets, with only two of them passing away in childhood. That's a lot of mouths to feed!


Grooms Must Pay a Bride's 'Ransom'

Can you imagine paying a ransom for your kidnapped bride before your wedding? In Russia, this is a celebrated tradition. When a groom shows up to retrieve his wife on the wedding day, he is expected to bring a "ransom" along to rescue his beloved bride from her "kidnappers" — her friends and family.

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This tradition, which is called "vykup nevesty," is all in good fun. It's meant to be a lighthearted show of appreciation for the people who supported the wedding. Typical ransom includes items like chocolate, flowers, alcohol, jewelry, and, of course, cash.


A Striking Gender Imbalance

Russia has one of the largest gender imbalances in its population in the world. 10 million more women are Russian citizens than men. This makes 46 percent of the population male and 54 percent female. This statistic has persisted for the last century.

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How did this disproportionate ratio come about? The likely root of the imbalance the number of men who passed away during WWII. It's estimated that over 40% of soldier-aged men who were citizens of Russia died during World War II, and the population has struggled to recover from the decades-old losses. More recently, alcohol-related deaths continue to keep the male population low.


Russians Are Extremely Superstitious

Believe it or not, Russians are extremely superstitious. Because of generational legends dating back to pre-Christian times, Russia has many superstitions that seem extreme to outsiders. Russians are often very cautious about ensuring they follow them.

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What are some of these superstitions? Some Russians believe that evil spirits reside in doorways, so never try to shake a Russian's hand beneath one. If a Russian forgets an item at home, they might not go back inside to get it, since it's bad luck to backtrack. And unmarried people never sit at corner tables… or they might never find love!