A typical graveyard in Russia.

Russian MiniLessons: Death in Russian Folklore and Culture

Published: October 3, 2020

The following bilingual Russian MiniLesson is meant to build your vocabulary by providing Russian phrases within English text. Hover over the bold Russian to reveal its English translation.

Russians are often superstitious and regard discussions of death or illness as unpleasant or even dangerous. However, as with all cultures, death does play a significant part in Russian folklore and modern Russian culture. The following mini-lesson is designed to very briefly introduce students to this and the vocabulary that surrounds it.

Смерть is a central theme of many Russian myths and fairy-tales. There are many приметы in Russian folklore show that a person might умереть (note the use of the perfective tense). For example, if a person dreams of white clothing, a white horse, a house without windows, an egg, or is met in a dream by a deceased relative who invites the dreamer to follow him/her someplace. Death sometimes follows certain events such as a dog howls for a long time, a hen’s crow, a bird beating against a window pane, the walls and the floor of a house producing cracking sounds, or falling stars.

Many social historians argue that Russians of 100 years ago were not afraid of cмерть and perceived it as a wholly natural phenomenon. There was a popular proverb «Двум смертям не бывать, а одной не миновать». Russians held the folk belief that if a person died как подобает, he/she will go to «тот свет». «Тот свет» resembles our world: there are fields and meadows, houses where the souls of the dead reside. They live with their families and do their daily work – but surrounded by gold and silver palaces and rivers that flow with milk.

Покойники or мертвецы can bother living people if the покойник was a колдун or ведьма or if he/she умер без покаяния. There are many Russian fairy tales that center on the покойник выходит из гроба at night and going to village to kill the living. Often in these cases a smart военный (also ‘солдат’ is used) or a лесник will happen to be nearby and will оживить the unfortunate victims after forcing the deceased to tell him how this can be done.

Russians divide deaths into two groups: естественная смерть and преждевременная смерть which can also be скоропостижная. Преждевременная смерть can happen из-за несчастного случая or it can be насильственная смерть. People present their condolences to the deceased person’s relatives by saying: «Приношу свои соболезнования». They will attend похороны and поминки to honor the deceased.

When Patriarch Alexei II died in 2008, we heard western newscasters on CNN and BBC refer to Russian traditional funeral practices as “involved,” “strict,” and “very, very long.” Of course, to most Russians, the practices are rather “normal,” “reverential,” and, of course, “Orthodox.” This month’s Russian Mini-Lesson explores these traditional practices and the vocabulary related to them.

Православная церковь, much like the Католическая церковь says that умирающий should, if possible, исповедаться, причаститься, and собороваться. If you have a relative or friend who is gravely sick, you should попросить прощения and простить that person of any offense they may have caused you.

According to традиция православных похорон, умерший should be обмывать and переодевать in clean and preferably new clothes in order to предстать перед Богом in purity. Покойник is placed in красный угол, a corner of a Russian home traditionally reserved for icons. The deceased’s head should point to the icons. Покойник is covered with white саван, with eyes and mouth closed, arms folded on the chest with the right arm on the top of the left, and a white handkerchief placed into the right hand. The arms and legs of покойник are tied together. They are untied during a later part of the funeral, the последнее прощание.

Погребальный крест is placed into the left hand, and икона is put on the chest. For men, the Icon of Christ is used and for women, the Icon of the Mother of God. Венчик is a paper strip with the picture of God, the Mother of God, and John the Baptist and is placed on the forehead of покойник to symbolize that покойник observed the canons of the faith during his/her life.

Before placing усопший in гроб, тело and гроб should be окроплять святой водой. Under the head of усопший, a pillow is put. Four свечи are placed around покойник – one at the head, one at the feet and two on the sides at the level of the folded arms, symbolizing a cross.

Psalms should be continually read over the тело покойного until погребение. If священник is invited, he conducts панихида.

When гроб с покойным is at home, relatives and friends come to прощаться с усопшим. The most appropriate ritual of parting is перекреститься and прочитать краткую молитву . If one did not have a chance to do so while the deceased was living, one should also попросить прощения and простить покойника.

Похороны takes place on the third day after the death.

Гроб с покойным is taken from the house ногами вперед. According to the Orthodox Church traditions, родственники и друзья should carry the coffin.

First, покойник is taken to the church for отпевание. After that, покойник is taken to кладбище.

Покойника хоронят головой на запад, in accordance with the Christian belief that the body of Christ was buried with his head pointed to the West and the face – to the East. All people in attendance бросают горсть земли в могилу. Надгробный крест is set at the feet of покойник.

The funeral ends with поминки, where special dishes are offered, such as кутья and блины. According to the Orthodox tradition, поминальный обед should not involve alcohol. Prayer at this time is considered especially important, and prayer and alcohol are considered incompatible by the Orthodox Church.

Усопший should be поминать on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after смерть. Поминки are also arranged on the third, ninth, and fortieth days, and people can visit these поминки without being invited. On all other days, поминки may be held and only relatives and close friends invited. One should arrange church prayers for the dead immediately after the death. For example, the Сорокоуст is especially important.

The prayer schedule corresponds with Orthodox beliefs about the path the soul takes in the after life. For the first two days, душа of the dead person has relative freedom. It stays near the deceased’s body and can visit its favorite earthly places. On the third day, душа must make its way to heaven, but is blocked by evil spirits that accuse it of various sins. After the third day, душа is shown рай for 6 days. On the ninth day, душа возносится by angels to worship God. Душа is also shown Hell and moves between Heaven and Hell for 37 days. On the fortieth day, it is given a place to be until воскресение из мертвых and Страшный Суд. Prayers for the dead help it on its course.

About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

View all posts by: Josh Wilson