Russia has certainly carved out a niche in the Western imagination, but our assumptions about this vast and complicated country tend to be shaky at best, especially because many well-known facts about Russia are filtered through a Hollywood-tinted lens. For example, not all Russians have a daily habit of solemnly drinking vodka with their dinner. In Mother Russia, vodka drink you, as a matter of fact.
So how much do you actually know about Russian culture? Watch this video to find out how well you can separate fact from fiction — or just keep reading below to test your knowledge.
#1: The iconic Russian nesting doll is known as a babushka.
False: Babushka is one of those words that’s taken on a life of its own in English, occasionally referring to the “headscarf tied under the chin” look that these dolls typically sport. However, babushka means “grandma” in Russian, and that’s pretty much it. Russian nesting dolls are called matryoshka, which literally translates to “little matron,” and is a diminutive form of Matryona or Matriosha, a common female name among the peasants of Old Russia. Among other things, the dolls symbolize motherhood and fertility, so it’s easy to see why they became conflated with the strong matriarch figure of the babushka. Men (and major political figures) are often represented by matryoshka as well.
#2: There are roughly 70 cats living in the basement of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
True: Hermitage cats are a thing! The tradition dates back to a 1745 decree by Empress Elizabeth (perhaps the original cat lady). They were originally brought to the museum to hunt rats and mice, but they eventually became cherished pets and local icons. In 2007, the Hermitage began an adoption program for the cats, and they even have their own press secretary now. The cats’ rooms are open to visitors once a year on April 21, and there’s now a cat café in St. Petersburg where some Hermitage cats go to retire.
#3: Lenin’s body was preserved in 1924, and it’s still publicly displayed in Moscow.
True: Lenin’s preserved body has been on public display in Moscow’s Red Square since shortly after his death in 1924, with the exception of a brief period during World War II when his body was moved to Siberia as a precautionary measure against German capture of Moscow. When Stalin died, his embalmed body was also displayed right next to Lenin’s, but it was later buried in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization of Russia.
#4: If you want to be an astronaut in any country, you have to learn Russian first.
True: Even NASA astronauts have to learn Russian before they can go into space! Commander Tim Peake, the first Brit to visit the International Space Station, said the hardest part of becoming an astronaut was learning to speak Russian. In a nutshell, the reason for this is that all astronauts traveling to the International Space Station are delivered to the station via Russian spacecraft. And the controls of the Soyuz spacecraft are all in Russian.
#5: Na zdorovje! means “cheers” in Russian.
False: That’s actually a Polish term. Instead of saying “cheers,” Russians usually drink to something (or someone). For example: to friendship, or to health, or to Anya’s continued success. Where did this confusion come from? We can probably blame Hollywood. In Russian, na zdorovje means “you’re welcome.” In some cases, you might drink to someone’s health, in which case you would say za zdorovje. But it’s by no means the only way to make a concise toast in Russian.