Russia Unit: Week 3

This week is filled with art, dance, history, and literature unique to Russia. We will read many stories that will better acquaint us with Russian culture, literature, and art. We will also practice language arts skills, do crafts inspired by famous artists, and stretch our imaginations (and our legs) as we design fashion and learn a few dance moves. There are also many opportunities to plan Russian-inspired outings! Look for showings of The Nutcracker in your area and exhibits featuring Fabergé eggs, Russian nesting dolls, or the works of Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky. We hope this week will fill you with appreciation for the artistic contributions of the talented people of Russia! Click here to download this week’s skills tracker.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional chapter book:

Optional additional books:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything): 

Honest History nesting doll craft:

Envelope nesting doll craft:

Russian headdress design:

Faberge egg DIY:

  • egg
  • pin
  • toothpick
  • Mod Podge
  • eye dropper
  • chopstick or skewer
  • a bit of play dough or modeling clay (to serve as a base)
  • paints
  • assorted decorating materials (use what you have), like:
    • ribbons
    • glitter
    • buttons
    • rhinestones
    • markers
    • nail polishes
    • stickers
  • glue
  • toilet paper roll (can be used as an egg base for displaying)

Vasily Kandinski craft:

Mini heart felting craft:

(+) DIY valenki boots:

Group socialism activity:

Decoder activity:

Zavarka tea:

Apple dessert recipe:

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

***Homeschooling a younger student also? Be sure to review the Level 2+ Russia Unit for corresponding activities.

Lesson 1:

Today, we’ll take a closer look at traditional Russian fashion and toys for a personalized view of Russian culture.

Activity 1: One of our favorite Russian ornaments and toys are Russian nesting dolls. Read the story The Magic Nesting Doll (or read it here on OpenLibrary). Next, learn all about these special wooden dolls in Honest History magazine pages 60-61. Then, watch this video to learn how real matryoshka dolls are made.

Let’s bring it to life with the nesting dolls craft project on pages 62-63 of Honest History. If you don’t have the magazine, make these envelope matryoshka dolls and/or draw one of the dolls with this instructional video.

Activity 2: Russian fashion has a long history. In the past, women wore rubakhi (long shirts) down to their ankles with long sleeves gathered up on the wrists. Married women completely covered their hair with a povoi or ubrus (a head scarf or cap), while maidens wore a venchik (a narrow band of fabric or metal) on their foreheads like you see here. Men wore narrow porty (trousers) and tunic-like sorochki (shirts) of linen, down to their knees or their mid-calves. (source)

Click here for pictures of all of the fashion described above, and then click here to get a closer look at the sarafan dress, the Russian folk dress.

Take a look at this and this museum exhibit to see more examples of traditional Russian dress.

Russian fashion has also had an influence on fashion designers in Europe and the United States for decades. There are several well known fashion designers in Russia, and they host their own fashion week each year. You can see a sample of fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin’s runway show in this video

Let’s learn more about the fashion design career in this video. If your child loves the idea of fashion design, be sure to check out the book Fashion Design for Kids: Skill-Building Activities for Future Fashion Designers.

Next, try your hand at design by creating your own Russian headdress. Use your fashion book (or a blank piece of paper) and design a version of this headdress traditionally worn by Russian women.

To create your own, flip the visor upside down so it forms a headband shape. Decorate the visor using pearl beads, rhinestones, lace, or other embellishments you have. Replace the elastic band with ribbons and tie your completed design on to fit your head.

Activity 3: There are many different kinds of Russian folk dancing. Read this article to learn the names and see video demonstrations of famous dances like the khorovod, plyaska, Kozachok, Yablochko, Barynya, and Russian Quadrille. Which is your favorite dance?

Troika is a Russian folk dance where a man dances with two women. The Russian word troika means “three-horse team or gear.” In the dance, the dancers imitate the prancing of horses pulling a sled or a carriage. (source) See what it looks like in this video.

We also really like this one called Kalinka (or Preesyadka). (source)

(-) For a very simple Russian dance lesson, watch and follow along to this video.
(+) For something a little more complicated dance for girls, watch and follow along with this or this video. Boys can try this one. (Use the YouTube setting feature to translate the video into English. Click Settings>Subtitles>Auto-generate.)

Now that you’ve learned a few moves, choreograph your own dance using music from this playlist.

Lesson 2:

Activity 1: Have you ever heard of Fabergé eggs? Fabergé eggs are jeweled, decorated eggs with an interesting history that begins in the spring of 1885. Easter is a religious celebration of the Russian Orthodox Church. Traditionally, after church services, families gather to exchange gifts of decorated eggs, which are intended to symbolize renewed life and hope.

The Easter of 1885 marked the twentieth anniversary of Czar Alexander III and Czarina Maria Fedorovna, and the czar needed an exceptional gift for his wife. He commissioned the royal goldsmith, Peter Carl Fabergé, to make this gift—the first Faberge Egg. Fabergé delivered to the palace what appeared to be a simple enameled egg. But to the delight of the Empress, inside was a golden yolk; within the yolk was a golden hen; and concealed within the hen was a diamond miniature of the royal crown and a tiny ruby egg—both now lost to history. (source) It was meant to be a one-time order, but the result was so pleasing that the tsar immediately placed an order for the following year. Thus began an annual tradition that his son would adopt when he took the throne and that would continue until the end of the House of Romanovs’ reign at the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917. The requirements for each egg was that it must be unique and must contain a suitable surprise for the empress. 

The history of the egg maker actually starts in France. The ancestors of the current Fabergé family lived in the Picardy region of northern France. The family’s name was then Favri, and they were Huguenots (French Protestants) in a predominantly Catholic country. When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which gave Huguenots protection, they fled and headed northeast. Over the years, the family’s name changed from Favri to Favry, Fabri, Fabrier, and finally Faberge.

Gustav Faberge (born in 1814) went to St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, to train as a goldsmith. He later joined the celebrated firm of Keibel, goldsmiths and jewelers to the emperors of Russia. His apprenticeship completed, Gustav Faberge changed his name to Fabergé. He opened a jewelry shop in a basement of the city’s fashionable street, Bolshaya Morskaya, and married Charlotte Jungste. The couple’s first son, Peter Carl Fabergé, was born. He was educated in St Petersburg. In 1882, Peter Carl Fabergé took over his father’s very ordinary jewelry business. Together with his brother Agathon, he quickly transformed it into an international phenomenon. (source)

Watch this video to learn more about Fabergé egg history.

The Fabergé Egg became a Romonav family tradition but also valued treasures to anyone who admires the artform. Do you and your family have treasures that are special to you? Using these interview questions, interview a family member about family treasures. It might be helpful to record the interview. After the interview is complete, write an article about your family’s treasures that can be shared in a family newsletter or at a family dinner. Treasures could include:

  • memories of a place (i.e. seashells from the beach)
  • memories of an event (i.e. photographs, party favors)
  • memories of a person (i.e. gifts from a grandmother, family album)
  • uniqueness or rarity (i.e. coins, stamps)
  • personal interests (i.e. items that represent a hobby or occupation)

Want to make your own Fabergé egg? Do this activity.

Activity 2: Artist study. Vasily Kandinsky was a Russian artist with a wonderful story. Read about him in the picture book Noisy Paint Box. Next, visit the Albany Museum’s website to read his biography, see his work, watch a fun video, and do a great art project inspired by Kandinsky. 
(+) Visit the Guggenheim website to see more of Kandinsky’s works.

Kandinsky was famous for his use of color, lines, and shapes in his abstract art. He also created the first works of abstract art! Abstract art is a piece of art without a particular subject or theme. It is more a series of different shapes and colors to convey emotions. Let’s take some inspiration from Kandinsky and create our own art made entirely of lines and circles. Follow the guidance in this post to get started.

Activity 3: There are many folk stories for children in Russian literature. We have suggested several fairy tale and folk story book recommendations in our book list. Please choose one or two stories to introduce to your child.

(-) For those reading Masha and the Bear, print out these story coloring pages of the characters. Read the story together and discuss the story elements while your child colors the pages. Masha and the Bear is a tale from Russia that has been made into a cartoon series on Netflix. If you are able, watch the cartoon and see how many elements of Russian culture were included in the animation.

After reading two or more stories recommended above, try this literature analysis assignment!

(Note to parents: If writing is a challenge for your child, we suggest you do this activity together. Take it a step at a time, perhaps over a two- or three-day period. If your child becomes insecure or frustrated with the process, take a step back and come back to it at a later time.)

Begin the lesson with this conversation starter: Fairy tales spark imagination and offer moral lessons. What moral lessons are being taught in the story you read? What other stories have you read that also teach the same lesson or make the same point? 

Next, let’s try comparing and contrasting. In this activity, we will begin by discussing the similarities and differences of two stories. Choose either two stories from the books you read today from Russian literature, or one from today and another story you have read in the past. Begin with these discussion questions:

  • What similarities or differences did the main characters share?
  • What story elements are the same or different?
  • Was there the same problem or a different problem that the characters had to solve?
  • Did the story end the same way?

Sometimes a Venn diagram is useful when analyzing stories. Create a Venn diagram and write down what you and your child discuss together. If your child is ready for more, move on to the next upgrade.

(+) Write an essay comparing and contrasting the two stories. Begin by using this chart to organize the essay and outline the similarities and differences in the characters, setting, key story elements, and solutions (or conclusions). The essay should include all these comparisons but can vary in the approach the student takes. For example, a student can decide to write one paragraph with all the similarities in the two stories and a second paragraph with all the differences. Another option is to compare each element one at a time and assign each element their own paragraph. Either option is correct. Be sure to include an introduction and conclusion to the essay. Use this teacher guide to help you work on this writing skill together with your child.

Lesson 3:

Today, we’ll explore more of the Russian arts, from music to ballet to design!

Activity 1: What happens when you take a beautiful folk stories and add classical music? You get a ballet! That’s exactly how composer Igor Stravinsky composed the music for the famous ballet The Firebird. Start by reading about Stravinsky here. You can also listen to an excerpt of his composition here. (We will listen to a lot more later in this lesson.) Next, read the folk story that inspired his famous work in the picture book The Tale of the Firebird (or read it here on Openlibrary). 

The Firebird ballet tells the story of Prince Ivan who defeats the evil Kastchei with the help of the Firebird, who offers one of her enchanted feathers to Prince Ivan after he spares her life while hunting in the forest. The feather is later used by Prince Ivan to summon the Firebird when he needs her help as Kastchei’s creatures chase after him. The Firebird’s magic makes Kastchei and his creatures fall into a deep sleep so that Prince Ivan can destroy the egg that contains Kastchei’s immortal soul, freeing everyone under his spell, including 13 princesses, one of whom Prince Ivan falls in love with. (source

The Firebird’s popularity marked the first international success of Stravinsky’s career, and today The Firebird continues to be performed as a ballet and as a standalone orchestral suite. (You might remember we talked about the Firebird when we read Misty Copeland’s book in the Level 1: Dance (Party!) Unit.)

Let’s explore this music study from the lesson written by Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

The music and the movement of the dancers help us to understand the story and feel the emotions that the characters feel. Listen and watch an orchestra play a segment of The Firebird music here. What instruments are used to express specific feelings? Write down your observations. Can you hear the difference between specific instruments like the flute, trumpet, timpani, clarinet, violin, and triangle?

Music educators sometimes use special vocabulary to describe the music’s sounds. Conflict means a clash of two or more notes that is unpleasant to the ear. It is used to show an argument or disagreement. This is called dissonance. Harmony is the combined sound of two or more musical notes together that is pleasing to the ear. It is used to show pleasant feelings, something enjoyable, feelings like love and laughter. This is called consonance. Stravinsky uses dissonance and consonance in his composition.

Do Lesson 2 in this link. You will listen to this Firebird presentation on Spotify (you will need to have an account, but it’s free) and do the exercise on pages 12-14 of the PDF. (We recommend you print these pages to make it easier to work with the timing recommended.) You should also print out a copy of page 16 for each student and do the mapping exercise. 

Activity 2: Watch a segment of The Firebird ballet here. The Firebird folk story that inspired the ballet and Stravinky’s music are telling the same story by means of different art forms. As you watch the ballet, list as many adjectives as you can to describe what you see, hear, and feel. As a reminder, an adjective is a word that describes an animal, person, thing, or thought. Adjectives include words that describe what something looks like and what it feels like to touch, taste, or smell. Adjectives can be colors or words that describe temperatures and sizes. (source)

Other important descriptive words include adverbs. Adverbs describe or give us extra information about verbs. Learn more about adverbs here. List adverbs to describe the movements of the dancers. Here are a few prompts: 

  • The firebird ran ________________ away from the Prince. 
  • The Prince chased ______________ after her.

(+) Write one paragraph with as many adjectives and adverbs as you can describing this dance segment. (Note to parents: This assignment is much easier after the child has read the story of the Firebird and completed Activity 1. They will have a more complete understanding of the story and can simply focus on describing what they have become familiar with instead of trying to understand the story line. Remember that this is a language arts lesson, not a spelling lesson, so focus on their use of language over their grammar.)

Activity 3: Valenki are traditional Russian winter footwear made of sheep’s wool. These warm felt boots have been worn by generations of Russians for centuries, from the very rich to the very poor. Valenki are not water-resistant, therefore they are often worn with a strip of leather on their sole or rubber galoshes to protect the felt. Galoshes also protect the valenki’s soles from wear and tear. (source) Look at this online store to see the different styles valenki boots available today.

Valenki literally means, “made by felting.” (source) Felting is a popular handicraft still enjoyed today. Watch a felting tutorial here if you aren’t familiar with this craft. Next, let’s try it ourselves by making mini hearts with this simple needle felting activity.

(+) Are you already an experienced felter? Try making your own valenki boots with the help of this tutorial.

Lesson 4:

In today’s activities, we’ll learn more about the Russian government of 20th and 21st century.

Activity 1: Discover Russian history. Read the book The Apartment for a history of Russia from 1902-2002. This beautifully illustrated book is full of fascinating facts and history in a story format. Learn about the formation of the Socialist state and the many leaders of Russia throughout this time and how the people were affected by the changes.

Next, we’ll learn about two powerful rulers that followed the monarchy, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Read a brief summary of Joseph Stalin in Honest History on page 13. Next, watch this video to see the beginning of the new rulership. 

Chapter book recommendation: Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (or read it here on OpenLibrary)

Activity 2: Russia’s economic system is called communism. 

“Communism is a type of government as well as an economic system (a way of creating and sharing wealth). In a communist system, individual people do not own land, factories, or machinery. Instead, the government or the whole community owns these things. Everyone is supposed to share the wealth that they create.” (source)

Communism is closely related to socialism.

“Socialism is a way to organize a society. It deals mostly with the economy, or the part of a society that creates wealth. The goal of socialism is to spread wealth more evenly and to treat all people fairly.” (source)

Read and discuss this article to better understand this governmental style. There are many styles of socialism, and this article details the different types of governments.

Both communism and socialism are in contrast with capitalism. Read this article to learn the difference between the two systems. Next, watch this video to summarize the lesson today.

Let’s solidify the differences between these two forms of government and economic structure with this printable. We will modify the writing assignment for our activity. Instead of what is written, write a paragraph detailing the pros and cons of this governance style and how it compares to the government where you live. 

Optional co-op or group activity: Do this activity for a hand-on way of understanding the basics of a socialist society. 

Activity 3: Discover espionage. Russia has a long history of using spies to gather intelligence. Read the book The KGB and Other Russian Spies by Michael Goodman (or read it here on Openlibrary) to learn the history of spies in Russia.

A spy usually gathers information that people cannot get in ordinary or legal ways. They may buy or steal secret information from people. They may use cameras, microphones, or other technology to gather information. (source) When a spy steals information and passes it to their home country, it is called espionage. But collecting and transmitting information isn’t easy. Read the book The Usborne Official Spy Handbook (or read it here on OpenLibrary) to learn about the various methods used by spies.

One method used by spies is using codes to protect intelligence and safely deliver secret messages. As a result, there have been many people throughout history who have become master code breakers! The scientific study of codes and ciphers is called cryptology. Play a game with this decoder activity

If you enjoyed this activity, be sure to make time for the Level 2+: Espionage Unit!

For parents: Grown-ups will enjoy this real life spy story of Russian spies living in the United States. For more on the operation called “Ghost Stories,” watch this video.

Lesson 5:

We’ll end this week’s lessons with some more Russian food history.

Activity 1: Tea is an important part of Russian culture. Because of Russia’s cold northern climate, it is today considered the de facto national beverage and is one of the most popular beverages in the country. Russian tea is brewed and can be served hot or cold. It is traditionally taken at afternoon tea, but it has since spread as an all-day drink, especially at the end of meals when it is served with dessert. A notable aspect of Russian tea culture is the samovar, which is used for brewing.

Samovar.silver

A notable feature of Russian tea culture is the two-step brewing process. First, tea concentrate called zavarka is prepared. Next, each person pours some of this concentrate into their cup and mixes it with hot water. In this way, each person can make their tea as strong as they want. Sugar, lemon, honey, or even jam can then be added to taste. (source)

Now let’s try it for ourselves! Prepare a batch of this traditional zavarka tea recipe.

Activity 2: Did you know that apples are the most popular fruits in Russia? Apples alone capture 20% of the Russian fruit market, and Russia is the largest importer of apples in the world. (source) There are five species of apples that only grow in Russia. Click here to read about them.

Next, prepare this apple dessert recipe commonly made by children in Russia!

Activity 3: Tea + Poetry. Enjoy your Russian tea, apple cake, and some Russian nursery rhymes! Here are two to read as you snack:

Alternatively, read The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky. 

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.