6 Traditional Russian Games You Can Play

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Games have long been an important part of Russian culture, with many traditional games developing from the pagan circle dances (хороводы) performed during the pre-Christianity era. These traditional Russian games were often played in a circle or as a large group, making them an essential way to connect with the community.

While many classic Russian games are now part of history, others have survived and are experiencing a new surge of popularity in modern Russia. Now, you can discover the rules of some of the most well-known traditional Russian games.

01
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Lapta (Лапта)

Playing the game of Lapta.
Playing the game of Lapta.

Seregapavlov / CC BY-SA 4.0

Lapta (lapTAH) is one of the oldest Russian games, dating back to the 10th century in Kievan Rus'. With similarities to cricket, baseball and Rounders, Lapta is still popular in modern Russia today.

Lapta is a bat-and-ball game played on a rectangular field. The pitcher serves the ball, and the hitter uses the bat to hit the ball, then run across the field and back. The opposite team's task is to catch the ball and launch it at the hitter before he or she has finished running. Each run completed without being hit earns points for the team.

During the reign of Peter the Great, Lapta was used as a training technique for Russian troops. Over the centuries, the game has become a popular way to keep fit and build stamina and speed. Today, Lapta is an official sport in Russia.

02
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Cossacks and Robbers (Казаки-Разбойники)

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One of the most popular games in modern Russia, Cossacks and Robbers is the Russian equivalent of Cops and Robbers.

Players divide up into two teams: the Cossacks and the Robbers. To begin the game, the Robbers hide within a previously agreed-upon area (e.g. a park or a neighborhood), drawing arrows with chalk on the ground or on buildings to indicate which way they have gone. The Cossacks give the Robbers a 5-10 minute head start, then begin looking for them. The game is played until all Robbers are caught.

The name of the game comes Tsarist Russia, when Cossacks were the guardians of law and order. The game became popular in the 15 and 16th centuries. At that time, the game was an imitation of real life: free (воровские) Cossacks, i.e. those not in military service, formed gangs that robbed ships and dry land freight caravans, while the serving (городские) Cossacks hunted the gangs.

03
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Chizhik (Чижик)

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Another traditional game, Chizhik has been popular since at least the 16th century due to its simplicity, flexibility and fun. The game requires two wooden sticks: one short stick (the chizhik), which has a sharpened end, and one long stick (the designated bat). Before gameplay begins, a line and a circle are drawn on the ground, several feet apart.

The goal of this game is to use the bat to hit the chizhik as far as possible. Meanwhile, the other player(s) attempt to catch the ball mid-flight, or, failing that, find the fallen ball and throw it back into the circle.

The sticks are often made out of scrap wood; the chizhik can be sharpened with the aid of a pocket knife. The name of the game comes from the smaller stick's resemblance to a siskin, a bird from the finch family.

04
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Durak (Игра в дурака)

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Durak (дурак), a card game of Russian origin, is played with a deck of 36 cards. The lowest card is a six, and the highest is an ace.

Durak can be played with 2-6 players, and involves a series of "attacks" and "defenses." At the start of the game, each player receives six cards, and a trump card (козырь) is chosen from the deck. Any card of that suit can defend against an attack. Otherwise, attacks can only be defended against with a higher-numbered card of the attacking card's suit. The goal is to get rid of all the cards in your hand. At the end of the game, the player with the most cards remaining loses and is declared "the fool" (дурак).

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Elastics (Резиночки)

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In the game of Elastics, players perform a sequence of jumps around, over, and in-between a large elastic band. Typically the band is held in place by two other players, but many enterprising Russian children have played with fewer partners by hooking up the elastic band to the legs of a chair or a tree.

The goal of the game is to complete a full sequence of jumps without stepping on the elastic or making any mistakes. The level of difficulty is increased after reach successful round, with the elastic raised from ankle-level to knee-level and even higher.

Elastics is so commonplace on the playground that many Russians consider it to be a game of Russian/Soviet origin, but the game actually originated in China in the 7th century.

06
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Will You Go to The Ball? (Вы поедете на бал?)

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A word game for rainy days, Вы поедете на бал? was a popular Soviet game passed down through several generations of Russians. Its focus on "going to the ball"—something that did not exist during the Soviet era—indicates that the game may have originated in the pre-Revolution Russia.

The game begins with a short rhyme in which the speaker tells the other players that a case containing a hundred rubles and a note has been delivered. The note invites the players to the ball and contains instructions on what not to do, what not to say, and what colors not to wear. (The speaker gets to make up these instructions.) The speaker then asks each player a series of questions about their plans for the ball, all designed to trick the players into saying one of the forbidden words.

Here is an example of the initial rhyme and instructions, plus an English translation:

К вам приехала мадам, привезла вам чемодан. В чемодане сто рублей и записка. Вам велели не смеяться, губы бантиком не делать, «да» и «нет» не говорить, черное с белым не носить. Вы поедете на бал?

Translation: A lady has arrived and has brought a case. In the case, there is money in the sum of one hundred rubles and a note. You are instructed not to laugh, not to pout, not to say "yes" or "no," and not to wear black and white. Will you go to the ball?