Russian Language Blog

What Does a Russian Look Like? Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in History, Russian life, Soviet Union


Some people find it surprising to learn that I am Russian. “You just don’t look like somebody from Russia” – they say. It doesn’t offend me but it does make me want to say something like: “What do you know about Russians?” I don’t ever say that, instead I usually mumble something along the lines of: “Oh, I um…um…OK.” So, this post is my official opportunity to explain what a Russian person might look like.

First of all, the term Russian in itself is misleading to a lot of foreigners. What somebody from the former USSR associates with the term Russian and what somebody from the USA associates with the term Russian are two different things. People who were raised in and around the former USSR understand all the subtleties and complexities of the term Russian. I will try to address some of these subtleties and complexities in this post.

Let’s take the term American as an analogy. The term in its current interpretation implies someone who is either a Native American or is a citizen of the USA, whose roots can go back to anywhere in the world: Ireland, Germany, Mexico, Portugal, etc. The term Russian in its current interpretation is somewhat similar: it means that someone is either of Russian origin (their ancestors were Russian, at least to some degree) or that they are a Russian citizen whose origin can go back to any one of the former Soviet Republics or to one of the many lands that are or were owned by Russia. I would dare say that pure Russians would be extremely hard to find these days due to the sheer number of peoples that coexisted on Russian lands for many years. Despite the fact that some of them desperately try to preserve the purity of their people, migrations and mixed marriages did and do exist, perpetuating further mixing of the bloods. Each and every one of the former Soviet Republics represents a people with distinct physical features and cultural heritage. For example, peoples from the Caucasus region, such as Armenians and Georgians, typically have dark curly or wavy hair, dark brown eyes, olive skin, and more prominent noses; on the other hand, the Byelorussian people tend to have light hair, blue eyes, fair skin; the people of Udmurt Republic (which is a part of Russia) typically have red hair, a lot of freckles, and wider shoulders. I can go on and on about other peoples and nationalities that are or were a part of Russia at one time or another but my point is that all these people were and still are shaping the way an average Russian looks today. Let’s briefly look at my family tree. My grandparents on my mother’s side are from Zaporozhia (currently Ukraine, part of former USSR), they moved to Orenburg, Russia when they were young; they have dark hair and brown eyes. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Russia from a German family who were a part of the German settlement; she had blond hair and blue eyes; my dad’s dad originates from a family of Don Cossacks; he has dark hair and brown eyes, they both met in Orenburg when they were young. …Eventually my mom and dad (who both have dark hair, light green eyes, and pale skin) had me. I have dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. Orenburg has a fair amount of Asian people from Kazakhstan because it is right on the border. Had my mom married a person from Kazakhstan, I would have been half-Asian, but… still Russian.

The bottom line here is this:

-Russia is still a very big country that houses more than one people

-In the not so distant past Russia was an even bigger country that housed even more peoples who migrated and mixed all the time

-You can become Russian in 2 ways: by being born in Russia or by moving to Russia and acquiring Russian citizenship.

-After the collapse of the USSR, some people chose to emphasize their origin (they say they are Armenian because they are of Armenian descent, even if their passport says Russian), while other people chose to emphasize their citizenship (they say they are Russian because that is what their passport says even if they are of Kazakh or Turkmen descend, which means they belong to the Asian race).

Now, with all of this in mind, what do you think a Russian person might look like?

Всего хорошего! 

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About the Author: Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


  1. samonen:

    OK, maybe many Americans think a Russian woman should look like a bleached blond mail-order bride stereotype…

    But who are the Russians (русские) anyway? Russians are Slavs originating from approximately where Poland is today, right? Wrong, if you ask me. One should not confuse language with genetic heritage. Finns and Hungarians belong to the same linguistic family as the Khanty and Mansi of Siberia, but look very different. The Slavs who expanded eastward probably were not all that many in number, or at least in many of the vast lands of what became Russia they were not. They might have been just the князь with his дружина — the populations they became the rulers of were quite another matter. Huge assimilation processes have taken place from the very beginning of Rus. There are Slav, Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian and Tatar influences in the Russian ethnic group dating hundreds if not a thousand years back in time. Plus of course the periods of the Empire and the USSR further mixing people’s genes.

    Oh, and Jenya, you look perfectly Russian to me.

  2. Jenya:

    Samonen, yes, the whole thing is pretty complicated with many different theories and opinions on the subject. Thank you for your comment :-)!

  3. Jo Tuffs:

    Hi Jenya
    I can remember back in the 1970s when I was a teenager, having a poster on the wall of the Soviet Union and pictures of all the different nationalities who lived there. I was amazed at the variety of ethnic groups but I think then I still thought of them all as Russian. Someone who I think looks Russian is Pasha Kovalev from the British Strictly Come Dancing show but he is probably a mix like all of us!
    Enjoy your posts very much.

    • Jenya:

      @Jo Tuffs Jo, thank you very much for reading! I have not seen this show so I cannot really say anything :-).

  4. Olya:

    Hi Jenya! I’ve just read your topic and i findit very interesting as i came across with this type of stereotype.
    Just wanted to make sure, i’ve noticed that you are using the word “peoples” in your article. As far as i know people is already plural form. Does this word have any specific meaning in the form “peoples”?

    • Jenya:

      @Olya Оля, спасибо. Да, слово “people” имеет два значения: люди и народ, соответственно, во множественном числе (в моей статье) слово означает “народы”.

      • Elena:

        @Jenya As usual we see someone trying to be a smart ●ss
        LOL. PEOPLE or Peoples. Really?
        Typing error- yes-no-maybe.

        • Elena:

          @Elena Молодец.

  5. Yakov Grinberg:

    Russia is a confusing place sometimes. There are 180 different ethnic groups located in russia today. However ethnic russians make up 80% of russia, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have dark hair/eyes. @samonen Genetic studies show that modern ethnic Russians do not differ significantly from Poles, Slovakians, or Ukrainians. Some ethnographers, like Zelenin, affirm that Russians are more similar to Belarusians and to Ukrainians.

  6. Helen:

    Great post,Jenya-thank you.
    There are, however, certain facial features that are common to ethnic Russians (yes, yes, I understand about many mixes, but still).
    The reason I say that is that people in countries which are popular with Russian tourists seem to be able to spot Russians straight away (and not for the reasons you might imagine, but because of the facial features).
    I found this out when I first went to visit Thailand.
    I am an ethnic Russian who left Russia 27 years ago and had lived in US for 17 years and then moved to NZ 8 years ago.
    It was from NZ that I went to Thailand for the first time about 4 years ago.
    While in Phuket, I couldn’t figure out why all the shopkeepers address me in Russian straight away before I could even utter a word. So on day 4 I finally asked (in English). The shopkeeper was quite surprised. “You not Russian?” he asked. “Your face-it’s Russian”:)

  7. Tamara Vladimirov:

    Thank you for your article! So fascinating.
    I was born in russia but came to America when very young. My grandparents on my dad’s side include a tall blond Russian man and a short, olive skinned curly haired woman of Tatar lineage. My dad is tall with hazel eyes and dark hair. My grandparents on my mom’s side are both Russian. My grandma has black hair and dark eyes, and my grandpa has brown hair and brown eyes. My mom has blue eyes and brown hair. Me, I’m olive toned with black hair, brown almond shaped eyes, freckles, and am quite tall! Two of my siblings are blonde and blue eyed, and two have brown hair and blue eyes.
    I have had people try to peg me as to what nationality I am, and there guesses have been literally from all over the map! I’ve had random people ask, and have told them I’m Russian and they don’t believe me. And I’ve asked what does a Russian person look like?
    I’m proud of my heritage but it sure can get annoying fielding ppl’s ignorant questions.

    • Jenya:

      @Tamara Vladimirov Tamara, thank you very much for sharing! I think many people (especially people from other continents, like America) don’t realize how multinational/multicultural Russia truly is. As a result of this oversight, they picture Russians as blond hair/blue eyes type :-).

  8. Isabelle:

    I’m half Russian. I have olive skin, hazel eyes (both brown and green), and curly, light, amber hair. But whenever I tell people I’m half Russian, they say “U are? But you have brownish hair.”

  9. Isabelle:

    I also have 2 friends, Kristina and Kamilla who are from Russia. They moved here when they were little. But people don’t believe then because they have light BROWN HAIR and BROWN EYES.

  10. suji:

    Lovely!! Sounds almost like India where people of different ethnicities mixed over centuries. A mix of cultures and ethnicities like that is a definite advantage to those who grow up in the environment! I love Russia and everything that comes out of Russian politics even though I may not always agree, yet it is a refreshingly different view at the world and its problems unlike the sheep thinking US and the rest of Europe! Had Putin had a free hand, he might have never allowed ISIS to fester and become such a big wound on the face of the earth. Look at uniracial Europe, it turned a blind eye when AMerica was creating ISIS. 🙁 sigh!

  11. Lucia:

    Hi, Jenya. I understand you very much… I’m female and I’m colombian, I have 11 years old. Normally, girls from my age (in my country) should height like 1,53 – 1,55cm, but my height is 1,61 cm. Why? That is because my dad’s grandma was italian… And for that is why he is also tall. Normally people from Colombia have dark hair (black or brown either, tan and dark brown eyes) but I have light brown hair, fair skin and dark brown eyes. Now, about russians, I think you’re very russian. Many people here, in Colombia, and all the Americas, think that russian women are: “Light blonde hair, green/blue/hazel eyes and fair skin” (yes, my older brother thinks it). But I think it is wrong because many famous russian women are redhead, another are brown hair, brown eyes, freckles… just like you describe them. Not necesarily they have to be blonde and with light eyes, and a prove of that is you also. I put myself of example because not all colombian girls have dark hair and tiny, in the same scale af not all russian girls/women have blond hair.

  12. Lucia:

    Also, something what I forget is that many girls of my country have smooth hair (you know, native amerindians had smooth hair) but I have a curly hair. I’m not complaining about my heritage, to the contrary, I like it very much. Sorry for make comments such long!

  13. Lisa Roberts:

    Hi Jenya Maybe you can help me. I am a writer and i am trying to get as much information as i can with little real luck. My main character is from Russia and as someone who is from Michigan I know every town and county has different ways of not only saying things but calling something different as well. It is so hard to find local and formal terms used in another country when you do not know anyone from there. I hope that i am not imposing by asking for help lick this. i just really want to make sure i am doing things correctly! thank you for your time and have a wonderful day

    Lisa Roberts

  14. Daniel:

    What an interesting article. I happen to be totally fascinated by this topic. If the author (or perhaps other “Russians”) are available, I would like to ask a few questions.

  15. Andrew Zwolf:

    I am part Don Cossack too, and my 23andme results show some Southern European and South Asian ancestry.

  16. Lucia:

    (Well, actually my brother right now knows that there are some different kind of russian appearance, that was when he didn’t knew where I wrote the another comments :D).

  17. Sunil Lakhanpal:

    Many Indian Punjabi Hindus & Sikhs too have blue eyes.
    Indian great film stars Mr Raj Kapoor also punjabi had blue eyes and film actor Mr.Shammi Kapoor had grey blue eyes. Mr Randhir Kapoor son of Raj kapoor have green eyes. Film actress Karisma Kapoor have blue eyes like her grandfather Raj Kaoor. Film actress Kareena Kapoor have green eyes like her father film actor Randhir Kapoor.

    These film actors Kapoor family now in India have origin in Punjab,city Peshawar located near Khyber pass in Pakistan.

    Peshawar once a great historic centre of transit caravan trade with afghanistan and central asia.
    Kapoors are Hindu kshatriya clan -Aryans. Hindus Aryans race have russian origin ?

  18. Prasenjit Mallik:

    Jenya, I have read your post. I am from India. I agree with you.

  19. Prasenjit Mallik:

    These days even Indians and Russians are intermarrying. So I am afraid what will happen to the Russian stereotype. Thanks

  20. Julie Neff Young:

    I am 1/2 Russian 1/2 Hungarian, i have curly dark brown (nearly black) hair and hazel eyes. My grandparents are from an area near the Black Sea, and light brown to dark blonde hair with olive skin and blue eyes. On the contrary my Hungarian grandmother was born in Transylvania (Mediasch) and had purely black hair and black eyes. My sisters have dark brown hair with green eyes. I have been told by a Russian friend that I look very russian! Who knows what they see in me?!

  21. Dan Carazo:

    Tamara’s comments, and especially your self description, has answered a big question for my research. I am writing a novel with key characters who are of Russian and Ukraine heritage. I pictured the woman character as being with olive complexion, darker hair color, but I had no clue which ethnic group her roots would come from. Until I came across your own description and having a grandmother of Tatar extraction. Your shared information was perfect! Thank you.

  22. Adam:

    Hi Jenya,
    I’ve lived for many years in various parts of whole Russia (Blagoveschensk mainly, Ufa and Lermontov near Pyatigorsk). Well there are russians that are russian from nationality and those that are racially russian. Inside the country a kalmyk or a tatar would not call himself russian, instead he would autodenominate as his own ethnic group and would be proud of it even if they only speak russian. You don’t look estereotipically russian not even for some extreme cases of terek cossacks

  23. Adam:

    I’ve lived for many years in various parts of whole Russia (Blagoveschensk mainly, Ufa and Lermontov near Pyatigorsk). Well there are russians that are russian from nationality and those that are racially russian. Inside the country a kalmyk or a tatar would not call himself russian, instead he would autodenominate as his own ethnic group and would be proud of it even if they only speak russian. You don’t look estereotipically russian not even for some extreme cases of terek cossacks but still if you consider yourself russian then you are, and possibly you are but as expected you may have being asked even inside russia if you are really russian, right?. Still I have to say you look beautiful

  24. Mila:

    Hi Jenya!! I came across this post and can completely relate to this. Im originally from Nizhniy Novgorod Russia. I have dirty blond/light brown hair, hazel eyes and olive skin. I have been told by a few people i dont look Russian and i too ask “What exactly does a Russian look like?” I use to find it rude & embarrassing that people would say this to me but have come to realize they are just ignorant haha.

  25. Farha:

    Hi Jenya I am a big fan of Russia and all her glory. I live in Michigan and if you are still here it would be nice to meet you. I have Russian friends but none in the USA. Love you blog.
    Thank you for teaching more about Russian people and the diversity of such an amazing country and people.

    God bless you

  26. Ruslan kuznetsov:

    Haha very accurate I thought, especially the reference to dagestani features! Nice job!