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Traditions of Old Russian Housing
June 30, 2011 19:18

Old Russian Mansion. Painting "Night is Falling" by Vsevolod Ivanov

In the modern age of growing interest in eco-houses architects often look for inspiration in the traditions of old national housing. Old Russian architecture is not an exception. So, what was it like, actually? Izba, terem, khoromy – what are these? Now you can learn how ancestors of modern Russians built their houses. 

The basis of old Russian national dwelling, which was widely represented in Russian traditional culture till the late 19th – early 20th centuries, was a wooden log hut (izba) built in cribwork or frame technology. Less often, in the south of Russia mainly, there were stone and wattle and daub houses. This ancient type of dwelling construction can hardly be found among present-day housing, but its traditions remain in the architecture of village and country-side constructions. 


Klet’, i.e. an extremely simple quadrangular wooden or stone construction, is the basis and origin of Russian national dwelling. This type of a hut was used for residing in the summer time. The klet’ with heating (such as the Russian stove) was called izba.

Rich house owners used klet’ as a dining room, where they arranged feasts for boyars, sotniks (military commanders), etc. In rich houses the walls of the dining chamber were painted in beautiful ornaments. This dining klet’ was usually set up at some distance from dwelling premises, usually in the front part of a mansion.

Logs or squared beams were tied together into cribwork. The height of klet’s was measured in rows of beams, for example, “at the height of the fifth row”.

The klet’ was mounted on a “foot”, i.e. right on the ground, on posts, which were a prototype of the base.

The logs or beams were interlaid with moss, and so such huts were called “in moss”. Heat insulation in rich mansions was provided with the help of flax, hemp, or packing yarn. The walls and ceilings were upholstered with cloth or felt.

The floors were laid on ground beams. In the basement the floor could be timbered. The ceiling of split logs was fastened onto tie beams, or joists.  The interior furnishing of klet’ was called “dressing up the inside”. Internal walls were sheathed with planks or lime boards. The ceiling was coated with clay. Sifted soil was put over the ceiling for keeping warmth inside.


Izba is a heated log hut. Poor log huts were heated with chimneyless stoves. The smoke left through a wooden flue, or through open windows and doors. Well-off householders had stoves with the chimney.

  Poor peasants had izbas based right on the ground. The windows in such huts were small and frameless. Located almost under the roof they were just holes intended for smoke release. Such windows were shielded with a board or a special cover.

Well-to-do people had a klet’ with such windows in front of izba – it was used as a summer residence. Between izba and klet’ there was a roofed passage called seni (inner porch). Under the klet’ there was a closed basement, where cattle were kept or a pantry was arranged.


Khoromy (mansion) is a set of constructions within one yard. All the structures were put in separate groups which were connected with roofed passages (seni). Thus, khoromy consisted of several detached houses.

Khoromy were constructed without any certain plan. Log huts, top chambers, and porches were attached to existing buildings as required and as convenient to the owner. Nobody paid attention to symmetry of mansion buildings.

Large mansions were strengthened with iron: crampons, try squares, setups etc.

Mansion buildings divided into residential and non-residential:

Residential Khoromy

Residential mansion premises usually consisted of three or four rooms: a front seni (inner porch), a cross or prayer room and a bedroom. Apart from these rooms there could be also an anteroom, a back seni (inner porch), and others. Quite often rooms had no special names, and were called the third one (after the front seni and an anteroom), the fourth one etc. Russian bathhouse was often located in podklet’ (ground floor) of residential buildings.

It is interesting to note that the wife’s half of the mansion, as well as children’s and relatives’ chambers stood separately from the owner’s premises, and were connected by passages and seni (inner porches).

Residential mansion premises were arranged in the centre of the yard.


Non-residential Khoromy

Non-residential mansion premises were large uninhabited premises used for receptions, celebrations, meetings, feasts etc. They were arranged in the front face of a mansion, just in front of the residential part. These were feasting and dining rooms and chambers (gornitsa).

Household Constructions

The third part of khoromy consisted of all sorts of household constructions, such as stables, barns, washhouses, weaponries, kitchen izbas, etc. Open lathed roofs were built over washhouses for drying clothes. 


Podklet’s was the ground floor of a two storied house. It had no windows from the outer side. Whereas tsars, princes and house-owners lived on top floors, podklet’ was used for servants and domestic attendants. Besides, cellars and storerooms were located in the ground floor. Princes and tsars arranged their treasuries in the ground floors (podklet’) of stone churches.

Residential podklets had small windows and stoves, whereas non-residential had no windows and even doors sometimes. In such cases the entrance to the ground floor was made from the first floor.

Gornitsa (Top Chamber)

Gornitsa, i.e. the top chamber was arranged on the first floor, over podklet’. Gornitsa recorded in written sources since 1162, comes from the word “gorny”, meaning “high”.

Large windows made the major difference between gornitsa and izba. Gornitsas had large windows with frames. Large windows could be combined with small frameless windows. The stove was also different from that of izba: in gornitsa the stove was round or quadrangular, decorated with tiles (izrazets), and was more like the Dutch oven, whereas in izba there was a traditional Russian stove.

Gornitsa was divided into several rooms: bedchambers and closets.

Svetlitsa (Front Room)

Svetlitsa (derived from the word “svetly”, i.e. “light”) was the lightest room in a house thanks to large windows in all the four or, sometimes, in three walls. In gornitsa the windows were made only in one or two walls. Unlike gornitsa, the front room had no stove, or to be more exact, had no fire chamber of the stove. It had only a warm side of the stove and a stove flue, plastered and whitewashed, or painted. Svetlitsas were more often arranged in the women’s part of khoromy. In these light rooms women gathered for embroidering or doing other needlework.


Large framed windows were called “red” windows, which back then had the meaning of “beautiful” (hence the Red Square, meaning “beautiful square” by the way!) The frames were painted. Before the 18th century glass windows were extremely rare.  Instead, they used fish caviar bladder or ox bladder, as well as mica. The biggest piece of mica in a circle shape was set into a lead windowsash in the centre of the window, and smaller pieces and scraps of mica of different forms were put around. In the 17th century mica windows started to be painted. In rich houses they also used colour glass with painted designs.

For protection against wind and cold outer window shutters were obligatory. The shutters were upholstered with cloth and sometimes could have small mica windows in them. In winter frosts inner shutters made were also very helpful.

There were usually three windows on one wall. Windows were veiled with curtains of taffeta, broadcloth or other fabrics. The curtains were suspended on a wire. All the three windows on one wall were often veiled with one curtain.

Seni (Inner Porch)

Seni were inner roofed passages connecting part of khoromy: klets, izbas, gornitsas, etc. Seni were an integral part of a princely mansion, and therefore princely palaces in the ancient time were often called seni or sennitsa.

Sennik was a non-heated seni with a few small windows. In summertime it was used as a bedroom. Which is more important, it was often arranged as a space for nuptial bed.  Unlike heated premises, sennik did not have soil covering its roof. There was a reason for that: soil above the couple’s heads would remind of forthcoming death, the thought quite improper for the situation. 

In the women’s side of the mansion there were larger seni, used for maidens’ games and entertainments.

Terem (Tower Chamber)

Terem, i.e. the tower chamber, or an attic, was the second (top) floor of a mansion located over gornitsa and podklet’. Terem had large framed windows in all the walls. Small turrets used as viewing points were attached to terem. Around terem they used to build parapets and balconies fenced with handrails or lattices and used for promenades.


The roof was connected by a longitudinal bar — the apex. Trunks of trees with hooks were fastened to the apex. The roof was lathed and then covered with planks and birch bark.

Those were traditionally pyramidal broach roofs, with slopes to all the four corners of the earth. Sometimes roofs could be barrel-shaped or cubical. Frequently all types of roofs were combined in one mansion. The roof was usually painted in green color. On the roof top a weathercock was set up, and carved crests were fastened to the apex.

The top attics could have not only four, but also six and even eight walls.


The yard was enclosed with a fence made of hewn logs. The gate was set up on columns and topped with a small roof with drains. The gate roof was decorated with all kinds of carved wooden turrets and crests. It was the richly decorated gate that demonstrated the wealth of the house owner.

Icons or a cross were fastened under the roof of the gate, on the outer or inner side. Thus, for example, one can still see today a niche with The Icon of Christ of Edessa over the gate of the Spasskaya (Saviour) Tower.








Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Architecture Russian Traditions Wooden Architecture   

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