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Ivan Kramskoi, The Mermaids, 1871.
According to most traditions, the rusalki were fish-women, who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank and dance in meadows. If they saw handsome men, they would fascinate them with songs and dancing, mesmerize them, then lead them away to the river floor to their death.
In most versions, the rusalka is an unquiet dead being, associated with the "unclean force". According to Zelenin, people who die violently and before their time, such as young women who commit suicide because they have been jilted by their lovers, or unmarried women who are pregnant, must live out their designated time on earth as a spirit.
The ghostly version is the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake and came back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and will be allowed to die in peace if her death is avenged.
Rusalki can also come from unbaptized children, often those who were born out of wedlock and drowned by their mothers for that reason. Baby rusalki supposedly wander the forest begging to be baptised so that they can have peace. They are not necessarily innocent, however, and can attack a human foolish enough to approach them.
While her primary dwelling place was the body of water in which she died, the rusalka could come out of the water at night, climb a tree, and sit there singing songs, sit on a dock and comb her hair, or join other rusalki in circle dances (Polish: korowody) in the field.
Though in some versions of the myth, their eyes shine like green fire, others describe them with extremely pale and translucent skin, and no visible pupils. Her hair is sometimes depicted as green or golden, and often perpetually wet. The Rusalka could not live long on dry land, but with her comb she was always safe, for it gave her the power to conjure water when she needed it. According to some legends, should the rusalka's hair dry out, she will die.
Rusalki like to have men and children join in their games. They can do so by enticing men with their singing and then drowning them, while the children were often lured with baskets of fruit. Men seduced by a rusalka could die in her arms, and in some versions hearing her laugh could also cause death. Alternatively, they would attract men, mainly bachelors, and tickle them to death.
Specifics pertaining to rusalki differed between regions. Although in most tales they lived without men, in Ukraine they were often linked with water, while in Belarus they were linked with the forest and field. Where land was fertile, the maidens appeared naked and beautiful. In harsher areas of Russia, they appeared as "large breasted amazons". Often, in the north, they were ugly and covered in hair.
Rusalka Week 
The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Rusalka Week (Rusal'naia) in early June. At this time, they were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees by night. Swimming during this week was strictly forbidden, lest mermaids would drag a swimmer down to the river floor. A common feature of the celebration of Rusal'naia was the ritual banishment or burial of the rusalka at the end of the week, which remained as entertainment in Russia until the 1930s.
In fiction 
- The novel Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay features beings called riselka that are based on rusalki.
- The Rusalka trilogy of novels by C. J. Cherryh feature and revolve around a Rusalka named Eveshka.
- The third story, "A Grain of Truth," from the short story collection "The Last Wish" by Andrzej Sapkowski features a bruxa, named Vereena, who is initially mistaken for a rusalka.
- "Rusalka" is an opera by Antonín Dvořák.
- "Rusalka" is an opera by Alexander_Dargomyzhsky.
- The third tale "May Night, or the Drowned Maiden" from the short story collection "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka" by Nikolai Gogol.
- The short story "Byezhin Prairie" in A Sportsman's Sketches" by Ivan Turgenev has a mention of an encounter with a rusalka.
- The second tale, "Urchins, While Swimming" from the short story collection "Ventriloquism" by Catherynne M. Valente, features a rusalka and her daughter.
- It is perhaps of note that the creatures from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid were translated as "rusalka".
- The video game "Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia" features a boss called "Rusalka", who attacks the player with water and giant waves.
- The video game Quest for Glory 4 features a "rusalka" who the player can chose to set her soul to rest by finding the man who murdered her (found out to be a miserly wraith guarding his treasure).
- One of Alexander Pushkin's short tragedies is titled "Rusalka". It features a young woman who, drowning herself after being jilted by her lover the prince, becomes the rusalkas' queen. The play is unfinished; the title was given by editors after Pushkin's death.
- The Magic: the Gathering card set Guildpact features five "Rusalka" creatures. Each is a female ghost with an ability relating to the way she died.
- In the 2010 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops, the Rusalka is a Cuba-based Soviet cargo ship housing an underwater broadcast station.
- Poul Anderson's novel The Merman's Children features a rusalka.
- Rusalkas and Vilas are mentioned in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, traveling together to Lookout Mountain to assist the Old Gods in the battle with the New Gods.
- In the video game Devil May Cry 4, the Rusalka is a puppet used by "Bael & Dagon" to attract victims.
- "Rusalka" is the title of a track in the album "Κata Τon Daimona Εaytoy (Do What Thou Wilt)", by the Greek Black Metal band Rotting Christ.
See also 
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- Hilton, Alison. "Russian folk art". Indiana University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-253-32753-9
- Д.К. Зеленин. Очерки русской мифологии: Умершие неестественною смертью и русалки. Москва: Индрик. 1995.