Russian culture has a long and rich cultural history, steeped in literature, ballet, painting and classical music. When planning your trip to Russia, it will be difficult to decide which parts of its culture you want to experience first-hand, because there is so much to absorb and appreciate. Knowing about Russian culture will make your visit to this vast Eastern European country all the more enjoyable! The following reference is intended to be a quick guide for travelers or students.
Russian history begins with Kievan Rus, which existed as the first unified, Slavic Christian state and was a great center of politics and learning. After Kievan Rus fell as a result of Mongol invasion, the Grand Duchy of Moscow gained might and power in the region. Peter the Great established the Russian Empire and moved the capital city to St. Petersburg, determined to make Russia a westward-facing nation. With the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 20th century, the Russian monarchy disintegrated and 70 years of Communist rule followed. Towards the end of the last century, Russia became a democracy and continues to develop politically and economically as a world power. Many, many aspects of Russian history are important to Russian culture because they have made Russia (and its people) what it is today. The culture of St. Petersburg is uniquely “European” due to the efforts of Peter the Great; Eastern Orthodoxy is the most prevalent religion in Russia because of the Christianization of Kievan Rus; the Revolution of 1917 changed Russian literature, art, and attitudes. Just as any country is shaped by its past, so has Russia been molded by nation-changing events.
Russian literature is considered to be among the most influential and developed in the world, with some of the most famous literary works belonging to it. Russia’s literary history dates back to the 10th century; in the 18th century its development was boosted by the works of Mikhail Lomonosov and Denis Fonvizin, and by the early 19th century a modern native tradition had emerged, producing some of the greatest writers of all time. This period and the Golden Age of Russian Poetry began with Alexander Pushkin, considered to be the founder of modern Russian literature and often described as the “Russian Shakespeare” or the “Russian Goethe”. It continued in the 19th century with the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolay Nekrasov, dramas of Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov, and the prose of Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Ivan Goncharov, Aleksey Pisemsky and Nikolai Leskov. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in particular were the titanic figures, to the point that many literary critics have described one or the other as the greatest novelist ever.
By the 1880s Russian literature had begun to change. The age of the great novelists was over and short fiction and poetry became the dominant genres of Russian literature for the next several decades, which later became known as the Silver Age of Russian Poetry. Previously dominated by realism, Russian literature came under strong influence of symbolism in the years between 1893 and 1914. Leading writers of this age include Valery Bryusov, Andrei Bely, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Blok, Nikolay Gumilev, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Sologub, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Leonid Andreyev, Ivan Bunin, and Maxim Gorky.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war, Russian cultural life was left in chaos. Some prominent writers, like Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov left the country, while a new generation of talented writers joined together in different organizations with the aim of creating a new and distinctive working-class culture appropriate for the new state, the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1920s writers enjoyed broad tolerance. In the 1930s censorship over literature was tightened in line with Joseph Stalin’s policy of socialist realism. After his death the restrictions on literature were eased, and by the 1970s and 1980s, writers were increasingly ignoring official guidelines. The leading authors of the Soviet era included Yevgeny Zamiatin, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ilf and Petrov, YuryOlesha, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Sholokhov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Andrey Voznesensky.
The Soviet era was also the golden age of Russian science fiction, that was initially inspired by western authors and enthusiastically developed with the success of Soviet space program. Authors like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, KirBulychov, Ivan Yefremov, Alexander Belayev enjoyed mainstream popularity at the time
Famous Russian Authors
1. Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin was the founder of literary poetry during the Golden era of poetry in Russia. He introduced the genre of romantic poetry and novels. His first poem was published when he was only in his teens and soon he was famous throughout Russia. His major work was his novel, Eugene Ongene. Being a romantic hero he died a heroic life as he succumbed to his wounds in a fight with Georges-Charles who tried to seduce his wife.
2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was a Russian novelist, writer and dramatist. He used his work to spread awareness about the Gulag, the Soviet Union government agency that administered labor camps. His most famous contributions include ‘The Gulag archipelago’ and ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’.
3. Ivan Turgenev. He was a novelist and short story writer who was initially rejected by many publishers on his work ‘Father and Sons’ which is now considered a classic. His major publication was ‘A sportsman’s sketches’, a short story collection which aimed at the cruelties of surf society.
4. Vladimir Nabokov. He was a Russian-American novelist and entomologist. His first nine novels were in Russian after which he became more prominent and started writing English novels which are very popular worldwide. His much appreciated, controversial novel ‘Lolita’ was written in Russian and English and attained the status of a classic. He was also a finalist for the national book award for fiction seven times
5. Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov was a writer, physician and playwright active during the early twentieth century. He was claimed as the most controversial writers of his time and was famous for his satires on the society in Soviet Union. Although he received his education in medicine his inclination to literature lured him towards becoming a novelist. His most significant work is his novel ‘The master and margarita’.
6. Anton Chekhov. He is acknowledged as the greatest short fiction writer in history. He was initially a physician but after gaining interest in literature and started writing seriously. Therefore he proceeded with his career in medicine as well as writing books alongside. He once said “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other”. His most influential work was ‘The Seagull’ and ‘Uncle Vanya’.
7. Ivan Bunin. Bunin was the first Russian author who was awarded with the Nobel Prize in literature. He was noted for artistry, realism, poetry and classical traditions. The young writer spent his childhood in some financial crisis due to the head of the family being a gambling addict and therefore could not receive the best of the education. Nonetheless, that did not pull him down and he was able to make way to the top. His most acclaimed work includes; ‘The Village’ and ‘Dry Calley’, his autobiography ‘The life of Arseniev’ and the short stories of ‘Dark Avenues’.
8. Nikolai Gogol. Gogol was a Ukrainian-born Russain dramatist, novelist and short story writer and he was greatly influenced by Ukrainian culture. His masterpiece included romantic sensibility, with strains of surrealism and the grotesque. He is also prominently known for his portrayal of real life characters. The novel TarasBulba (1835) and the play Marriage (1842), along with the short stories “Diary of a Madman”, “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”, “The Portrait” and “The Carriage”, are of his most significant and popular works.
9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky was a Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. His context explores human psychology, which is the study of behavior and mind, embracing all aspects of conscious and unconscious experience as well as thought. Even though he graduated as a military engineer he resigned and joined a socialist group, he was later captured by the police and sent to Siberia. Due to these life changing incidents he became a writer and talked about his experience in prison time and again in ‘The house of dead’, ‘The Insulted and the Injured,’ and ‘Winter Notes on Summer Impression’. He eventually became one of the most widely read and highly regarded Russian writers. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages.
10. Leo Tolstoy. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy more commonly known as Leo Tolstoy as translated in English was one of the most phenomenal writers in the history of all time. He was a Russian novelist and short story writer, but later in life he also wrote some plays and essays. His most popular works are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). He first became popularly known for his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based upon his experiences in the Crimean War. Later in life he became strongly influenced by the ethical teachings of Jesus and experienced profound moral crisis which urged him to publish some religious scripts. During his last few days he had surprisingly talked about death and a couple of days later passed away due to pneumonia.
Russian Folk Music
Russians have distinctive traditions of folk music. Typical ethnic Russian musical instruments are gusli, balalaika, zhaleika, balalaika contrabass, bayan accordion, Gypsy guitar and garmoshka. Folk music had great influence on the Russian classical composers, and in modern times it is a source of inspiration for a number of popular folk bands, most prominent being Golden Ring, Ural’s Nation Choir, Lyudmila Zykina. Russian folk songs, as well as patriotic songs of the Soviet era, constitute the bulk of repertoire of the world-renowned Red Army choir and other popular Russian ensembles.
Russian Folk Dance
Russian folk dance (Russian: Русский Народный Танец) can generally be broken up into two main types of dances Khorovod (Russian: Хоровод), a circular game type dance where the participants hold hands, sing, and the action generally happens in the middle of circle, and Plyaska (Russian: Пляска or Плясовый), a coed circular dance that increases in diversity and tempo, according to Bob Renfield, considered to be the preeminent scholar on the topic. Other forms of Russian Folk Dance include Pereplyas (Russian: Перепляс), an all-male competitive dance, Mass Dance (Russian: Массовыйпляс), an unpaired stage dance without restrictions on age or number of participants, Group Dance (Russian: Групповая пляска) a type of mass dance employs simple round-dance passages, and improvisation, and types of Quadrille’s (Russian: Кадриль), originally a French dance brought to Russia in the 18th century.
Ethnic Russian dances include khorovod (Russian: Хоровод), barynya (Russian: Барыня), kamarinskaya (Russian: Камаринская), kazachok (Russian: Казачок) and chechotka (Russian: Чечётка) (a tap dance in bast shoes and with a bayan). Troika (Russian: Тройка) A dance with one man and two women, named after the traditional Russian carriage which is led by three horses. Bear Dance or dancing with bears (Russian: ТанецСМедведем) Dates back to 907 when Great Russian Prince Oleg, in celebration of his victory over the Greeks in Kiev, had as entertainment, 16 male dancers dress as bears and four bears dress as dancers. Dances with dancers dressed as bears are a reoccurring theme, as seen a recording of the Omsk Russian Folk Chorus.
Music in 19th century Russia was defined by the tension between classical composer Mikhail Glinka along with the other members of The Mighty Handful, who embraced Russian national identity and added religious and folk elements to their compositions, and the Russian Musical Society led by composers Anton and Nikolay Rubinstein, which was musically conservative. The later Romantic tradition of PyotrIlyich Tchaikovsky, one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, whose music has come to be known and loved for its distinctly Russian character as well as its rich harmonies and stirring melodies, was brought into the 20th century by Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the last great champions of the Romantic style of European classical music.
World-renowned composers of the 20th century included Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and GeorgySviridov. During most of the Soviet Era, music was highly scrutinized and kept within a conservative, accessible idiom in conformity with the policy of socialist realism.
Soviet and Russian conservatories have turned out generations of world-renowned soloists. Among the best known are violinists David Oistrakh and Gidon Kremer; cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, and Emil Gilels; and vocalists Fyodor Shalyapin, Galina Vishnevskaya, Anna Netrebko and Dmitry Hvorostovsky.
The original purpose of the ballet in Russia was to entertain the imperial court. The first ballet company was the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg in the 1740s. The Ballets Russes was a ballet company founded in the 1909 by Sergey Diaghilev, an enormously important figure in the Russian ballet scene. Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes’ travels abroad profoundly influenced the development of dance worldwide. The headquarters of his ballet company was located in Paris, France. A protégé of Diaghilev, George Balanchine, founded the New York City Ballet Company in 1948.
During the early 20th century, Russian ballet dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky rose to fame. Soviet ballet preserved the perfected 19th century traditions, and the Soviet Union’s choreography schools produced one internationally famous star after another, including Maya Plisetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg remain famous throughout the world.
The first known opera made in Russia was “A Life for the Tsar” by Mikhail Glinka in 1836. This was followed by several operas such as “Ruslan and Lyudmila” in 1842. Russian opera was originally a combination of Russian folk music and Italian opera. After the October revolution many opera composers left Russia. Russia’s most popular operas include: “Boris Godunov”, “Eugene Onegin”, “The Golden Cockerel”, “Prince Igor”, and “The Queen of Spades”.
Since the late Soviet times Russia has experienced another wave of Western cultural influence, which led to the development of many previously unknown phenomena in the Russian culture. The most vivid example, perhaps, is the Russian rock music, which takes its roots both in the Western rock and roll and heavy metal, and in traditions of the Russian bards of Soviet era, like Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava. Saint-Petersburg (former Leningrad), Yekaterinburg (former Sverdlovsk) and Omsk became the main centers of development of the rock music. Popular Russian rock groups include Mashina Vremeni, Slot, DDT, Aquarium, Alisa, Kino, Nautilus Pompilius, Aria, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, Splean and Koroli Shut. At the same time Russian pop music developed from what was known in the Soviet times as estrada into full-fledged industry, with some performers gaining international recognition, like t.A.T.u. in the West, who have been said to be the most influential artists to ever come out of Russia, or Vitas in China.
While in the industrialized nations of the West, motion pictures had first been accepted as a form of cheap recreation and leisure for the working class, Russian filmmaking came to prominence following the 1917 revolution when it explored editing as the primary mode of cinematic expression. Russian and later Soviet cinema was a hotbed of invention in the period immediately following the 1917 revolution, resulting in world-renowned films such as Battleship Potemkin. Soviet-era filmmakers, most notably Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, would become some of the world’s most innovative and influential directors.
Eisenstein was a student of filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov, who developed the groundbreaking Soviet montage theory of film editing at the world’s first film school, the All-Union Institute of Cinematography. DzigaVertov, whose kino-glaz (“film-eye”) theory—that the camera, like the human eye, is best used to explore real life—had a huge impact on the development of documentary film making and cinema realism. In 1932, Stalin made socialist realism the state policy; this somewhat limited creativity, however many Soviet films in this style were artistically successful, like Chapaev, The Cranes Are Flying, and Ballad of a Soldier.
1960s and 1970s saw a greater variety of artistic styles in the Soviet cinema. EldarRyazanov’s and Leonid Gaidai’s comedies of that time were immensely popular, with many of the catch phrases still in use today. In 1961–1967 Sergey Bondarchuk directed an Oscar-winning film adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, which was the most expensive Soviet film made. In 1969, Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert was released, a very popular film in a genre known as ‘osterns’; the film is traditionally watched by cosmonauts before any trip into space.
The late 1980s and 1990s were a period of crisis in Russian cinema and animation. Although Russian filmmakers became free to express themselves, state subsidies were drastically reduced, resulting in fewer films produced. The early years of the 21st century have brought increased viewership and subsequent prosperity to the industry on the back of the economy’s rapid development, and production levels are already higher than in Britain and Germany. Russia’s total box-office revenue in 2007 was $565 million, up 37% from the previous year (by comparison, in 1996 revenues stood at $6 million). Russian cinema continues to receive international recognition. Russian Ark (2002) was the first feature film ever to be shot in a single take.
Russia also has a long and rich tradition of animation, which started already in the late Russian Empire times. Most of Russia’s cartoon production for cinema and television was created during Soviet times, when Soyuzmultfilm studio was the largest animation producer. Soviet animators developed a great and unmatched variety of pioneering techniques and aesthetic styles, with prominent directors including Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Fyodor Khitruk and AleksandrTatarskiy. Soviet cartoons are still a source for many popular catch phrases, while such cartoon heroes as Russian-style Winnie-the-Pooh, cute little Cheburashka, Wolf and Hare from Nu, Pogodi! being iconic images in Russia and many surrounding countries. The traditions of Soviet animation were developed in the past decade by such directors as AleksandrPetrov and studios like Melnitsa, along with Ivan Maximov.
Science and Innovation
Main articles: Timeline of Russian inventions and technology records, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian Federal Space Agency, United Aircraft Corporation, Rosatom, Rosoboronexport, Education in Russia, and List of Russian inventors. At the start of the 18th century the reforms of Peter the Great (the founder of Russian Academy of Sciences and Saint Petersburg State University) and the work of such champions as polymath Mikhail Lomonosov (the founder of Moscow State University) gave a great boost for development of science, engineering and innovation in Russia. In the 19th and 20th centuries Russia produced a large number of great scientists and inventors.
Nikolai Lobachevsky, a Copernicus of Geometry, developed the non-Euclidean geometry. Dmitry Mendeleev invented the Periodic table, the main framework of the modern chemistry. Nikolay Benardos introduced the arc welding, further developed by Nikolay Slavyanov, Konstantin Khrenov and other Russian engineers. GlebKotelnikov invented the knapsack parachute, while EvgeniyChertovsky introduced the pressure suit. Pavel Yablochkov and Alexander Lodygin were great pioneers of electrical engineering and inventors of early electric lamps.
Alexander Popov was among the inventors of radio, while Nikolai Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were co-inventors of lasers and masers. Igor Tamm, Andrei Sakharov and Lev Artsimovich developed the idea of tokamak for controlled nuclear fusion and created its first prototype, which finally led to the modern ITER project. Many famous Russian scientists and inventors were émigrés, like Igor Sikorsky and Vladimir Zworykin, and many foreign ones worked in Russia for a long time, like Leonard Euler and Alfred Nobel.
The greatest Russian successes are in the field of space technology and space exploration. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the father of theoretical astronautics. His works had inspired leading Soviet rocket engineers such as Sergei Korolev, Valentin Glushko and many others that contributed to the success of the Soviet space program at early stages of the Space Race and beyond.
In 1957 the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched; in 1961 on 12 April the first human trip into space was successfully made by Yury Gagarin; and many other Soviet and Russian space exploration records ensued, including the first spacewalk performed by Alexey Leonov, the first space exploration rover Lunokhod-1 and the first space station Salyut 1. Nowadays Russia is the largest satellite launcherand the only provider of transport for space tourism services.
Other technologies, where Russia historically leads, include nuclear technology, aircraft production and arms industry. The creation of the first nuclear power plant along with the first nuclear reactors for submarines and surface ships was directed by Igor Kurchatov. NS Lenin was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship as well as the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel, and NS Arktika became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole.
A number of prominent Soviet aerospace engineers, inspired by the theoretical works of Nikolai Zhukovsky, supervised the creation of many dozens of models of military and civilian aircraft and founded a number of KBs (Construction Bureaus) that now constitute the bulk of Russian United Aircraft Corporation. Famous Russian airplanes include the first supersonic passenger jet Tupolev Tu-144 by Alexei Tupolev, MiG fighter aircraft series by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, and Su series by Pavel Sukhoi and his followers. MiG-15 is the world’s most produced jet aircraft in history, while MiG-21 is most produced supersonic aircraft. During World War II era Bereznyak-Isayev BI-1 was introduced as the first rocket-powered fighter aircraft, and IlyushinIl-2 bomber became the most produced military aircraft in history. Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik is the world’s most produced biplane, and Mil Mi-8 is the most produced helicopter.
Famous Russian battle tanks include T-34, the best tank design of World War II, and further tanks of T-series, including T-54/55, the most produced tank in history, first fully gas turbine tank T-80 and the most modern Russian tank T-90. The AK-47 and AK-74 by Mikhail Kalashnikov constitute the most widely used type of assault rifle throughout the world – so much so that more AK-type rifles have been produced than all other assault rifles combined. With these and other weapons Russia for a long time has been among the world’s top suppliers of arms.