The Life And Times Of The Russians

A Definitive Guide to Russian Culture: Past and Present

Russia has a rich culture and an awesome heritage; unique and vibrant, they developed from a complicated interplay of Slavic, European, and Asian cultural traditions. In many respects, Russia itself developed like the culture, from a blend of Slavic and foreign elements. A strong thread of politics and socio-economic perspectives is also symptomatic of the similarities between the nation and the national culture of Russia. These are all elements to be conscious of when considering Russian culture and what it is to be Russian.

In Russian literature, art, and music, three distinct periods exist in the estimation of modern scholars: the Kievan period (c. 10th to 13th century), the Muscovite period (c. 14th to 17th century), and the modern period (from the 18th century onwards).

The Kievan Period

Kievan Rus is an ancient name for the Christian state of Russia, founded in 988, which kept the city as Kiev as the seat of the grand princes. The Kievan period in art and literature paralleled the violent times of Russia's conquest by the Tatars in the 13th century.

During this period, running the course of three centuries, Russia was particularly isolated from western Europe and the developments taking place there. The isolation was political as well as religious, as Russia received its Christianity from Byzantium rather than from Rome.

Kievan Rus drew from the heritage of many different peoples, including the Byzantium Christians and the Greeks, through the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Russian nation at the time upheld a conscious rejection of Western European elements, so the forming culture was modeled on Eastern, as opposed to Western traditions.

The Muscovite Period

In the early 13th century, the Mongols invaded Kievan Rus. By the time the fledgling political and cultural organs had recovered, Moscow had emerged as the new focal point.

Kiev remained the center for the Russian Orthodox Church and provided a continuity that largely undermined any connection to western European culture. In the 14th century, western Europe would experience the secularization of society and the rediscovery or rebirth, in French, the Renaissance, of the classical cultural heritage. The separation of church and state, the distinction between religion and culture, was not facilitated in Russia.

Russian culture took on a life of its own during the Muscovite period; the work produced was like nothing before it. Although some remarkable works of literature emerged, most notably letters written between Tsar Ivan IV "The Terrible" and Prince Andrey Kurbsky during the 1560s and the 1570s, and the first full-length autobiography in Russian literature, The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, by Himself (1672-1675), the most significant achievements were in the visual arts and architecture. Icons such as Andrey Rublyov's Old Testament Trinity and churches, such as the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow's Red Square. Indeed, many maintain that St. Basil's is the embodiment of the Byzantine and Asiatic cultural streams that together characterized the early Muscovite culture.

During the reign of Peter I "the Great", from 1694 to 1725, a total reorientation of Russian interests occurred, thus beginning the later half of the Muscovite period and the influx of western ideas. A cultural renaissance took place, and writers and artists carried out reforms of sorts to bring Russian culture to the standard of the western Europeans. Notable poets of the 1730s were Mikhail Lomonosov and Vasily Trediakovsky. A decade later came the playwright, Alesandr Sumarokov, who wrote Russia's first stage tragedies.

Although much of the work produced during the later Muscovite period, leading into the beginning of the 19th century, was adapted from western European traditions and forms, by the turn of the century (1900), Russia had developed its own secure cultural identity, embodied both in the visual arts and, more significantly, in literature.

The Modern Culture of Russia: 19th Century to the Present

Like the cultures of most western European countries, the Russian culture enjoyed a vibrant and dynamic period of creativity and discovery during the 19th century. The first quarter of the century was dominated by romantic poetry, including Vasily Zhukovsky's 1802 translation of Thomas Gray's An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, and, more famously, the work of the young Aleksandr Pushkin.

The Russian equivalent to Shakespeare, in the opinion of many critics, Pushkin developed into one of the country's most celebrated writers. Amongst his most noted poetic works are The Prisoner of Caucasus (1820-21), The Gypsies (1824), Yevgeny Onegin (1833), and Boris Godunov (1825).

The second quarter of the 19th century began with a shift from poetry to prose in Russian literary circles. Pushkin, still one of the leading writers, published several prose works, including The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831), The Queen of Spades (1834), and The Captain's Daughter (1836).

Following in the steps of Pushkin, come the likes of Nikolay Gogol, whose most famous work is the epic novel, Dead Souls (1842); Ivan Turgenev, with Fathers and Sons (1862) at the peak of his distinguished career; Fyodor Dostoyevsky with Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-69), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80); Leo Tolstoy with the classics War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1875-77); Anton Chekov, with his vast collection of plays, such as Uncle Vanya (1897) and The Cherry Orchard (1903); Boris Pasternak with Doctor Zhivago; and, in the wake of Socialism, the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with the likes of One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), and Cancer Ward (1968).

In music, 19th century Russia celebrated the work of Peter Illich Tchaikovsky, with a wealth of symphonies, overtures, ballets, and operas; on to Igor Stravinsky, whose work included the ballets Petruschka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

In the visual arts, Russia also excelled. Russian painters frequently met with their European counterparts and thus extended their influence to Western Europe. Amongst the most major pre-Revolutionary artists were Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladmir Tatlin. Emerging slowly after the Revolution, from the Stalinist years and beyond, came Ernest Neizvestny, Illya Kabakov, Mikhail Shemyakin, and Erik Bulatov, experimenting with a range of techniques, such as primitivism, hyperrealism, grotesque, and abstraction to communicate their sentiments about Socialist Realism.

Russian Culture in the 21st Century

Even today, a dilemma surrounds Russia's cultural identity. Her cultural heritage, however, is somewhat more clearly defined and connected to the modern Russian society. The impact of the Soviet period remains to be seen. The recovery of the traditional Russian culture is not yet fully realized; the tradition relied upon the institutions attacked and removed by the Soviets, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian class system.

Whilst confusion may still surround the cultural identity of the Russians, the richness of their organic culture, including contributions from some of the finest artists of all time, is vibrant and appreciated. Russia has one of the most dedicated societies to the arts, with numerous theatres, concert halls, and galleries celebrating work both modern and classic. Most Russians are also well-read, familiar with the works of their most famous, and even their less famous writers.

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Any visit to Russia should include a trip to any one of the many cultural sights and a delve into the vast collection of Russia art, whether it is literature, music, visual arts, or architecture.

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