Folk culture and cuisine
There are more than 160 different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples in Russia. The country’s great cultural diversity ranges from the ethnic Russians with their Slavic Orthodox traditions to the Tatars and Bashkirs with their Turkic Muslim culture to the nomadic Buddhist Buryats and Kalmyks, the shamanic peoples of the far north and Siberia, the mountain peoples of the North Caucasus and the Finno-Ugric peoples of northwest Russia and the Volga region.
Handicrafts such as the Dymkovo toy, Khokhloma, Gzhel and miniature Palekh represent an important aspect of Russian folk culture. Russian ethnic dress includes kaftan, kosovorotka and ushanka for men, sarafan and kokoshnik for women, with lapti and valenki as common footwear. The clothing of the South Russian Cossacks includes the burka and the papaha, which they share with the peoples of the North Caucasus.
Russian cuisine makes extensive use of fish, poultry, mushrooms, berries and honey. Rye, wheat, barley and millet provide the ingredients for various breads, pancakes and cereals, as well as for kvass, beer and vodka. Brown bread is quite popular in Russia compared to the rest of the world. Delicious soups and stews include shchi, borscht, ukha, solyanka and okroshka. Smetana (a thick sour cream) is often added to soups and salads. Pirozhki, blini and syrnikia are local types of pancakes. Chicken kiev, pelmeni and shashlyk are popular meat dishes, the last two being of Tatar and Caucasian origin respectively. Other meat dishes include stuffed cabbage rolls (golubtsy), which are usually filled with meat. Salads include olive salad, vinegar and spiced herring.
Russia’s many ethnic groups have different traditions in popular music. Typical ethnic Russian musical instruments include the gusli, balalaika, zhaleika and garmoshka. Folk music has had a significant influence on Russian classical composers, and in modern times it is a source of inspiration for a number of popular folk groups, such as Melnitsa. Russian folk songs, as well as Soviet patriotic songs, make up the bulk of the repertoire of the world-famous Red Army Choir and other popular ensembles.
Russians have many traditions, including the banya wash, a hot steam bath that looks a bit like a sauna. Ancient Russian folklore has its roots in the pagan Slavic religion. Many Russian fairy tales and epics have been adapted for animation or feature films by eminent directors such as Alexander Ptushko (Ilya Muromets, Sadko) and Alexander Rou (Morozko, Vasilisa the Beautiful). Russian poets, including Pyotr Yershov and Leonid Filatov, have made a number of well-known poetic interpretations of classic fairy tales and in some cases, as with Alexander Pushkin, have also created quite original and very popular fairy tale poems.
Since the Christianisation of “Kievan Rus” over several centuries, Russian architecture was mainly influenced by Byzantine architecture. Besides the fortifications (Kremlins), the most important stone buildings of ancient Rus’ were the Orthodox churches with their many domes, often gilded or painted in bright colours.
Aristotle Fioravanti and other Italian architects brought Renaissance trends to Russia from the late 15th century onwards, while unique tent churches were built in the 16th century, culminating in St Basil’s Cathedral. By this time, onion-domed construction had also matured. In the 17th century, the “fiery style” of ornamentation flourished in Moscow and Yaroslavl, gradually paving the way for the Naryshkin Baroque of the 1690s. After the reforms of Peter the Great, the development of architectural styles in Russia generally followed that in Western Europe.
The 18th century taste for rococo architecture produced the ornate works of Bartolomeo Rastrelli and his pupils. Under Catherine the Great and her grandson Alexander I, neoclassical architecture flourished, especially in the capital St Petersburg. The second half of the 19th century was dominated by neo-Byzantine and Russian Renaissance. The dominant styles of the 20th century are Art Nouveau, Constructivism and the style of the Stalinist empire.
In 1955, a new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned the “excesses” of the old university architecture, and the end of the Soviet era was dominated by a plain functionalism in architecture. This solved the housing problem somewhat, but created a large number of buildings of low architectural quality that contrasted sharply with the earlier bright styles. The situation has improved in the last two decades. Many temples destroyed during Soviet times have been rebuilt, and this process continues with the restoration of various historical buildings destroyed during the Second World War. Between 1991 and 2010, a total of 23,000 Orthodox churches were rebuilt, effectively quadrupling the number of churches in Russia.
Ancient Russian painting is represented by icons and vivid frescoes, both genres adopted from Byzantium. When Moscow came to power, the Greeks Theophanes, Dionisius and Andrei Rubble became indispensable names associated with a typically Russian art.
The Russian Academy of Arts was founded in 1757 and gave Russian artists an international role and status. Ivan Argunov, Dmitri Levitsky, Vladimir Borovikovsky and other eighteenth-century academicians focused mainly on portraiture. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when neoclassicism and romanticism were flourishing, mythological and biblical themes inspired many important paintings, especially by Karl Briullov and Alexander Ivanov.
In the mid-19th century, the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) group of artists broke away from the academy and founded an art school free of academic restrictions. They were mostly realist painters who captured Russian identity in landscapes of wide rivers, forests and birch glades, but also in powerful genre scenes and robust portraits of their contemporaries. Some artists focused on depicting dramatic moments in Russian history, while others turned to social criticism, depicting the conditions of the poor and caricaturing authority; critical realism flourished during the reign of Alexander II. Among the leading realists were Ivan Shishkin, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Polenov, Isaac Levitan, Vasily Surikov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Ilya Repin and Boris Kustodyev.
At the turn of the 20th century, Symbolist painting emerged, represented by Mikhail Vrubel, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Nicolas Roerich.
The Russian avant-garde was a large and influential wave of modernist art that flourished in Russia from about 1890 to 1930. The term encompasses many separate but inextricably linked artistic movements that emerged during this period, namely Neoprimitivism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Rayism and Russian Futurism. Important artists of this period are El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. From the 1930s onwards, the revolutionary ideas of the avant-garde collided with the new conservative orientation of socialist realism.
Soviet art produced furiously patriotic and anti-fascist works during and after the Great Patriotic War. Numerous war memorials were erected throughout the country, characterised by great restrained solemnity. Soviet artists often combined innovation with socialist realism, including sculptors Vera Mukhina, Yevgeny Vuchetich and Ernst Neizvestny.
Music and dance
Music in 19th century Russia was characterised by the tension between the classical composer Mikhail Glinka and the other members of the Mighty Handful, who embraced Russian national identity and added religious and folk elements to their compositions, and the musically conservative Russian Music Society led by the composers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein. The tradition of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period, was continued in the 20th century by Sergei Rachmaninov. World-famous composers of the 20th century include Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke.
Russian conservatories have produced generations of famous soloists. Among the best known are violinists Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Gidon Kremer and Maxim Vengerov; cellists Mstislav Rostropovitch and Natalia Gutman ; pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Sofronitsky and Evgeny Kissin; and singers Fyodor Shalyapin, Mark Reizen, Elena Obraztsova, Tamara Sinyavskaya, Nina Dorliak, Galina Vishnevskaya, Anna Netrebko and Dmitry Hvorostovsky.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian ballet dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky became famous, and the foreign tours of impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes had a profound influence on the development of dance throughout the world. Soviet ballet maintained the demanding traditions of the 19th century, and the choreographic schools of the Soviet Union produced many internationally renowned stars, including Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg remain world-famous.
Modern Russian rock music has its roots in both Western rock’n’roll and heavy metal and in the traditions of Soviet-era Russian bards like Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava. Among the most popular Russian rock bands are Mashina Vremeni, DDT, Aquarium, Alisa, Kino, Kipelov, Nautilus Pompilius, Aria, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, Splean and Korol i Shut. Russian pop music has evolved from what was known as estrada in Soviet times into an industry in its own right, with some artists such as t.A.T.u., Nu Virgos and Vitas gaining major international recognition.
Literature and Philosophy
In the 18th century, at the time of the Russian Enlightenment, the development of Russian literature was stimulated by the works of Mikhail Lomonosov and Denis Fonvizin. In the early 19th century, a modern indigenous tradition emerged that produced some of the greatest writers in Russian history. This period, also known as the Golden Age of Russian poetry, began with Alexander Pushkin, who is considered the founder of modern Russian literary language and is often referred to as the “Russian Shakespeare”. It continued in the 19th century with the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Nekrasov, the dramas of Alexander Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov, and the prose of Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky have been described by literary critics as the greatest novelists of all time.
By the 1880s, the era of the great novelists was over and short stories and poetry became the dominant genres. The following decades have been called the Silver Age of Russian poetry, in which the literary realism that had prevailed until then was replaced by symbolism. The leading authors of this period included poets such as Valery Bryuzov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Alexander Blok, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, as well as the novelists Leonid Andreev, Ivan Bunin and Maxim Gorky.
Russian philosophy blossomed in the 19th century, when it was initially defined by the opposition between Westerners, who advocated Western political and economic models, and Slavs, who insisted on the development of Russia as a unique civilisation. The latter group included Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontiev, the founders of Eurasianism. In its later development, Russian philosophy was always marked by a deep attachment to literature and an interest in creativity, society, politics and nationalism; Russian cosmism and the philosophy of religion were other important areas. Notable philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Vladimir Soloviev, Sergei Bulgakov and Vladimir Vernadsky.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, many important writers and philosophers left the country, including Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov and Nikolai Berdyaev, while a new generation of talented writers came together to create a specific working-class culture adapted to the new Soviet state. In the 1930s, censorship of literature was increased in line with the policy of socialist realism. In the late 1950s, restrictions on literature were relaxed, and in the 1970s and 1980s writers increasingly ignored official guidelines. Among the leading writers of the Soviet era were the novelists Yevgeny Zamyatin, Yelf and Petrov, Mikhail Bulgakov and Mikhail Sholokhov, as well as the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Vosnesensky.
The Soviet Union was also an important producer of science fiction, written by authors such as Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Kir Bulychov, Alexander Belayev and Ivan Yefremov. The traditions of Russian science fiction and fantasy are carried on today by many writers.
Cinema, Animation and Media
Russian and later Soviet cinema was a hotbed of invention in the period immediately after 1917, leading to world-famous films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein was a student of filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov, who developed the Soviet theory of film editing at the world’s first film school, the Union Film Institute. Dziga Vertov, whose Kino-Glaz (“film eye”) theory, according to which the camera, like the human eye, can best be used to explore real life, had an enormous influence on the development of documentary film and cinematographic realism. The later state policy of socialist realism restricted creativity somewhat; nevertheless, many Soviet films in this style were artistically successful, including Chapaev, The Flying Cranes and Ballad of a Soldier.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a greater variety of artistic styles in Soviet cinema. The comedies of Eldar Ryazanov and Leonid Gaidai from this period were immensely popular, and many of these expressions are still used today. In 1961-68, Sergei Bondarchuk directed the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Leon Tolstoy‘s epic War and Peace, the most expensive film ever made in the Soviet Union. In 1969, Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert was released, a very popular film traditionally watched by cosmonauts before any space voyage.
Russian animation dates back to the end of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet era, the Soyuzmultfilm studio was the largest animation producer. Soviet animators developed a variety of groundbreaking techniques and aesthetic styles, with leading directors such as Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Fyodor Khitruk and Aleksandr Tatarsky. Many Soviet animated heroes such as Russian-style Winnie the Pooh, cute little Cheburachka, Wolf and Rabbit de Nu, Pogodi! are iconic images in Russia and many neighbouring countries.
The late 1980s and 1990s were a time of crisis for Russian cinema and animation. Although Russian filmmakers were free to express themselves, state subsidies were drastically reduced, leading to a decline in film production. The first years of the 21st century brought an increase in audience numbers and subsequent prosperity to the industry thanks to the economic boom. Production levels are already higher than in the UK and Germany. In 2007, total box office receipts in Russia were $565 million, a 37 per cent increase over the previous year. In 2002, Russian Ark was the first feature film to be shot in a single take. The traditions of Soviet animation have recently been developed further by directors such as Aleksandr Petrov and studios such as Melnitsa Animation.
While there were only a few stations or channels in the Soviet era, many new public and private radio and television stations have emerged in the last two decades. In 2005, an English-language public broadcaster, Russia Today TV, began broadcasting, and its Arabic version, Rusiya Al-Yaum, was launched in 2007. Media censorship and freedom in Russia has always been a major issue for the Russian media.
Taking the medal totals of the Soviet Union and Russia together, the country ranks second among all nations in gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Soviet and later Russian athletes were always in the top three in the number of gold medals won at the Summer Olympics. Soviet gymnasts, track and field athletes, weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers, fencers, marksmen, cross-country skiers, biathletes, speed skaters and figure skaters have always been among the best in the world, as have Soviet basketball, handball, volleyball and ice hockey players. The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow, while the 2014 Winter Olympics were held in Sochi.
Although ice hockey was only introduced in the Soviet era, the national team has won gold at almost every Olympic Games and World Championship in which it has participated. Russian players Valery Kharlamov, Sergei Makarov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak hold four of the six positions on the IIHF Team of the Century. Russia has not won the Olympic ice hockey tournament since the unified team took gold in 1992. Most recently, Russia won the 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014 IIHF World Championships. Russia dominated the 2012 tournament, winning all ten games – the first time a team had done so since the Soviet Union in 1989. The most popular sport in Russia is volleyball. Russia’s national men’s volleyball team has won four gold medals at the Olympic Games (1964, 1968, 1980, 2012), six gold medals and two at the FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championships (1949, 1952, 1960, 1962, 1978, 1982). The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) was founded in 2008 as the successor to the Russian Superleague. It is considered a rival of the National Hockey League (NHL) and has been number one in Europe and number two in the world since 2009. It is an international professional ice hockey league in Eurasia and consists of 29 teams, 21 of which are based in Russia and 7 others in Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Finland, Slovakia, Croatia and China.
Bandy, also known as Russian hockey, is another traditionally popular ice sport. The Soviet Union won all the men’s bandy world championships between 1957 and 1979 and several more after that. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was always one of the most successful teams and won many world championships.
Club football is one of the most popular sports in modern Russia. The Soviet national team became the first ever European champions by winning the Euro 1960. Lev Yashin, who played in four FIFA World Cups from 1958 to 1970, is considered one of the greatest goalkeepers in football history and was selected for the FIFA World Cup Dream Team. The Soviet national team reached the final of Euro 1988. In 1956 and 1988, the Soviet Union won gold at the Olympic football tournament. The Russian clubs CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. The Russian national football team reached the semi-finals at Euro 2008, losing only to eventual winners Spain. Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. 11 venues are located in the European part of the country and in the Ural region.
In 2007, the Russian national basketball team won the European Basketball Championship. The Russian basketball club PBC CSKA Moscow is one of the best teams in Europe and won the Euroleague in 2006 and 2008.
Larisa Latynina, who currently holds the record for most Olympic gold medals won by a woman (and held the record for most Olympic medals won per person from 1964 to 2012, when swimmer Michael Phelps replaced her record), established the USSR as the dominant force in gymnastics for many years. Today, Russia is the leading nation in rhythmic gymnastics with Yevgeniya Kanaeva. Russian synchronised swimming is the best in the world, with almost all gold medals at Olympic Games and World Championships won by Russians in recent decades. Figure skating is another popular sport in Russia, especially pairs skating and ice dancing. With the exception of 2010, a Soviet or Russian pair has won gold at every Olympics since 1964.
Since the end of the Soviet era, tennis has grown in popularity and Russia has produced a number of famous female players, including Maria Sharapova, the highest-paid female athlete in the world. In martial arts, Russia has produced the sport of sambo and famous fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko. Chess is a very popular pastime in Russia; Russian grandmasters have organised the World Chess Championship almost continuously since 1927.
The 2014 Winter Olympics took place in Sochi in the south of Russia. Russia won the most medals among the participating nations with 13 gold, 11 silver and 9 bronze for a total of 33 medals. Commentators rated the Games as an overall success.
Formula 1 is also becoming increasingly popular in Russia. In 2010, Vitaly Petrov from Vyborg was the first Russian to race in Formula 1, quickly followed by a second in 2014, Daniil Kvyat from Ufa. There had only been two Russian Grand Prix (1913 and 1914), but the Russian Grand Prix returned in 2014 as part of the Formula One season under a six-year contract.