Russian Culture

Russian Culture

From Ancient Rus to modern Russia

Russian culture is an invaluable piece of the country’s intangible heritage, combining traditions from Russia’s various ethnic groups, sub-cultures and worldviews while reflecting its complex history and diverse geographical features.

Certain elements of present-day Russian culture have their roots in pagan times. Genres of folklore, selected holiday rituals and even details of traditional embroidery, for example, can be traced back to the country’s pre-Christian era.

Over the centuries, the development of Russian culture was heavily influenced by its geographical location between East and West. Its seemingly limitless and diverse landscape is conveyed in both artistic and literary works as artists and writers sought to portray the reality of Russia, a reality that could vary greatly depending on the region. Thanks to its vast territory and the evolution of its civilizations over time, Russia has become the homeland for diverse nationalities whose traditions meshed with the existing culture, gradually reshaping and transforming it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to the development of modern-day Russia’s cultural richness.

Today, the far-reaching influence of Russian culture can be seen, among other areas, in its overwhelming contribution to the arts. The names of prominent Russian cultural figures - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Pushkin, Akhmatova – have become household names the world over. The works of numerous Russian writers have been translated into countless languages, and Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are the most popular ballets of all time.

Yet how exactly did the development of Russian culture begin? What changes has it undergone with the passing of time? How is Russian culture expressed today? To answer these questions, we first must step back in time...

The evolution of Russian culture can be divided into five phases:

  1. Culture of Ancient Russia — In the 10th century, Kievan Rus came under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. The advent of Christianity had a major influence on the local people’s way of life, and this was reflected in the development of architecture, traditions, and literature. After the Mongol invasion, the Byzantine culture began to lose ground and part of the legacy of the previous period was lost forever. The new administrative system was based on principles that differed from Western European ones.
  2. Russian culture in the 13th to 17th centuries — This phase in the development of Russian culture is referred to as the period of Muscovite Russia. The territory, which for many centuries was fragmented, merged into a single state with its centre in Muscovy. During this period the Moscow Kremlin was built and the painting of churches with frescoes revived. Painters again turned to Byzantine culture and formed a school of Russian icon painting. One of the most famous painters of frescoes and icons in this period was Andrei Rublev.
  3. Culture of Imperial Russia — Peter the Great’s reforms opened Russia to Western European influences. The Age of Enlightenment highlighted the value of human beings and the need for education and holistic development. A lively debate began between supporters of Slavic culture and fans of the Western lifestyle. Together they searched for a balance between the two cultures and determined how Russia should develop while maintaining its national identity and traditional values. During this period the foundations of the Russian literary language were formed, and the great Russian classics were written. With a focus on preserving history and educating people, museums began to develop.
  4. Russian culture as part of the Soviet Union — Under the influence of Soviet power, Russian culture changed significantly. With the advent of the Bolsheviks, many creative and scientific figures of tsarist Russia emigrated to Europe. Repression claimed the lives of prominent members of the intelligentsia. Soviet power resolutely got rid of the remnants of the past, destroying many artefacts of church life. At the same time, the Communists worked to eliminate illiteracy, making education free and compulsory for everyone. A new intellectual and creative elite emerged, literary classics of the Soviet era appeared, and theatre, cinema, and other forms of art developed.
  5. Russian culture in modern times — After the collapse of the Soviet Union, financial support for many research institutes and cultural institutions declined. People moved into commercial areas and social inequality increased. The vacuum that arose as a result of the crisis of the Communist system was filled by Western values – in particular, individualism. Many people turned to religion, the Orthodox Church began to revive, and new churches were built. Television and cinema have had a great influence on the minds of people and, as in other countries, electronic media are now replacing print media.
Lapti - Old-time Russian Shoes
Model of the Russian Hut, Russian Culture
Traditional Russian Clothes, Culture of Russia

Painting

For a long time, Russian painting was limited to religious icons. Each of the famous masters had his own style – the icons of Andrei Rublev were very different from those created by Theophanes the Greek, for example. During Peter the Great’s reign, western techniques entered Russia and Russian artists started to paint landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. By the beginning of the 20th century, Russian landscape paintings conveyed not only the beauty of nature, but also the artist’s state of mind. In the early 20th century, the trends of modernism and avant-garde flourished. For example, the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich created a new style of abstract art – Suprematism – that focused on simple shapes and colours rather than depicting a scene, landscape, or person. This new style was reflected in Malevich’s iconic painting, “Black Square”. Read more...

Painting, Culture of Russia
Painting, Culture of Russia
Painting, Culture of Russia

Literature

An important part of Russian culture is the country’s literary heritage. The works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Pushkin, and Griboyedov have been translated into many different languages. Characteristic features of Russian literature include in-depth descriptions of heroes’ emotional experiences, picturesque and evocative descriptions of natural landscapes, and studies of the inner worlds of human beings. The “silver age” of Russian poetry in the late 19th century and early 20th century yielded beautiful works by poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Sergei Yesenin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alexander Blok, and Valery Bryusov. Literary works produced during the Soviet era have also had an enduring impact on Russian culture, with writers such as Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Vladimir Vysotsky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko known across the world. Read more...

Theatre

Russia is world-famous for its ballet, a unique school of dance art that has become the hallmark of the country. It’s not surprising that so many visitors to Russia want to attend a ballet performance. Yet few people know that the history of Russian theatre originates in festivities and performances in public squares, with clowns/jesters having founded Russia’s theatrical culture. Read more...

Sculpture

The genre of sculpture developed unevenly in Russia. The Slavs carved wooden and stone idols that symbolised different elements or spirits. After the advent of Christianity, the art of creating such sculptures almost died out due to the ban on idolatry in Orthodox Russian culture. However, the genre developed in the form of bas-reliefs and the design of building façades. The practice of sculpture took off again in earnest during the reforms of Peter the Great, when much was adopted from the Western European style. Significant attention was paid to sculpture in the Soviet era, with leaders and public figures honoured and immortalised in marble, stone, bronze, or plaster. Read more...

Lion - a Popular Sculpture in St. Petersburg, Culture of Russia
Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russian Culture
Famous Sculptures - Motherland Calls, Pushkin, Peter the Great, Culture of Russia

Music

Russian music has evolved from simple folk songs to complex symphonic compositions. Russian classical music combines volume, artistic depth, lightness, and dramatic character. The works of the great Russian composers Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov are regularly performed in major theatres around the world. Compositions from Tchaikovsky’s ballets “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake” are immediately recognisable. Read more...

Cinema

Russia’s modern cinematic culture is often guided by Western films. At the same time, cult Russian films are distinguished by their unique style, storylines, and acting. Despite the strained relationship between the Soviet Union and the West, some films from the Soviet school of cinematography won prestigious awards at international competitions. Read more...

Russian Cinema
Russian Cinema
Russian Cinema

Traditional men’s clothing

The clothes of the Slavs, like those of many ancient peoples, protected the wearer in both a physical sense (from the elements) and a symbolic sense (for example, from the evil eye). Traditional men’s clothing was simpler than women’s, consisting of a loose linen shirt, canvas trousers, and a belt. In Russian culture, the belt was an indispensable attribute of “human” clothing. According to the Slavs, only evil spirits and the dead did not wear a belt. To protect a man from evil spirits and give him courage and clarity, various amulets were embroidered on clothes. The embroidery was usually on the collar and, of course, the belt. Read more...

Traditional women's clothing

From looking at the clothes worn by a Slavic woman, it was possible to determine her geographic origin, marital status, and age. Each element had a hidden meaning. For example, a girl of marriageable age wore two braids, a married woman wore one braid, and a widow could wear her hair loose and her head uncovered. Women’s clothing consisted of multiple layers. The sarafan, or pinafore dress, played a special role. The cut of this traditional garment varied depending on the region. Read more...