Russian Culture

Russia's cultural history is multifaceted, encompassing both the distinct patterns of the rural peasantry and the intricate social rituals of the aristocracy, the mercantile caste, the bureaucracy and other groups. Russia's thousand-year history of class stratification, imperial growth and contraction, political consolidation and disintegration, repression and relaxation, has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of Russian national culture. Russia is world famous for achievements in two cultural areas, literature and music, both of which had their golden ages in the 19th century. It also has a long tradition of excellence in terms of music, ballet and architecture.

The first great Russian writer, known as the Father of Russian Literature, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) sits at the pinnacle of Russian literature. Russians consider him not only their greatest poet but the greatest of all their writers in any genre. Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) contributed innovations in both poetic and prose genres. Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is accepted as the originator of modern realistic Russian prose. The best prose writers of the Age of Realism were Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883, Fedor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Because of the enduring quality of their combination of pure literature with eternal philosophical questions, the last two are accepted as Russia's premier prose artists. The major literary figure in the last decade of the 19th century was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), who wrote in two genres: the short story and drama. His plays The Cherry Orchard (1904), The Seagull (1898), Uncle Vanya (1897) and The Three Sisters (1901) continue to be performed worldwide.

Besides their great body of serious literature and their ephemeral popular literature, Russians have a world of folk literature in the form of fairy tales or skazki. Writers like Pushkin drew on these tales for inspiration as did such composers as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). In the 19th century, many of these tales were collected by Alexander Afanasyev (1826-1871). It is estimated that the total number of tales available for collection was actually in the thousands.

The father of Russian classical music was Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), who set the pattern for golden age music by combining elements borrowed from Western music with Russian folk music, church music and Russian stories to create a new form of music that fits well within the Western tradition but was at the same time distinctly Russian in content. His best operas, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820) and A Life for the Tsar (1836), are considered pioneering works in the establishment of Russian national music. In the second half of the 19th century, a group of composers that came to be known as the "Mighty Five" - Miliy Balakirev (1837-1910), Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1887), César Cui (1835-1918), Modest Musorgskiy (1839-1881) and Rimsky-Korsakov - continued Glinka's movement. The Mighty Five challenged the Russian Music Society's conservatism with a large body of work thematically based on Russia's history and legends.

Russia has made a unique contribution to the development of ballet. The first ballet school was established in 1734 and the first full ballet company was founded at the Imperial School of Ballet in St Petersburg in the 1740s. The most influential figure of the early 20th century was the impresario Sergey Diaghilev (1872-1929). The Bol'shoy Theater in Moscow and the Kirov Theater in St Petersburg are world renowned. Russian ballet stars include Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) and Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950).

Iconic architectural symbols of Russia include the domes of Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral. Photographs of St Basil's and many other churches and cathedrals adorn homes, offices and tourism images. Moscow's Red Square, including St Basil's, the tall red towers of the Kremlin and Lenin's Mausoleum continue to attract tourists. In terms of Russian cuisine, bread symbolizes central aspects of the national self-image. It is the mark of hospitality, as in the ritual of khleb-sol. Key ingredients of traditional cuisine include potatoes, bread, eggs, meat and cabbage.

Russian conversation is rich with metaphors and proverbs, summarizing a complex view of shared identity. Russians think of the soul (dusha) as an internal spiritual conjunction of heart, mind and culture. Friendship depends on a meeting of souls, accomplished through shared suffering and joy, or by feasting and drinking. The soul is said to be one of the metaphysical mechanisms that unite Russians into a people (narod).

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Culture and Customs of Russia
Sydney Schultze.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Russia Imagined: Art, Culture and National Identity, 1840-1995
Robert C. Williams.
Peter Lang, 1999
Russian Traditional Culture: Religion, Gender, and Customary Law
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer.
M.E. Sharpe, 1992
The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia
Sheila Fitzpatrick.
Cornell University Press, 1992
Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940
Catriona Kelly; David Shepherd.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Russian Culture at the Crossroads: Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness
Dmitri N. Shalin.
Westview Press, 1996
Women and Russian Culture: Projections and Self- Perceptions
Rosalind Marsh.
Berghahn Books, 1998
Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika
Nancy Ries.
Cornell University Press, 1997
The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture
Nicolai N. Petro.
Harvard University Press, 1997
Patriotic Culture in Russia during World War I
Hubertus F. Jahn.
Cornell University Press, 1995
Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part I: The Restless Dead, Wizards and Spirit Beings
Warner, Elizabeth A.
Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 1, April 2000
Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part II: Death in Natural Circumstances
Warner, Elizabeth A.
Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 2, October 2000
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