The Russian People
Among the diverse people you might encounter in the world’s biggest country are a Nenets reindeer herder in Siberia, a marketing executive in Moscow, an imam in Kazan or a Buddhist Buryat taxi driver in Ulan-Ude. Within the Russian Federation, one’s ‘nationality’ refers to one’s ethnicity rather than one’s passport – and Russia has dozens of nationalities. Despite such enormous ethnic and cultural variation, there is much that Russian citizens have in common.
Over the last century Russia has gone from a country of peasants living in villages to a highly urban nation with close to three quarters of its 144.5 million population living in cities and towns. Rural communities are left to wither, with thousands of villages deserted or dying.
Russia is facing an alarming natural decline in its population, around 0.5% per year. It's estimated that by 2050 the population could have plummeted to 111 million, a 30% decrease on current figures. The main reasons for this are a high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions and a low level of immigration.
Since 2011 the government has spent over a trillion roubles on projects to reverse this trend, including making large cash payouts to women who have more than two children, providing free land to families with three children or more, as well as increased child benefits and more affordable housing for young people. Harking back to a post-WWII Soviet policy, the government also resumed dishing out medals to ‘heroic mothers’ who have babies for Russia.
In 1920 Russia became the first country in the world to legalise abortion, and since then, it has remained the most popular form of birth control, with women allowed to terminate up to the 12th week of pregnancy. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, 1.2 million Russian women choose to terminate their pregnancies each year and 30,000 of them become sterile, many from the estimated 180,000 illegal abortions. In its investigation, the news agency also found several Moscow clinics offering discounts for abortions on International Women’s Day.
In 2016 the government came under pressure to change the law when Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Christian Orthodox Church, signed a petition calling for a ban on abortion as well as on assisted reproduction and contraceptives with abortive effects.
There can be a vast difference in the quality of life of urban and rural Russians. The modern developments of Moscow and other major cities are far from the norm, with many areas of the country seemingly little changed from the days of the USSR.
That said, some common features of contemporary life across Russia stand out, such as Soviet-era flats, dachas (summer country houses), education and weekly visits to the banya (bathhouse). Cohabitation remains less common than in the West, so when young couples get together, they get married just as often as not.
As the economy has improved so too has the average Russian’s lifestyle, with more people than ever before owning a car, a computer and a mobile phone, and taking holidays abroad. The lives of Russian teenagers today couldn’t be more different from those of their parents and grandparents, who within living memory endured shortages of all kinds of goods on top of the ideology of Soviet communism. It’s not uncommon to come across young adults who have only the vaguest, if any, idea about Lenin or Stalin.
This is balanced against the memories of those who knew the former Soviet leaders only too well and are now suffering as the social safety net that the state once provided for them has been largely withdrawn.
Apartments & Dachas
For the vast majority of urban Russians, home is within a Soviet-vintage, drab, ugly housing complex. Many of these were built during the late 1950s and early 1960s when Khrushchev was in power, so are known as Khrushchevkas (or sometimes khrushchoby, for Khrushchev, and trushchoby, or slums). Meant to last just a couple of decades, they are very dilapidated on the outside, while the insides, though cramped, are invariably cosy and prettily decorated.
While there’s usually a play area for kids in the middle of apartment blocks, they don’t typically come with attached gardens. Instead, something like a third of Russian families have a small dacha (summer country house). Often little more than a bare-bones hut (but sometimes quite luxurious), these retreats offer Russians refuge from city life, and as such figure prominently in the national psyche.
One of the most important aspects of dacha life is gardening. Families use this opportunity to grow all manner of vegetables and fruits to eat over the winter. Flowers also play an important part in creating the proper dacha ambience, and even among people who have no need to grow food, the contact with the soil provides an important balm for the Russian soul.
For centuries, travellers to Russia have commented on the particular (and in many people’s eyes, peculiar) traditions of the banya, which is somewhat like a bathhouse or sauna. To this day, Russians make it an important part of their week, and you can’t say you’ve really been to Russia unless you’ve visited one.
The main element of the banya is the parilka (steam room). Here, rocks are heated by a furnace and water poured onto them using a long-handled ladle. Often a few drops of eucalyptus or pine oil (and sometimes even beer) are added to the water, creating a scent in the burst of scalding steam released into the room. After this, some people grab hold of a venik (a tied bundle of birch branches) and lightly beat themselves, or each other, with it. It does appear sadomasochistic, and there are theories tying the practice to other masochistic elements of Russian culture. Despite the mild sting, the effect is pleasant and cleansing: apparently, the birch leaves (or sometimes oak or, agonisingly, juniper branches) and their secretions help rid the skin of toxins.
The banya tradition is deeply ingrained in the Russian culture that emerged from the ancient Viking settlement of Novgorod, with the Kyivan Slavs making fun of their northern brothers for all that steamy whipping. In folk traditions, it has been customary for the bride and groom to take separate bani with their friends the night before the wedding, with the banya itself the bridge to marriage. Husband and wife would also customarily bathe together after the ceremony, and midwives used to administer a steam bath to women during delivery. (It was not uncommon to give a hot birch minimassage to the newborn.) The banya, in short, is a place for physical and moral purification. For more about the design and health benefits of the banya, see http://russian-bath.com.
During any trip to Russia you can’t help but notice the number of people getting hitched, particularly on Friday and Saturday when the registry offices (Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya, shortened to ZAGS) are open for business. Wedding parties are particularly conspicuous, as they tear around town in convoys of cars making lots of noise and having their photos taken at the official beauty and historical spots. A relatively new tradition (imported from Italy) is for a couple to place a lock inscribed with their names on a bridge and throw away the key into the river below.
Church weddings are fairly common; the Russian Orthodox variety go on for ages, especially for the best friends who have to hold crowns above the heads of the bride and the groom during the whole ceremony. For a marriage to be officially registered, though, all couples need to get a stamp in their passports at a ZAGS. Most ZAGS offices are drab Soviet buildings with a ceremonial hall designed like a modern Protestant church less the crucifix. There are also dvortsy brakosochetaniy (purpose-built wedding palaces) – a few are in actual old palaces of extraordinary elegance.
After the couple and two witnesses from both sides sign some papers, the bride and the groom exchange rings (which in the Orthodox tradition are worn on the right hand) and the registrar pronounces them husband and wife. The witnesses each wear a red sash around their shoulders with the word ‘witness’ written on it in golden letters. The groom’s best man takes care of all tips and other payments, since it’s traditional for the groom not to spend a single kopek (smallest unit of Russian currency) during the wedding. Another tradition is that the bride’s mother does not attend the wedding ceremony, although she does go to the party.
From its beginning as an agrarian society in which literacy was limited to the few in the upper classes, the USSR achieved a literacy rate of 98% – among the best in the world. Russia continues to benefit from this legacy. Russian schools emphasise basics such as reading and mathematics, and the high literacy rate has been maintained. Many students go on to university and men can delay or avoid the compulsory national service by doing so.
Technical subjects such as science and mathematics are valued, and bright students are encouraged to specialise in a particular area from a young age. However, several studies have found that teachers are among the country’s worst bribe-takers. Higher education is the most corrupt sphere, with bribes taken for admission to universities, exams and degrees.
Over 195 different ethnic groups are designated as nationalities in Russia – a result of the country’s development through imperial expansion, forced movements and migration over many thousands of years. On paper, the USSR’s divide-and-rule politics promoted awareness of ethnic ‘national’ identities. However, the drawing of ethnic boundaries was often arbitrary and designed to make each of the designated groups dependent on the Soviet state for their very identity.
With Sovietisation came a heavy dose of Slavic influence. Most native peoples have adopted Russian dress and diet, particularly those who live in the bigger towns and cities.
Russia’s biggest minority is the Tatars (3.9% of the population according to the 2010 census), who are descended from the Mongol-Tatar armies of Chinggis (Genghis) Khaan and his successors, and from earlier Hunnic, Turkic and Finno-Ugric settlers on the middle Volga. From around the 13th century, the Tatars started moving out of Siberia towards the European side of Russia, a process that sped up as Cossack forces conquered their way eastwards from the 16th century.
Today the Tatars are mostly Muslim, and about two million of them form nearly half the population of the Tatarstan Republic, the capital of which is Kazan. A couple more million or so Tatars live in other parts of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Chuvash & Bashkirs
You’ll encounter the Chuvash and Baskhir minority groups in the middle Volga region. The Chuvash, descendants of Turkic pre-Mongol settlers in the region, are mainly Orthodox Christian and form a majority (around 68% of the population) in the Chuvash Republic, immediately west of the Tatarstan Republic. The capital is Cheboksary (also known as Shupashkar).
The Muslim Bashkirs have Turkic roots. About half of them live in the Republic of Bashkortostan (capital: Ufa), where they are outnumbered by both Russians and Tatars. After the fall of Kazan in 1555, the Bashkirs ‘voluntarily’ aligned themselves with Russia. But various conflicts and rebellions subsequently broke out and it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that Russian troops achieved full pacification of the area.
In central and Northern European Russia, there are several major groups of Finno-Ugric peoples, distant relatives of the Estonians, Hungarians and Finns:
- Orthodox or Muslim Mordvins, a quarter of whom live in the Republic of Mordovia (capital Saransk)
- Udmurts or Votyaks, predominantly Orthodox, two-thirds of whom live in Udmurtia (capital Izhevsk)
- Mari, with an animist/shamanist religion, nearly half of whom live in Mary-El (capital Yoshkar-Ola)
- Komi, who are Orthodox, most of whom live in the Komi Republic (capital Syktyvkar)
- Karelians, found in the Republic of Karelia, north of St Petersburg
- Sami, also known as Laps or Laplanders, mainly in the Kola Peninsula.
Finno-Ugric people are also found in Asian Russia. The Khanty, also known as the Ostyak, were the first indigenous people encountered by 11th-century Novgorodian explorers as they came across the Ural Mountains. Along with the related Mansi or Voguls, many live in the swampy Khanty-Mansisk Autonomous District on the middle Ob River, north of Tobolsk.
Peoples of the Caucasus
The Russian northern Caucasus is a real ethnic jigsaw of at least 19 local nationalities including the Abaza and Adygeya (both also known as the Circassians), Chechens, Kabardians, Lezgians and Ossetians. Several of these peoples have been involved in ethnic conflicts in recent years.
Dagestan, which means ‘mountain country’ in Turkish, is an ethnographic wonder, populated by no fewer than 81 ethnic groups of different origins speaking 30 mostly endemic languages.
Together with the Dagestani, Ingush and other groups in the northwest Caucasus, Chechens are known in Russia by the common name gortsy (highlanders). Academic experts on the highly independent gortsy note how they continue to live by strict codes of honour and revenge, with clan-oriented blood feuds not uncommon even today. Most of the gortsy are Sunni Muslims, although the Salafist version of Islam has become popular in recent years.
Turkic peoples in the region include the Kumyk and Nogay in Dagestan, and the Karachay and Balkar in the western and central Caucasus.
Peoples of Siberia & the Russian Far East
More than 30 indigenous Siberian and Russian Far East peoples now make up less than 5% of the region’s total population. The most numerous groups are the ethnic Mongol Buryats, the Yakuts or Sakha, Tuvans, Khakass and Altai. While each of these has a distinct Turkic-rooted language and their ‘own’ republic within the Russian Federation, only the Tuvans form a local majority.
Among the smaller groups are the Evenki, also called the Tungusi, spread widely but very thinly throughout Siberia. Related tribes include the Evens, scattered around the northeast but found mainly in Kamchatka, and the Nanai in the lower Amur River Basin; it’s possible to visit some Nanai villages near Khabarovsk and Komosomolsk-na-Amure.
The Arctic hunter-herder Nenets, who number around 35,000, are the most numerous of the 25 ‘Peoples of the North’. Together with three smaller groups they are called the Samoyed, though the name is not very popular because it means ‘self-eater’ in Russian – a person who wears himself out physically and psychologically.
The Chukchi and Koryaks are the most numerous of six Palaeo-Siberian peoples of the far northeast, with languages that don’t belong in any larger category. Their Stone Age forebears, who crossed the Bering Strait ice to the USA and Greenland, may also be remote ancestors of the Native Americans, Eskimos, Aleuts and the Oroks of Sakhalin Island.
Feature: Interacting with Locals
Yes, some Russians can be miserable, uncooperative and guarded in their initial approach to strangers. However, with most people hospitality typically flows with extraordinary generosity. Visitors can find themselves regaled with stories, drowned in vodka and stuffed full of food. This can be especially true outside the big cities, where you’ll meet locals determined to share everything they have with you, however meagre their resources.
There’s a similar bipolarity in the Russian sense of humour. Unsmiling gloom and fatalistic melancholy remain archetypically Russian, but, as in Britain, this is often used as a foil to a deadpan, sarcastic humour. You’ll also see this contradiction in Russians’ attitudes towards their country. They love it deeply and will sing the praises of Mother Russia’s great contributions to the arts and sciences, its long history and abundant physical attributes, then just as loudly point out its many failures.
The extreme side of this patriotism can manifest itself in an unpleasant streak of racism. Don’t let it put you off, and take heart in the knowledge that as much as foreigners may be perplexed about the true nature of the Russian soul, the locals themselves still haven’t got it figured out either. As the poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803–73) said, ‘You can’t understand Russia with reason…you can only believe in her.’
Feature: Racism in Russia
Russia’s constitution gives courts the power to ban groups inciting hatred or intolerant behaviour. Unfortunately, racist abuse and xenophobia remain a fact of life in this multiethnic nation. It's not uncommon to hear Central Asians and Caucasians referred to by the derogatory churki and khachi, Ukrainians khokhly and Jews zhidy. Even supposedly 'liberal' elements of Russian society can come out with shockingly racist remarks: anticorruption activist and opposition politician Alexey Navalny has frequently stated that half of all violent crimes in Russia are committed by immigrants – even though this figure is disputed.
Racial abuse of black African players in the nation's professional soccer leagues refuses to go away; in 2012 a petition from the largest fan group of Zenit, a St Petersburg-based team, demanded that the club exclude black players.
To their credit, Zenit enlisted a local ad agency to help change fans' attitudes. A clever cartoon video was created featuring the national Russian icon Pushkin – who had an Ethiopian great grandfather and was notably swarthy in skin colour.
Attitudes are broadening among younger and more affluent Russians as, for first time in the nation’s history, large numbers of people are being exposed to life outside the country. Under communism people were rarely allowed to venture abroad – now they are doing so in droves. Today over 20 million Russians travel abroad each year, compared to 2.6 million in 1995. The result, apart from a fad for the exotic – whether it’s Turkish pop music or qalyans (hookahs) in restaurants – is a greater tolerance and better understanding of other cultures.
Feature: Banya Rituals
Follow these tips to blend in with the locals at the banya:
- Bring a thermos of tea mixed with jam, spices and heaps of sugar. A few bottles of beer and some dried fish also do nicely, although at the better bani, food and drink are available.
- Strip down in the sex-segregated changing room, wishing ‘Lyogkogo (pronounced lyokh-ka-va) para!’ to other bathers (meaning something like ‘May your steam be easy!’), then head off into the parilka.
- After the birch-branch thrashing (best experienced lying down on a bench, with someone else administering the ‘beating’), run outside and either plunge into the basseyn (ice-cold pool) or take a cold shower.
- Stagger back into the changing room, wishing fellow bathers ‘S lyogkim parom!’ (Hope your steam was easy!).
- Wrap yourself in a sheet and discuss world issues before repeating the process – most banya aficionados go through the motions about five to 10 times over a two-hour period.
Sidebar: Russkiy Mir
Russkiy Mir (www.russkiymir.ru) is a Russian government-sponsored organisation to preserve and promote the Russian language and culture throughout the world.
Moscow is Europe's largest city with a population of 12.4 million. Add in the city’s unregistered residents and the real figure is likely as high as 18 million, according to experts. In contrast, 6400 villages disappeared between the 2002 and 2010 censuses, as their populations dwindled to zero.
Sidebar: Poverty & AIDS
The results of studies carried out by the UN Development Programme in Russia (www.undp.ru/?iso=RU) covers issues such as poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS and democratic governance.
Sidebar: Irony of Fate
A scene in a banya kicks off the comedy Irony of Fate (Ironiya Sudby ili s Legkim Parom, 1975) directed by Eldar Ryazanov, a much-loved movie screened on TV every New Year’s Eve.
Russia has one of the highest rates of divorce of any country in the world, with one in every two marriages ending in legal separation.
Sidebar: Racism Reports
The Moscow-based human rights group SOVA Center (www.sova-center.ru) issues regular reports on racism and xenophobia in Russia. In 2016 they found that such attacks resulted in seven deaths and at least 69 injuries.
Sidebar: Siberia & Alaska
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (https://naturalhistory.si.edu/arctic/features/croads) in Washington, DC, provides a virtual exhibition on the native peoples of Siberia and Alaska.
Sidebar: Ethnic Groups
Both the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (www.unpo.org; UNPO) and the Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire (www.eki.ee/books/redbook) contain profiles of more than 80 different ethnic groups found in the lands currently or once ruled by Russia.
Sidebar: The Shaman’s Coat
Anna Reid’s The Shaman’s Coat is both a fascinating history of the major native peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East and a lively travelogue.
Sidebar: Best Bani
- Sanduny Baths (Moscow)
- Degtyarniye Baths (St Petersburg)
- Helio Spa (Suzdal)
- Banya Museum (Ust-Barguzin)
- Basninskiye Bani (Irkutsk)
Sidebar: Jonathan Dimbleby
The BBC series Russia – A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby is a revealing snapshot of a multifaceted country by one of the UK's top broadcasters.
Russia adopted Christianity under Prince Vladimir of Kyiv in AD 988 after centuries of following animist beliefs. Since 1997 the Russian Orthodox Church (Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov) has been legally recognised as the leading faith and has resumed its prolific role in public life, just as it had in tsarist days. However, Russia is also a multiconfessional state with sizeable communities of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews and a constitution enshrining religious freedom.
Russian Orthodox Church
This highly traditional religion is so central to Russian life that understanding something about its history and practices will enhance any of the inevitable visits you’ll make to a Russian Orthodox Church.
Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and All Russia is head of the Church. The patriarch’s residence is Moscow’s Danilovsky Monastery while the city’s senior church is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The Church’s senior bishops bear the title metropolitan.
History of the Orthodox Church
The birth of the Russian Orthodox Church dates to AD 988 when Vladimir I adopted Christianity from Constantinople (Istanbul today), the eastern centre of Christianity in the Middle Ages. The church flourished until 1653 when it was split by the reforms of Patriarch Nikon who insisted, among other things, that the translation of the Bible be altered to conform with the Greek original and that the sign of the cross be made with three fingers, not two.
Even though Nikon was subsequently sacked by Tsar Alexey, his reforms were adopted and those who refused to accept them became known as Starovery (Old Believers) and were persecuted. Some fled to Siberia or remote parts of Central Asia, where in the 1980s one group was found who had never heard of electricity, Lenin or the revolution. Only between 1771 and1827, 1905 and 1918, and in recent decades have Old Believers had real freedom of worship.
Peter the Great replaced the self-governing patriarchate with a holy synod subordinate to the tsar, who effectively became head of the church. When the Bolsheviks came to power Russia had over 50,000 churches. Atheism was vigorously promoted and Stalin attempted to wipe out religion altogether until 1941, when he decided the war effort needed the patriotism that the church could stir up. Nikita Khrushchev renewed the attack in the 1950s, closing about 12,000 churches. By 1988 fewer than 7000 churches were active and many of the priests allowed still to practice were in the pay of the KGB.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has seen a huge revival. Many new churches have been built and many old churches and monasteries – which had been turned into museums, archive stores and even prisons – have been returned to church hands and are being restored.
Decor & Services
Churches are decorated with frescoes, mosaics and icons with the aim of conveying Christian teachings and assisting veneration. Different subjects are assigned traditional places in the church (the Last Judgement, for instance, appears on the western wall). The central focus is always an iconostasis (icon stand), often elaborately decorated. The iconostasis divides the main body of the church from the sanctuary, or altar area, at the eastern end, which is off limits to all but the priest.
Apart from some benches to the sides, there are no chairs or pews in Orthodox churches; people stand during services such as the Divine Liturgy (Bozhestvennaya Liturgia), lasting about two hours, which is held daily any time between 7am and 10am. Most churches also hold services at 5pm or 6pm daily. Some services include an akafist, a series of chants to the Virgin or saints.
Services are conducted not in Russian but ‘Church Slavonic’, the Southern Slavic dialect into which the Bible was first translated for Slavs. Paskha (Easter) is the focus of the Church year, with festive midnight services launching Easter Day.
Other Christian Churches
Russia has small numbers of Roman Catholics, and Lutheran and Baptist Protestants, mostly among the German, Polish and other non-Russian ethnic groups. Communities of Old Believers still survive in Siberia, where you may also encounter followers of Vissarion, considered by his followers to be a living, modern-day Jesus.
According to a 2007 US government report on religious freedom, Russian courts have tried to use the 1997 religion law (asserting the Orthodox Church’s leading role) to ban or impose restrictions on the Pentecostal Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority Christian faiths.
In its ‘freedom of conscience’ report for 2007 the SOVA Center found that ‘nontraditional’ religious organisations in Russia faced ‘serious difficulties’ in relation to the construction of buildings or leasing of facilities.
Islam is Russia’s second-most widely professed religion and experts believe it is practised by as many as 9.4 million people. There are many more millions who are Muslims by ethnicity. They are mainly found among the Tatar and Bashkir peoples east of Moscow and a few dozen of the Caucasian ethnic groups. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims, except for some Shi’a in Dagestan. Muslim Kazakhs, a small minority in southeast Altai, are the only long-term Islamic group east of Bashkortostan.
Muslim history in Russia goes back more than 1000 years. In the dying days of tsarist Russia, Muslims even had their own faction in the duma (parliament). The Islamic Cultural Centre of Russia, which includes a madrasa (college for Islamic learning), opened in Moscow in 1991.
Some Muslim peoples – notably the Chechens and Tatars – have been the most resistant of Russia’s minorities to being brought within the Russian national fold since the fall of the Soviet Union, but this has been due as much to nationalism as to religion. In an apparent effort to ease tensions between the state and Muslim communities following the war in Chechnya, Russia became a member of the influential Organisation of Islamic Conferences in 2003.
Islam in Russia is fairly secularised – in predominantly Muslim areas you’ll find women who are not veiled, for example, although many will wear headscarves; also, the Friday holy day is not a commercial holiday. Few local Muslims seriously abide by Islam’s ban on drinking alcohol.
There are around 1.5 million Buddhists in Russia, a figure that has been growing steadily in the years since glasnost, when Buddhist organisations became free to reopen temples and monasteries.
The Kalmyks – the largest ethnic group in the Republic of Kalmykia, northwest of the Caspian Sea – are traditionally members of the Gelugpa or ‘Yellow Hat’ sect of Tibetan Buddhism, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama. They fled from wars in western Mongolia, where Buddhism had reached them not long before, to their present region in the 17th century.
The Gelugpa sect reached eastern Buryatiya and Tuva via Mongolia in the 18th century, but only really took root in the 19th century. As with other religions, Stalin did his best to wipe out Buddhism in the 1930s, destroying hundreds of datsans (Buddhist temples) and monasteries and executing or exiling thousands of peaceable lamas (Buddhist priests).
Since 1950, Buddhism has been organised under a Buddhist Religious Board based at Ivolginsk. The Dalai Lama has visited Buryatiya, Tuva and Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, despite Chinese pressure on the Russian government to not grant the Tibetan leader a visa, as reported by the BBC. For more about Buddhism in Russia see http://buddhist.ru/eng.
Jews, who are estimated to number around 186,000 people, are considered an ethnicity within Russia, as well as a religion. Most have been assimilated into Russian culture.
The largest communities are found in Moscow and St Petersburg, both of which have several historic working synagogues. There’s also a small, conservative community of several thousand ‘Mountain Jews’ (Gorskie Yevrei) living mostly in the Caucasian cities of Nalchik, Pyatigorsk and Derbent. Siberia was once home to large numbers of Jews but now you’ll only find noticeable communities in Yekaterinburg and the Jewish Autonomous Region – created during Stalin’s era – centred on Birobidzhan.
There are two umbrella organisations of Russian Jewry. The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS supports the Italian-born Berl Lazar as chief rabbi – he is also a member of the Public Chamber of Russia, an oversight committee for government. The other is the Russian-Jewish Congress, which recognises Russian-born Adolf Shayevich as their chief rabbi; he's rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue.
Animism & Shamanism
Many cultures, from the Finno-Ugric Mari and Udmurts to the nominally Buddhist Mongol Buryats, retain varying degrees of animism. This is often submerged beneath, or accepted in parallel with, other religions. Animism is a primal belief in the presence of spirits or spiritual qualities in objects of the natural world. Peaks and springs are especially revered and their spirits are thanked with token offerings. This explains (especially in Tuva and Altai) the coins, stone cairns, vodka bottles and abundant prayer ribbons that you’ll commonly find around holy trees and mountain passes.
Spiritual guidance is through a medium or shaman, a high priest, prophet and doctor in one. Animal skins, trance dances and a special type of drum are typical shamanic tools, though different shamans have different spiritual and medical gifts. Siberian museums exhibit many shamanic outfits. Krasnoyarsk’s regional museum shows examples from many different tribal groups. Tuva is the most likely place to encounter practising shamans. There are shamanic school-clinics in Kyzyl, but, like visiting a doctor, you’ll be expected to have a specific need and there will be fees for the consultation.
Popular among a few New Age groups, another form of religious shamanism emphasises the core philosophical beliefs of ecological balance and respect for nature.
Feature: Church-Going Rules
- Working churches are open to everyone.
- As a visitor you should take care not to disturb any devotions or offend sensibilities.
- On entering a church, men bare their heads and women cover theirs.
- Shorts on men and miniskirts on women are considered inappropriate.
- Hands in pockets or crossed legs or arms may attract frowns.
- Photography is usually banned, especially during services; if in doubt, ask permission first.
Feature: Church Names
|khram||church or temple||храм|
|monastyr||convent or monastery||монастырь|
|Borisoglebskaya||Boris & Gleb||Борисоглебская|
|Petropavlovskaya||Peter & Paul||Петропавловская|
|Rizopolozhenskaya||Deposition of the Robe||Ризоположенская|
|Uspenskaya||Assumption or Dormition||Успенская|
Sidebar: Saint’s Days
Just as in Catholic countries, children are traditionally named after saints as well as having a given name. Each saint has a ‘saint’s day’ set in the Orthodox calendar. The day of one’s namesake saint is celebrated like a second birthday.
Sidebar: Mosque Etiquette
If you are allowed into a working mosque, take off your shoes (and your socks, if they are dirty). Women should wear headscarves and dress modestly; men should also have their legs covered.
- Trinity Monastery of St Sergius (Sergiev Posad)
- Pechory Monastery (Pechory)
- Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery (Solovetsky Islands)
- Tikhvin Monastery of the Mother of God (Tikhvin)
- Valaam Transfiguration Monastery (Valaam)
Sidebar: Buddhist Temples
- Ivolginsk Datsan (Buryatiya)
- Aginskoe Datsan (Zaibaikalsky Territory)
- Tsugol Datsan (Zaibaikalsky Territory)
- Buddhist Temple (St Petersburg)
Sidebar: Shamanism book
Buryat shaman Sarangerel’s book Riding Windhorses is a great general introduction to shamanism.
Sidebar: Jews in Russia
Beyond the Pale: The History of Jews in Russia (www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale) is an online version of an exhibition on Jewish history that has toured the country.
Performing Arts & Music
By late tsarist Russia the performing arts had evolved into grand and refined spectacles of ballet and opera created to entertain the nobility of St Petersburg and Moscow. These still delight audiences of all means around the world. But it's not all about the classical in Russian performing arts – rock and pop music are just as popular here as they are elsewhere; Chekhov's plays are staged alongside experimental theatre; and circus is revered as a great night's entertainment.
Birth of Russian Ballet
First brought to Russia under Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in the 17th century, ballet in Russia evolved as an offshoot of French dance combined with Russian folk and peasant dance techniques. The result stunned Western Europeans when it was first taken on tour during the late 19th century.
The official beginnings of Russian ballet date to 1738 and the establishment of a school of dance in St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the precursor to the famed Vaganova School of Choreography, by French dance master Jean-Baptiste Landé. Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre dates from 1776. However, the true father of Russian ballet is considered to be Marius Petipa (1818–1910), the French dancer and choreographer who acted first as principal dancer, then premier ballet master, of the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg. All told, he produced more than 60 full ballets (including Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake).
At the turn of the 20th century – Russian ballet’s heyday – St Petersburg’s Imperial School of Ballet rose to world prominence, producing a wealth of superstars including Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, George Balanchine and Michel Fokine. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, formed in Paris in 1909 (with most of its members coming from the Imperial School of Ballet), took Europe by storm. The stage decor was painted by artists such as Alexander Benois.
Soviet Era to Modern Day
During Soviet rule, ballet enjoyed a privileged status, which allowed schools such as the Vaganova and companies like St Petersburg’s Kirov (now the Mariinsky) and Moscow’s Bolshoi to maintain lavish productions and high performance standards. At the Bolshoi, Yury Grigorovich emerged as the leading choreographer, with Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible and other successes that espoused Soviet moral and artistic values. Meanwhile, many of Soviet ballet’s biggest stars emigrated or defected, including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, artistic feuds at the Bolshoi between Grigorovich and his dancers, combined with a loss of state subsidies and the continued financial lure of the West to principal dancers, led to a crisis in the Russian ballet world. Grigorovich resigned in 1995, prompting dancers loyal to him to stage the Bolshoi’s first-ever strike. The company ran through a series of artistic directors before finding stability and renewed acclaim under the dynamic direction of Alexey Ratmansky from 2004 to 2008. Dreams of Japan – one of the 20-plus ballets that Ratmansky has choreographed – was awarded a prestigious Golden Mask award in 1998. Under his direction the Bolshoi won Best Foreign Company in 2005 and 2007 from the prestigious Critics’ Circle in London. In 2017 the Bolshoi and London’s Royal Ballet debuted Strapless, their first coproduction.
Scandals have dogged the Bolshoi in recent years. In 2011 the troupe’s director Gennady Yanin was forced to step down following the release on the internet of erotic photos of him. In 2013 the former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova claimed that the Bolshoi was a 'giant brothel’ with dancers forced to sleep with wealthy patrons. The same year Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi’s artistic director, suffered damaged eyesight and a burned face in an acid attack orchestrated by Pavel Dmitrichenko, a dancer in the company.
In 2017 the Bolshoi was back in the headlines again following international shock at the last-minute cancellation of a new ballet based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev. The company's director general said the quality of the dancing was bad, but the rumour mill had it that the production's open portrayal of the dancer's homosexuality had fallen foul of a government that promotes conservative values.
Meanwhile in St Petersburg, charismatic Valery Gergiev is secure in his position at the Mariinsky, where he has been artistic director since 1988 and overall director since 1996. The ballet troupe reports to Yury Fateyev, who has pushed the dancers to embrace more than the classical repertoire for which they are most famous, staging ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as well as Ratmansky, whose Anna Karenina (based on the Tolstoy novel) premiered in 2010.
Native Folk Dancing & Music
Traditional Russian folk dancing and music is still practised across the country, though your best chance of seeing it as a visitor is in cheesy shows in restaurants or at tourist-orientated extravaganzas such as Feel Yourself Russian in St Petersburg. Companies with solid reputations to watch out for include Igor Moiseyev Ballet (www.moiseyev.ru), the Ossipov Balalaika Orchestra (www.ossipovorchestra.ru/en) and the Pyatnitsky State Academic Russian Folk Choir, all offering repertoires with roots as old as Kyivan Rus, including heroic ballads and the familiar Slavic trepak (stamping folk dances).
In Siberia and the Russian Far East, it’s also possible to occasionally catch dance and music performances by native peoples. In the Altai, minstrels sing epic ballads, while in Tuva khöömei (throat singing) ranges from the ultradeep troll-warbling of kargyraa to the superhuman self-harmonising of sygyt.
Classical, 19th Century
Mikhail Glinka (1804–57) is considered the father of Russian classical music; he was born in Smolensk, where an annual festival is held in his honour. As Russian composers (and other artists) struggled to find a national identity, several influential schools formed, from which some of Russia’s most famous composers emerged. The Group of Five – Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Kui and Mily Balakirev – believed a radical departure from traditional Western European composition necessary, and looked to byliny (epic folk songs) and folk music for themes. Their main opponent was Anton Rubinstein’s conservatively rooted Russian Musical Society, which became the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1861, the first conservatory in Russia.
Triumphing in the middle ground was Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93), who embraced Russian folklore and music as well as the disciplines of the Western European composers. The former lawyer first studied music at the St Petersburg Conservatory, but he later moved to Moscow to teach at the conservatory there. This was where all his major works were composed, including, in 1880, the magnificent 1812 Overture.
Among his other famous pieces are the ballets Swan Lake (Lebedinoye Ozero), Sleeping Beauty (Spyashchaya Krasavitsa) and The Nutcracker (Shchelkunchik); the operas Eugene Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin) and Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama), both inspired by the works of Alexander Pushkin; and his final work, the Pathétique Symphony No 6. The romantic beauty of these pieces belies a tragic side to the composer, who led a tortured life as a closeted homosexual. The rumour mill has it that rather than dying of cholera, as reported, he committed suicide by poisoning himself following a ‘trial’ by his peers about his sexual behaviour.
Classical, 20th Century
Following in Tchaikovsky’s romantic footsteps were Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – who both fled Russia after the revolution. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – which created a furore at its first performance in Paris – and The Firebird were influenced by Russian folk music. Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), who also left Soviet Russia but returned in 1933, wrote the scores for Sergei Eisenstein’s films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Peter and the Wolf, beloved of those who teach music to young children. He fell foul of the fickle Soviet authorities towards the end of his life and died on the same day as Stalin.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–75), who wrote brooding, bizarrely dissonant works, as well as accessible traditional classical music, was also alternately praised and condemned by the Soviet government. Despite initially not being to Stalin’s liking, Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 – the Leningrad – brought him honour and international standing when it was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic during the Siege of Leningrad. The authorities changed their minds again and banned his music in 1948, then ‘rehabilitated’ him after Stalin’s death.
Progressive new music surfaced slowly in the post-Stalin era, with limited outside contact. Symphony No 1 by Alfred Schnittke (1934–98), probably the most important work of this major experimental modern Russian composer, had to be premiered by its champion, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, in the provincial city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in 1974. It was not played in Moscow until 1986.
Russian opera was born in St Petersburg when Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, which merged traditional and Western influences, premiered on 9 December 1836. It told the story of peasant Ivan Susanin, who sacrifices himself to save Tsar Mikhail Romanov. He followed this with another folk-based opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), thus inaugurating the ‘New Russian School’ of composition.
Another pivotal moment in Russian opera was the 5 December 1890 premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Mariinsky. Adapted from a tale by Alexander Pushkin, the work surprised and invigorated the artistic community by successfully merging opera with topical social comment.
In March 2005 the Bolshoi premiered its first new opera in 26 years, Rosenthal’s Children – with music by Leonid Desyatnikov and words by Vladimir Sorokin – to a hail of protests over its controversial plot about cloning. In 2006 the unconventional production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin by Bolshoi opera company’s director Dmitry Tcherniakov split public opinion in Russia but wowed critics abroad.
Even so, contemporary opera in Russia continues to gain popularity. In 2012 Vasily Barkhatov produced four new operas written by Russian composers, in collaboration with the Laboratory of Contemporary Opera, an initiative of the Ministry of Culture. Marevo (Mirage), the first opera from Provmyza, a Nizhny Novgorod–based art collective, was nominated for the 2014 Innovation award in the visual-art category.
Rock & Pop
The Communist Party was no fan of pop music. Back in the 1960s, Vladimir Vysotsky (1938–80) was the dissident voice of the USSR, becoming a star despite being banned from TV, radio and major stages. Denied the chance to record or perform to big audiences, Russian rock groups were forced underground. By the 1970s – the Soviet hippie era – this genre of music had developed a huge following among a disaffected and distrustful youth. One of the most famous groups of this era is Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), who formed in 1969 and are still going strong with the original lead vocalist Andrei Makarevich.
Although bands initially imitated their Western counterparts, by the 1980s there was a home-grown sound emerging. In Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg) and Yekaterinburg, in particular, many influential bands sprung up. Boris Grebenshikov and his band Akvarium (Aquarium) from Yekaterinburg caused a sensation wherever they performed; his folk rock and introspective lyrics became the emotional cry of a generation. At first, all of their music was circulated by illegal tapes known as magizdat, passed from listener to listener; concerts – known as tusovka (informal parties) – were held in remote halls or people’s apartments in city suburbs, and just attending them could be risky. Other top bands of this era include DDT, Nautilus Pompilius and Bravo, whose lead singer Zhanna Aguzarova became Soviet rock’s first female star.
Late Soviet rock’s shining star, though, was Viktor Tsoy (1962–90), an ethnic Korean born in Leningrad, frontman of the group Kino; the band’s classic album is 1988’s Gruppa Krovi (Blood Group). Tsoy’s early death in a car crash sealed his legendary status. Fans gather on the anniversary of his death (15 August) to this day and play his music. His grave, at the Bogoslovskogo Cemetery in St Petersburg, has been turned into a shrine, much like Jim Morrison’s in Paris. There is also the ‘Tsoy Wall’, covered with Tsoy-related graffiti, on ul Arbat in Moscow.
Contemporary stars of the Russian rock scene include Mumiy Troll, formed by Vladivostok-born Ilya Lagutenko. The band regularly plays international festivals such as SXSW. Also gaining traction outside Russia is Tesla Boy, a synth-pop band led by Anton Sevidov. Roma Litvinov, aka Mujuice, is considered one of Russia's most innovative electronic musicians; his composition includes elements of jazz. Miron Fyodorov, better known by his stage name Oxxxymiron or Oxxxy, is a hugely successful hip-hop and rap artist with an English degree from Oxford University.
Drama lover Catherine the Great set up the Imperial Theatre Administration and authorised the construction of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. During her reign Denis Fonvizin wrote The Brigadier (1769) and The Minor (1781), satirical comedies that are still performed today.
Nineteenth-century dramatists included Alexander Pushkin, whose drama Boris Godunov (1830) was later used as the libretto for the Mussorgsky Opera; Nikolai Gogol, whose tragic farce The Government Inspector (1836) was said to be a favourite play of Nicholas I; Alexander Griboedov, whose comedy satire Woe from Wit was a compulsory work in Russian literature lessons during the Soviet period; and Ivan Turgenev, whose languid A Month in the Country (1849) laid the way for the most famous Russian playwright of all: Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896), The Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904) and Uncle Vanya (1899), all of which take the angst of the provincial middle class as their theme, owed much of their success to their ‘realist’ productions at the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavsky, which aimed to show life as it really was.
Theatre remained popular through the Soviet period, not least because it was one of the few areas of artistic life where a modicum of freedom of expression was permitted. Stalin famously said that although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard (1926) had been written by an enemy, it still deserved to be staged because of the author’s outstanding talent. Bulgakov is perhaps the only person dubbed an enemy by Stalin and never persecuted. The avant-garde actor-director Vsevolod Meyerhold was not so fortunate.
Today both Moscow’s and St Petersburg’s theatre scenes are as lively as those in London and New York. Notable directors include Kama Gingkas, who works with the Moscow Art Theatre; Pyotr Fomenko, who heads up Moscow’s Pyotr Fomenko Workshop Theatre; and Lev Dodin at the Maly Drama Theatre in St Petersburg. Dmitry Krymov, who began his career as a stage designer, heads up the Krymov Lab at Moscow’s School of Dramatic Arts, where he crafts incredible, visually dramatic productions that have toured internationally. These include a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Opus No 7, which in its two acts pays homage to the Jews lost in the Holocaust and the classical composer Shostakovich.
While Western circuses grow smaller and become scarce, the Russian versions are still like those from childhood stories – prancing horses with acrobats on their backs, snarling lions and tigers, heart-stopping high-wire artists and hilarious clowns. They remain a highly popular form of entertainment.
The Russian circus tradition has roots in medieval travelling minstrels called skomorokhi, although the first modern-style circus (a performance within a ring) dates to the reign of Catherine the Great. The country’s first permanent circus was established in St Petersburg in 1877, and in 1927 Moscow’s School for Circus Arts became the world’s first such training institution. Many cities still have their own troupes and most at least have an arena for visiting companies. Best known is Moscow’s Nikulin Circus.
In recent years, most major troupes have cleaned up their act with regard to the treatment of animals. At Moscow and St Petersburg circuses it is unlikely you will see animals treated cruelly or forced to perform degrading acts.
Sidebar: For Ballet Lovers Only
For Ballet Lovers Only (www.for-ballet-lovers-only.com) has biographies of leading Bolshoi and Mariinsky dancers, both past and present, as well as a good links section if you want to learn more about Russian ballet.
Sidebar: Natasha’s Dance
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes is an excellent book offering plenty of colourful anecdotes about great Russian writers, artists, composers and architects.
Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers is a feverishly sensational and at times hysterical biopic about Tchaikovsky. Richard Chamberlain plays the famously closeted composer and Glenda Jackson his entirely unsuitable wife, Nina.
Sidebar: Leningrad Rock Scene
Directed by Alexey Uchitel, Rock (1988) is a revealing documentary about the Leningrad rock scene of the 1980s, featuring legends such as Boris Grebenshikov and Viktor Tsoy.
Sidebar: Presnyakov Brothers
Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov write plays and direct together under the joint name Presnyakov Brothers; they’ve been praised for their dramas’ natural-sounding dialogue and sardonic wit. Terrorism, their best-known work, has been performed around the world.
The roots of Russian music lie in folk song and dance, and Orthodox Church chants. Byliny (epic folk songs of Russia’s peasantry) preserved folk culture and lore through celebration of particular events such as great battles or harvests.
Sidebar: Opera Stars
Russian opera has produced many singing stars, from Fyodor Chaliapin in the early years of the 20th century to the current diva, soprano Anna Netrebko, who started as a cleaner at the Mariinsky and now commands the stages of top opera houses around the world.
Sidebar: Music Festivals
- Afisha Picnic (http://picnic.afisha.ru), Moscow
- Sergei Kuryokhin International Festival (SKIF; https://www.facebook.com/pg/SKIFestival), St Petersburg
- Usadba Jazz (www.usadba-jazz.ru), Moscow, St Petersburg
- Alfa Future People (https://afp.ru), Nizhny Novgorod
- V-ROX (http://vrox.org), Vladivostok
Literature & Cinema
Some of the most vivid impressions of Russia have been shaped by the creative works of the country’s writers and movie-makers. Although they really only got going in the 19th century, Russian writers wasted little time in carving out a prime place in the world of letters, producing towering classics in the fields of poetry and prose. In the process they have bagged five Nobel Prizes and frequently found themselves in conflict with the Russian establishment.
The Golden Age
The great collection of works produced during the 19th century has led to it being known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Russian literature. This was the time of the precocious and brilliant Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), who penned the poems in verse The Bronze Horseman and Eugene Onegin, and Mikhail Lermontov (1814–41), author of A Hero of Our Time. Both were sent into exile by the authorities for their seditious writings; and both died young in duels, securing their romantic reputations for a country enthralled by doomed youthful heroes.
Continuing the tradition of literary criticism of the powers that be was the novelist and playwright Nikolai Gogol (1809–52), whose novel Dead Souls exposed the widespread corruption in Russian society. Gogol created some of Russian literature’s most memorable characters, including Akaky Akakievich, the tragicomic hero of The Overcoat, and Major Kovalyov, who chases his errant nose around St Petersburg when the shnozzle makes a break for it in the absurdist short story The Nose. His love of the surreal established a pattern in Russian literature that echoes through the works of Daniil Kharms, Mikhail Bulgakov and Viktor Pelevin in the next century.
More radical writers figured in the second half of the 19th century. In Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83), the antihero Bazarov became a symbol for the antitsarist nihilist movement of the time. Before penning classics such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which deals with questions of morality, faith and salvation, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81) fell foul of the authorities and was exiled for a decade from St Petersburg, first in Siberia and later in what is now Kazakhstan.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) sealed his reputation as one of Russia’s greatest writers with his Napoleonic War saga War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, a tragedy about a woman who violates the rigid sexual code of her time. Such was his popularity that he was effectively protected from reprisals by the government, who did not approve of his unorthodox beliefs in Christian anarchy and pacifism.
The Silver Age
From the end of the 19th century until the early 1930s, the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian literature produced more towering talents. First came the rise of the symbolist movement in the Russian arts world. The outstanding figures of this time were philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900); writer Andrei Bely (1880–1934), author of Petersburg, regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four greatest novels of the 20th century; and Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), who is considered to be the founder of socialist realism with his 1907 novel Mother, written during a Bolshevik Party fundraising trip in the US.
Alexander Blok (1880–1921) was a poet whose sympathy with the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was praised by the Bolsheviks as an example of an established writer who had seen the light. His tragic poem ‘The Twelve’, published in 1918, shortly before his death, likens the Bolsheviks to the 12 Apostles who herald the new world. However, Blok soon grew deeply disenchanted with the revolution and in one of his last letters wrote that his Russia was devouring him.
Banned Writers & Nobel Prize Winners
The life of poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was filled with sorrow and loss – her family was imprisoned and killed, her friends exiled, tortured and arrested, her colleagues constantly hounded – but she refused to leave her beloved St Petersburg. Her verses depict the city with realism and monumentalism, particularly her epic Poem Without a Hero.
Another key poet of this age who also suffered for his art was Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), who died in a Stalinist transit camp near Vladivostok. Akhmatova’s and Mandelstam’s lives are painfully recorded by Nadezhda Mandelstam in her autobiographical Hope Against Hope.
The work of the great satirist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), including The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog, was banned for years, as was the dark genius absurdist work of Daniil Kharms (1905–42). Kharms starved to death during the siege of Leningrad in 1942; it would be two decades later that his surreal stories and poems started to see the light of day and began to be circulated in the Soviet underground press.
Although best known abroad for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) is most celebrated in Russia for his poetry. My Sister Life, published in 1921, inspired many Russian poets thereafter. Doctor Zhivago, first published in an Italian translation in 1957, secured him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but Pasternak turned it down, fearing that if he left Russia to accept the award he would not be allowed to return.
One writer who managed to keep in favour with the communist authorities was Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–84), with his sagas of revolution and war among the Don Cossacks – And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.
Late Soviet Period Literature
The relaxing of state control over the arts during Khrushchev’s time saw the emergence of poets such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who gained international fame in 1961 with Babi Yar (which denounced both Nazi and Russian anti-Semitism), as well as another Nobel Prize winner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), who wrote mainly about life in the Gulag system.
Some believe the camp experience as related in Kolyma Tales by the great literary talent Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) is even more harrowing than that depicted by Solzhenitsyn. Also gaining critical praise was another former Kolyma inmate Eugenia Ginzburg (1904–77) for her memoir Into the Whirlwind, initially published abroad in 1967.
The fiercely talented poet Joseph Brodsky (1940–96), also a Nobel Prize winner, hailed from St Petersburg and was a protégé of poet Anna Akhmatova. In 1964 he was tried for ‘social parasitism’ and exiled to the north of Russia. However, after concerted international protests led by Jean-Paul Sartre, he returned to Leningrad in 1965, only to continue being a thorn in the side of the authorities. Like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky was exiled to the US in 1972.
Preceding glasnost (openness) was native Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin, who is best known for his stories decrying the destruction of the land, spirit and traditions of the Russian people. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is about a Siberian village flooded when a hydroelectric dam is built.
Recent years have witnessed a publishing boom, with the traditional Russian love of books as strong as ever. One of the most popular novelists is Grigol Chkhartishvili, who under his pen name Boris Akunin has authored an internationally successful series of historical detective novels, including The Winter Queen and Turkish Gambit, featuring the foppish Russian Sherlock Holmes, Erast Fandorin.
Viktor Yerofeyev's erotic novel Russian Beauty has been translated into 27 languages. Tatyana Tolstaya's On the Golden Porch, a collection of stories about big souls in little Moscow flats, made her an international name when it was published in the West in 1989. Her 2007 novel The Slynx is a dystopian fantasy set in a post-nuclear-holocaust world of mutant people, fearsome beasts and totalitarian rulers.
The prolific science fiction and pop-culture writer Viktor Pelevin has been compared to the great Mikhail Bulgakov. Several of his novels, including The Yellow Arrow, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf and S.N.U.F.F., have also been widely translated. Vladimir Sorokin established his literary reputation abroad with his novels The Queue and Ice. In Day of the Oprichnik, he describes Russia in the year 2028 as a nationalist country ruled with an iron fist that has shut itself off from the West by building a wall.
Dmitry Bykov is one of the biggest names currently in Russian literary circles; he published a well-regarded biography of Boris Pasternak in 2007. His 2006 novel, ZhD (entitled Living Souls in its English translation), a satirical, anti-utopian, conspiracy-theory-laden tale of civil war set in near-future Russia, caused furious debate because of its Rus-phobic and anti-Semitic themes. Mikhail Shishkin has won all three of Russia's major literary awards. His books, including Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark, have been translated into English.
The Propaganda Years
Even though there were a few Russian films made at the start of the 20th century, it was really under the Soviet system that this modern form of storytelling began to flourish. Lenin believed cinema to be the most important of all the arts and along with his Bolshevik colleagues saw the value of movies as propaganda.
Vast resources were pumped into studios to make historical dramas about Soviet and Russian victories such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a landmark of world cinema, and his Alexander Nevsky (1938), which contains one of cinema’s great battle scenes. However, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1945), a discreet commentary on Stalinism, fell foul of state sponsors and was banned for many years.
The 1936 hit musical Circus was typical of the kind of propaganda movies were forced to carry at the height of Stalinism. The plot concerns an American circus artist hounded out of the US because she has a black baby; she finds both refuge and love, of course, in the Soviet Union. The lead actress, Lyubov Orlova, became the Soviet Union’s biggest star of the time. She also headlined Volga, Volga (1938), another feel-good movie said to be Stalin’s favourite film.
Taking Cinematic Risks
Of later Soviet directors, the dominant figure was Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films include Andrei Rublyov (1966), Solaris (1972) – the Russian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey – and Stalker (1979), which summed up the Leonid Brezhnev era pretty well, with its characters wandering, puzzled, through a landscape of clanking trains, rusting metal and overgrown concrete. Tarkovsky died in exile in 1986.
Winning an Academy Award for best foreign-language film, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (1980), directed by Vladimir Menshov, charts the course of three provincial gals who make Moscow their home from the 1950s to the 1970s. It's said that Ronald Reagan watched this kitchen-sink drama to get an idea of the Russian soul before his meetings with Gorbachev.
Glasnost brought new excitement in the film industry as film-makers were allowed to reassess Soviet life with unprecedented freedom and as audiences flocked to see previously banned films or the latest exposure of youth culture or Stalinism. Notable were Sergei Solovyov’s avant-garde ASSA (1987), staring rock-god Viktor Tsoy and the artist Afrika (Sergei Bugaev), and Vasily Pichul’s Little Vera (1989), for its frank portrayal of a family in chaos (exhausted wife, drunken husband, rebellious daughter) and its sexual content – mild by Western standards but startling to the Soviet audience.
Soviet cinema wasn’t all doom, gloom and heavy propaganda. The romantic comedy Irony of Fate (1975) has a special place in all Russians’ hearts, while a whole genre of ‘Easterns’ are epitomised by White Sun of the Desert (1969), a rollicking adventure set in Turkmenistan during the Russian Civil War of the 1920s. Still one of the top-selling DVDs in Russia, this cult movie is traditionally watched by cosmonauts before blast-off.
By the time Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun won the best foreign-language movie Oscar in 1994, Russian film production was suffering. Funding had dried up during the early 1990s, and audiences couldn’t afford to go to the cinema anyway. The industry was back on track by the end of the decade though, with hits such as Alexy Balabanov’s gangster drama Brother (1997) and Alexander Sokurov’s Molokh (1999). Sokurov’s ambitious Russian Ark was an international success in 2002, as was Andrei Zvyaginstev’s moody thriller The Return the following year.
The glossy vampire thriller Night Watch (2004) struck box-office gold both at home and abroad, leading to an equally successful sequel, Day Watch (2006), and to Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov being lured to Hollywood. Stilyagi (2008; entitled Hipsters for its international release) is a popular musical that casts a romantic eye on fashion-obsessed youths in 1950s Russia. Another international success, How I Ended This Summer (2010) is a tense thriller about the deadly clash of temperaments between an older and a younger scientist working on an isolated meteorological station off the coast of Chukotka.
Return of Censorship
Leviathan (2014), directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, is a bleak tale of one man’s struggle against official corruption in northern Russia. Even though it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language movie and won awards at the Golden Globes and in Cannes, the movie initially struggled to secure a wide release across Russia's cinemas. All that changed after an estimated 1.5 million Russians downloaded the film illegally, prompting cinema chains to take a chance on a movie critical of the current regime.
Nine out of 10 movies made in Russia receive government financing. Although Putin has said he does not favour censorship, he has also said he is interested in Russian films that promote patriotism, and values such as a healthy lifestyle, spirituality, kindness and responsibility, along with meeting the strategic goals of Russia. Such propaganda movies include the 3D war epic Stalingrad, a 2013 box-office smash in Russia.
Made with no government funding was Zvyagintsev's Loveless, which premiered at Cannes in 2017. It's another raw slice of contemporary Russian life that is unlikely to go down well with the authorities. Also attracting controversy is the costumed drama Matilda, directed by Alexey Uchitel, about Nicholas II's affair with Polish ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. There have been calls for it to be banned since it is seen as disrespectful to the last tsar, who was canonised in 2000 by the Orthodox Church.
Little known outside Russia is the country’s great contribution to the art of animation. Two years before Disney’s Snow White, stop-motion animation was used for New Gulliver (1935), a communist retelling of Gulliver’s Travels featuring more than 3000 puppets. And rather than Disney’s films, it was actually Lev Atamanov’s beautiful The Snow Queen (1957), based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, that inspired young Hayao Miyazaki to become the master Japanese animator that he is today.
One of Russia’s most respected animators today is Yury Norshteyn, whose masterpiece, Hedgehog in the Mist (1975), is philosophical and full of references to art and literature. The current master of the medium is Alexander Petrov, who paints in oil on glass sheets using his fingertips instead of brushes. He photographs one frame, modifies the picture with his fingers and photographs the next; this painstaking approach takes around a year of work to create just 10 minutes of film. The Cow (1989), his first solo work, displays Petrov’s trademark montage sequences, in which objects, people and landscapes converge in a psychedelic swirl. Petrov won an Academy Award for The Old Man and the Sea (1999), based on the Hemingway novella. He was also nominated in 2007 for the dazzling My Love, an animated short set in prerevolutionary Russia.
The blog Animatsiya (http://niffiwan.livejournal.com) includes many clips from Russian animation films.
Feature: Pushkin is our Everything
The phrase 'Pushkin is our everything' – uttered by cultured Russians – provides the title for an insightful 2014 documentary (www.pushkinfilm.com) about the national bard by American writer and director Michael Beckelhimer. Today, it is rare to meet a Russian who cannot quote some Pushkin. However, for several years after the writer's untimely death in 1837 at age 38, following a duel fought over the honour of his wife, his works languished in relative obscurity.
Beckelhimer's documentary reveals how Pushkin's reputation was revived by 1880, when the first of what would be many statues of the nation's poet across Russia was unveiled in Moscow by the likes of Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky. That status was enhanced and solidified in Russian consciousness during the Soviet era when, in 1937, Stalin orchestrated major centennial celebrations of the poet's death, emphasising his alleged atheism and his protocommunist politics (neither of which was entirely true).
Flat English translations of Pushkin's lyrical, witty and imaginative works, which range from classical odes and sonnets to short stories, plays and fairy tales, can often leave non-Russian speakers wondering what all the fuss is about. It is clear that Pushkin has had a strong influence on language spoken by Russians today. The enraptured Russians interviewed in the documentary talk of the lightness and beauty of Pushkin's words, and how they continue to resonate for them today, nine generations after they were first written.
Feature: Russia’s Conscience
Few writers’ lives sum up the fickle nature of their relationship with the Russian state better than that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008). Persecuted and exiled by the Soviet Union, he returned to a country that considered him, in his latter years, both a crank and its conscience. Embraced by Vladimir Putin (whom Solzhenitsyn praised as ‘a good dictator’) for his nationalism, staunch belief in Russian Orthodoxy and hatred of the decadent West, the one-time dissident was given what amounted to a state funeral.
Decorated twice with medals for bravery during WWII, the young Solzhenitsyn first fell foul of the authorities in 1945 when he was arrested for anti-Stalin remarks found in letters to a friend. He subsequently served eight years in various camps and three more in enforced exile in Kazakhstan.
Khrushchev allowed the publication in 1962 of Solzhenitsyn’s first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a short tale of Gulag life. The book sealed the writer’s reputation and in 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, although, like Boris Pasternak before him, he did not go to Sweden to receive it for fear that he would not be allowed to re-enter the USSR. Even so, he was exiled in 1974, when he went to the US. He finally returned to Russia in 1994.
To the end Solzhenitsyn remained a controversial figure. He was detested by many Gulag survivors, who accused him of collaborating with prison authorities. They looked suspiciously on Solzhenitsyn’s ability to gain sole access to the archives that allowed him to write his best-known work, The Gulag Archipelago, which describes conditions at the camps on the Solovetsky Islands, even though he was never imprisoned there himself. In his final book, 200 Years Together, about the history of Jews in Russia, he laid himself open to accusations of anti-Semitism.
Feature: The Impact of Socialist Realism
In 1932 the Communist Party demanded socialist realism in art – a glorified depiction of communist values and the revolution in society. Henceforth, artists had the all-but-impossible task of conveying the Party line in their works, yet not falling foul of the notoriously fickle tastes of Stalin in the process.
The composer Dmitry Shostakovich, for example, was officially denounced twice (in 1936 and 1948) and suffered the banning of his compositions. Strongly opposed to socialist realism, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold had his theatre closed down; in 1939 he was imprisoned and later tortured and executed as a traitor. He was posthumously cleared of all charges in 1955.
Writers were particularly affected, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide, and the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose life was blighted by persecution and tragedy. Many, including Daniil Kharms, had their work driven underground, or were forced to smuggle their manuscripts out to the West for publication, as Boris Pasternak did for Doctor Zhivago.
The Last Station (2009), based on the novel by Jay Parini, is about the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Christopher Plummer, who plays the writer, and Helen Mirren, playing his wife Sofya, were both nominated for Oscars.
Some notable Silver Age wordsmiths were the poet Velimir Khlebnikov and the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, together with other futurists, issued the 1913 ‘Slap in the Face of Public Taste’ manifesto urging fellow writers ‘to throw Pushkin out of the steamship of modernity’.
Sidebar: Doctor Zhivago
Made into a movie by David Lean, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a richly philosophical novel spanning events from the dying days of tsarist Russia to the birth of the Soviet Union, offering personal insights into the revolution and the Russian Civil War along the way.
Sidebar: Daniil Kharms
The anthology Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, translated by Matvei Yankelevich, is worth dipping into to discover the bizarre works of this eccentric absurdist writer.
Sidebar: Academia Rossica
Rossica is a glossy journal published by Academia Rossica (http://academia-rossica.org). It features the works of top Russian contemporary writers and artists.
Sidebar: The Cranes Are Flying
Mikhail Kalatozov’s tragic WWII drama The Cranes Are Flying (1957), judged best film at Cannes in 1958, illuminates the sacrifices made by Russians during the Great Patriotic War.
Sidebar: War and Peace
If you don’t have the time or stamina for Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then sample the master’s work in his celebrated novellas The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Devil.
Sidebar: Pushkin’s Button
For a riveting account of Pushkin’s fatal duel with French nobleman Georges d’Anthès and the events that preceded it, read Serena Vitale’s Pushkin’s Button.
Sidebar: Read Russia
To find out more about contemporary Russian literature go to Read Russia (www.readrussia.org), which has various online resources and organises events to promote Russian writing.
Sidebar: T@ke Two
Held online for two weeks in April, T@ke Two (http://d2.rg.ru) is a festival of notable Russian films – features, documentaries and animations – released the previous year and screened with subtitles for free.
Architecture & Visual Art
From heavily detailed religious icons and onion-domed churches to statues of heroic workers and soaring Stalinist towers, Russian art and architecture has a distinctive style. In the post-Soviet world, architects and artists are pretty much free to do as they please. Visual artists, in particular, have done so with relish, both thumbing their noses at the past and present and embracing and rediscovering traditional Russian crafts and artistic inspiration.
Until Soviet times most Russians lived in homes made of wood. The izba (single-storey log cottage) is still fairly common in the countryside, while some Siberian cities, notably Tomsk, retain fine timber town houses intricately decorated with ‘wooden lace’. Stone and brick were usually the preserves of the Church, royalty and nobility.
Early Russian Churches
Early Russian architecture is best viewed in the country’s most historic churches, in places such as Veliky Novgorod, Smolensk, Pskov and Vladimir-Suzdal. At their simplest, churches consisted of three aisles, each with an eastern apse (semicircular end), a dome or cupola over the central aisle next to the apse, and high vaulted roofs forming a crucifix shape centred on the dome.
Church architects developed the three-aisle pattern in the 11th and 12th centuries. Roofs then grew steeper to prevent the heavy northern snows collecting and crushing them, and windows grew narrower to keep the cold out. Pskov builders invented the little kokoshnik gable, which was semicircular or spade-shaped and usually found in rows supporting a dome or drum.
Where stone replaced brick, as in Vladimir’s Assumption Cathedral, it was often carved into a glorious kaleidoscope of decorative images. Another Vladimir-Suzdal hallmark was the ‘blind arcade’, a wall decoration resembling a row of arches. The early church-citadel complexes required protection, and thus developed sturdy, fortress-style walls replete with fairy-tale towers – Russia’s archetypal kremlins.
In the 16th century, the translation of the northern Russian wooden church features – such as the tent roof and the onion dome on a tall drum – into brick added up to a new, uniquely Russian architecture. St Basil’s Cathedral, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Moscow Kremlin and the Ascension Church at Kolomenskoe are three high points of this era.
In the 17th century builders in Moscow added tiers of kokoshniki, colourful tiles and brick patterning, to create jolly, merchant-financed churches. Mid-century, Patriarch Nikon outlawed such frippery, but elaboration returned later in the century with Western-influenced Moscow baroque, featuring ornate white detailing on redbrick walls.
Baroque to Classicism
Mainstream baroque reached Russia as Peter the Great opened up the country to Western influences. As the focus was on his new capital, St Petersburg, he banned new stone construction elsewhere to ensure stone supplies. The great Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli created an inspired series of rococo-style buildings for Empress Elizabeth. Three of the most brilliant were the Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral, both in St Petersburg, and Catherine Palace at nearby Tsarskoe Selo.
Later in the 18th century, Catherine the Great turned away from rococo ‘excess’ towards Europe’s new wave of classicism. This was an attempt to recreate the ambience of an idealised ancient Rome and Greece, with their mathematical proportions and rows of columns, pediments and domes. Catherine and her successors built waves of grand classical edifices in a bid to make St Petersburg the continent’s most imposing capital. The simple classicism of Catherine’s reign was exemplified by the Great Palace at Pavlovsk.
The grandiose Russian Empire–style was developed under Alexander I, highlighted in buildings such as the Admiralty and Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg. St Isaac’s Cathedral, built for Nicholas I, was the last big project of this wave of classicism in St Petersburg. Moscow abounds with Russian Empire–style buildings, as much of the city had to be rebuilt after the fire of 1812.
Revivals & Style Moderne
A series of architectural revivals, notably of early Russian styles, began in the late 19th century. The first pseudo-Russian phase produced the state department store GUM, the State History Museum and the Leningradsky vokzal (train station) in Moscow, and the Moskovsky vokzal and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg.
The early-20th-century neo-Russian movement brought a sturdy classical elegance to architecture across the nation, culminating in the extraordinary Kazansky vokzal in Moscow, which imitates no fewer than seven earlier styles. About the same time, Style Moderne, Russia’s take on art nouveau, added wonderful curvaceous flourishes to many buildings right across Russia.
The revolution gave rein to young constructivist architects, who rejected superficial decoration in favour of buildings whose appearance was a direct function of their uses and materials – a new architecture for a new society. They used glass and concrete in uncompromising geometric forms.
Konstantin Melnikov was probably the most famous constructivist and his own house off ul Arbat in Moscow is one of the most interesting examples of the style; the offices of Moscow news agencies Pravda and Izvestia are others. In the 1930s the constructivists were denounced, and a 400m-high design by perpetrators of yet another revival – monumental classicism – was chosen for Stalin’s pet project, a Palace of Soviets in Moscow, which mercifully never got off the ground.
Stalin favoured neoclassical architecture, as it echoed ancient Athens. The dictator also liked architecture on a gigantic scale, underlining the might of the Soviet state. This style reached its apogee in the ‘Seven Sisters’, seven Gothic-style skyscrapers that sprouted around Moscow soon after WWII.
In 1955 Khrushchev condemned the ‘excesses’ of Stalin (who had died two years earlier) and disbanded the Soviet Academy of Architecture. After this, architects favoured a bland international modern style – constructivism without the spark, you might say – for prestigious buildings, while no style at all was evident in the drab blocks of cramped flats that sprouted countrywide.
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, architectural energies and civic funds initially went into the restoration of decayed churches and monasteries, as well as the rebuilding of structures such as Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
As far as contemporary domestic, commercial and cultural buildings are concerned, post-Soviet architects have not been kind to Russia. Featuring bright metals and mirrored glass, these buildings tend to be plopped down in the midst of otherwise unassuming vintage buildings, particularly in Moscow.
The oil-rich economy is producing some changes for the better and helping to fund interesting projects, especially in Moscow. Examples include the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas' OMA; the Moscow School of Management, a design by Adjaye Associates; the transformation of the GES2 power station by Renzo Piano into a new contemporary art centre for the V-A-C Foundation; and the gleaming towers of Moscow International Business Centre (Moscow City), which include Federation Towers. At the time of research this was the tallest building in Europe, but it is expected to soon be trumped by the Lakhta Centre in St Petersburg when it tops out at 462m.
Originally painted by monks as a spiritual exercise, icons are images intended to aid the veneration of the holy subjects they depict. Some believe that there are some icons that can grant luck and wishes, or even cause miracles.
The beginning of a distinct Russian icon tradition came when artists in Veliky Novgorod started to be influenced by local folk art in their representation of people, producing sharply outlined figures with softer faces and introducing lighter colours, including pale yellows and greens. The earliest outstanding painter was Theophanes the Greek (Feofan Grek in Russian). He lived between 1340 and 1405, working in Byzantium, Novgorod and Moscow, and bringing a new delicacy and grace to the form. His finest works are in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.
Andrei Rublyov, a monk at Sergiev Posad’s Trinity Monastery of St Sergius and Moscow’s Andronikov Monastery, was 20 years Theophanes’ junior and the greatest Russian icon painter. His most famous work is the dreamy Holy Trinity, on display in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.
The layman Dionysius, the leading late-15th-century icon painter, elongated his figures and refined the use of colour. In the 16th century icons grew smaller and more crowded, their figures more realistic and Russian looking. In 17th-century Moscow, Simon Ushakov moved towards Western religious painting with the use of perspective and architectural backgrounds.
The major artistic force of the 19th century was the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), who saw art as a force for national awareness and social change. The movement gained its name from the touring exhibitions with which the artists widened their audience. It was patronised by the industrialists Savva Mamontov – whose Abramtsevo estate near Moscow became an artists colony – and brothers Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov (after whom the Tretyakov Gallery is named). The Peredvizhniki included Vasily Surikov, who painted vivid Russian historical scenes; Nicholas Ghe, with his biblical and historical scenes; the landscape painter Ivan Shishkin; and Ilya Repin, perhaps the best loved of all Russian artists. Repin’s work ranged from social criticism (Barge Haulers on the Volga) through history (Zaporizhsky Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan) to portraits of the famous.
Isaac Levitan, who revealed the beauty of the Russian landscape, was one of many others associated with the Peredvizhniki. The end-of-century genius Mikhail Vrubel, inspired by sparkling Byzantine and Venetian mosaics, also showed traces of Western influence.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement in St Petersburg, led by Alexander Benois and Sergei Diaghilev under the motto ‘art pure and unfettered’, opened Russia to Western innovations such as Impressionism, art nouveau and symbolism. From about 1905, Russian art became a maelstrom of groups, styles and ‘isms’ as it absorbed decades of European change in just a few years, before it gave birth to its own avant-garde futurist movements.
Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were at the centre of the Cézanne-influenced Jack of Diamonds group (with which Vasily Kandinsky was also associated) before developing neoprimitivism, based on popular arts and primitive icons.
In 1915 Kasimir Malevich announced the arrival of suprematism, declaring that his utterly abstract geometrical shapes – with the black square representing the ultimate ‘zero form’ – finally freed art from having to depict the material world and made it a doorway to higher realities.
Futurists turned to the needs of the revolution – education, posters, banners – with enthusiasm, relishing the chance to act on their theories of how art shapes society. But at the end of the 1920s, formalist (abstract) art fell out of favour; the Communist Party wanted socialist realism. Images of striving workers, heroic soldiers and inspiring leaders took over. Malevich ended up painting portraits (penetrating ones) and doing designs for Red Square parades.
After Stalin, an avant-garde ‘conceptualist’ underground was allowed to form. Ilya Kabakov painted, or sometimes just arranged, the debris of everyday life to show the gap between the promises and realities of Soviet existence. Erik Bulatov’s ‘Sots art’ pointed to the devaluation of language by ironically reproducing Soviet slogans or depicting words disappearing over the horizon. In 1962 the authorities set up a show of such ‘unofficial’ art at the Moscow Manezh; Khrushchev called it ‘dog shit’ and sent it back underground. In the mid-1970s it resurfaced in the Moscow suburbs, only to be literally bulldozed back down.
In the immediate post-Soviet years, a lot of contemporary painters of note abandoned Russia for the West. Today, with increased economic prosperity, many of the most promising young artists are choosing to stay put. At specialist art galleries in Moscow and St Petersburg, you can find the latest works by Russians in and out of the motherland.
Artists to look out for include Siberian collective and satirists Blue Noses and the artist group AES+F (www.aes-group.org), whose multimedia work, such as The Feast of Trimalchio, reflects the lust for luxury in contemporary Russia. Also gaining international attention are Taus Makhacheva, whose work often involves questions of national identity and who is partly based in Makhachkala, Dagestan; and the site-specific installation artist Irina Korina. Both these artists represented Russia at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Contemporary art galleries are booming from St Petersburg across to Vladivostok. Prestigious events to mark on your calendar include the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (www.moscowbiennale.ru), Moscow Biennale for Young Russian Art (http://youngart.ru) and the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, also held in Moscow.
Folk & Native Art
An amazing spectrum of richly decorated folk art has evolved in Russia. Perhaps most familiar are the intricately painted, enamelled wood boxes called palekh, after the village east of Moscow that’s famous for them; and finift, luminous enamelled metal miniatures from Rostov-Veliky. From Gzhel, also east of Moscow, came glazed earthenware in the 18th century and its trademark blue-and-white porcelain in the 19th century. Gus-Khrustalny, south of Vladimir, maintains a glass-making tradition as old as Russia. Every region also has its own style of embroidery and some specialise in knitted and other fine fabrics.
The most common craft is woodcarving, represented by toys, distaffs (tools for hand-spinning flax) and gingerbread moulds in the museums, and in its most clichéd form by the nested matryoshka dolls. Surely the most familiar symbol of Russia, they actually only date from 1890. You’ll also find the red, black and gold lacquered pine bowls called khokhloma overflowing from souvenir shops. Most uniquely Slavic are the ‘gingerbread’ houses of western and northern Russia and Siberia, with their carved window frames, lintels and trim. The art of carpentry flourished in 17th- and 18th-century houses and churches.
A revived interest in national traditions has recently brought good-quality craftwork into the open, and the process has been boosted by the restoration of churches and mosques and their artwork. There has also been a minor resurgence of woodcarving and bone carving. An even more popular craft is beresta, using birch bark to make containers and decorative objects, with colours varying according to the age and season of peeling. In Tuva, soapstone carving and traditional leather forming are also being rediscovered.
Feature: Performance & Protest Art
Say what you like about contemporary artists in Russia, but don't accuse them of shying away from controversial subjects or putting their own safety, not to mention liberty, on the line for their art. More often than not, such art takes the form of performance.
Russia's most famous performance artist is Oleg Kulik, best known for taking on the persona of a dog as he crawled naked down Moscow's streets wearing a collar and lead. Along with Alexander Brener, who was jailed in 1997 for painting a green dollar sign on Malevich's painting Suprematisme, he is a key figure in the local 'actionism' movement.
Radical art collective Voina (War) made their name by filming live sex acts at Timiryazev State Biology Museum in Moscow and painting a 64m-tall penis on a drawbridge in St Petersburg in 2010; for that last stunt Voina won a R400,000 government-sponsored Innovatzia contemporary-art prize the following year. Among Voina's members are Pyotr Verzilov and his wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who would go on to even greater notoriety as part of the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot.
Grabbing recent headlines has been Petr Pavlensky who has stitched up his mouth and stood in front of St Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral; lain naked in front of the entrance to Saint Petersburg's Legislative Assembly wrapped in barbed wire; and, again naked, hammered a 20cm nail through his scrotum into Red Square. In November 2015, he set fire to the doors of Moscow's FSB office in a performance called 'Threat'. Pavlensky and his partner are currently in Paris seeking asylum following accusations of sexual assault in Russia, which they deny.
Feature: Fighting to Preserve the Past
In Russia it’s down to national and local governments to decide what pieces of architecture warrant preservation. St Petersburg in particular spends millions of roubles on maintaining and renovating its stock of historic buildings. However, the pressure group Zhivoi Gorod (Living City; www.save-spb.ru) claims that the city is more interested in destruction, citing the demolition of hundreds of historically important buildings in recent years. However, citizen action in the city did manage to put the dampers on the controversial Okhta Tower, the planned headquarters of Gazprom. That project has now morphed into the Lakhta Tower, 9km from St Petersburg's historic centre.
The Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS; www.maps-moscow.com), a pressure group founded by architects, historians, heritage managers and journalists of various nationalities, has been fighting for several years to preserve the capital’s architectural heritage. Its research shows more than 400 of the city’s listed buildings have been demolished since 1989. Their efforts appear to be paying off, as previously threatened key 20th-century pieces of architecture including the constructivist apartment block Narkomfin, the Shukhov radio tower and Melnikov House have gained protection and are undergoing renovation.
Sidebar: Contemporary Art Online
A couple of good online resources for Russia’s contemporary art scene are Art Guide (http://artguide.com) and The Art Newspaper Russia (www.theartnewspaper.ru), both of which include details of galleries and art shows in Moscow, St Petersburg and elsewhere.
Sidebar: USSR in Construction
The propaganda magazine USSR in Construction (1930–41) featured stunning design and photography by Nikolai Troshin, El Lisstsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova.
Sidebar: Wooden Buildings
- Kizhi Museum Reserve
- Vitoslavlitsy (Veliky Novgorod)
- Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha (Sverdlovsk Region)
- Museum of Volga People’s Architecture & Culture (Nizhny Novgorod)
Sidebar: Style Moderne
- Yaroslavsky vokzal (Moscow)
- Vitebsky vokzal (St Petersburg)
- Singer Building (St Petersburg)
- Kupetz Eliseevs (St Petersburg)
- Cathedral of St Sophia (Veliky Novgorod)
- Trinity Cathedral (Pskov)
- St Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow)
- Church of the Intercession on the Nerl (Bogolyubovo)
For the history of matryoshki (nesting dolls) and other crafts, see www.russian-crafts.com/crafts-history/nesting-dolls-history.html.
Sidebar: A History of Russian Architecture
The classic and comprehensive A History of Russian Architecture, by William Craft Brumfield, covers all the major epochs from the stone churches of Kyivan Rus to post-Stalinist industrial buildings.
Archi.ru (www.archi.ru) is an online resource that includes a daily digest of what's happening in the world of Russian architecture.
Sidebar: Ilya Glazunov
Holding the title of People's Artist of Russia, Ilya Glazunov (www.glazunov.ru) was a staunch defender of the Russian Orthodox cultural tradition which featured prominently in his work.
Landscape & Wildlife
As you’d expect for the world's largest country, spanning 13% of the globe, there’s an enormous variety of terrain and wildlife in Russia. Mountains include Mt Elbrus (5642m), Europe’s highest peak, and the highly active volcanoes of Kamchatka. Vegetative zones range from the frozen tundra in northern Siberia around the Arctic Circle to seemingly endless taiga (forest) and the fecund steppe (grasslands). Fauna boasts the rare Asian black bear and Amur tiger.
Lay of the Land
Urban development is concentrated mainly across Western European Russia and along the iron ribbon of tracks that constitute the Trans-Siberian Railway, thinning out in the frozen north and southern steppe.
Northern Russia is washed by the Barents, Kara, Laptev and East Siberian Seas. South of Finland, Russia opens on the Gulf of Finland, an inlet of the Baltic Sea; St Petersburg stands at the eastern end of this gulf.
East of Ukraine, the Russian Caucasus region commands stretches of the Black Sea and rugged, mountainous borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan. East of the Caucasus, Russia has an oil-rich stretch of Caspian Sea coast, north of which the Kazakhstan border runs up to the Ural Mountains.
Beyond the Urals, Asian Russia covers nearly 14 million sq km. Contrary to popular conception, only the western section of Asian Russia is actually called Siberia (Sibir). From the Amur regions in the south and the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the north, it becomes officially known as the Russian Far East (Dalny Vostok). The eastern seaboard is 15,500km long, giving Russia more ‘Pacific Rim’ than any other country.
Rivers & Lakes
Though none has the fame of the Nile or the Amazon, six of the world’s 20 longest rivers are in Russia. Forming the China–Russia border, the east-flowing Amur (4416km) is nominally longest, along with the Lena (4400km), Yenisey (4090km), Irtysh (4245km) and Ob (3680km), all of which flow north across Siberia, ending up in the Arctic Ocean. In fact, if one were to measure the longest stretch including tributaries (as is frequently done with the Mississippi–Missouri in North America), the Ob–Irtysh would clock up 5410km, and the Angara–Yenisey a phenomenal 5550km. The latter may in fact be the world’s longest river if Lake Baikal and the Selenga River (992km) are included, which directly feed into it. Lake Baikal itself is the world’s deepest, holding nearly one-fifth of all the world’s unfrozen fresh water.
Europe’s longest river, the Volga (3690km), rises northwest of Moscow and flows via Kazan and Astrakhan into the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake (371,800 sq km). Lake Onega (9600 sq km) and Lake Ladoga (18,390 sq km), both northeast of St Petersburg, are the biggest lakes in Europe.
Until the 20th century, boats on Russia’s rivers offered the most important form of transport. Today, rivers are still economically important, but mostly as sources of hydroelectric power, with dozens of major dams creating vast reservoirs. It’s possible to visit Russia’s largest hydroelectric dam at Sayano-Shushenskaya on the Yenisey near Sayanogorsk.
Vegetation & Wildlife
To grasp the full extent of Russia’s enormous diversity of wildlife, it is useful to understand the country's major vegetative zones.
Falling almost completely within the Arctic Circle, and extending from 60km to 420km south from the coast, the tundra is the most inhospitable of Russia’s terrains. The ground is permanently frozen (in places recorded to a depth of 1450m) with whole strata of solid ice and just a thin, fragile carpet of delicate lichens, mosses, grasses and flowers lying on top. The few trees and bushes that manage to cling tenaciously to existence are stunted dwarfs, the permafrost refusing to yield to their roots. For nine months of the year the beleaguered greenery is also buried beneath thick snow. When the brief, warming summer comes, the permafrost prevents drainage and the tundra becomes a spongy wetland, pocked with lakes, pools and puddles.
Not surprisingly, wildlife has it hard on the tundra and there are few species that can survive its climate and desolation. Reindeer, however, have few problems and there are thought to be around four million in Russia’s tundra regions. They can endure temperatures as low as -50°C and, like the camel, can store food reserves. Reindeer sustain themselves on lichen and grasses, in winter sniffing them out and pawing away the snow cover.
A similar diet sustains the lemming, a small, round, fat rodent fixed in the popular consciousness for its proclivity for launching itself en masse from clifftops. More amazing is its rate of reproduction. Lemmings can produce five or six litters annually, each comprising five or six young. The young in turn begin reproducing after only two months. With the lemming three-week gestation period, one pair could spawn close to 10,000 lemmings in a 12-month period. In reality, predators and insufficient food keep numbers down.
Other tundra mammals include the Arctic fox, a smaller, furrier cousin of the European fox and a big lemming fan, and the wolf, which, although it prefers the taiga, will range far and wide, drawn by the lure of reindeer meat. Make it as far as the Arctic coast and you could encounter seals, walruses (notably around Chukotka), polar bears and whales.
Russia’s taiga is the world’s largest forest, covering about 5 million sq km (an area big enough to blanket the whole of India) and accounting for about 29% of the world’s forest cover. Officially the taiga is the dense, moist subarctic coniferous forest that begins where the tundra ends and which is dominated by spruces and firs. When travelling through the depths of Siberia, two or three days can go by with nothing but the impenetrable and foreboding dark wall of the forest visible outside the train: ‘Where it ends,’ wrote Chekhov, ‘only the migrating birds know.’
Though the conditions are less severe than in the Arctic region, it’s still harsh and bitterly cold in winter. The trees commonly found here are pine, larch, spruce and fir. In the coldest (eastern) regions the deciduous larch predominates; by shedding its leaves it cuts down on water loss, and its shallow roots give it the best chance of survival in permafrost conditions.
Due to the permanent shade, the forest-floor vegetation isn’t particularly dense (though it is wiry and spring-loaded, making it difficult for humans to move through), but there are a great variety of grasses, mosses, lichens, berries and mushrooms. These provide ample nourishment for the animals at the lower end of the food chain that, in turn, become food for others.
Among the wildlife that flourishes here are squirrels, chipmunks (which dine well on pine-cone seeds), voles, lemmings, polecats, foxes, wolverines and, less commonly now, the sable – a weasel-like creature whose luxuriant pelt played such a great role in the early exploration of Siberia.
The most common species of large mammal in the taiga is the elk, a large deer that can measure over 2m at the shoulder and weighs almost as much as a bear. The brown bear itself is also a Siberian inhabitant that you may come across, despite the Russian penchant for hunting it. Other taiga-abiding animals include deer, wolves, lynx and foxes.
From the latitudes of Voronezh and Saratov down into the Kuban area north of the Caucasus and all the way across southwestern Siberia stretch vast areas of flat or gently undulating grasslands know as steppe. Since much of this is on humus-rich chernozem (black earth), a large proportion is used to cultivate grain. Where soil is poorer, as in Tuva, the grasslands offer vast open expanses of sheep-mown wilderness, encouraging wildflowers and hikers.
The delta through which the Volga River enters the Caspian is, in contrast to the surrounding area, very rich in flora and fauna. Huge carpets of the pink or white Caspian lotus flower spread across the waters in summer, attracting over 200 species of birds in their millions. Wild boar and 30 other mammal species also roam the land.
The small saygak (a type of antelope), an ancient animal that once grazed all the way from Britain to Alaska, still roams the more arid steppe regions around the northern Caspian Sea. However, the species is under threat of extinction from hunting and the eradication of its traditional habitat.
The steppe gives way to mountainous regions in the Caucasus, a botanist’s wonderland with 6000 highly varied plant species, including glorious wildflowers in summer. Among the animals of the Caucasus are the tur (a mountain goat), bezoar (wild goat), endangered mouflon (mountain sheep), chamois (an antelope), brown bear and reintroduced European bison. The lammergeier (bearded vulture), endangered griffon vulture, imperial eagle, peregrine falcon, goshawk and snowcock are among the Caucasus’ most spectacular birds. Both types of vulture have been known to attack a live tur.
The fantastic array of vegetation and wildlife in Kamchatka is a result of the geothermal bubbling, brewing and rumbling that goes on below the peninsula’s surface, which manifests itself periodically in the eruption of one of around 30 active volcanoes. The minerals deposited by these eruptions have produced some incredibly fertile earth, which is capable of nurturing giant plants with accelerated growth rates. John Massey Stewart, in his book The Nature of Russia, gives the example of the dropwort, normally just a small, unremarkable plant, which in Kamchatka can grow by as much as 10cm in 24 hours and reach a height of up to 4m. In the calderas (craters) of collapsed volcanoes, hot springs and thermal vents maintain a high temperature year-round, creating almost greenhouse-like conditions for plants. Waterfowl and all manner of animals make their way here to shelter from the worst of winter.
The volcanic ash also enriches the peninsula’s rivers, leading to far greater spawnings of salmon than experienced anywhere else. And in thermally warmed pools the salmon also gain weight at a much higher rate. All of which is good news for the region’s predatory mammals and large seabirds (and for local fisherfolk). The bears, in particular, benefit and the numerous Kamchatkan brown bears are the biggest of their species in Russia: a fully grown male stands at over 3m and weighs close to a tonne. Other well-fed fish-eaters are the peninsula’s sea otters (a protected species), seals and the great sea eagle, one of the world’s largest birds of prey, with a 2.5m wingspan. The coastline is favoured by birds, in particular, with over 200 recognised species including auks, tufted puffins and swans.
Completely unique, Ussuriland is largely covered by a monsoon forest filled with an exotic array of flora and fauna, many species of which are found nowhere else in Russia. The topography is dominated by the Sikhote-Alin Range, which runs for more than 1000km in a spine parallel to the coast. Unlike the sparsely vegetated woodland floor of the taiga, the forests of Ussuriland have a lush undergrowth, with lianas and vines twined around trunks and draped from branches.
However, it’s Ussuriland’s animal life that arouses the most interest – not so much the wolves, sables or Asian black bears (tree-climbing, herbivorous cousins to the more common brown bears, also found here), as the Siberian or Amur tiger. The largest of all wild cats, the Siberian tiger can measure up to 3.5m in length. They prey on boar, though they’ve been observed to hunt and kill bears, livestock and even humans.
Ussuriland is also home to the Amur leopard, a big cat significantly rarer than the tiger, though less impressive and consequently less often mentioned. Around 30 of these leopards roam the lands bordering China and North Korea. Sadly, both the leopard and tiger are under threat from constant poaching by both Chinese and Russian hunters. For more about this beautiful animal see ALTA (Amur Leopard & Tiger Alliance; www.altaconservation.org).
State Nature Reserves
Russia has 102 official nature reserves (zapovedniki). First created in January 1917 (by the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II), these are areas set aside to protect fauna and flora, often habitats of endangered or unique species. Visitor controls are very strict.
There are also 48 national parks (natsionalniye parki), ranging from the relatively tiny Bryansk Forest (122 sq km) on the border with Ukraine to the mammoth 88,000 sq km Russian Arctic made up of over 190 islands and, since the inclusion of Franz Josef Land in 2016, the nation's largest such reserve.
Other protected areas include 59 federal refuges, and 17 federal natural monuments. The government has plans for at least 18 new federally protected areas, including at least 11 national parks, and to expand some of the currently protected areas.
Some of these parks are open to visitors and, unlike in the old days when visitors’ ramblings were strictly controlled, today you can sometimes hire the staff to show you around.
Top Parks & Reserves
Bystrinsky Nature Park
mountain hikes, volcanoes, reindeer herds
Best time to visit
Jul & Aug
Kronotsky Biosphere State Reserve
volcanoes (11 active cones), geysers, bears, caribou, seals, otters
Best time to visit
Jul & Aug
Kurshskaya Kosa National Park
giant sand dunes, ornithological station, ‘dancing forest’ of twisted pines
Best time to visit
Prielbruse National Park
Mt Elbrus, glaciers, waterfalls, bears, chamois, wild goats, enormous range of plant life
Best time to visit
skiing year-round; climbing & hiking Jun–Sep
Samara Bend National Park
Zhiguli Hills, hiking along rocky ledges, grand Volga vistas
Best time to visit
Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve
Manchurian red deer, wild boar, subtropical forests, tigers
Best time to visit
Jul & Aug
Stolby Nature Reserve
volcanic rock pillars
Best time to visit
Taganay National Park
some of the southern Ural Mountains’ notable ridges (Small, Middle & Big Taganay, Itsyl)
Best time to visit
Teberdinsky State Natural Biosphere Reserve
European bison, lynx, bears, chamois, boar & deer in a near-pristine temperate ecosystem
Best time to visit
skiing Dec–Apr; climbing & hiking May–Sep
Zyuratkul National Park
forested ridges, heart-shaped lake
Best time to visit
To commemorate the centenary of Russia's first nature reserve, President Putin officially decreed 2017 to be the 'Year of Ecology and Protected Areas'. Yet this is also a nation where fossil fuels rule. Oil, gas and coal produce 90% of Russia's energy, with nonfossil fuel energy sources barely getting a look in.
Environmental groups including Greenpeace Russia and the Norway-based NGO Bellona are highly critical of Russia’s oil and gas industry expanding their operations in the country’s delicate Arctic regions. In September 2013, the Russian navy intercepted Greenpeace's icebreaker Arctic Sunrise and towed it 320km to Murmansk, where the crew of 28 and two journalists on board were jailed for over two months on charges of piracy and hooliganism: they had been protesting oil exploration in the Barents Sea.
Few would dispute that Russia's delicate tundra and Arctic ecosystems have been destabilised by the construction of buildings, roads and railways and the extraction of underground resources. Of particular concern is the impact on the low-lying Yamal Peninsula at the mouth of the Ob, which contains some of the world’s biggest gas reserves; parts of the peninsula have been crumbling into the sea as the permafrost melts near gas installations. However, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom claims continued development of the on- and offshore Yamal fields is ‘crucial for securing Russia’s gas production build-up’ into the 21st century (see www.gazprom.com/about/production/projects/mega-yamal).
It’s not just in the Arctic that new oil and gas fields are being developed: the Caspian and Baltic Seas and the Sea of Japan around Sakhalin and Kamchatka are also being drilled. Yet, according to Greenpeace Russia, there are almost no sea oil-spill and toxic-pollution prevention and response programs in the country – as demonstrated when an oil tanker sank in the Azov Sea in November 2007, spilling 1300 tonnes of fuel oil and 6100 tonnes of sulphur into the sea, affecting at least 20km of coastline.
Campaign groups such as Bellona have also claimed that environmental law was rewritten to accommodate illegal construction and waste dumping on previously protected lands during the construction phase of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and that the area’s drinking water was poisoned. When locals attempted to protest, they were harassed and jailed, such as environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko who served 22 months in a penal colony for his activism and was recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Feature: Putin & the Tigers
It’s no secret that Vladimir Putin has a thing for tigers. In a publicity stunt in 2008, he was pictured fixing a tracking collar to a fully grown female Siberian tiger (also known as Amur tigers) after having shot her with a tranquilising dart. The same year, for his 56th birthday, Putin was presented with a two-month-old tiger cub: he later donated it to a zoo in Krasnodar Territory.
In November 2010, Putin hosted the International Tiger Conservation Forum in St Petersburg with the aim of doubling the number of tigers in the wild from 3200 to 7000 by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. And in 2014, Putin was at it again, releasing three orphaned tigers into a remote part of the Amur Region. All this attention does appear to be helping, as the recorded number of tigers is slowly on the rise.
Sidebar: Russian Nature Conservation
Wild Russia (www.wild-russia.org) is a website created by the US-based Center for Russian Nature Conservation, which assists and promotes nature conservation across Russia.
Sidebar: Kola Peninsula
Roger Took’s Running with Reindeer is a vivid account of his travels in Russia’s Kola Peninsula and the wildlife found there.
Forest.ru (http://old.forest.ru), a site about Russian forests, their conservation and sustainable usage, has a lot of background and current information in English.
Sidebar: Russian Far East
The Russian Far East, A Reference Guide for Conservation and Development, edited by Josh Newell, gathers work by 90 specialists from Russia, the UK and the US on this fascinating chunk of the country.
Sidebar: Siberian Tigers
A 2015 survey by the World Wildlife Fund found as many as 540 Amur tigers living in the Russian Far East, a significant increase over previous figures.
Sidebar: Beautiful Lakes
- Baikal (Eastern Siberia)
- Seliger (Tver Region)
- Onega (Karelia)
- Teletskoe (Altai)
Sidebar: World Heritage Sites
- Virgin Komi Forests, the Ural Mountains
- Lake Baikal
- Kamchatka’s volcanoes
- Altai Mountains
- Western Caucasus
- Curonian Spit
- Central Sikhote-Alin Range
- Lena Pillars
Sidebar: Russian Geographical Society
The Russian Geographical Society runs an annual media project (http://photo.rgo.ru) dedicated to the conservation of Russia's wild nature and fostering respect for the environment through the art of photography.
Sidebar: Novaya Zemlya
Novaya Zemlya, two islands that together cover 90,650 sq km, are a far-northern extension of the Ural Mountains in the Barents Sea. In October 1961 the USSR exploded the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested here.
Sidebar: Nature Places
The BBC website Nature Places (www.bbc.co.uk/nature/places/russia) has a series of short videos highlighting different aspects of Russia's amazing landscape and biodiversity.