Moscow has always been known for the richness of its culture, ranging from the traditional to the progressive. Whether a Tchaikovsky opera or an Ostrovsky drama, the classical performing arts in Moscow are among the best in the world. But New Russia comes with new forms of art and entertainment. This bohemian side of Moscow – be it a beatnik band or experimental theatre – provides a glimpse of Russia’s future.
The classics never go out of style. This is certainly true for music in Moscow, where Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and especially Tchaikovsky still feature in concert halls on an almost daily basis. The atmosphere in these places is a little stuffy, but the musicianship is first rate and the compositions are timeless. However, music in Moscow takes many forms, and these days rock, blues and jazz are ubiquitous in the capital; you can also hear alternative contemporary styles like funk, ska, house, hip hop, trip-hop and more.
Classical Music & Opera
The defining period of Russian classical music was from the 1860s to 1900. As Russian composers (and painters and writers) struggled to find a national identity, several influential schools formed, from which some of Russia’s most famous composers and finest music emerged. The so-called Group of Five, which included Modest Mussorgsky (1839–81) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), believed that a radical departure from Europe was necessary, and they looked to byliny (folk music) for themes. Mussorgsky penned Pictures at an Exhibition and the opera Boris Godunov; Rimsky-Korsakov is best known for Scheherazade.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93) also embraced Russian folklore and music, as well as the disciplines of Western European composers. Tchaikovsky is widely regarded as the father of Russian national composers. His compositions – which include the magnificent 1812 Overture; concertos and symphonies; ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker; and the opera Yevgeny Onegin – are among the world’s most popular classical works. They are certainly the shows that are staged most often at theatres around Moscow.
Following in Tchaikovsky’s romantic footsteps was Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) and the innovative Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). 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 1934, wrote the scores for Sergei Eisenstein’s films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Peter and the Wolf, so beloved by music teachers of young children. His work, however, was condemned for ‘formalism’ towards the end of his life.
Similarly, Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–75) was alternately praised and condemned by the Soviet government. He wrote brooding, bizarrely dissonant works, in addition to more accessible traditional classical music. After official condemnation by Stalin, Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (also known as the Leningrad Symphony) 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 formalist music in 1948, then ‘rehabilitated’ him after Stalin’s death.
Classical opera was performed regularly during the Soviet period, and continues to be popular. Nowadays, the top theatres – especially the Bolshoi – are attempting to showcase new works by contemporary composers, as well as unknown works that were censored or banned in the past.
Russian music is not all about classical composers. Ever since the ‘bourgeois’ Beatles filtered through in the 1960s, Russians both young and old have been keen to sign up for the pop revolution. Starved of decent equipment and the chance to record or perform to big audiences, Russian rock groups initially developed underground. All music was circulated by illegal tapes known as magizdat, passed from listener to listener; concerts were held in remote halls in city suburbs. By the 1970s – the Soviet hippie era – such music had developed a huge following among the disaffected, distrustful youth.
Andrei Makarevich was the leader of Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), now considered one of the patriarch groups of Soviet rock. Inspired by the Beatles, the band formed in 1968, playing simple guitar riffs and singable melodies. Even today, Mashina Vremeni remains popular across generations.
The god of russky rok, though, was Viktor Tsoy, front person of the group Kino; the band’s classic album is 1988’s Gruppa Krovi (Blood Group). Tsoy’s early death in a 1990 car crash sealed his legendary status. To this day, there is a graffiti-covered wall on ul Arbat that is dedicated to Tsoy, and fans gather on the anniversary of his death (15 August) to play his music.
Many contemporary favourites on the Russian rock scene have been playing together since the early days. One of the most notable Moscow bands (originally from Vladivostok) is Mumiy Troll, led by the androgynous Ilya Lagutenko. After 25 years, the band continues to produce innovative stuff. Its latest studio album, Piratskie Kopii, was released in 2015.
Gaining worldwide renown is Bi-2, whose members Shura and Leva have lived in Israel and Australia. Their popularity soared with the release of their namesake album in 2000. The duo is famed for their collaborations with other Russian rock stars. Several years and several records later, this ‘post-punk’ duo often appears at Moscow rock festivals.
Making a name for herself in the folk scene, art-rock-folk vocalist Pelageya is apparently Putin’s favourite. She sings rock arrangements of folk songs including one that she performed at the Sochi Olympics. Arkona represent the incongruous pagan metal movement – heavy metal music that incorporates Russian folklore, Slavic mythology and other pre-Christian rites. Arkona employs traditional Russian instruments and its lead singer is renowned for her death-growl singing style.
The likes of techno-pop girl duo tATu and pretty-boy singer Dima Bilan (winner of 2008’s Eurovision Song Contest) are the tame international faces of Russia’s contemporary music scene. tATu has been mostly on the fritz since 2011, although the duo did reunite long enough to perform at the Sochi Olympics.
At the other end of the spectrum, today's most renowned Moscow rockers are Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock band, who famously staged a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in protest of Putin's election in 2012. The one-minute performance was used in their music video Punk Prayer, and led to the arrest of three members of the band. The women were sentenced to two years in prison, which was widely considered too harsh for the crime, but they were released on amnesty after about six months.
Ballet & Dance
Ballet in Russia evolved as an offshoot of French dance combined with Russian folk and peasant dance techniques. As a part of his efforts towards Westernisation, Peter the Great invited artists from France to perform this new form of dance. In 1738 French dance master Jean Baptiste Lande established a school of dance in St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the precursor to the famed Vaganova School of Choreography. The Bolshoi Opera & Ballet Company was founded a few years later in 1776.
The father of Russian ballet is considered to be the French dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa (1819–1910), who acted as principal dancer and premier ballet master of the Imperial Theatre. All told he produced more than 60 full ballets, including the classics Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.
At the turn of the 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took Europe by storm. The stage decor was unlike anything seen before. Painted by artists such as Alexander Benois, Mikhail Larianov, Natalia Goncharova and Leon Bakst, it suspended disbelief and shattered the audience’s sense of illusion.
During Soviet rule ballet enjoyed a privileged status, which allowed companies such as the Bolshoi to maintain a level of lavish production and high performance standards. In the 1960s Yury Grigorovich emerged as a bright, new choreographer, with Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible and other successes.
Grigorovich directed the company for over 30 years, but not without controversy. In the late 1980s he came to loggerheads with some of his leading dancers. Many stars resigned, accusing him of being ‘brutal’ and ‘Stalinist’. With encouragement from President Yeltsin, Grigorovich finally resigned in 1995, prompting his loyal dancers to stage the Bolshoi’s first-ever strike.
In the next decade, the Bolshoi would go through three different artistic directors, all of them promising, but none able to pry Grigorovich’s conservative grasp from the company. Finally, in 2004, rising star Alexei Ratmansky was appointed artistic director. Born in 1968 in Ukraine, Ratmansky was young but accomplished. Most notably, The Bright Stream – which received a National Dance Award in 2003 – earned him the promotion.
Ratmansky’s productions were well received, even when he stretched the traditionally narrow focus of the Bolshoi. In 2006, in honour of the 100th anniversary of Dmitry Shostakovich’s birthday, the Bolshoi ballet premiered the composer’s ballet The Bolt. Prior to that, the ballet was performed exactly once – in 1931 – before it was banned by the Soviet regime for its formalist errors. Ratmansky earned the Golden Mask in 2007 for his staging of Jeu de Cartes. In 2008 he recreated the revolutionary ballet Flames of Paris, which was originally performed in the 1930s.
After Ratmansky's resignation, the Bolshoi again experienced rapid turnover in direction, with a fair amount of scandal to keep everybody's attention. Most dramatically, in 2013, artistic director Sergei Filin was attacked with sulphuric acid, causing severe disfiguration and loss of eyesight. A disgruntled dancer was charged with orchestrating the crime.
Since 2016 the Bolshoi has been operating under the artistic direction of Makhar Vaziev, a former Mariinsky director and a self-proclaimed autocrat. Vaziev promises to implement a well-practised strategy of promoting young talent and experimenting with innovative programming.
Meanwhile, controversies continue to swirl around the Bolshoi. In 2017 the company cancelled a show just three days before its premiere. The new production was about the life of Rudolf Nureyev, a celebrated Soviet dancer who defected to the West – and who also happened to be bisexual. Journalists have speculated that the show was cancelled due to its subject matter (which might violate the infamous 'gay propaganda' law). The company's director claimed it was just not good enough during rehearsals.
Will Vaziev be able to navigate the politics of Russia's most prominent ballet company? And will he be able to exercise his artistic licence as hoped? Stay tuned for the next episode...
Other Dance Companies
The Bolshoi is Moscow’s best known (and therefore most political) ballet company, but other companies in the city have equally talented dancers and directors. Both the Kremlin Ballet and the Stanislavsky & Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre stage excellent performances of the Russian classics.
The New Ballet, directed by Pavel Nestratov, stages a completely different kind of dance. Dubbed ‘plastic ballet’, it combines dance with pantomime and drama. Productions vary widely, incorporating elements such as folk tales, poetry and improvised jazz. This bizarre, playful performance art is a refreshing addition to Moscow’s dance scene.
Moscow’s oldest theatre, the Maly Theatre, was established in 1756 upon the decree of Empress Elizabeth. But Russia’s theatre scene flourished under the patronage of drama lover Catherine the Great, who set up the Imperial Theatre Administration and herself penned several plays. During her reign Moscow playwright Denis Fonvizin wrote The Brigadier (1769) and The Minor (1791), satirical comedies that are still performed today.
Alexander Ostrovsky (1823–86) was a prominent playwright who lived in Zamoskvorechie and based many of his plays on the merchants and nobles who were his neighbours. As the director of the Maly Theatre, he is credited with raising the reputation of that institution as a respected drama theatre and school. Other 19th-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; and Ivan Turgenev, whose languid A Month in the Country (1849) paved the way for the most famous Russian playwright of all: Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
Chekhov lived on the Garden Ring in Presnya, though he spent much of his time at his country estate in Melikhovo. In 1898 Konstantin Stanislavsky implemented his innovative approach of method acting and made Chekhov a success. Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, 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.
Through the Soviet period theatre remained popular, 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 of Mikhail Bulgakov’s play White Guard that, although it 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 who was never persecuted.
Others were not so fortunate. The rebellious director of the Taganka Theatre, Yury Lyubimov, was sent into exile as a result of his controversial plays. The avant-garde actor-director Vsevolod Meyerhold suffered an even worse fate. Not only was his Moscow theatre closed down but he was imprisoned and later tortured and executed as a traitor.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Pyotr Fomenko was unable to find permanent work until he set up his own theatre company, which became wildly popular almost immediately. The Pyotr Fomenko Studio Theatre moved into a proper (beautiful) home theatre in 2008, just a few short years before the beloved director died in 2012.
Today, Moscow’s theatre scene is as lively as those in London and New York. The capital hosts over 40 theatres, which continue to entertain and provoke audiences. Notable directors include Kirill Serebrennikov, who does not shy away from touchy subjects in his productions at the Gogol Centre; Kama Ginkas, who works with the Moscow Art Theatre and the New Generation Theatre; and Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, who cowrite and direct their plays under the joint name Presnyakov Brothers.
While Western circuses grow smaller and scarcer, the Russian versions are like those from childhood stories – prancing horses with acrobats on their backs, snarling lions and tigers, heart-stopping high-wire artists and hilarious clowns. No wonder the circus remains highly popular, with around half the population attending a performance once a year.
The Russian circus has its roots in the medieval travelling minstrels (skomorokhi), and circus performers today still have a similar lifestyle. The Russian State Circus company, RosGosTsirk, assigns its members to a particular circus for a performance season, then rotates them around to other locations. What the members give up in stability they gain in job security. RosGosTsirk ensures them employment throughout their circus career.
Many circus performers find their calling not by chance but by ancestry. It is not unusual for generations of one family to practise the same circus skill, be it tightrope walking or lion taming. Long-time performers claim that once the circus is in their bones and blood, it's nearly impossible to leave it behind.
Moscow is home to several circuses, including the acclaimed Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar. Its namesake is the clown Yury Nikulin, an empathetic figure who was beloved by all, from the smallest children to the powers that be, until his death in 1997. (Apparently he was a friend of Mayor Luzhkov and President Yeltsin.)
Speaking of empathy, most of the major troupes have cleaned up their act with regard to the treatment of animals. In Moscow circuses, it is unlikely you will see animals treated cruelly, though their very presence in the ring is controversial.
Sidebar: Bolshoi Babylon
The attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin and the toxic politics that provoked it are the subject of the 2016 documentary Bolshoi Babylon.
Sidebar: Classical Music Venues
- Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (Presnya)
- Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (Presnya)
- Moscow International House of Music (Zamoskvorechie)
Sidebar: Contemporary Music Venues
- Sixteen Tons (Presnya)
- Rhythm Blues Cafe (Presnya)
- Duma Bar (Presnya)
Sidebar: Dance Venues
- Bolshoi Theatre (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
- Stanislavsky & Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
- New Ballet (Meshchansky & Basmanny)
- Kremlin Ballet (Kremlin & Kitay Gorod)
Sidebar: Drama Theatres
- Moscow Art Theatre (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
- Moscow English Theatre (Presnya)
- Gogol Centre (Meshchansky & Basmanny)
- Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
- Bolshoi Circus on Vernadskogo (Arbat & Khamovniki)
Art & Architecture
The Russian capital is an endless source of amusement and amazement for the art and architecture aficionado. Moscow has great visual appeal, from the incredible Moscow baroque and Russian-revival architecture to the world-famous collections of Russian and Impressionist art. Now the capital is experiencing a burst of creative energy as artists and architects experiment with integrating old and new forms in this timeless city.
Timeline: Russian Art & Architecture
Andrei Rublyov paints the icons in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin and in the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, representing the peak of Moscow iconography.
Churches with tent roofs and onion domes represent a uniquely Russian architectural style, the pinnacle of which is St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square.
The Imperial Academy of Arts is established to support romantic and classical painting and sculpture.
After boycotting the Imperial Academy of Arts, a group of rebellious art students form the Peredvizhniki (Society of Wanderers), whose work focuses on social and political issues.
Fyodor Shekhtel fuses Russian revival and art nouveau to create architectural masterpieces such as Yaroslavsky station and Ryabushinksy Mansion.
Kazimir Malevich publishes a treatise on suprematism, as exemplified by his iconic painting The Black Square. Constructivist artists and architects explore the idea of art with a social purpose.
Avant-garde ideas are officially out of favour with the institution of socialist realism. Architecture tends towards bombastic neoclassicism.
The policy of glasnost, or openness, gradually allows for more freedom of expression by artists and architects, who begin to explore diverse styles and themes.
Art is busting out all over Moscow, with the ongoing expansion of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the countless new contemporary art galleries that are taking over the city’s former industrial spaces.
Up until the 17th century, religious icons were Russia’s key art form. Originally painted by monks as a spiritual exercise, icons are images intended to aid the veneration of the holy subjects they depict, and are sometimes believed able to grant luck, wishes or even miracles. They’re most commonly found on the iconostasis (screen) of a church.
Traditional rules decreed that only Christ, the Virgin, angels, saints and scriptural events could be depicted by icons – all of which were supposed to be copies of a limited number of approved prototype images. Christ images include the Pantokrator (All-Ruler) and the Mandilion, the latter called ‘not made by hand’ because it was supposedly developed from the imprint of Christ’s face on St Veronica’s handkerchief. Icons were traditionally painted in tempera (inorganic pigment mixed with a binder such as egg yolk) on wood.
The beginning of a distinct Russian icon tradition came when artists in Novgorod started to draw on 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 (1340–1405), or Feofan Grek in Russian. Working in Byzantium, Novgorod and Moscow, Theophanes brought a new delicacy and grace to the form. His finest works are in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.
Andrei Rublyov (1370–1430), a monk at the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius and Andronikov Monastery, was the greatest Russian icon painter. His most famous work is the dreamy Old Testament Trinity, in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.
The layperson Dionysius, the leading late-15th-century icon painter, elongated his figures and refined the use of colour. Sixteenth-century icons were smaller and more crowded, their figures more realistic and Russian-looking. In 17th-century Moscow, Simon Ushakov (1626–86) moved towards Western religious painting with the use of perspective and architectural backgrounds.
Besides the outstanding collection at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Rublyov Museum of Early Russian Culture & Art, there is an impressive private collection on display at the Museum of the Russian Icon, not to mention the many churches around town.
Peredvizhniki & Russian Revival
The major artistic force of the 19th century was the Peredvizhniki (Society of Wanderers) movement, in which art was seen as a vehicle for promoting national awareness and social change. The movement gained its name from the touring exhibitions with which it widened its audience. These artists were patronised by the brothers Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov (after whom the Tretyakov Gallery is named). Peredvizhniki artists included Vasily Surikov (1848–1916), who painted vivid Russian historical scenes; Nikolai Ghe (1831–94), who depicted Biblical and historical scenes; and Ilya Repin (1884–1930), perhaps the best loved of all Russian artists, whose works ranged from social criticism (Barge Haulers on the Volga) to history (Zaporozhie Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan) to portraits. Many Peredvizhniki masterpieces are on display at the Tretyakov Gallery.
Later in the century, industrialist Savva Mamontov was a significant patron of the arts, promoting a Russian revivalist movement. His Abramtsevo estate near Moscow became an artists’ colony. One frequent resident was Victor Vasnetsov (1848–1926), a Russian-revivalist painter and architect famous for his historical paintings with fairy-tale subjects. In 1894 Vasnetsov designed his own house in Moscow, which is now a small museum. He also designed the original building for the Tretyakov Gallery, as well as the chapel at Abramtsevo.
Nikolai Rerikh (1874–1947) – known internationally as Nicholas Roerich – was an artist whose fantastical artwork is characterised by rich, bold colours, primitive style and mystical themes. In 2013 Rerikh's mesmerising painting Madonna Laboris sold at auction in London for some £7.9 million, temporarily topping the ever-changing list of most expensive Russian paintings. In Moscow, Rerikh's paintings are on display at the Museum of Oriental Art. The dedicated Rerikh Museum has closed due to a state takeover.
The work of late-19th-century genius Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910) is unique in form and style. He was inspired by sparkling Byzantine and Venetian mosaics. His panels on the sides of the Hotel Metropol are some of his best work.
In the 20th century, Russian art became a mishmash of groups, styles and ‘isms’, as it absorbed decades of European change in a few years. It finally gave birth to its own avant-garde futurist movements.
Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964) and Natalya Goncharova (1881–1962) developed neoprimitivism, a movement based on popular arts and primitive icons. Just a few years later, Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935) announced the arrival of suprematism. His utterly abstract geometrical shapes (with the black square representing the ultimate ‘zero form’) freed art from having to depict the material world and made it a doorway to higher realities. Another famed futurist, who managed to escape subordinate ‘isms’, was Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was also a poet. Works by all of these artists are on display at the New Tretyakov Gallery, as well as the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
An admirer of Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) was one of the founders of the constructivist movement. He was a graphic designer, sculptor and painter, but he is best known for his innovative photography. Rodchenko’s influence on graphic design is immeasurable, as many of his techniques were used widely later in the 20th century.
Futurists turned to the needs of the revolution – education, posters and banners – with enthusiasm. They had a chance to enact their theories of how art shapes society. But, at the end of the 1920s, abstract art fell out of favour and was branded ‘formalist’. The Communist Party wanted ‘socialist realism’, or realist art that advanced the goals of the glorious socialist revolution. Images of striving workers, heroic soldiers and inspiring leaders took over from abstraction. Plenty of examples of this realism are on display at the New Tretyakov Gallery. Two million sculptures of Lenin and Stalin dotted the country. Kazimir Malevich ended up painting penetrating portraits and doing designs for Red Square parades; Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide.
After Stalin, an avant-garde ‘conceptualist’ underground was allowed to form. Ilya Kabakov (1933–) painted, or sometimes just arranged the debris of everyday life, to show the gap between the promises and realities of Soviet existence. The ‘Sotsart’ style of Erik Bulatov (1933–) pointed to the devaluation of language by ironically reproducing Soviet slogans and depicting words disappearing over the horizon.
In 1962 the Moscow artist union celebrated the post-Stalin thaw with an exhibit of previously banned 'unofficial' art. Cautious reformer Khrushchev was aghast by what he saw, declaring the artwork to be 'dog shit'. The artists returned to the underground.
The best-known artists in post–Soviet Russia are individuals who have been favoured by politicians in power, meaning that their work appears in public places. You might not know the name Alexander Burganov (1935–), but you will certainly recognise his sculptures, which grace the Arbat and other locales. More notorious than popular is the artist and architect Zurab Tsereteli (1934–), whose monumental buildings and statues are ubiquitous in Moscow.
Religious painter Ilya Glazunov (1930–2017) was a staunch defender of the Russian Orthodox cultural tradition, while Alexander Shilov (1943–) is famous for his portraits of contemporary movers and shakers.
That said, the real stars of the era are the artists who had no resources and no expectations. Among these young and disenfranchised, a sort of destructive performance art came to the fore in the 1990s, known as 'Moscow Actionism'. Oleg Kulik and Anatoly Osmolovsky were pioneers of the movement, while Alexander Brenner was famously expelled from Russia after he vandalised a Malevich painting. Nowadays a new generation of artists – such as Pyotr Pavlensky – are practising such performance art with a more minimalist style and more meaningful symbolic action.
The most intriguing aspect of Moscow’s contemporary art scene is not the established artists, but rather the up-and-coming creatives who are stashed at the city’s art centres. Recently featured at Winzavod, Evgeny Granilshikov uses video and other cinematic media to express his generation's disappointment with politics. Taus Makhacheva is a Dagestani whose art addressing national identity appeared at the Venice Biennale and other local venues.
Artists now have tremendous freedom to depict all aspects of Russian life. Many art professionals state categorically that there is no censorship in Russia, although most acknowledge a degree of self-censorship. That said, anecdotal evidence shows that contemporary artists and curators risk prosecution, especially if they tackle such sensitive topics as the war in Chechnya or the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nonetheless, contemporary art receives unprecedented support from the powers-that-be, with the government pitching in to fund prestigious events such as the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Many oligarchs have also stepped in to foster homegrown talent and develop a vibrant art scene. Leonid Mikhelson, founder of Novatek and Russia's richest man (according to Forbes), started the V-A-C Foundation to support contemporary art. The foundation has sponsored countless exhibitions in Moscow and around the world since its inception, and its massive new art centre, GES-2, is now under construction on the site of a former power plant. Redesigned by Renzo Piano, the project is slated for completion in 2019.
Moscow’s streets are a textbook of Russian history, with churches, mansions, theatres and hotels standing as testament to the most definitive periods. Despite the tendency to demolish and rebuild (exhibited both in the past and in the present), Moscow has managed to preserve an impressive array of architectural gems.
Moscow’s oldest architecture has its roots in Kyivan Rus. The quintessential structure is the Byzantine cross-shaped church, topped with vaulted roofs and a central dome. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Russian culture moved from Kyiv to principalities further northeast. These towns – now comprising the so-called ‘Golden Ring’ – copied the Kyivan architectural design, developing their own variations on the pattern. Roofs grew steeper to prevent the crush of heavy snow; windows grew narrower to keep out the cold.
In many cases, stone replaced brick as the traditional building material. For example the white stone Assumption Cathedral and Golden Gate, both in Vladimir, are close copies of similar brick structures in Kyiv. In some cases, the stone facade became a tableau for a glorious kaleidoscope of carved images, such as the Cathedral of St Dmitry in Vladimir and the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl in Bogolyubovo.
Early church-citadel complexes required protection, so all of these settlements had sturdy, fortress-style walls replete with fairy-tale towers – Russia’s archetypal kremlins. They are still visible in Suzdal and, of course, Moscow.
At the end of the 15th century, Ivan III imported architects from Italy to build two of the three great cathedrals in the Moscow Kremlin: Assumption Cathedral and Archangel Cathedral. Nonetheless, the outsider architects looked to Kyiv for their inspiration, again copying the Byzantine design.
It was not until the 16th century that architects found inspiration in the tent roofs and onion domes on the wooden churches in the north of Russia. Their innovation was to construct these features out of brick, which contributed to a new, uniquely Russian style of architecture. The whitewashed Ascension Church at Kolomenskoe is said to be the earliest example of this innovative style, featuring open galleries at its base, tiers of kokoshniki (colourful tiles and gables laid in patterns) in the centre, and the pronounced tent roof up top. St Basil’s Cathedral is the ultimate example of the Russian style, but there are plenty of other examples around Moscow.
In the 17th century, merchants financed smaller churches bedecked with tiers of kokoshniki. The Church of St Nicholas in Khamovniki and the Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki are excellent examples, as are most of the churches in Suzdal. Patriarch Nikon outlawed such frippery shortly after the construction of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in Putinki.
Embellishments returned at the end of the 17th century with the Western-influenced Moscow baroque. This style is sometimes called Naryshkin baroque, named after the boyar family that inhabited the western suburbs of Fili in the 17th century. There, in honour of his brothers' deaths, Lev Naryshkin commissioned the Church of the Intercession, the ornate beauty that would define the city's style for years to come. It featured exquisite white detailing against red-brick walls. Another example is the Epiphany Cathedral in the monastery of the same name in Kitay Gorod. Zamoskvorechie is a treasure chest of Moscow baroque churches.
Tsar Alexander I favoured the grandiose Russian Empire style, commissioning it almost exclusively. Moscow abounds with Empire-style buildings, since much of the city had to be rebuilt after the fire of 1812. The flamboyant decorations of earlier times were used on the huge new buildings erected to proclaim Russia’s importance, such as the Triumphal Arch and the Bolshoi Theatre.
The Russian revival of the end of the 19th century extended to architecture. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was inspired by Byzantine Russian architecture. The State History Museum and the Leningradsky vokzal (Leningrad station) were inspired by medieval Russian styles. The extraordinary Kazansky vokzal (Kazan station) embraces no fewer than seven earlier styles.
Meanwhile, Russia’s take on art nouveau – Style Moderne – added wonderful curvaceous flourishes to many buildings across Moscow. Splendid examples include Yaroslavsky vokzal, the Hotel Metropol and Ryabushinsky Mansion.
The revolution gave rise to young constructivist architects, who rejected superficial decoration; they designed buildings whose appearance was a direct function of their uses and materials – a new architecture for a new society. They used lots of glass and concrete in uncompromising geometric forms.
Konstantin Melnikov was probably the most famous constructivist, and his own house off ul Arbat is one of the most interesting and unusual examples of the style. The former bus depot that now houses the Jewish Museum & Centre of Tolerance is a more utilitarian example. In the 1930s constructivism was denounced, as Stalin had much grander predilections.
Stalin favoured neoclassical architecture, which echoed ancient Athens. He also favoured building on a gigantic scale to underline the might of the Soviet state. Monumental classicism inspired a 400m-high design for Stalin’s pet project, a Palace of Soviets, which (mercifully) never got off the ground.
Stalin’s architectural excesses reached their apogee in the seven wedding-cake-style skyscrapers that adorn the Moscow skyline, also known as the ‘Seven Sisters’.
In 1955 a schizophrenic decree ordered architects to avoid ‘excesses’. A bland modern style was introduced, stressing function over form. The State Kremlin Palace is representative of this period. The White House was built later, but harks back to this style.
Contemporary Planning & Development
At the end of the Soviet Union, architectural energies and civic funds were initially funnelled into the restoration of decayed churches and monasteries, as well as the rebuilding of structures such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Kazan Cathedral.
In the 2000s Moscow was a hotbed of development. Skyscrapers and steeples changed the city skyline; the metro expanded in all directions; and office buildings, luxury hotels and shopping centres went up all over the city.
The most visible urban development is in Moscow-City, the flashy new International Business Centre that is sprouting up along the Moscow River in Presnya. The complex is impressive, with shiny glass-and-metal buildings on either side of the Moscow River and a cool pedestrian bridge connecting them. It includes two of Europe's tallest skyscrapers: at 374m, the 93-storey Tower East (Vostok) of the Federation complex is the tallest building in both Russia and Europe; the 85-storey OKO south tower is not far behind, at 354m.
With the appointment of Sergei Sobyanin, the pace of construction has slowed dramatically. Several large-scale shopping malls and other projects were called off, in favour of more enlightened endeavours. Urban planning has shifted to focus on the redevelopment of parks such as Gorky Park, as well as increasing and improving pedestrian routes, such as the fountain- and art-filled Krymskaya Naberezhnaya. Sobyanin's focus on public places – emphasising usability and liveability – is a radical departure from the policies of his predecessor.
The highest profile example, perhaps, is the site of the former Hotel Rossiya in Zaryadye near Kitay Gorod. The Soviet behemoth was destroyed in 2006, in anticipation of a new luxury hotel and commercial complex. When the recession hit two years later, investors pulled out and construction came to a halt. After six years, the city administration finally reached some conclusion about what to do with the prime real estate: turn it into a park. New in 2017, the green space recreates Russia's four micro-climates – taiga, steppe, forest and marsh – while other facilities include an outdoor amphitheatre and several new museums.
Feature: Stalin’s Seven Sisters
The foundations for seven large skyscrapers were laid in 1947 to mark Moscow’s 800th anniversary. Stalin had decided that Moscow suffered from a ‘skyscraper gap’ when compared to the USA, and ordered the construction of these seven behemoths to jump-start the city’s skyline.
One of the main architects, Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, had worked in New York during the skyscraper boom of the 1930s, and his experience proved essential. (Fortunately, he’d been released from the Gulag in time to help.)
In addition to the ‘Seven Sisters’ listed here, there were plans in place to build an eighth Stalinist skyscraper in Zaryadye (near Kitay Gorod). The historic district was razed in 1947 and a foundation was laid for a 32-storey tower. It did not get any further than that – for better and for worse – and the foundation was later used for the gargantuan Hotel Rossiya (demolished in 2006). This is now the site of the new Park Zaryadye.
With their widely scattered locations, the towers provide a unique visual reference for Moscow. Their official name in Russia is vysotky (high-rise) as opposed to neboskryob (foreign skyscraper). They have been nicknamed variously the ‘Seven Sisters’, the ‘wedding cakes’, ‘Stalin’s sisters’ and more.
Among the most beloved of Russian paintings is the evocative Bogatyrs, by Viktor Vasnetsov (on display at the Tretyakov). The oil painting depicts three characters from Russian folklore, or bylina. Heroic Ilya Muromets is supposedly based on an actual historic medieval warrior and monk; Dobrynya Nikitich is a noble warrior best known for defeating a dragon; and the cunning and crafty Alyosha Popovich often outsmarts his foes. Bylina was originally an oral tradition – a narrative song – that passed down legends of Kyivan Rus. The stories were published in written form starting in the 18th century. Vasnetsov's Russian-revival paintings are yet another recasting of these ancient tales.
Sidebar: Andrei Rublyov
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 film Andrei Rublyov interpreted the life of the icon painter amid the harsh realities of medieval Russia. Addressing themes such as religious faith and artistic freedom, the film was heavily censored in the Soviet Union, but was awarded a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969.
Sidebar: Red October
The centrepiece of the former Red October chocolate factory is the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (www.strelkainstitute.com), an exciting and innovative organisation that hosts all kinds of cultural events and activities for public consumption.
Sidebar: Art Museums
- Tretyakov Gallery (Zamoskvorechie)
- New Tretyakov Gallery (Zamoskvorechie)
- Museum of Russian Impressionism (Presnya)
- Vasnetsov House-Museum (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
- Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)
Sidebar: Contemporary Art
- Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (Zamoskvorechie)
- Winzavod (Meshchansky & Basmanny)
- Multimedia Art Museum (Arbat & Khamovniki)
Sidebar: Iconic Moscow Architecture
- Ascension Church at Kolomenskoe (Zamoskovorechie)
- Church of the Intercession at Fili (Arbat & Khamovniki)
- Hotel Metropol (Kremlin & Kitay Gorod)
- Narkomfin (Presnya)
Sidebar: In the Works
- Park Zaryadye construction (Kitay Gorod)
- Museum Town (Arbat & Khamovniki)
- Narkomfin restoration (Presnya)
Literature & Cinema
Of Russia’s rich cultural offerings, none is more widely appreciated than its traditions of literature and cinema, much of which originates in Moscow. The classics – War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein – are masterpieces that have earned the admiration of international audiences across the ages. Contemporary Russian culture may be lesser known, but the electric atmosphere in the creative capital continues to stimulate the creation of innovative and insightful literature and film.
A love of literature is an integral part of Russian culture, and Ivans and Olgas will wax rhapsodic on the Russian classics without hesitation. With the end of Soviet censorship, the literati have figured out what to do with their new-found freedom and new authors have emerged, exploring literary genres from historical fiction to science fiction.
Romanticism in the Golden Age
Among the many ways that Peter the Great and Catherine the Great Westernised and modernised Russia was through the introduction of a modern alphabet. As a result it became increasingly acceptable during the Petrine era to use popular language in literature. This development paved the way for two centuries of Russian literary prolificacy.
Romanticism was a reaction against the strict social rules and scientific rationalisation of previous periods, exalting emotion and aesthetics. Nobody embraced Russian romanticism more than the national bard, Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Pushkin was born in Moscow and it was here that he met his wife, Natalia Goncharova. The two were wed at the Church of Grand Ascension and lived for a time on ul Arbat.
Pushkin’s most celebrated drama, Boris Godunov, takes place in medieval Muscovy. The plot centres on the historical events leading up to the Time of Troubles and its resolution with the election of Mikhail Romanov as tsar. The epic poem Yevgeny Onegin is set, in part, in imperial Moscow. Pushkin savagely ridicules its foppish, aristocratic society, despite being a fairly consistent fixture of it himself.
Tolstoy (1828-1910) is one of the most celebrated novelists, not only in Russia but in the world. The depth of his characters and the vividness of his descriptions evoke 19th-century Russia. His novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, both of which are set in Moscow, express his scepticism with rationalism, espousing the idea that history is the sum of an infinite number of individual actions.
Tolstoy spent most of his time at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, but he also had property in Moscow, and he was a regular parishioner at the Church of St Nicholas of Khamovniki.
Although Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81) is more closely associated with St Petersburg, he was actually born in Moscow. He was among the first writers to navigate the murky waters of the human subconscious, blending powerful prose with psychology, philosophy and spirituality. Dostoevsky’s best-known works, such as Crime and Punishment, were all written (and to a large degree set) in his adopted city of St Petersburg. But bibliophiles assert that his early years in Moscow profoundly influenced his philosophical development.
Amid the epic works of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, an absurdist short-story writer such as Nikolai Gogol (1809–52) can get lost in the annals of Russian literature. But this troubled genius created some of Russian literature’s most memorable characters, including Akaki Akakievich, tragicomic hero of The Overcoat.
Gogol spent most of his years living abroad, but it was his hilarious satire of life in Russia that earned him the respect of his contemporaries. Dead Souls is his masterpiece. This ‘novel in verse’ follows the scoundrel Chichikov as he attempts to buy and sell deceased serfs, or ‘dead souls’, in an absurd money-making scam.
After the novel’s highly lauded publication in 1841, Gogol suffered from poor physical and mental health. While staying at the Gogol House, in a fit of depression, he threw some of his manuscripts into the fire, including the second part of Dead Souls, which was not recovered in its entirety (the novel ends midsentence). The celebrated satirist died shortly thereafter and he is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery.
Symbolism in the Silver Age
The late 19th century saw the rise of the symbolist movement, which emphasised individualism and creativity, and maintained that artistic endeavours were exempt from the rules that bound other parts of society. The outstanding figures of this time were novelists Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), Andrei Bely (1880–1934) and Alexander Blok (1880–1921), as well as poets Sergei Yesenin (1895–1925) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930).
Although Bely lived in Moscow for a time, he is remembered for his mysterious novel Petersburg. His essays and philosophical discourses were also respected, making him one of the most important writers of the symbolist movement.
Mayakovsky was a futurist playwright and poet, and he acted as the revolution’s official bard. He lived near Lubyanskaya pl, where his flat has been converted into a museum. He devoted his creative energy to social activism and propaganda on behalf of the new regime, but the romantic soul was unlucky in love and life. As is wont to happen, he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, as reflected in his satirical plays. He shot himself in 1930 and is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery. He is memorialised at Triumfalnaya pl, site of Mayakovskaya metro.
The immediate aftermath of 1917 saw a creative upswing in Russia. Inspired by social change, writers carried over these principles into their work, pushing revolutionary ideas and ground-breaking styles.
The trend was temporary, of course. The Bolsheviks were no connoisseurs of culture, and the new leadership did not appreciate literature unless it directly supported the goals of communism. Some writers managed to write within the system, penning some excellent poetry and plays in the 1920s; however, most found little inspiration in the prevailing climate of art ‘serving the people’. Stalin announced that writers were ‘engineers of the human soul’ and as such had a responsibility to write in a partisan direction.
The clampdown on diverse literary styles culminated in the late 1930s with the creation of socialist realism, a literary form created to promote the needs of the state, praise industrialisation and demonise social misfits. Alexey Tolstoy (1883–1945), for example, wrote historical novels comparing Stalin to Peter the Great and recounting the glories of the Russian civil war.
Literature of Dissent
While Stalin’s propaganda machine was churning out novels with titles such as How the Steel Was Tempered, the literary community was secretly writing about life under a tyranny. Many accounts of Soviet life were printed in samizdat (underground) publications and secretly circulated among the literary community. Now-famous novels such as Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat were published in Russia only with the loosening of censorship under glasnost (openness). Meanwhile, some of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated writers were silenced in their own country, while their works received international acclaim. Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, for example, was published in 1956, but it took 30 years for it to be officially printed in the Soviet Union.
Pasternak (1890–1960) lived in a country estate on the outskirts of Moscow. The title character in Dr Zhivago is torn between two lovers, as his life is ravaged by the revolution and the civil war. The novel was unacceptable to the Soviet regime, not because the characters were antirevolutionary but because they were apolitical, valuing their individual lives over social transformation. The novel was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but Pasternak was forced to reject it.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1890–1940) was a prolific playwright and novelist who lived near Patriarch’s Ponds. He wrote many plays that were performed at the Moscow Art Theatre, some of which were apparently enjoyed by Stalin. But later his plays were banned, and he had difficulty finding work. Most of his novels take place in Moscow, including Fatal Eggs, Heart of a Dog and, most famously, The Master and Margarita.
The post-glasnost era of the 1980s and 1990s uncovered a huge library of work that had been suppressed during the Soviet period. Authors such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Daniil Kharms, Anatoly Rybakov, Venedict Erofeev and Andrei Bitov – banned in the Soviet Union – are now recognised for their cutting-edge commentary and significant contributions to world literature.
Written in 1970 by Venedict Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line recounts a drunken man’s train trip to visit his lover and child on the outskirts of the capital. As the journey progresses, the tale becomes darker and more hallucinogenic. Moscow Stations, by the same author, is another bleakly funny novella recounting alcohol-induced adventures.
Russia’s contemporary literary scene is largely based in Moscow and, to some degree, abroad, as émigré writers continue to be inspired and disheartened by their motherland.
Check out what your neighbour is reading as they ride the metro: more than likely, it’s a celebrity rag or a murder mystery. Action-packed thrillers and detective stories have become wildly popular in the 21st century, with Polina Dashkova, Darya Dontsova, Alexandra Marinina and Boris Akunin rank among the best-selling and most widely translated authors. The Winter Queen, by Akunin, is just one in the series of popular detective novels featuring the foppish Erast Fandorin as a member of the 19th-century Moscow police force. Several of these have been made into movies.
Horror is another popular genre, as exemplified by the young novelist Anna Starobinets. She has earned acclaim for her collection of short stories, Awkward Age, and for her several novels, especially the 2011 Living One, which was shortlisted for the National Bestseller Award in Russia. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is famous for her 'scary fairy tales'. In 2017 she departed from this genre with the publication of The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, a memoir about her impoverished childhood in the Soviet Union.
Indeed, some of the most noteworthy contemporary fiction is set in Soviet Russia. Most significantly, Alexander Chudakov won the Russian Booker Prize for his fictionalised memoir, A Gloom Descends upon the Ancient Steps. Ludmila Ulitskaya is also beloved for her works of historical fiction, as well as her outspokenness on contemporary issues. She has written more than a dozen novels, her most recent being The Big Green Tent, which is an epic tale of three friends in post-Stalinist Moscow.
Multiple award-winning author Mikhail Shishkin is not bound by traditional literary devices. His novel Taking of Izmael is a mishmash of language, storylines and styles, yet it won the Booker Prize in 2001. His 2014 novel, The Light & the Dark, is a letter-book, comprised of the intimate correspondence between two lovers who are separated by thousands of miles but also by centuries.
Meanwhile, social critics continue the Soviet literary tradition of using dark humour and fantastical storylines to provide scathing social commentary. Vladimir Sorokin's works include Day of the Oprichnik, which 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. His 2015 novel Blizzard is also set in the future. Victor Pelevin is the unrivalled master of Russian political fiction. Pelevin won the 1993 Russian 'Little Booker' for short stories, but he has written dozens of dark, abstract, comical novels. Most notably, the 2009 Sacred Book of the Werewolf is a supernatural love story that is also a satire of contemporary Russian politics.
In the Hollywood hills they have Leo the MGM lion, and in Sparrow Hills they have the iconic socialist sculpture, Worker and Peasant Woman, the instantly recognisable logo of Mosfilm. Russia’s largest film studio has played a defining role in the development of Soviet and Russian cinema.
During the Soviet period, politics and cinema were always closely connected. The nascent film industry received a big boost from the Bolshevik revolution, as the proletarian culture needed a different kind of canvas. Comrade Lenin recognised that motion pictures would become the new mass medium for the new mass politics. By government decree, the film studio Mosfilm was officially founded in 1923, under the leadership of Alexander Khanzhokov, the pioneer of Russian cinema.
In this golden age, Soviet film earned an international reputation for its artistic experimentation and propaganda techniques. Legendary director Sergei Eisenstein, a socialist true believer, popularised a series of innovations, such as fast-paced montage editing and mounted tracking cameras, to arouse emotional response from the audience that could be used to shape political views. His Battleship Potemkin (1925) remains one of film history’s most admired and most studied silent classics.
Under Stalin, the cinematic avant-garde was kept on a tight leash. Stylistic experimentation was repressed, and socialist realism was promoted. There was no mistaking the preferred social values of the political regime. Characters and plot lines were simple; the future looked bright.
Some directors were assigned ‘partners’ to ensure that they did not get too creative and stray into formalism. During this period, Eisenstein produced award-winning historical dramas such as Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946).
When Stalin departed the scene, directors responded with more honest depictions of Soviet daily life and more creative styles. Russian productions again received international acclaim, earning top honours at all the most prestigious cinematic venues. During this period, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film went to Mosfilm works multiple times, for films such as War and Peace (1968), The Brothers Karamazov (1969), Tchaikovsky (1971), Dersu Uzala (1975) and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980).
However, getting past the censors at home still posed challenges. The fate of any movie was decided by the risk-averse Goskino, the vast Moscow-based bureaucracy that funded and distributed films.
Elem Klimov’s comedies were thinly veiled critiques of contemporary society. They were not exactly banned, but they were not exactly promoted. The dark and rather disturbing Adventures of a Dentist (1965) was shown in less than 100 theatres. Klimov’s war drama Come and See was on the shelf for eight years before it was finally released in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII.
Andrei Tarkovsky earned worldwide recognition for his films, including his first feature film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which won in Venice, and Andrei Rublyov (1966), which won in Cannes. The latter film was cut several times before a truncated version was finally released in the Soviet Union in 1971.
Glasnost & Transition
During a 1986 congress of Soviet filmmakers held in Moscow, glasnost touched the USSR’s movie industry. By a large vote the old conservative directors were booted out of the leadership and renegades demanding more freedom were put in their place.
Over 250 previously banned films were released. As such, some of the most politically daring and artistically innovative works finally made it off the shelf and onto the big screen for audiences to see for the first time. By the end of the Soviet regime, Mosfilm was one of Europe’s largest and most prolific film studios, with over 2500 films to its credit.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the film industry fell on hard times. Funding had dried up during the economic chaos of the early 1990s and audiences couldn’t afford to go to the cinema anyway. Mosfilm was finally reorganised into a quasi-private concern, although it continued to receive significant state patronage.
At this low point, ironically, Mosfilm produced one of its crowning achievements – the Cannes Grand Prize and Academy Award–winning film Burnt by the Sun (1994), featuring the work of actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov. The story of a loyal apparatchik who becomes a victim of Stalin’s purges, the film demonstrated that politics and cinema were still inextricably linked.
Many consider the film industry's turning point came with the release of Brother (1997), a crime film that portrayed the stark realities of the St Petersburg underground.
Moscow’s film industry has made a remarkable comeback since the lull in the 1990s. Mosfilm is one of the largest production companies in the world, producing almost all of Russia’s film, TV and video programming. Moscow is indeed the Russian Hollywood. Unfortunately, just like its American counterpart, the industry does not leave much room for artsy, independent films that are not likely to be blockbusters.
But there is no shortage of blockbusters. The Turkish Gambit, a drama set during the Russo-Turkish War, broke all post-Soviet box-office records in 2005. In 2007 the prolific Nikita Mikhalkov directed 12, a film based on Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. The Oscar-nominated film follows a jury deliberating over the trial of a Chechen teenager accused of murdering his father, who was an officer in the Russian army. Vladimir Putin is quoted as saying that it ‘brought a tear to the eye’.
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. Bekmambetov's most successful effort since the Night Watch series is undoubtedly his direction of Irony of Fate: Continuation (2007), a follow-up to the classic 1970s comedy. Simultaneously released on 1000 screens across the nation, the movie was poorly reviewed but widely watched. It is still one of the highest grossing films of the era.
In 2013 Fedor Bondarchuk directed Russia's first IMAX production, a historical war film called Stalingrad. It was acclaimed for stunning visuals but derided for melodramatic plot line. Nonetheless, the film shattered all box-office records.
Feature: Indie Films
In this age of corporate-sponsored cinema, some Russian directors are still turning out stimulating art-house films.
In 2003 Moscow director Andrei Zvyagintsev came home from Venice with the Golden Lion, awarded for his moody thriller The Return. His follow-up film, The Banishment, refers to the end of paradise for a couple whose marriage is falling apart. Zvyagintsev continues to earn accolades at Venice and in Cannes. Elena (2011) is an evocative, if disheartening portrait of relationships in modern Moscow. Leviathan (2014) is another starkly realistic drama about an everyday guy who tries to seek justice and takes on the system – with a tragic outcome.
In 2006 stage director Ivan Vyrypaev won the small Golden Lion for his cinematic debut, the tragic love story Euphoria. Vyrypaev wrote and directed several experimental follow-up films. Meanwhile, Alexei Popogrebsky has won a slew of lesser awards for How I Ended this Summer (2010), a compelling drama set at a remote Arctic research station.
Valery Todorovsky directed Hipsters (2008), about a rebellious Soviet countercultural group from the 1950s. With cool costumes and a big-name soundtrack, the film has turned into a sort of cult classic.
Feature: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Three young women arrive in the capital in 1958, starting new careers and looking for love. They become friends. This is the simple premise of one of the most iconic films to come out of the Soviet Union, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1980. The three friends follow different paths, of course, and the film then flashes forward 20 years to show us how things turn out. Along the way, we get insights into class consciousness (yes, even in the Soviet Union) and romantic relationships – with plenty of shots of 1970s Moscow as a backdrop.
Sidebar: Irony of Fate
Irony of Fate (1975) is a classic that's still screened on TV every New Year’s Eve. After a mind-bending party in Moscow, the protagonist wakes up in St Petersburg, where his key fits into the lock of an identical building at the same address in a different town. Comedy ensues.
Sidebar: Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov describes his style: ‘All I wanted was to say honestly to people: have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are! The important thing is that people should realise that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.’
Sidebar: Little Vera
Vasily Pichul’s ground-breaking film Little Vera (1988), produced by the Gorky Film Studio, caused a sensation with its frank portrayal of a family in chaos (exhausted wife, drunken husband, rebellious daughter) and with its sexual frankness – mild by Western standards but startling to the Soviet audience.
Sidebar: Master and Margarita
Explore the Moscow of The Master and Margarita on an English-language walking tour offered by the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum.
Sidebar: Vladimir Mayakovsky
An estimated 150,000 people attended Vladimir Mayakovsky's 1930 funeral – the third-largest display of public mourning in Soviet history (after the funerals of Lenin and Stalin).
Every year in June/July, the Moscow International Film Festival offers a venue for directors of independent films from Russia and abroad to compete for international recognition.
Sidebar: Burnt by the Sun
In 2010 Nikita Mikhalkov used the largest production budget ever seen in Russian cinema to make the sequel to his 1994 masterpiece. Burnt by the Sun II received universally negative reviews and was a box-office flop.
Sidebar: Literary Sights
- Tolstoy Estate-Museum (Arbat & Khamovniki)
- Mikhail Bulgakov Museum (Presnya)
- Gogol House (Presnya)
- Dostoevsky House-Museum (Tverskoy & Novoslobodsky)