Russia - Reveal your own Russia!

Russia, or the Russian Federation, is a transcontinental country located in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. It extends from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black and Caspian seas in the south.

Travel to Russia is a unique opportunity to get acquainted with Russian history and culture. Russia spans eleven time zones and two continents and is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. This is a great country with an array of rivers, forests and towering mountains. Now you have a chance to explore its land of striking beauty and diversity, from magnificent capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, to the measured life of Siberian cities. The whole new world is waiting for you to be discovered.

History of Russia

From the beginnings to c. 1700

Prehistory and the rise of the Rus

Indo-European, Ural-Altaic, and diverse other peoples have occupied what is now the territory of Russia since the 2nd millennium BCE, but little is known about their ethnic identity, institutions, and activities. In ancient times, Greek and Iranian settlements appeared in the southernmost portions of what is now Ukraine. Trading empires of that era seem to have known and exploited the northern forests—particularly the vast triangular-shaped region west of the Urals between the Kama and Volga rivers—but these contacts seem to have had little lasting impact. Between the 4th and 9th centuries CE, the Huns, Avars, Goths, and Magyars passed briefly over the same terrain, but these transitory occupations also had little influence upon the East Slavs, who during this time were spreading south and east from an area between the Elbe River and the Pripet Marshes. In the 9th century, as a result of penetration into the area from the north and south by northern European and Middle Eastern merchant adventurers, their society was exposed to new economic, cultural, and political forces.

The scanty written records tell little of the processes that ensued, but archaeological evidence—notably, the Middle Eastern coins found in eastern Europe—indicates that the development of the East Slavs passed through several stages.

From about 770 to about 830, commercial explorers began an intensive penetration of the Volga region. From early bases in the estuaries of the rivers of the eastern Baltic region, Germanic commercial-military bands, probably in search of new routes to the east, began to penetrate territory populated by Finnic and Slavic tribes, where they found amber, furs, honey, wax, and timber products. The indigenous population offered little resistance to their incursions, and there was no significant local authority to negotiate the balance between trade, tribute, and plunder. From the south, trading organizations based in northern Iran and North Africa, seeking the same products, and particularly slaves, became active in the lower Volga, the Don, and, to a lesser extent, the Dnieper region. The history of the Khazar state is intimately connected with these activities.

About 830, commerce appears to have declined in the Don and Dnieper regions. There was increased activity in the north Volga, where Scandinavian traders who had previously operated from bases on Lakes Ladoga and Onega established a new centre, near present-day Ryazan. There, in this period, the first nominal ruler of Rus (called, like the Khazar emperor, khagan) is mentioned by Islamic and Western sources. This Volga Rus khagan state may be considered the first direct political antecedent of the Kievan state.

Within a few decades these Rus, together with other Scandinavian groups operating farther west, extended their raiding activities down the main river routes toward Baghdad and Constantinople, reaching the latter in 860. The Scandinavians involved in these exploits are known as Varangians; they were adventurers of diverse origins, often led by princes of warring dynastic clans. One of these princes, Rurik, is considered the progenitor of the dynasty that ruled in various portions of East Slavic territory until 1598 (see Rurik dynasty). Evidences of the Varangian expansion are particularly clear in the coin hoards of 900–930. The number of Middle Eastern coins reaching northern regions, especially Scandinavia, indicates a flourishing trade. Written records tell of Rus raids upon Constantinople and the northern Caucasus in the early 10th century.

In the period from about 930 to 1000, the region came under complete control by Varangians from Novgorod. This period saw the development of the trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea, which established the basis of the economic life of the Kievan principality and determined its political and cultural development.

The degree to which the Varangians may be considered the founders of the Kievan state has been hotly debated since the 18th century. The debate has from the beginning borne nationalistic overtones. Recent works by Russians have generally minimized or ignored the role of the Varangians, while non-Russians have occasionally exaggerated it. Whatever the case, the lifeblood of the sprawling Kievan organism was the commerce organized by the princes. To be sure, these early princes were not “Swedes” or “Norwegians” or “Danes”; they thought in categories not of nation but of clan. But they certainly were not East Slavs. There is little reason to doubt the predominant role of the Varangian Rus in the creation of the state to which they gave their name.

People of Russia

Ethnic groups and languages
Although ethnic Russians comprise more than four-fifths of the country’s total population, Russia is a diverse, multiethnic society. More than 120 ethnic groups, many with their own national territories, speaking some 100 languages live within Russia’s borders. Many of these groups are small—in some cases consisting of fewer than a thousand individuals—and, in addition to Russians, only a handful of groups have more than a million members each: the Tatars, Ukrainians, Chuvash, Bashkir, Chechens, and Armenians. The diversity of peoples is reflected in the 21 minority republics, 10 autonomous districts, and autonomous region contained within the Russian Federation. In most of these divisions, the eponymous nationality (which gives its name to the division) is outnumbered by Russians. Since the early 1990s, ethnicity has underlain numerous conflicts (e.g., in Chechnya and Dagestan) within and between these units; many national minorities have demanded more autonomy and, in a few cases, even complete independence. Those parts of Russia that do not form autonomous ethnic units are divided into various territories (kraya) and regions (oblasti), and there are two federal cities (St. Petersburg and Moscow).

Linguistically, the population of Russia can be divided into the Indo-European group, comprising East Slavic speakers and smaller numbers speaking several other languages; the Altaic group, including Turkic, Manchu-Tungus, and Mongolian; the Uralic group, including Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic; and the Caucasian group, comprising Abkhazo-Adyghian and Nakho-Dagestanian. Because few of the languages of the smaller indigenous minorities are taught in the schools, it is likely that some will disappear.

The Indo-European group
East Slavs—mainly Russians but including some Ukrainians and Belarusians—constitute more than four-fifths of the total population and are prevalent throughout the country. The Slavs emerged as a recognizable group in eastern Europe between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD, and the first Slav state, Kievan Rus, arose in the 9th century. After the Mongol invasions the centre of gravity shifted to Moscow, and the Russian Empire expanded to the Baltic, Arctic, and Pacific, numerically overwhelming the indigenous peoples. Despite its wide dispersal, the Russian language is homogeneous throughout Russia. Indo-Iranian speakers include the Ossetes of the Caucasus. In addition, there are sizable contingents of German speakers, who mainly populate southwestern Siberia, and Jews (recognized as an ethnolinguistic group rather than a religious one), who live mainly in European Russia; the numbers of both groups have declined through emigration.

The Altaic group
Turkic speakers dominate the Altaic group. They live mainly in the Central Asian republics, but there is an important cluster of Turkic speakers between the middle Volga and southern Urals, comprising the Bashkir, Chuvash, and Tatars. A second cluster, in the North Caucasus region, includes the Balkar, Karachay, Kumyk, and Nogay. There also are numerous Turkic-speaking groups in southern Siberia between the Urals and Lake Baikal: the Altai, Khakass, Shor, Tofalar, and Tyvans (Tuvans; they inhabit the area once known as Tannu Tuva, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944). The Sakha (Yakut) live mainly in the middle Lena basin, and the Dolgan are concentrated in the Arctic.

Manchu-Tungus languages are spoken by the Evenk, Even, and other small groups that are widely dispersed throughout eastern Siberia. The Buryat, who live in the Lake Baikal region, and the Kalmyk, who live primarily to the west of the lower Volga, speak Mongolian tongues.

The Uralic group
The Uralic group, which is widely disseminated in the Eurasian forest and tundra zones, has complex origins. Finnic peoples inhabit the European section: the Mordvin, Mari (formerly Cheremis), Udmurt (Votyak) and Komi (Zyryan), and the closely related Komi-Permyaks live around the upper Volga and in the Urals, while Karelians, Finns, and Veps inhabit the northwest. The Mansi (Vogul) and Khanty (Ostyak) are spread thinly over the lower Ob basin (see Khanty and Mansi).

The Samoyedic group also has few members dispersed over a vast area: the Nenets in the tundra and forest tundra from the Kola Peninsula to the Yenisey, the Selkup around the middle Ob, and the Nganasan mainly in the Taymyr Peninsula.

The Caucasian group
There are numerous small groups of Caucasian speakers in the North Caucasus region of Russia. Abaza, Adyghian, and Kabardian (Circassian) are similar languages but differ sharply from the languages of the Nakh group (Chechen and Ingush) and of the Dagestanian group (Avar, Lezgian, Dargin, Lak, Tabasaran, and a dozen more).

Other groups
Several Paleo-Siberian groups that share a common mode of life but differ linguistically are located in far eastern Siberia. The Chukchi, Koryak, and Itelmen (Kamchadal) belong to a group known as Luorawetlan, which is distinct from the Eskimo-Aleut group. The languages of the Nivkh (Gilyak) along the lower Amur and on Sakhalin Island, of the Yukaghir of the Kolyma Lowland, and of the Ket of the middle Yenisey are completely isolated, though it is likely that Yukaghir is a relative of the Uralic languages.

Religion
Although ethnic differences in Russia have long contained a religious element, the position of religious organizations and of their individual adherents has varied with political circumstances. In the 10th century Prince Vladimir I, who was converted by missionaries from Byzantium, adopted Christianity as the official religion for Russia, and for nearly 1,000 years thereafter the Russian Orthodox church was the country’s dominant religious institution. After the communists took power in 1917, religious institutions suffered. The church was forced to forfeit most of its property, and many monks were evicted from their monasteries. The constitution of the former Soviet Union nominally guaranteed religious freedom, but religious activities were greatly constrained, and membership in religious organizations was considered incompatible with membership in the Communist Party. Thus, open profession of religious belief was a hindrance to individual advancement. More-open expression of Christian beliefs was permitted during World War II, when the government sought the support of Christians and Jews in the fight against fascism, but restrictions were reimposed when the war ended. In the 1980s, under the reformist regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, a policy of glasnost (“openness”) was declared, allowing greater toleration for the open practice of religion. The subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union made religious freedom a reality and revealed that large sections of the population had continued to practice a variety of faiths. Indeed, Russian nationalists who emerged beginning in the 1990s identified the Russian Orthodox church as a major element of Russian culture.

Today Russian Orthodoxy is the country’s largest religious denomination, representing more than half of all adherents. Organized religion was repressed by Soviet authorities for most of the 20th century, and the nonreligious still constitute more than one-fourth of the population. Other Christian denominations are much smaller and include the Old Believers, who separated from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century, and Baptist and Evangelical groups, which grew somewhat in membership during the 20th century. Catholics, both Western rite (Roman) and Eastern rite (Uniate), and Lutherans were numerous in the former Soviet Union but lived mainly outside present-day Russia, where there are few adherents. Muslims constitute Russia’s second largest religious group. In 1997 legislation was enacted that constrained denominations outside five “traditional” religions—Russian Orthodoxy, several other Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—restricting the activities of groups not registered in the country for at least 15 years. For example, groups not meeting this requirement at the time the law was implemented (such as Roman Catholics and Mormons) were unable to operate educational institutions or disseminate religious literature.

Although there is some degree of correlation between language and religion, the two do not correspond entirely. Slavs are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. Turkic speakers are predominantly Muslim, although several Turkic groups in Russia are not. For example, Christianity predominates among the Chuvash, Buddhism prevails among large numbers of Altai, Khakass, and Tyvans, and many Turkic speakers east of the Yenisey have retained their shamanistic beliefs (though some have converted to Christianity). Buddhism is common among the Mongolian-speaking Buryat and Kalmyk.

Jews long suffered discrimination in Russia, including purges in the 19th century, repression under the regime of Joseph Stalin, and Nazi atrocities on Russian soil during World War II. Beginning with Gorbachev’s reformist policies in the 1980s, Jewish emigration to Israel and elsewhere was permitted on an increasing scale, and the number of Jews living in Russia (and all parts of the former Soviet Union) has decreased. Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, about one-third of its Jewish population lived in Russia (though many did not practice Judaism), and now about one-tenth of all Jews in Russia reside in Moscow. In the 1930s Stalin established the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East as a Jewish province, though by the early 21st century only about 5 percent of the province’s population was Jewish.

Cultural Life of Russia

The development of Russian culture
Russia’s unique and vibrant culture developed, as did the country itself, from a complicated interplay of native Slavic cultural material and borrowings from a wide variety of foreign cultures. In the Kievan period (c. 10th–13th century), the borrowings were primarily from Eastern Orthodox Byzantine culture. During the Muscovite period (c. 14th–17th century), the Slavic and Byzantine cultural substrates were enriched and modified by Asiatic influences carried by the Mongol hordes. Finally, in the modern period (since the 18th century), the cultural heritage of western Europe was added to the Russian melting pot.

The Kievan period
Although many traces of the Slavic culture that existed in the territories of Kievan Rus survived beyond its Christianization (which occurred, according to The Russian Primary Chronicle, in 988), the cultural system that organized the lives of the early Slavs is far from being understood. From the 10th century, however, enough material has survived to provide a reasonably accurate portrait of Old Russian cultural life. High culture in Kievan Rus was primarily ecclesiastical. Literacy was not widespread, and artistic composition was undertaken almost exclusively by monks. The earliest circulated literary works were translations from Greek into Old Church Slavonic (a South Slavic dialect that was, in this period, close enough to Old Russian to be understandable). By the 11th century, however, monks were producing original works (on Byzantine models), primarily hagiographies, historical chronicles, and homilies. At least one great secular work was produced as well: the epic The Song of Igor’s Campaign, which dates from the late 12th century and describes a failed military expedition against the neighbouring Polovtsy. Evidence also exists (primarily in the form of church records of suppression) of a thriving popular culture based on pre-Christian traditions centring on harvest, marriage, birth, and death rituals. The most important aspects of Kievan culture for the development of modern Russian culture, however, were not literary or folkloric but rather artistic and architectural. The early Slavic rulers expressed their religious piety and displayed their wealth through the construction of stone churches, at first in Byzantine style (such as the 11th-century Cathedral of St. Sophia, which still stands in Kiev, Ukraine) and later in a distinctive Russian style (best preserved today in churches in and around the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow). The interiors of many of these churches were ornately decorated with frescoes and icons.

The Muscovite period
The Mongol (Tatar) invasions of the early 13th century decimated Kievan Rus. By the time Russian political and cultural life began to recover in the 14th century, a new centre had arisen: Muscovy (Moscow). Continuity with Kiev was provided by the Orthodox church, which had acted as a beacon of national life during the period of Tatar domination and continued to play the central role in Russian culture into the 17th century. As a result, Russian cultural development in the Muscovite period was quite different from that of western Europe, which at this time was experiencing the secularization of society and the rediscovery of the classical cultural heritage that characterized the Renaissance. At first the literary genres employed by Muscovite writers were the same as those that had dominated in Kiev. The most remarkable literary monuments of the Muscovite period, however, are unlike anything that came before. The correspondence between Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) and Andrey Mikhaylovich, Prince Kurbsky during the 1560s and ’70s is particularly noteworthy. Kurbsky, a former general in Ivan’s army, defected to Poland, whence he sent a letter critical of the tsar’s regime. Ivan’s diatribes in response are both wonderful expressions of outraged pride and literary tours de force that combine the highest style of Muscovite hagiographic writing with pithy and vulgar attacks on his enemy. Similarly vigorous in style is the first full-scale autobiography in Russian literature, Avvakum Petrovich’s The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, by Himself (c. 1672–75).

As in the Kievan period, however, the most significant cultural achievements of Muscovy were in the visual arts and architecture rather than in literature. The Moscow school of icon painting produced great masters, among them Dionisy and Andrey Rublyov (whose Old Testament Trinity, now in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, is among the most revered icons ever painted). Russian architects continued to design and build impressive churches, including the celebrated Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed on Moscow’s Red Square. Built to commemorate the Russian capture of Kazar, the Tatar capital, St. Basil’s is a perfect example of the confluence of Byzantine and Asiatic cultural streams that characterizes Muscovite culture.

The emergence of modern Russian culture
The gradual turn of Russia toward western Europe that began in the 17th century led to an almost total reorientation of Russian interests during the reign of Peter I (1682–1725). Although Peter (known as Peter the Great) was not particularly interested in cultural questions, the influx of Western ideas (which accompanied the technology Peter found so attractive) and the weakening of the Orthodox church led to a cultural renaissance during the reigns of his successors. In the late 1730s poets Mikhail Lomonosov and Vasily Trediakovsky carried out reforms as far-reaching as those of Peter. Adapting German syllabotonic versification to Russian, they developed the system of “classical” metres that prevails in Russian poetry to this day. In the 1740s, in imitation of French Neoclassicism, Aleksandr Sumarokov wrote the first Russian stage tragedies. In the course of the century, Russian writers assimilated all the European genres; although much of their work was derivative, the comedies of Denis Fonvizin and the powerful, solemn odes of Gavrila Derzhavin were original and have remained part of the active Russian cultural heritage. Prose fiction made its appearance at the end of the century in the works of the sentimentalist Nikolay Karamzin. By the beginning of the 19th century, after a 75-year European cultural apprenticeship, Russia had developed a flexible secular literary language, had a command of modern Western literary forms, and was ready to produce fully original cultural work.

Daily life and social customs
During the Soviet era most customs and traditions of Russia’s imperial past were suppressed, and life was strictly controlled and regulated by the state through its vast intelligence network. Beginning in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms eased political and social restrictions, and common traditions and folkways, along with the open practice of religion, began to reappear.

Many folk holidays, which are often accompanied by traditional foods, have gained popularity and have become vital elements of popular culture. Festivities generally include street carnivals that feature entertainers and children in traditional Russian dress. Boys usually wear a long-sleeved red or blue shirt with a round, embroidered collar, while girls wear a three-piece ensemble consisting of a red or green sarafan (jumper), a long-sleeved peasant blouse, and an ornate kokoshnik (headdress).

Maslyanitsa, the oldest Russian folk holiday, marks the end of winter; a purely Russian holiday, it originated during pagan times. During Maslyanitsa (“butter”), pancakes—symbolizing the sun—are served with caviar, various fish, nuts, honey pies, and other garnishes and side dishes. The meal is accompanied by tea in the ever-present samovar (tea kettle) and is often washed down with vodka.

Baked goods are ubiquitous on Easter, including round-shaped sweet bread and Easter cake. Traditionally, pashka, a mixture of sweetened curds, butter, and raisins, is served with the cake. Hard-boiled eggs painted in bright colours also are staples of the Easter holiday.

The Red Hill holiday is observed on the first Sunday after Easter and is considered the best day for wedding ceremonies. In summer the Russian celebration of Ivan Kupalo (St. John the Baptist) centres on water, and celebrants commonly picnic or watch fireworks from riverbanks.

Another popular traditional holiday is the Troitsa (Pentecost), during which homes are adorned with fresh green branches. Girls often make garlands of birch branches and flowers to put into water for fortune-telling. In the last month of summer, there is a cluster of three folk holidays—known collectively as the Spas—that celebrate honey and the sowing of the apple and nut crops, respectively.

Russia also has several official holidays, including the Russian Orthodox Christmas (January 7), Victory Day in World War II (May 9), Independence Day (June 12), and Constitution Day (December 12). Women’s Day (March 8), formerly known as International Women’s Day and celebrated elsewhere in the world by its original name, was established by Soviet authorities to highlight the advances women made under communist rule. During the holiday women usually receive gifts such as flowers and chocolates.

Although a wide array of imported packaged products are now found in Russian cities, traditional foods and ingredients remain popular, including cabbage, potatoes, carrots, sour cream, and apples—the principal ingredients of borsch, the famous Russian soup made with beets. Normally, Russians prefer to finish their daily meals with a cup of tea or coffee (the latter more common in the larger cities). Also popular is kvass, a traditional beverage that can be made at home from stale black bread. On a hot summer day, chilled kvass is used to make okroshka, a traditional cold soup laced with cucumbers, boiled eggs, sausages, and salamis.

Vodka, the national drink of Russia, accompanies many family meals, especially on special occasions. The basic vodkas have no additional flavouring, but they are sometimes infused with cranberries, lemon peel, pepper, or herbs. Vodka is traditionally consumed straight and is chased by a fatty salt herring, a sour cucumber, a pickled mushroom, or a piece of rye bread with butter. It is considered bad manners and a sign of weak character to become visibly intoxicated from vodka.

The growth of the Russian middle class has generated dramatic changes in Russia’s lifestyles and social customs. Travel abroad has become popular, and consumption, particularly of imported luxury goods, has increased. Many wealthy individuals have purchased private land and built second homes, often of two or three stories. Russia’s middle class has adopted values that are distinctly different from Soviet practice. The new values include self-reliance and viewing work as source of joy and pride; the middle class also tends to avoid political extremes, to participate in charitable organizations, and to patronize theatres and restaurants. Estimates of the size of the middle class vary (as do definitions of it), but it is generally assumed that it constitutes about one-fourth of Russian society, and much of that is concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other urban areas.

The rebirth of religion is another dimension of the changed lifestyles of new Russia. Although a majority of Russians are nonbelievers, religious institutions have filled the vacuum created by the downfall of communist ideology, and even many nonbelievers participate in the now-ubiquitous religious festivities.

The arts
Literature
The 19th century
The first quarter of the 19th century was dominated by Romantic poetry. Vasily Zhukovsky’s 1802 translation of Thomas Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” ushered in a vogue for the personal, elegiac mode that was soon amplified in the work of Konstantin Batyushkov, Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, and the young Aleksandr Pushkin. Although there was a call for civic-oriented poetry in the late 1810s and early ’20s, most of the strongest poets followed Zhukovsky’s lyrical path. However, in the 1820s the mature Pushkin went his own way, producing a series of masterpieces that laid the foundation for his eventual recognition as Russia’s national poet (the equivalent of William Shakespeare for English readers or Dante for Italians). Pushkin’s works include the Byronic long poems The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1820–21) and The Gypsies (1824), the novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin (published 1833), and the Shakespearean tragedy Boris Godunov (1831), as well as exquisite lyrical verse. Pushkin’s poetry is remarkable for its classical balance, brilliant and frequently witty use of the Russian literary language, and philosophical content.

During the 1830s a gradual decline in poetry and a rise of prose took place, a shift that coincided with a change in literary institutions. The aristocratic salon, which had been the seedbed for Russian literature, was gradually supplanted by the monthly “thick journals,” the editors and critics of which became Russia’s tastemakers. The turn to prose was signaled in the work of Pushkin, whose Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831), The Queen of Spades (1834), and The Captain’s Daughter (1836) all appeared before his death in 1837. Also in the 1830s the first publications appeared by Nikolay Gogol, a comic writer of Ukrainian origin, whose grotesquely hilarious oeuvre includes the story The Nose, the play The Government Inspector (both 1836), and the epic novel Dead Souls (1842). Although Gogol was then known primarily as a satirist, he is now appreciated as a verbal magician whose works seem akin to the absurdists of the 20th century. One final burst of poetic energy appeared in the late 1830s in the verse of Mikhail Lermontov, who also wrote A Hero of Our Time (1840), the first Russian psychological novel.

In the 1840s the axis of Russian literature shifted decisively from the personal and Romantic to the civic and realistic, a shift presided over by the great Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky desired a literature primarily concerned with current social problems, although he never expected it to give up the aesthetic function entirely. By the end of the 1840s, Belinsky’s ideas had triumphed. Early works of Russian realism include Ivan Goncharov’s antiromantic novel A Common Story (1847) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk (1846).

From the 1840s until the turn of the 20th century, the realist novel dominated Russian literature, though it was by no means a monolithic movement. In the early period the favoured method was the “physiological sketch,” which often depicted a typical member of the downtrodden classes; quintessential examples are found in Ivan Turgenev’s 1852 collection A Sportsman’s Sketches. In these beautifully crafted stories, Turgenev describes the life of Russian serfs as seen through the eyes of a Turgenev-like narrator; indeed, his powerful artistic depiction was credited with convincing Tsar Alexander II of the need to emancipate the serfs. Turgenev followed Sketches with a series of novels, each of which was felt by contemporaries to have captured the essence of Russian society. The most celebrated is Fathers and Sons (1862), in which generational and class conflict in the period of Alexander II’s reforms is described through the interactions of the Kirsanov family (father, son, and uncle) with the young “nihilist” Bazarov.

The two other great realists of the 19th century were Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky, who was arrested in 1849 for his involvement in a socialist reading group, reentered the literary scene in the late 1850s. He experienced a religious conversion during his imprisonment, and his novels of the 1860s and ’70s are suffused with messianic Orthodox ideas. His major novels—Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868–69), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80)—are filled with riveting, often unstable characters and dramatic scenes. While Dostoyevsky delves into the psychology of men and women at the edge, Tolstoy’s novels treat the everyday existence of average people. In both War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), Tolstoy draws beautifully nuanced portraits filled with deep psychological and sociological insight.

By the early 1880s the hegemony of the realist novel was waning, though what would replace it was unclear. Russian poetry, notwithstanding the civic verse of Nikolay Nekrasov and the subtle lyrics of Afanasy Fet, had not played a central role in the literary process since the 1830s, and drama, despite the able work of Aleksandr Ostrovsky, was a marginal literary activity for most writers. The only major prose writer to appear in the 1880s and ’90s was Anton Chekhov, whose specialty was the short story. In his greatest stories—including The Man in a Case (1898), The Lady with a Lapdog (1899), The Darling (1899), and In the Ravine (1900)—Chekhov manages to attain all the power of his great predecessors in a remarkably compact form. Toward the end of his career, Chekhov also became known for his dramatic work, including such pillars of the world theatrical repertoire as Uncle Vanya (1897) and The Cherry Orchard (first performed 1904). Chekhov’s heirs in the area of short fiction were Maxim Gorky (later the dean of Soviet letters), who began his career by writing sympathetic portraits of various social outcasts, and the aristocrat Ivan Bunin, who emigrated after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933.

The 20th century
The beginning of the 20th century brought with it a new renaissance in Russian poetry and drama, a “Silver Age” that rivaled, and in some respects surpassed, the Pushkinian “Golden Age.” The civic orientation that had dominated Russian literature since the 1840s was, for the moment, abandoned. The avant-garde’s new cry was “art for art’s sake,” and the new idols were the French Symbolists. The first, “decadent” generation of Russian Symbolists included the poets Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, and Zinaida Gippius. The second, more mystically and apocalyptically oriented generation included Aleksandr Blok (perhaps the most talented lyric poet Russia ever produced), the poet and theoretician Vyacheslav Ivanov, and the poet and prose writer Andrey Bely. The Symbolists dominated the literary scene until 1910, when internal dissension led to the movement’s collapse.

The period just before and immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917 was marked by the work of six spectacularly talented, difficult poets. Anna Akhmatova’s brief, finely chiseled lyrics brought her fame at the outset of her career, but later in life she produced such longer works as Requiem, written from 1935 to 1940 but published in Russia only in 1989, her memorial to the victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges (particularly her son, who was imprisoned in 1937). The Futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky engaged in innovative experiments to free poetic discourse from the fetters of tradition. Marina Tsvetayeva, another great poetic experimenter, produced much of her major work outside the country but returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, only to commit suicide there two years later. Boris Pasternak, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, produced lyrics of great depth and power in this period, and Osip Mandelshtam created some of the most beautiful and haunting lyric poems in the Russian language.

Many of the writers who began to publish immediately after the 1917 revolution turned to prose, particularly the short story and the novella. Those who had been inspired by the recent revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1918–20) included Boris Pilnyak (The Naked Year [1922]), Isaak Babel (Red Cavalry [1926]), and Mikhail Sholokhov, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. Others described life in the new Soviet Union with varying degrees of mordant sarcasm; the short stories of Mikhail Zoshchenko, the comic novels of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, and the short novel Envy (1927) by Yury Olesha fall into this category. Writing in Russian also flourished in communities of anticommunist exiles in Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, as represented by writers as various as the novelists Vladimir Nabokov and Yevgeny Zamyatin and the theologian-philosophers Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky, Sergey Bulgakov, and Nikolay Berdyayev.

In the first decade after the revolution, there were also advances in literary theory and criticism, which changed methods of literary study throughout the world. Members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and of OPOYAZ (Obshchestvo Izucheniya Poeticheskogo Yazyka; Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) combined to create Formalist literary criticism (see Formalism), a movement that concentrated on analyzing the internal structure of literary texts. At the same time, Mikhail Bakhtin began to develop a sophisticated criticism concerned with ethical problems and ways of representing them, especially in the novel, his favourite genre.

By the late 1920s the period of Soviet experimentation had ended. Censorship became much stricter, and many of the best writers were silenced. During the late 1920s and the ’30s, there appeared what became known as the classics of Socialist Realism, a literary method that in 1934 was declared to be the only acceptable one for Soviet writers. Only a few of these works produced in this style—notably Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925), Nikolay Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1932–34), and Valentin Katayev’s Time, Forward! (1932)—have retained some literary interest. The real masterpieces of this period, however, did not fit the canons of Socialist Realism and were not published until many years later. They include Mikhail Bulgakov’s grotesquely funny The Master and Margarita (1966–67) and Andrey Platonov’s dark pictures of rural and semiurban Russia, The Foundation Pit (1973) and Chevengur (1972).

With Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent “thaw,” new writers and trends appeared in the 1950s and early ’60s. Vibrant young poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Andrey Voznesensky exerted a significant influence, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emerged from the Soviet prison-camp system (Gulag) and shocked the country and the world with details of his brutal experiences as depicted in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). “Youth” prose on the model of American writer J.D. Salinger’s fiction appeared as well, particularly in the work of Vasily Aksyonov and Vladimir Voynovich. By the late 1960s, however, most of these writers had again been silenced. Solzhenitsyn—who was charged with treason shortly after the publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973—and Brodsky, Aksyonov, and Voynovich had all been forced into exile by 1980, and the best writing was again unpublishable.

Practically the only decent writing published from the late 1960s through the early 1980s came from the “village prose” writers, who treated the clash of rural traditions with modern life in a realistic idiom. The most notable members of this group were the novelist Valentin Rasputin and the short-story writer Vasily Shukshin. The morally complex fiction of Yury Trifonov, staged in an urban setting (e.g., The House on the Embankment [1976]), stands somewhat apart from the works of Rasputin and Shukshin that praise Russian rural simplicity. Nevertheless, as in the 1930s and ’40s, the most important literature of this period was first published outside the Soviet Union. Notable writers included Varlam Shalamov, whose exquisitely artistic stories chronicled the horrors of the prison camps; Andrey Sinyavsky, whose complex novel Goodnight! appeared in Europe in 1984, long after he had been forced to leave the Soviet Union; and Venedikt Yerofeyev, whose grotesque latter-day picaresque Moscow-Petushki—published in a clandestine (samizdat) edition in 1968—is a minor classic.

Some of the best work published in the 1980s was in poetry, including the work of conceptualists such as Dmitry Prigov and the meta-metaphoric poetry of Aleksey Parshchikov, Olga Sedakova, Ilya Kutik, and others. The turbulent 1990s were a difficult period for most Russian writers and poets. The publishing industry, adversely affected by the economic downturn, struggled to regain its footing in the conditions of a market economy. Nonetheless, private foundations began awarding annual literary prizes, such as the Russian Booker Prize and the Little Booker Prize. The so-called Anti-Booker Prize—its name, a protest against the British origins of the Booker Prize, was selected to emphasize that it was a Russian award for Russian writers—was first presented in 1995 by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Tatyana Tolstaya began to occupy a prominent role following the publication of her novel The Slynx (2000), a satire about a disastrous hypothetical future for Moscow. Some critics considered the decade the “twilight period in Russian literature,” because of the departure from traditional psychological novels about contemporary life in favour of detective novels. Indeed, such novels were among the best-selling fiction of the period, particularly the work of Boris Akunin, whose Koronatsiia (“Coronation”) won the Anti-Booker Prize in 2000.

Russian cuisine: full immersion

Once in any foreign country, you cannot miss a chance to familiarize yourself with local cuisine. Russia is not an exception, especially considering the huge history and variety of food traditions and delicious meals. Indeed, to try all of them you would have needed a couple of weeks free staying in Russia, eating out in all the national cafes or dining (and, surely, ‘vodking’, so to say) with Russian families and being ready to gain some weight (well, obviously). In case your time is limited, or you are not a real fan of Russian food (wait for it!), Visit Russia’s team have decided to guide you through. We are going to introduce you the most outstanding national dishes, then name some restaurants in Saint Petersburg where you can eat them and give you several tips and recommendations on the pastime related to Russian cuisine in St. Petersburg. Are you hungry? Let’s get started!

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