Russian arts and culture is diverse and all encompassing and testimony of the observation by Will Rogers that “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” Russian civilization has produced classic works of art in all genres, including innovations of lasting significance in literature, music, and ballet. The artistic process often has collided with political dogma, and outside influences have combined with "pure Russian" art forms in a sometimes uneasy harmony. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia has been a great contributors to world culture. Russia's cultural heritage is sometimes summed by the Golden Age of Pushkin in the early 1800s. the Silver Age of Symbolism at the turn of the century and Bronze Age of revolutionary art between 1913 and 1931. The intellectual class in Russia has endured and had a great impact on life and culture despite oppression, censorship and internal conflicts.

Russia also has a tradition of “state intellectuals,” who support and defend the government as unofficial purveyors of the government’s ideology. Intellectual have their roots in the education reforms of the 18th century and grew enormously as result of political tensions in the 19th century. They were at the heart of many of key events in the 20th century.

James Billington, an expert on Russian and Soviet culture, once said, Russia "is absolutely littered with great uncompleted works of art. No civilization has ever produced more great uncompleted works of art." He knows of one artist who made 500 sketches over 25 years for one painting and another who spent 20 years developing a unique form of animation. Billington blamed this tendency on Russia's "rather turbulent history" and "because they do big projects—too big. I called it metaphysical overload. They're late in this business of art. They almost over-believe in it when they discover it. It becomes almost a religion for them."

Slavophiles were members of the Russian intelligentsia in the mid-nineteenth century who advocated the preservation of Slavic, and specifically Russian, culture rather than opening Russian society and institutions to the influences of West European culture. They were philosophically opposed to Westernizers. Westernizers were Russian intellectuals in the mid-nineteenth century who emphasized Russia's cultural ties with the West as a vital element in the country's modernization and development.

Russia has a Culture Minister and Culture Ministry. In the Soviet era, religious expression was discouraged while cultural expression was encouraged. Some groups such as the Jews dove deeply into cultural pursuits in part because the were denied the opportunity to express themselves in religion.

Books: “The Icon and the Axe” by James Billington, a Russian specialist and former Librarian of Congress. It is regarded the authoritative work on the origins of Russian culture. The Library of Congress has the most comprehensive holding of Russian material outside Russia itself. Another good book is “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia” by Orlando Figes (Penguin, 2003). S. Frederick Starr, a respected historian of Russian culture at Johns Hopkins University.

Russian Peasant and Folk Culture

Russia culture is perhaps best known for its intellectual literature and sophisticated music and dance but it has been described as an intrinsically peasant culture at its roots. This perhaps summed up the best in the famous scene in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” when the heroine, the aristocratic Natasha, visits the countryside and finds herself suddenly intoxicated by the music of a village band, instinctively doing the steps of a traditional peasant dance.

Russian art, literature, music and dance all have been enriched by folk art. Russian Folk art in it's own right is extraordinarily rich. It is most evident in music, dance and applied and decorative art.

Folk culture has traditionally been described as art form produced by a group of people that is different from the art produced by other groups. In many remote villages folk arts and culture that survived for centuries are now almost gone. Folklore troops attempting to revive some of the old folk dances seek out very old woman in villages to resurrect the dances. Often, no one can remember an entire dance, but individuals can remember parts, and piece by piece the dance is put back together.♣

The folk arts have had a particularly strong impact on Russian classical music and dance. The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was inspired by folk music rhythms and music from the Russian Orthodox Church. Igor Stravinsky's early works featured folk-inspired melodies. “Renard” (1915), a burlesque about a man who tries to catch a roster for dinner but is outmaneuvered by other barnyard animals, is based on an old Russian folk tale. “Petrouchka”, a Stravinsky-Diaghilev ballet with Nijinsky, was based on a Russian folk story about a puppet that comes to life.

Russian Culture and the Orthodox Church

Tsarist rule, Russian culture, Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox church all developed together after Russia was Christianized in A.D. 988 under a formal royal act. The Russian Orthodox Church was introduced from Constantinople to Kiev around a thousand years ago by Prince Vladamir. The Ukraine is considered the cradle or Russian Orthodoxy because Kiev is there. Even during the Mongol era, the Orthodox church was exempt form taxation and held vast amounts of land and other possessions.

Until the predominance of Moscow was established at the beginning of the 16th century, Russian art and architecture was primarily Byzantine in character. Most difference were regional variations. Conservatism in the 15th and 16th century ushered in a period of neglect of the arts. Many pieces created earlier were destroyed.

For much of Russia’s history the Orthodox church was inextricably linked to the tsars. University of London Russian scholar Martin McCauley told AP,"Who's Russian? Many would say that if you're not Orthodox, then you're not Russian." One religious scholar told the Washington Post, "The Russian Orthodox Church is the last residue of unity...of old imperial Russia.

Russian Culture and Peter and Catherine the Great

Russia's cultural isolation began to ebb when Peter the Great (1682-1725) became tsar. Under Peter and the tsars that followed Russia was transformed very quickly from an insular, medieval, religious self-sufficient culture to one that was more secular and relied heavily on the West for direction. Baroque became all the rage.

At the time Peter the Great's became tsar, Russia had no literature except folklore. Russian art declined with the Byzantine empire and ordinary Russians were illiterate and lacked even the most basic knowledge of arithmetic and science.

Peter revived Russian culture and art and generated an interest in literature. St. Petersburg became a major cultural center through the exchange of young Russians going off to study in Europe and European artists coming to get a taste of Russia's exotic allure. Although Peter did little to educate his people, he set goals that were achieved in later generations. After Peter the Great's reforms the Russian aristocracy began to take a stronger interests in Western art at the expense of traditional Russian art. Peter helped scholarship by decreeing that all works must be signed and dated.

The intellectual westernization of the Russian elite started by Peter the Great continued during Catherine's reign. Catherine patronized poets and writers in Russia. She is credited with helping to foster a unique Russian literature. She read a great deal and made a few stabs at writing history and drama. An increase in the number of books and periodicals also brought forth intellectual debates and social criticism.

Catherine the Great considered herself a daughter of the French enlightenment. Fluent in French, she required her court to adapt French manners and corresponded regularly with the French intellectuals Voltaire and Diderot. Voltaire called her "flighty." Diderot described her as a woman "with the soul of Caesar and the seductiveness of Cleopatra."

The 40-something Catherine shamelessly manipulated the 80-something Voltaire with gifts and flattery and wrote flirtatious letters to him. He returned the gesture by defending Catherine and Russia in Europe. Catherine bought Voltaire's and Diderot's library, which are both still in Russia.

Culture in the Soviet Era

During and after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the cultural scene, led by the Futurist and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, was quite lively and experimental. As the Soviet bureaucracy took a stronger hold, artists were expected to help the state and do what they were told. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, the Party imposed strict controls on culture and education. Contact with the West was all but cut off, and writers and artists were required to join government-supported unions or be ignored. According to the “Revolution from Above,” writers had to stick close to proletariat values and eliminate all “bourgeois” and “deviaionist” writing. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden.

In 1924, after Lenin’s death, modernist art deemed as cubist or fauvist was condemned. In 1934, Stalin issued a decree that only socialist realist art was acceptable. Stalin helped too destroy Russian culture like he did everything else. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden. Culture had to rebound after his death.

Culture in Communist era was characterized by censorship, ideological controls and the production of works that met the needs of the state. "National" culture was "nominally encouraged within very tight limits" with the goal being to display the bonding of many cultures under Socialism. The state controlled all elements of culture and the media: literature, music, art, film, television, radio, newspapers, magazines. Bibles, skin magazines and novels by controversial writers like Nabakov and Solzhenitsyn were confiscated at the borders.

Still culture was often very much alive and in some cases very rich. Government subsidized theaters and concerts. Factories and hospital organized tours. Ordinary people regularly attended dramas and classical music concerts rather than watch movies at the local cineplex and talked about books and theater rather than jobs and money.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post: “I have long expected that the work of the Soviet writers who were so adamantly admired and idolized by three generations of Soviet intellectuals would not stand the test of time...I fear at most they will be remembered in the same way we now remember say, Etruscan sculpture...chroniclers of a peculiar, lost civilization, one whose bizarre morality and strange aesthetics will seem increasingly alien with time, not only to Westerners but also to a younger generation of Russians. Even the greatest Soviet writers...may eventually seem obscure to their countrymen simply because the society they described. with its layers of secrecy, propaganda, absurdity ad cruelty, will become impossible to understand.”

Socialist Realism

During his rule Stalin sanctioned a form of state called officially known as Socialist Realism. "Geared to a naive, not to say brutish mass public barely literate in artistic matters," wrote TIME art critic Robert Hughes, “Soviet Socialist realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience."

Socialist Realism has been defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." It appeared on paintings hoisted in public and on posters splashed all over cities Subjects in the works including spirited workers, heroic soldiers, uplifting leaders. Posters of "shock workers" (people who worked tirelessly for Socialism) show handsome, muscular men with smile son their faces performing some kind of menial chore in front of glistening factories.

Approved Soviet-era culture was dominated by Socialist Realism. One man who lived through the Stalin era told the New York Times, "Art back then was only a reflection of beautiful dream—not of the slave labor of collective farmers or those who dug the canals, mines and built factories than in the long destroyed or Russian land."

Stalin ordered the Soviet Union’s top art academies to emphasize technical skill and powerful portrayal of figures and landscapes. One art critic told Newsweek the subjects of socialist realist painting were “supposed to depict happy, young, smiling faces and full bellies. The mood of the work was always supposed to be celebratory; it didn’t matter if you were painting birthday parties or electrical wires.” The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky called Socialist Realism, “poor art for poor people.”

Approved Soviet-era literature was dominated by Socialist Realism. Soviet-era ballet had to meet the standards of Socialist Realism as well. Despite this handicap some memorable works were produced. These included “The Red Poppy” (1927), Prokofiev's “Romeo and Juliet” (1946) and Yury Grigorovich's “Spartacus” and “Ivan the Terrible”.

Artists and Writers in the Communist Era

In the Communist era, artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals were endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and create works which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies.

According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party was to maintain that there was the correct number of artists and writers for society's needs and follow the party line. Artists and writers recognized by the government received a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artist had to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs were sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

Artists, musicians and writers were required to submit their work to censors before it was allowed to be presented to the public. Writers often only saw only 15 percent of their earnings after the VAAP, an organization for writers, and the Writer’s Union took their share.

Soviet Culture and the Arts in the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 70s, a greater variety of creative works became accessible to the public than had previously been available. As in earlier decades, the state continued to determine what could be legally published or performed, punishing persistent offenders with exile or prison. Nonetheless, greater experimentation in art forms became permissible in the 1970s, with the result that more sophisticated and subtly critical work began to be produced. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

The regime loosened the strictures of socialist realism; thus, for instance, many protagonists of the novels of author Yuriy Trifonov concerned themselves with problems of daily life rather than with building socialism. In music, although the state continued to frown on such Western phenomena as jazz and rock, it began to permit Western musical ensembles specializing in these genres to make limited appearances. But the native balladeer Vladimir Vysotskiy, widely popular in the Soviet Union, was denied official recognition because of his iconoclastic lyrics. *

Still repression of the arts was strong/ In 1974, several "unofficial" artists—painters and sculptors who were not members of the state-sanctioned Union of Artists—attempted to stage a show on the outskirts of Moscow. The show only lasted a couple of hours before government thugs beat on the artist, the crowds were driven away with water cannons and bulldozers destroyed the art.

Culture After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, cultural expression in Russian has become freer than it has ever been. Mikhail Shvydkoi, Russia's culture minister in 2001, told the New York Times, "Now, whatever you want to do, you do it. This is reflected in a whole host of small theaters and galleries that have cropped up everywhere. We still have to get used to the mass phenomenon of small manifestations of culture. Yet as it turns out, even after soaking up all the new outside influences, we are learning that our culture can stand up."

Russian specialist and Librarian of Congress James Billington told the New York Times, There is a "a quite remarkable recovery particularly among the younger generation. There is a tremendous ensemble spirit...These people are starting all over again, instead of operating on the leftovers of the state system."

Under Gorbachev “glastnost” and “peristroika” things began to loosen up. Unofficial artists and craftsmen were allowed to display their work, writers could write pieces critical of the government, and musicians could play what they wanted.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the artistic groups in Russia abruptly went from being state supported entities to enterprises that paid their own way. Artists, writers and scientists that once had comfortable lives and occupied the upper echelons of society found themselves raising food in gardens to fed their families and driving taxis to earn some cash.

The structure of main culture institution remained and slowly changed and adapted to capitalism and diminishing state funds. But the transition was not easy. "Art is not flourishing the way it used to because the state subsidy has been removed," Russian culture expert James Billington said in the 1990s. "This has been a terrible shock for artists, particularly the preforming arts. The things that are dependent on money are weaker. But the things that are dependant on freedom are stronger."

Vulgarity and Western Influences in Post-Communist Culture

Many traditionalist feel that the culture that has sprung up in Russia since the break up of the Soviet Union is uncouth, vulgar and superficial. Intellectuals claim that serious literature has been replaced by pulp fiction, that once great film studios have been reduced to making television cop shows, and that concert halls that were showcases for serious music now host pop concerts and imitation Broadway musicals. The current state of culture has often described with the Russian word “poshlost”, which has been translated by Vladimir Nabakov as meaning "an amalgamation of banality, triviality, vulgarity and fakery."

Hollywood and Western culture are now viewed in a different light. One Russian writer told the New York Times, "American popular culture came to us via the VCR. before then, we were clearly divided into 'have beens' (abroad) and 'haven't-beens'...At first people watched films we had all hear about—“Citizen Kane”, “Chinatown”, “The Deer Hunter” and the film that became “the” movie of the Russian intelligentsia, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”."

"With perestroika, everything that we used to watch stealthily was now awaiting for us everywhere....[Later] The market for American best sellers and blockbuster have achieved the impossible—people are so sick of them that they have started watching old movies from the days of Socialist realism...The culture gained the apparent blessing of state, which is the kiss of death in Russia." These days people are going to Russian movies, reading books by Russian authors, buying works by Russian artists.

Arts and the Orthodox Church After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

In the mid 2000s, the Orthodox Church and nationalist groups with ties to the church were involved in a number of protests and court cases against artists and performers. In January 2003, an art exhibit called “Caution: Religion,” was ransacked by Orthodox Christian protesters, associated with a group called the Committee of the Moral Revival of the Fatherland, also known for defacing billboards advertising women’s underwear.

The exhibitors were charged with crimes not the vandals. Among the works that the Orthodox activists found objectionable was s a life-size icon with a hole in the face that visitors could put their head in and be photographed and a face of Jesus next to a Coca-Cola logo with the words, “This my blood.”

In August 2003, an Orthodox priest asked authorities to shut down a French ballet performance, because it portrayed the Archangel Gabriel in a “blasphemous and corrupting” way. In February 2004, an art exhibit of “icons,” with film stars and politicians in St. Petersburg was vandalized by men in army fatigues. In February 2005, Orthodox priests and parishioners in Ekaterinburg staged a protest because a dancer portrayed Tsar Nicholas II, an Orthodox saint. In February 2005, organizers of an art festival in Moscow were charged with inciting religious hatred over a video piece that showed the faces of 26 saints.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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