Russian art and architecture remain a mystery to most outsiders, even as the country itself has opened up to the world. Knowing just a little about the evolution of Russian fine and applied arts, and about the political movements that often drove them, will make your trip less overwhelming and more eye-opening.
For a millennium, from Russia's 9th-century conversion to Orthodox Christianity until the 19th century, Russian art was almost exclusively defined by icon painting. This Byzantine practice of painting saints or biblical scenes on carved wooden panels was guided rigidly by church canon, so the icons appear much more uniform and repetitive than western European religious art of the Renaissance, for example. The best advice for a novice viewer is to pick one or two icons in a room and study their lines and balance -- don't look for realism or classic proportion, or expect to be uplifted. They're meant to be somewhat haunting and introspective.
Some Russian icon painters managed to infuse originality into their work, but it takes a trained eye to notice the distinctions. Andrei Rublev was the most famous and most controversial medieval icon painter, and brought the genre to a new level in the 14th century. His works are best appreciated at Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and Trinity Monastery at Sergiev Posad. Spaso-Andronnikov Monastery in Moscow, where he lived and worked, has none of his original work but does contain an informative exhibit about him.
Russian art fell out of favor after Peter the Great transferred the capital to St. Petersburg in the early 1700s and adorned it with French and Italian masterpieces, or imitations thereof. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that the Slavophile movement brought real success to Russian painters. The Wanderers, or peredvizhniki, broke from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and its Western-style traditions to focus on portraying Russian village life. Standouts of this period include Ivan Kramskoi and Ilya Repin, whose works are well displayed at Tretyakov Gallery and at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
The late 19th century saw Russia's version of the Arts and Crafts movement, relying on traditional Russian applied arts. Russian artists also embraced what they call Style Moderne, or Art Nouveau. Stunning interpretations of this style can be found in Mikhail Vrubel's Dream Princess mosaic around the top of the Metropol hotel's facade and in a related, room-size mosaic by him in Tretyakov Gallery.
The political upheaval of the early 20th century was a major engine of Russian artistic growth. Vibrant colors, angular shapes, and the intensity of urban life replaced the bucolic rural scenes, and the Russian Avante-Garde movement flourished. Kasimir Malevich and Mikhail Larionov explored the genres of Futurism, Rayonism (Russia's only truly abstract art), and Suprematism. Belarusian Marc Chagall produced surreal and surprising paintings during this period. Many of these works are on display at Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (the old and new wings) and at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Early Soviet leaders initially harnessed the creativity of free-thinking artists for propaganda purposes, and the posters, sculptures, and public spaces designed by Russian artists in the 1920s are among the world's most stirring artworks. The Constructivists, including Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova, incorporated technological and industrial themes and energy into their work. Their works are only beginning to emerge from museum storehouses, and some are on display at Tretyakov Gallery and at St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. Russia's Avante-Garde contributed more to world art than is usually appreciated, largely because the Soviet government so effectively erased or discredited their work by the 1930s, championing instead the bold images but less daring ideas of Socialist Realism.
The propaganda poster came to replace the icon as Russia's chief canvas for most of the Soviet era, until freedom from artistic constrictions in the late 1980s and 1990s produced a wave of bold, experimental art. Today, Russia's artists seem to be casting about for a new role.
Russian architecture, too, was church-centric and followed Orthodox stricture for centuries. Churches were built in the shape of a Greek cross, with few windows and steep roofs. The onion domes became a prominent feature in the 11th century. The iconostasis, a screen in front of the altar with a careful hierarchy of icons, is the key object to look for inside a church.
Medieval architects took more risks than their icon-painting colleagues. The cathedrals in the Kremlin are the most coherent examples of the slow encroachment of Italian influences upon Russian tradition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Venetian scallops edge the roofs, though the buildings include the kokoshniki (pointed arches) and zakomari (semicircular gables) typical of the era's architecture in Moscow. St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow is one of the last churches to so boldly use beveled domes and the shatyor, or tent-roofed tower later banned by Orthodox leaders -- no other church in Russia today looks quite like it.
Peter the Great's Western-looking ideas overturned Russian architecture, and the capital he built adhered to Enlightenment ideals and a relentless symmetry. The rococo Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral, as well as the neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace and Admiralty, look almost nothing like the twisted domes of medieval Moscow. Visit any square in St. Petersburg and turn around 360 degrees, and you'll have a sense of how consistent and secular the city's designers were, even those who came well after Peter's death.
The Revivalist movement of the 19th century saw the return of traditional Russian church features such as the decorated cupolas seen in St. Petersburg's Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. After the victory over Napoleon, the Empire style caught on for Russian aristocratic residences, proof of which can be found around the streets of Prechistenka and Ostozhenka in Moscow.
Early Soviet architecture was as creative and energized as the period's art, with architects such as Konstantin Melnikov forging functional, elegant buildings that made the Soviet idea (of a progressive, egalitarian state) seem the pinnacle of modernity. (His most famous house is near the Arbat at 6 Krivoarbatsky Pereulok.) Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square, for all its morbid function, is one of the last surviving examples of Constructivist architecture. The Moscow metro system was designed by the country's top architects and is an excellent place to view the juxtaposition of tradition (flowery capitals) with Soviet politics (statues of the proletariat). It's also one of the most beautiful subway systems in the world.
Later, the "Stalin Gothic" style appeared in dozens of towering buildings around Moscow (spreading as far as Warsaw and Prague), with turrets and spires on administrative or residential buildings. Two prime examples are the Ukraina hotel and Moscow State University. Architecture after Stalin descended into the bleak, boxy towers that mar the skyline of any Russian city. Today's architectural trends are set by the nouveau riche Russians building multimillion-dollar "cottages" on the outskirts of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The guiding principle often seems to be "as big and extravagant as possible." They make for amusing viewing, though many are surrounded by tall walls and security systems to stop you from doing just that.
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