You don't have to know a word of Russian to delight in its ballets and symphonies, and its operas are worth viewing for the spectacle and drama even if the language escapes you. Russians take great pride in their cultural heritage, and in the Soviet era nearly everyone, factory worker and collective farmer included, made regular visits to theater, concert hall, or opera house. The generous Communist subsidies that made such widespread cultural appreciation possible shriveled in the 1990s, but both performers and theatergoers are now climbing out of the post-Soviet slump and finding a balance between honoring the classics and testing new artistic directions.
Russia's rigorous ballet traditions have relaxed little in the past 200 years, and that commitment to physical perfection carries over into every form of dance represented in today's Russia. Even strippers often have classical training. The wave of departures by Russian ballet prodigies for richer Western companies has ebbed in recent years, and a new generation is carrying on the traditions of Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and Nijinsky in their homeland. Russia's reputation makes it a top destination for dance festivals, offering a great opportunity to see international superstars or smaller European and Asian companies.
For classical music fans, there's no better way to pay tribute to the homeland of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, and Rimsky-Korsakov than to hear their works played in a Russian conservatory by their dedicated heirs. Russia's musicians -- like its athletes and dancers -- are trained from preschool age, with strict discipline and devotion to classicism. Even though musicians remain dreadfully underpaid and many have left for more lucrative jobs, theirs remains a highly selective profession. Any concert you hear in Russia is bound to be of top quality.
Devotees of playwright Anton Chekhov and the Stanislavsky acting method may appreciate a visit to the Moscow Art Theater, where both found fame. However, it's difficult to celebrate their contributions to theater traditions in Moscow or St. Petersburg without a good command of Russian. A relatively new phenomenon in the Russian performance scene is the musical; fans of the originals may find it amusing to watch the Russian-language version of Chicago or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
What Russian opera lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in volume and visuals. Opera tickets generally cost less than ballet tickets, and seeing Mussorgsky's historical saga Boris Godunov is a dramatic way to dose up on Russian culture and see the interior of a monumental theater like the Mariinsky (Kirov) at the same time.
Dense, fatalistic, philosophical, lyrical, haunting, bleak, passionate. . . . These stereotypes cling to Russian literature and often scare newcomers away. But even a little knowledge of the country's greatest authors will help you make sense of the many literary museums, monuments, and slogans you'll run across during your trip. Russians are extremely well-read, and take any opportunity to celebrate their literary traditions (and they may know more about your country's authors than you do).
Russian writing didn't really blossom until the 19th century, long after most European cultures had well-established literary traditions. In the early 1800s, serfdom was still enshrined in law, and literacy remained the luxury of the upper classes, who preferred to read European literature to demonstrate their Western mind-set. But a burst of nationalism following the victory over Napoleon began to change Russia's literary habits, much as it affected Russian art of the same period. A growing class of students in universities and academies took up their pens. Alexander Pushkin is the most important of these, revered by Russians as the father of modern Russian literature for applying day-to-day language to poetic forms. This made his work more accessible than any other Russian writer's work before his. His death in a duel in 1837 at the age of 37 elevated him to icon status.
If Pushkin's romantic epics such as Eugene Onegin and Ruslan and Ludmila reflected the more hopeful, ironically playful side of Russian life, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's work revealed its darker, more troubled side. Crime and Punishment traces the inner turmoil of a poor student who murders a pawnbroker. No character is really likable, but each is disturbingly believable. Notes From Underground's account of a man expressing his free will by sinking into desperation leaves the reader ready to jump off a bridge.
Nikolai Gogol chose satire over solemnity, portraying the complacency and petty concerns of the rural gentry and urban clerical classes in short stories such as The Nose and The Overcoat and in his novel The Inspector-General. Mikhail Lermontov carved a name for himself with A Hero of Our Time and other tales about the Caucasus Mountains and Russia's efforts to subdue warrior clans there.
Nineteenth-century writers also took on Russian politics, often incurring the wrath of czarist governments: Pushkin was exiled from St. Petersburg, and Dostoyevsky was jailed for taking part in a radical intellectual discussion group.
The next crucial figure in the Russian literary pantheon was Leo Tolstoy. His writing career spanned 6 decades, starting with Sevastopol Sketches about his time serving in the Crimean Wars. He won fame for War and Peace, his careful and complex account of the Napoleonic Wars, and for Anna Karenina, about the fall of a married woman suffocated by her bourgeois world. Tolstoy later abandoned the aristocratic, intellectual realm for a form of Christian anarchism and asceticism at his farm at Yasnaya Polyana outside Moscow.
Anton Chekhov countered Tolstoy's rejection of modern life with an unflagging faith in progress. Originally a doctor, Chekhov began writing short stories before discovering widespread success as a playwright. His preference for progress underpinned plays such as The Seagull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, in which stagnation and the emptiness of rural life are recurrent themes.
The political turmoil of the early 20th century fueled literary expression before Soviet ideology crippled it or sent it fleeing abroad. Some writers managed to produce masterpieces amid this repression and fear. Anna Akhmatova thrived in the heady years before the revolution, then spent decades producing subtle yet wrenching commentary on the transformation of her beloved hometown into Soviet Leningrad. The Communist leadership was notoriously fickle in its loyalties. Vladimir Mayakovsky was hailed as the voice of the revolution but by the late 1920s was ostracized. Mikhail Bulgakov staged several plays in the 1920s; his Dog's Heart, in which a bourgeois surgeon puts a dog's heart in a decidedly proletariat patient, became a much-loved film. However, most of his works were banned or censored, including his masterpiece Master and Margarita, a complex novel that invokes Pontius Pilate and has the devil stalking one of Moscow's most prestigious neighborhoods. Vladimir Nabokov fled Russia after the revolution but continued publishing in Russian and translating his own works into English. His stylized allegories on art and life include The Luzhin Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, and his most notorious novel, Lolita.
Of Russia's modern writers, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the most iconic. Imprisoned in a labor camp in the 1950s for his dissident views, he emerged even more determined to fight the Soviet system. His Gulag Archipelago chronicled the network of labor camps in exhaustive and exhausting detail. He earned a Nobel Prize but was afraid to collect it; he was eventually exiled in 1974. He returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994 and continued to write essays critical of Russia's direction and moral decay until his death in 2008.
Perhaps post-Soviet Russia's most successful writer is Boris Akunin (a pseudonym), who has tapped into a mass-market hunger for accessible historical fiction that satirizes Russian faults without ridiculing them. Following the antiestablishment myth-busting of the perestroika era, many authors have taken on a more nationalist tone in recent years, focusing on Russia's beauty instead of its flaws, though it's still nothing like the propaganda-infused writings of Soviet times.
An exception to this is Tatyana Tolstaya, a great-grandniece of Tolstoy's and acerbic commentator on Russian and Western life. Viktor Pelevin's cynical and philosophical novels toy with fantasy and the dangerous combination of Russian fatalism and modern technology. Pelevin was the first to play with the concept of manipulating media via advertising instead of political propaganda. The concept has taken flight with Sergei Minayev's recent and more rugged Media Sapiens series, a disturbing lesson in PR for the modern age.
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