The Russian Arts

The 19th Century in St. Petersburg was a time when Russian literary and musical expression matched or exceeded the best that Europe and America had to offer. (St Petersburg: A Cultural History, and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia) The novels written then give you enormous insight into the actual life and times of Russians at all levels of the social spectrum. Some of these works are very widely known, while others are familiar only to those with some background in Russian studies. We’ll give you a “greatest hits” approach to writers and composers and their most renown works.

The Soviet period is more difficult. Stalin fostered a literary community focused on “Socialist Realism” which was intended to support the image of worker as hero. Much of it was heavily censored or directed. The most famous works by Russian writers and composers during this period were from “emigres” who had left Russia for life in Europe or America. As some were seriously critical of the Soviet system, they were controversial and fostered some backlash from the Soviet literary press. Again, some of these titles are well known. Others are more obscure. However, the books listed here are the cream of the crop.

Russian Literature:

Alexander Pushkin in 1827. Orest Adamovich Kiprensky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Pushkin: Considered the Granddaddy of Russian Literature and its first great novelist.

Nikolai Gogol: Storyteller and satirist. He loved to poke fun at the upper crust.

Ivan Turgenev:

Leo Tolstoy: Possibly one of the greatest novelists anytime, anywhere.

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy at his desk.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Another titan of Russian literature and the universal human condition

Anton Chekhov: Master playwright whose works are still performed internationally

Maxim Gorky: One of the first writers to support the revolutionary cause

  • My childhood, 1913, Growing up in the tough world of Tsarist Russia in the 1870’s

Boris Pasternak, émigré author

Mikhail Bulgakov, Soviet satirist

  • The Master and Margarita, originally written in 1940, though not published until 1967, The Devil visits atheistic Russia and a fantastical journey ensues

Vladimir Nabokov, superb émigré writer and literary professor

Alexander Solzhenitsyn novels heated up the Cold War with stark criticism of the Soviets. By Xpucmo, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to Nabokov’s novels, his collections of literary lectures are a literature of their own:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the essential critic of Stalinist Russia

Russian Music: You have all heard of Tchaikovsky. He is the 800-pound gorilla of Russian musical composition. You could spend a very pleasant afternoon listening to his best works. The fourth movement of the Fifth Symphony is some of the most regal music ever written. He has excellent company with many other Russian composers from Tsarist and Soviet periods. Many of these works have numerous versions. Pick one with a great orchestra and enjoy!



Tchaikovsky brought Russian music to the World Stage. Wikimedia Commons




Igor Stravinsky:

Sergei Prokofiev:

Dmitri Shostakovich:

Russian Ballet: We cannot leave the topic of Russian Artistry without some mention of the spectacular Ballet personalities that have come from St. Petersburg and Moscow. If you can find examples of their performances, they would be worth watching. The Ballet companies are also legends. The St. Petersburg troupe was founded by Sergei Diaghilev as the Ballet Russe. Founded in 1909, it has morphed over the years into the Kirov Ballet, and, now, the Mariinsky Ballet. In Moscow, the Bolshoi Company has become the most famous name in Dance.

Impresario: Sergei Diaghilev, Diaghilev: A Life, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Men: Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov

The Women: Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, Natalia Makarova