5 surprising facts about Russia’s cultural history 

5 surprising facts about Russia’s cultural history 
22 October 2019

Russia is simply a fascinating country: Studying its long and diverse history and its rich culture makes us understand the country and its people better. However, neither in university, nor at school do we really learn to understand what Russia’s cultural history really used to be like. We often spend hours and hours learning about historical or economical facts (of course we also learned about their culture, but that information was always very limited). One time, while I was preparing for an exam, I accidentally came across a book that opened up new ways of thinking for me. It is called Natasha’s dance – A cultural history of Russia by Orlando Figes. I would like to share 5 facts that surprised me about Russian culture.

1. Longing for ‚Europeanness‘ and lack of patriotism

During the 18th century, you could divide Russia into two ‚nations‘ – the aristocracy and the peasants. While the peasants and the serfs were the embodiment of the true Russian soul and the bearers of Russian folklore, the aristocracy could actually not even be described as Russians. They neglected their true Russian identities, but instead, were longing to be Europeans (I am mainly talking about Saint Petersburg here). For Russian aristocrats Europe was more than a tourist destination, but rather a cultural ideal. The way they dressed, the way they behaved (and the way they spoke; see below: The use of Russian language) were very European — but do not get me wrong here — they were aware of acting out their lives, because they learned such manners, as if they learned a foreign language. The fact that they had to learn how to behave like a European shows us, however, that deep down they were still Russians and formed Russia’s cultural history, whether they wanted it or not.

„In every Russian aristocrat, however European he may have become, there was a discreet and instinctive empathy with the customs and beliefs, the habits and the rhythms of Russian peasant life. How, indeed, could it not be so when the nobleman was born in the countryside, when he spent his childhood in the company of serfs, and lived most of his life on the estate — a tiny island of European culture in a vast Russian peasant sea?“ (Figes 2002: 45) 

„St Petersburg was more than a city. It was a vast, almost utopian, project of cultural engineering to reconstruct the Russian as a European man. In Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoevsky called it ‚the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world.‘“ (Figes 2002: 10) 

2. Development of Russian music

The second surprising fact that I came across while reading Natasha’s dance was that the national character of Russian music was also first developed by a foreigner. Opera was imported from abroad in the second half of the 18th century and Italians made the running. Consequently, the Italian style exerted a strong influence on the first Russian composers, as a lot of them were taught by Italians who lived in Saint Petersburg. Not only Italians, but also the French played a vital role in the development of the Russian musical style, as Catherine the Great had invited a French opera group to Saint Petersburg. (This was one of her first acts after she claimed the throne)

3. The use of Russian language

What fascinated me the most was that there was no standardized Russian language and, therefore, Russians lacked in literature. Although almost all aristocrats, even women at that time, were educated and fluent in several languages, they had no literature as the Russian language at that time was still very undeveloped and clumsy. In comparison to France or England, were the writers wrote largely as they spoke, Russia stood out (not in a positive way, unfortunately), because there was a huge difference between the written and the spoken form of the language. The situation looked like this: the aristocracy spoke mainly French (in some homes children were forbidden to speak Russian except on Sundays and religious holidays or they were even punished in some schools for speaking in Russian), the peasants and serfs used plain Russian speech but the written Russian language was a combination of archaic Church Slavonic, a bureaucratic jargon and Latinisms with a lot of French loan words. Even at the turn of the 20th century some Russian aristocrats barely spoke Russian.

„There were strict conventions on the use of languages. For example, a nobleman was supposed to write to the Tsar in Russian, and it would have seemed audacious if he wrote to him in French; but he always spoke to the Tsar in French, as he spoke to other noblemen. On the other hand, a woman was supposed to write in French, not just in her correspondence with the sovereign but with all officials, because this was the language of polite society; it would have been deemed a gross indecency if she had used Russian expressions.“ (Figes 2002: 103) 

4. Growing up in the aristocracy

The aristocracy shared the view that childhood should prepare children for adulthood — they basically regarded childhood as a stage in life that should be overcome as fast as possible. During childhood, children were already taught to behave like little adults (they learned how to dance, went to balls, boys were dressed up in uniforms and signed up for guards). Moreover,  noblemen and noblewomen had a very distant relationship with their children. They usually kept them as far away from themselves as possible, which often ended up being downstairs in the basement floor with their serfs. When the children were finally allowed to see their parents (which did not happen often), the parents showed absolutely no emotions towards their children, but they rather made the children address them in French with the formal „vous“. Therefore, children often had a stronger  affection for their nannies as they were the ones sleeping by their side and holding them when they were crying (In many cases the nanny became like a mother to the child). Another interesting figure in the upbringing of children was the peasant wet nurse. Her main duty was breastfeeding the aristocracy’s infants, therefore, she was given a high position and treated with respect.

„The adults lived in the main house while the children were consigned with their nanny and a wet nurse to an annexed wing, and only saw their parents briefly one or twice a day — for example, to thank them for their dinner (but not to eat with them) or to kiss them goodbye when they went away.“ (Figes 2002: 120) 

5. The story behind the famous matryoshka

The first matryoshka was invented by Sergei Maliutin in 1891. Those of you who still think that the matryoshka has its roots in the Russian folk culture — I am sorry, but I have to disappoint you; this myth is not true. Contrary to this widespread belief, the matryoshka did not originate in the Russian folk culture, but was invented as a response to Mamontovs (a Russian industrialist, merchant, entrepreneur and patron of the arts) commission to make a Russian version of the Japanese nesting doll. Maliutin created a red-cheeked peasant girl, whereby each smaller doll represented a different aspect of peasant life.


Natasha's dance

Natasha’s dance

I hope that some of these facts were surprising or shocking to you as well. I just covered a few interesting aspects about Russia’s cultural history, however, there is so much more to it. The book Natasha’s Dance is honestly one of the best books I have ever read. Not only does the author use such a delightful and brilliant style, but he also covers various angles on Russia’s rich history in a narrative and captivating way. The author intended to show the bigger picture and to present aspects of the Russian history that are usually not covered in historical books. If you are interested in Russian culture, then this book is definitely a MUST-READ!

Posted by Daniela Nuic

Daniela Nuic, Croatian/Bosnian from Austria, studied transcultural communication and is currently interning at Liden & Denz in St Petersburg.

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