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Big music, big ballets, big books: Russian culture deals in big things - from Tchaikovsky's Life of Man symphony to Tolstoy's block-busting two-tome epic War and Peace.

A crash course in Russian culture would have to include: the operas Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky) and Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), both with librettos taken from Pushkin; something by Nikolai Gogol, perhaps his play The Government Inspector or his novel Dead Souls (imperative for anyone planning to do business in the Russian sticks - it's all there - the local mafia, the lying and cheating and eagerness to please the visitor from the capital); Goncharov's Oblomov about the Russian who could not get out of bed in the mornings; Turgenev's Huntsman's Sketches, to evoke the beauty and heartbreak of life in the Russian countryside; Chekhov's short stories; and any music by Rachmaninov, whose 2nd Symphony managed to reduce to tears not just the audience but the fairly hard-boiled leader of the London Symphony Orchestra at the end of a particularly withers-wringing performance.

One of the worst insults you can hurl at a Russian is that he is nekulturny (uncultured). In the 1960s, people used to pack football stadiums to hear poetry being declaimed. Now, rock music fills the big venues instead.

Russian theatres and concert halls offer tasty white bread open-sandwiches of salami, smoked fish, black or red caviar, cheese, bars of chocolate, and to drink, fruit juice or champagne to keep your strength up.


Most Europeans are aware of the great 19th-century Russian novelists, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoievsky. But to most Russians, Russian literature is embodied by Alexander Pushkin, poet, playwright and founder of modern Russian prose.

The great-grandson of an Abyssinian prince who was imported to decorate the court of Peter the Great, Pushkin turned the language of his nanny into an instrument fit for the expression of the most subtle and passionate thought and transformed it into its present miraculous combination of freedom and order.

Pushkin was a romantic without illusions, a passionate lover who met his death in a duel over his flighty wife.

All Russian children learn a lot of Pushkin by heart and the rhyming nonsense verses of the great Kornei Chukovsky - a kind of Russian Edward Lear. Lear's rhymes have been successfully translated into Russian, and most Russian children know the classic English children's books: Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island. Shakespeare is standard reading in schools, the most popular translation being by the author of Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (whose family name in Russian means "parsnip").


Russian films are long. Russia's revolutionary rulers soon realised the propaganda value of film, and encouraged film-makers like Eisenstein to pioneer the "docudrama" genre, in which the facts of history were shamelessly falsified to make a good movie. Some of the most famous scenes from Soviet history are actually film stills, notably the one of the crowd running across the square in front of the Winter Palace to "storm" it. In fact, the Winter palace by then was unguarded save by a group of three or four young naval cadets and was taken by an almost equally small number of professional thugs who simply walked in through the back door. Similar liberties were taken with the storyline of The Battleship Potemkin, another of Eisenstein's heavily pointed farragos.

Connoisseurs point to Andrei Tarkovsky as the genius of Russian film. His early masterpiece, Andrei Rubliev, is a drama set in medieval times, which tells the story of Russia's greatest ikon painter and the suffering of the Russian church from the depredations of the Mongol horde. Later, his films became more abstract and darker in mood, including the autobiographical Mirror and science fiction Stalker which reflected the profound depression suffered by Russian intellectuals towards the end of the Soviet period. Sadly, Tarkovsky died in self-imposed exile in Rome before the great events of 1989 in Eastern Europe and 1991 in Russia finally set his country free.

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