What music is Russia known for?


Ulrich Schmid

To person

Ulrich Schmid is Professor of Culture and Society in Russia at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is also an employee of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Russia only developed its own cultural currents after the outbreak of the French Revolution. A cultural boost finally brought forth styles of their own in music and literature. Later the film developed into the new mass medium.

Before the end of the 18th century, Russian culture was based on its French model. (& copy picture alliance / APA / picturedesk.com)

A national culture that saw itself as such did not develop in Russia until the end of the 18th century. Previously, the Russian nobility had largely based on the cultural model of France. However, when the French Revolution broke out and Napoleon marched against the tsarist empire in 1812, the establishment of a specific Russian culture of its own became a social imperative. The cultural surge at the beginning of the 19th century led to an intensified production in all literary genres. In terms of style and genre, the writers were able to rely on preparatory work from the classicist age of the preceding decades. At the same time, however, they had to adapt the Russian language to the changed taste preferences of Romanticism. This included, above all, a simplification of the syntax, which now followed the French sentence structure, and an expansion of the vocabulary through new creations that also provided Russian equivalents for important words such as "élégant".

"Encyclopedia of Russian Life"

Aleksander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin was considered an "encyclopedia of Russian life". (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
The field of literature also became institutionally differentiated. The writing culture was traditionally closely tied to the court of the tsars. Now alternative prestige rooms developed: magazines with an expanded review section canonized literature production. The noble author, who was looking for the monarch's applause, increasingly gave way to the professional writer who wanted to distinguish himself among his audience. A "golden age" emerged - this is what the early 19th century is called in the self-myths of Russian literary history. While the poetry still contained classicist set pieces for a long time, a modern prose developed, which already referred to the modern in terms of plot composition and linguistic expressivity. The institution of the national poet soon appeared in the system of Russian literature. After his early duel death, Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837) was referred to as "our everything", his verse novel Eugene Onegin was considered the "encyclopedia of Russian life".

Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy

In the second half of the 19th century, the critical social novel dominated. This prose genre found its way into Russian literature with some delay. Only published with Alexander Herzens at the end of the 1840s Who's to blame? and Ivan Goncharov Everyday story two novels that can be regarded as the forerunners of the great throws by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1881), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1883) and Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). The heyday of the Russian novel falls in the 1860s and 1870s. It is no coincidence that literary production is increasing in this time of upheaval. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, and in 1866 a terrorist shot the tsar for the first time. The novels by Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are not only artfully composed texts, but each present their own draft of truth for Russian society. Turgenev pleaded for a modernization of the political order based on the Western European model, Dostoyevsky advocated Slavophile messianism and Lev Tolstoy preached the moral perfection of the individual.

Towards the end of the 19th century, writers turned to new literary models. The focus was no longer on critical commentary on present-day society, but rather on developing an elitist aesthetic that rises above the Russian misery. The epoch of modernism in Russia lasts roughly from 1890 to 1920 and includes symbolism, acmeism and futurism as the most important stages. In contrast to the authors of the 19th century, the modernists deliberately designed a binding style imperative. The literature was programmed through manifestos. In these bold texts, the literary tradition was radically devalued in favor of one's own position. For example, in their manifesto "A slap in the face of public taste" (1912), the Futurists recommended throwing Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy off the "steamship of the present". The individual directions changed faster and faster, the half-life of the validity of literary manifestos steadily decreased.

Fundamental change after the October Revolution

The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks fundamentally changed the situation in literature, albeit with a certain delay. The October Revolution divided the authors into three groups: The first group enthusiastically welcomed the new state and wanted to see in the new order the realization of their own world-creative conception of art. The futurists were particularly prominent here, but also individual symbolists such as Valeri Brjussow (1873-1924) or Alexander Blok (1880-1921). The second group sharply rejected the revolution and emigrated to Western Europe. Dmitri Mereschkowski (1865-1941) and his wife Sinaida Hippius (1869-1945) described the Soviet state as the empire of the Antichrist, and the later Nobel Prize winner for literature Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) interpreted the upheaval as an incursion of Asian chaos into the Western culture of Russia. The third group was neutral towards the new rulers. Leon Trotsky named authors such as Sergei Jessenin (1895-1925) or Boris Pilnjak (1894-1938) in his book Literature and revolution (1923) "Followers".

The cultural policy of the young Soviet state was initially characterized by opportunistic benevolence towards these authors. In a resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1925, the followers were honored as "masters of the word", from whom any proletarian literature that had yet to be created would have to learn by hand. It was not until 1934 that all competing literary groups were transferred to the Soviet Writers' Union. At the same time, the authors were committed to the style ideal of socialist realism, which should show "social reality in its revolutionary development". The addition of "revolutionary development" was intended to ensure that possible criticism of the prevailing conditions must always be oriented towards the clear ideal of the communist future.

Self-published and exile press

Numerous writers and poets fell victim to the Stalin terror. Until the tyrant's death in 1953, there were hardly any independent voices in Soviet literature. Only with the onset of the thaw after XX. At the 1956 party congress, a parallel system of samizdat (self-published) and tamizdat (exile press) developed alongside the official literature business. For a short time, under Nikita Khrushchev, criticism of the inefficient economic system and even of the prison camps was allowed. However, when Leonid Brezhnev came to power, the climate cooled down again.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the famous camp report "A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich", which was published thanks to the cultural and political thaw. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
In the 1960s there were a number of sensational trials against authors who did not conform to style, such as Juli Daniel (1925-1988), Andrej Sinjawski (1925-1997) and Jossif Brodsky (1940-1996). After their release from camp custody, Sinyawski and Brodsky went into exile. They belong to the third wave of emigration that occurred in the 1970s - the first wave was a consequence of the civil war immediately after the October Revolution and the second a consequence of the Second World War.

From 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the triple reform program of perestroika (reconstruction), glasnost (public) and uskorenie (acceleration). Literature benefited from the Glasnost program. Above all, the samizdat and tamizdat literature was now distributed in millions on the official literary channels. With a delay of decades, Russian readers were able to acquire the world literary works of Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), Vladimir Nabokow (1899-1977) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). This development was problematic for the young generation of writers. Almost all magazine and publishing capacities were occupied by famous names, debuts were difficult to organize.

Postmodernism and renewed division

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, postmodernism dominated literature. Authors like Vladimir Sorokin (born 1955) or Wiktor Pelewin (born 1962) worked on the excessive pathos of the Soviet drawing culture and gave it an ironic twist. Around 2000, a young generation of authors spoke up who propagated both a new realism and a nationalism that was initially turned against the state. Sergej Schargunow (born 1980) and Sachar Prilepin (born 1975) are also extremely active on the Internet with their own blogs and web portals. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, her sharp criticism of the government fell silent. Since then, they no longer see President Putin as the corrupt usurper of the Russian homeland, but as the guarantor of the realization of their own patriotic dreams. The Kremlin's aggressive Ukraine policy has once again divided Russian literature: Boris Akunin (born 1956) or Lyudmila Ulitzkaja (born 1943) condemn Russian neo-imperialism, while Andrei Gelasimov (born 1966) is impressed by the "strengthening of the state" shows.

The film as a new mass medium

Post-Soviet cinema was shaped by Nikita Michalkow (left), who won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1995 with his Stalinism epic "The Sun That Deceives Us". (& copy picture alliance / United Archives)
The establishment of film as a new mass medium coincided almost exactly with the establishment of the Soviet order in Russia. The revolutionary leader Lenin pointed out in a famous dictum that for the Bolsheviks film was the most important of all arts. Moving images were invaluable for agitation in a largely illiterate audience. From 1928, the Soviet leadership began using mobile film projection systems. In the 1930s there was also a cinema train that stopped in various provincial towns and showed the latest productions from the young Soviet film industry. In the debate as to whether cinema was a new art in its own right, the position that film did not simply synthesize literature, photography and theater, but that the principle of montage established its own aesthetic, soon gained the upper hand.

In 1921 Lew Kuleschow (1899-1970) demonstrated the relative independence of film from the actor's facial expressions in a famous experiment: the director always cut the same face in close-up with a plate of soup, a woman and a coffin, thus releasing the viewers Association made up of hunger, love or sadness. In his documentaries, Dsiga Wertow (1895-1954) traced the forms of socialist construction and believed that the "cinema eye" had a higher perceptual capacity than the human being. Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) soon put his cinematic art at the service of state propaganda . But he managed to maintain a high aesthetic level. The revolutionary films Armored cruiser Potjomkin (1927) and October (1925) defined the iconography of the hated tsarist rule and the Bolshevik seizure of power for the entire Soviet era. While on a business trip, Eisenstein studied the Hollywood industry and later used Walt Disney tricks in his own films.

As in literature, the cinema also benefited from the thaw. The clearest sign of this was the golden palm of Cannes, which Mikhail Kalatosow (1903-1973) wrote in 1957 with his melodrama When the cranes move won. Andrej Tarkowski (1932-1986) celebrated with his films against the opposition of official cultural policy Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and stalker (1979) international success. Because of the difficult production conditions, Tarkowski moved to western countries in 1983.

A defining figure in post-Soviet cinema is Nikita Michalkow (born 1945), who wrote his Stalinism epic in 1995 The sun that deceives us won the Oscar for best foreign film. Mikhalkov takes a national-patriotic position. In 2007 he produced a congratulatory video for President Putin's 55th birthday, reminding critical commentators of submissive greetings to Soviet leaders. Alexander Sokurow (born 1951) also had in the Russian ark (2003) sang the Song of Solomon on Russian national culture. However, in a phantasmagoric tetralogy about Faust, Lenin, Hitler and Hirohito, he analyzed the moral ambivalences in the exercise of political power. He condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014.

Russian music

Russian music has long been under the influence of foreign models. Dmitri Bortnjanski (1751-1825), the first Russian opera composer, learned his trade in Italy and, on his return to the Russian capital, wrote French-language operas in the Italian musical style. It was not until the great romantics such as Nikolaj Rimski-Korsakow (1844-1908), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) tried to develop a genuinely Russian style of music. In doing so, they drew on motifs from Russian folk music and worked on materials from Russian history and literature. Modernist harmonies were introduced by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Scriabin tried to stage his atonal music synaesthetically and therefore planned a "clavier à lumières" for one of his symphonies, which projected spots of color onto a screen during the music performance. Stravinsky settled in France in 1920 and abandoned the Russian reminiscences that had characterized his early work.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) had also left Russia after the October Revolution and tried to gain a foothold in the West. However, in 1936 he gave in to the recruitment of the Soviet cultural managers and moved to Moscow. There he tried to implement the literary stylistic principle of socialist realism with its maxims of comprehensibility and partiality in the field of music as well. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who celebrated early success with avant-garde sound experiments, led a precarious artistic existence between adaptation and resistance.
For the younger generation of the Soviets, the mystical dimension of music came to the fore. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
However, he was after a performance of Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk in early 1936 in a Pravda editorial entitled "Chaos Instead of Music". Shostakovich hurried to regain the goodwill of the establishment with his fifth symphony and its traditional harmonies. Nevertheless, in 1948 he was once again suspected of "formalism". Only after Stalin's death did Shostakovich receive due recognition. During this time he also composed numerous film scores.

For the younger generation of the Soviets, the mystical dimension of music comes to the fore. Sofia Gubaidullina (born 1931) develops the harmonies of Russian Orthodox church music in her works, Vladimir Martynov (born 1946) heralds the "end of composed music" and relies on suggestive sound effects that arise almost automatically, and Vladimir Tarnopolski (born 1946) heralds the "end of composed music" . 1955) wants to capture the chaos of contemporary Russian life in his expressive compositions.