Writers acquired unparalleled respect in the nineteenth century. As the country’s autocratic system of government came under growing scrutiny, writers were venerated for their ability to voice social, political and moral concerns. Of importance to many was the need to develop Russian traditions in art, music and literature, rather than imitate western European practice. Vladimir Dal and others devoted themselves to the preservation of Russian proverbs, folk songs and fairytales, while Vladimir Stasov and other nationalistic critics championed local artists and encouraged Russian themes.

Vladimir Dal by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery


However rich the talent that characterised Russian writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy stand out from the crowd.

Turgenev established his credentials in 1852 with an acclaimed collection of stories known as A Sportman’s Sketches, which he followed with novels, short stories and plays that established him as one of the most lyrical chroniclers of Russian life. Dostoevsky mined the darker seams of urban existence in his debut novel, Poor Folk (1846), as well as in his later psychological masterpieces such as Crime and Punishment (1866). Tolstoy acquired an international following with War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), before renouncing his earlier fiction in order to devote himself to religious and philosophical enquiry. Together, they exemplify the diversity and ambition of Russian fiction during one of the cultural heydays of imperial rule.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery


Russia boasted a variety of theatrical venues by the end of the nineteenth century. In St Petersburg, the opulent Mariinsky Theatre was balanced by the elegant Alexandrinsky Theatre. In Moscow, the Bolshoi Theatre mounted vast spectacles on an extravagant scale, while the adjacent Maly Theatre favoured intense plays by the likes of Turgenev, Ostrovsky and Pisemsky.

Most radical was the Moscow Art Theatre which was conceived by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1897. From its performance of The Seagull in 1898, the theatre championed Chekhov’s work, and acquired renown as Russia’s most innovative and risk-taking theatrical space.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery


In 1862, Anton Rubinstein founded the St Petersburg Conservatoire to further the education and professionalisation of Russian musicians. At the same time, a group of young composers that included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky began to experiment with forms of music that were identifiably Russian rather than derivations of European styles. The critic Vladimir Stasov zealously promoted them as exemplars of the national musical tradition he longed for and dismissed the conservatoires system. However, composers such as Tchaikovsky came to value both western and native musical styles.

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin, 1881
© State Tretyakov Gallery


The late nineteenth century was a period of great cultural vitality in Russia, not least thanks to some notably generous and open-minded patrons. The railway magnate Savva Mamontov extended lavish hospitality to artists at his country estate of Abramtsevo, where an entire colony of painters and sculptors gathered from the 1870s. Most celebrated of all are Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov who amassed some of the richest collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, and opened vital new dialogues between French modernism and Russian art.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, 1910
© State Tretyakov Gallery


On 22 January 1905, several thousand demonstrators marched towards the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They were fired on by the Imperial Guard, leading to scores of fatalities and a period of acute social and political unrest.

These events forced Russians to reconsider their social, political or creative responsibilities. In response, a new generation of writers produced poetry and prose of stunning originality and resonance. Abandoning previous convention, they exemplify the richness of Russian culture in the twilight of imperial rule.

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
© State Tretyakov Gallery