“I love your country, Russia, its people, its historyc, its writer. My father was a communist at the time, he listened to Radio Moscow! It’s my culture, too.” - Gérard Depardieu
Are you completely lost when we mention the Soviet Union, communism, or Leningrad?
We’re talking about famous Russians, of course.
Did you know that there were only 28 Tsars in charge of Imperial Russia from 1547 and 4 Presidents since the creation of the Russian Federation in 1991?
While Vladimir Putin has spent over 5,000 days in charge of the country, political figures aren’t the only famous Russians worth talking about.
In this article, we're going to look at famous Russian political figures, historical figures, artists, and the Russians that everyone should know if they're studying Russian culture or learning the Russian language.
Ivan the Terrible, The First Russian Tsar
Ivan IV Vasilyevich was commonly known as Ivan the Terrible because of the regime he put into place during the 1560s. He led military campaigns against the Tatars, the Polish, and the Swedish. He remained head of Russia for nearly after that.
Ivan the Terrible appears regularly in the arts, even in the West. He’s appeared in everything from a painting by Ilya Repin to the video game Age of Empires. He’s an important figure who's responsible for starting the Tsarism in Russia.
Peter I or Peter the Great, the Emperor of All Russias
Then there was Peter I (or Peter the Great), who became the Tsar of Russia in 1682, then the Emperor of all the Russias in 1721. He is famous for wanting to bring together the clergy and nobility.
The name of the city of Saint Petersburg was inspired by this leader who founded the city and made it the capital in 1703.
To show off his power, he tried to get closer to the West. Following the Great Northern War, which ended with the Treaty of Nystad, Peter gained control of the Baltic Sea and the title of Imperator.
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Russian Empress Catherine the Great
Catherine II, nicknamed “Catherine the Great” was Empress of all the Russias from 1762 and was part of the Romanov Dynasty. She was married to Peter III of Russia and is one of the most famous women in Russian history.
Did you know that Catherine II was raised by a French Huguenot, Babette Cardel, who taught her the customs of the French court?
She’s known for both her foreign and domestic policies as well as all the things she mentioned in her memoirs.
Nicholas II of Russia, the Last Imperial Head of State
The last Tsar in Russia history, Nicholas II, or Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov, reigned from 1894 to 1917. While the Soviets have a negative view of the tsar (owing to his opposition against the Bolsheviks), he was nicknamed Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer.
In the animated Anastasia film from 1997, the protagonist's father is Nicholas II. Of course, the story is completely romanticised but there are several theories that Anastasia survived despite the other Romanovs being murdered in 1918.
Under his reign, Russia grew economically, politically, and culturally.
The Great Russian Political Figures
Lenin, the Creator of Soviet Russia
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, also known as “Lenin”, was the most famous revolutionary in Russian history. He was one of the leaders who created a Soviet Russia founded on socialism, an evolution of communism. The Marxist theorist became famous following the October Revolution in 1917 that overturned the imperial regime.
Lenin was also famous for his skills as an orator. In 1918, when he was on a train that was stuck in the snow, he gave a speech about the proletariat that motivated the passengers to dig the train out of the snow.
Pretty convincing, right?
The bloody events of the resulted in Lenin taking the role of head of state of the new Soviet Russia. He created the communist block in 1919 and installed a single-party dictatorship. He died in 1924 following an illness.
Stalin, the “Dear Father” of Russia
Stalin was the ideological (and elected) successor to Lenin. However, Stalinism was different to Leninism, especially with the arrival of Gulags, the Soviet forced-labour camps. Joseph Stalin had many affectionate nicknames, including “Dear Father”.
The term “Destalinisation” came about following his deaths. He is well known for a dark period in Russian history owing to the nationalisation of land and the Great Purge (also known as the Great Terror). That said, he is still a hugely influential and famous figure.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR’s Last President
Gorbachev was the leader behind the end of the Cold War as well as responsible for ending the Leninist and Stalinist communist regime in the USSR. He created economic, cultural, political programmes dubbed Perestroika and Glasnost. Somewhat paradoxically, the Russian people hold a generally negative view of one of their most democratic leaders...
He was a philanthropist, pacifist, environmentalist, and a staunch critic of the Kremlin.
You should know that we won’t be talking about Putin in this article. We’ll probably have to save that for another article.
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Essential Russian Artists
Alexander Pushkin, the Franco-Russian Poet
A 19th-century Romantic poet, playwright, and novelist, Pushkin is famous for the following works:
- The Fountain of Bakhchisaray
- Poltava, 1828.
- Mozart and Salieri, 1830.
- The Captain's Daughter, 1838.
The Russian language and civilisation institute is called the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute.
Nikolai Gogol, a Russian-Speaking Writer
Nikolai Gogol was a Russian writer of Ukranian origin who often wrote about Saint Petersburg.
- The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich, 1832.
- Nevsky Prospekt, 1835.
- The Portrait, 1835.
- Mirgorod, 1835.
His earlier works were signed under the pseudonym V. Alov. His work Revizor (18360) brought him literary fame.
The Countess of Ségur, a Writer of Russian Origin
Born Sophie Rostopchine, the Countess of Ségur was her literary name. She was from a noble family and she spent her youth in Russia before marrying a French ambassador. Her works reflect her ideology of “write what you know”.
Her works help us to see the links between Russian and Western European culture.
Other Famous Russian Figures
The Myths Surrounding Rasputin
Rasputin was a Russian mystic and is famous for influencing the Russian court. He commonly appears as a character in the arts, be it in cinema, music, or video games.
However, a lot of his life is shrouded in mystery. This has led to myths including one that claims he was the Devil in human form sent to kill the Tsars.
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Olga Khokhlova, an Influential Russian ballerina.
Khokhlova was one of the most influential Russians of the 20th century. She was the star dancer of the Ballets Russes directed by Sergei Diaghilev.
Did you know that she was Picasso’s mistress and then his wife and had two children with him?
She also inspired the painting Olga Khokhlova in the Mantilla, one of Picasso’s most famous paintings.
Andrei Sakharov, the Most Famous Russian Scientist
Born in 1921, Andrei Sakharov was a Russian nuclear physicist who was famous for having worked on the atomic bomb. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his work in fighting for human rights in the USSR (a prize that he was not allowed to go and collect so his wife had to go in his place).
Did you know that the Sakharov Prize was created in 1988 by the European Union for organisations that promote human rights?
For one reason or another, you should know of these famous Russians.
Did you know them all? Who are the most famous?
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If you're interested in learning more about Russian culture, you should learn more about the Russian language. Since Russian isn't the most commonly taught language in British schools, you should consider learning it through private tutorials.
With private tutorials, you can get bespoke tuition and learn about all the aspects of the Russian language, culture, and history. There are three main types of private tutorials offered on Superprof: one on one private tutorials, online tutorials, and group tutorials.
Private tutorials are usually the most expensive option but they also offer a bespoke service. Online tutorials are cheaper because the tutor has fewer overheads in terms of travel and can schedule more tutorials throughout the day. Finally, group tutorials are cheaper because the cost is divided between the students. However, this final option won't give you a completely tailored service.
If you speak Russian and would like to tutor, it's very easy to create your profile on Superprof. Many tutors on the platform also offer the first hour of tutoring for free to entice students.