“Russia has 12 spindles going to create its immense tapestry.” – Aphorisms under the moon and other wild thoughts, Sylvain Tesson
Russia is the largest country in the world. Sprawling over 17 million kilometers and covering two continents, it borders no less than 14 different countries. This incredible number of cross-cultural interactions help make Russian culture one of the richest.
It is therefore not surprising that a large number of Russian personalities have achieved international prominence.
Whether in the musical, literary, scientific or sporting fields, many Russians have been key creators of works and actors in major world events, and today still continue to help shape our world.
If you are interested in Russia or you are learning Russian, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about the major historical figures who have helped bring the country to prominence.
Read along as we share with you our top 10 celebrities you need to know before heading to your first Muscovite dinner party… It’s a good way to discover Russia too!
Our list would be incomplete without mentioning the greatest cellist of the twentieth century? A brilliant performer, Rostropovich is also the creator of many contemporary works, which he himself wrote in order to enrich the repertoire of his favorite instrument when he found the available music too similar for his liking. A musician from a young age, he studied under some of the great masters of classical music, from Shostakovich to Prokofiev.
A great defender of freedom of expression, Rostropovich and his family were forced into exile in 1970 after he hosted and defended the writer and political dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was subsequently stripped of his political nationality in 1978 for “acts that systematically damage the prestige of the Soviet Union”, but he recovered his nationality 11 years later.
Mstislav Rostropovich made history by playing the cello during an improvised concert in Berlin on November 10, 1989, the day after the fall of the wall. The images of this event quickly became famous around the world.
Now we introduce you to a true legend in space exploration, both in Russia and across the world.
Yuri Gagarin, 1934-1968, was the first man in space
Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take part in a space flight on April 12, 1961, during the Vostok 1 mission, as part of the Soviet space program. He is the first human to have seen the Earth from space.
His mission was part of Russia’s early supremacy in the space race, as it beat the United State’s NASA program with the goal of sending a man into space.
Gagarin was received around the world as a hero and received many prestigious awards in his country.
As we all know, the Russians are famous in many sports and often dominate at major international competitions. Maria Sharapova is a superb example, literally and figuratively.
No one who follows women’s tennis will have been able to ignore the young woman who has represented Russia ably in the sports world as she wins a multitude of tournaments.
Maria Sharapova, born in 1987, is a true Russian tennis champion
Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008, and the French Open (Rolland-Garros) in 2012 and 2014, at just 25 years old she became the first Russian player to have won all four major tournaments over the course of her career. She also won a silver medal in the London Olympic Games in 2012.
You can find the complete list of all her victories on Wikipedia!
“The secret of human existence is not just about living but finding a reason to live.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gouelan
One thing is for sure, Dostoevsky had certainly found a reason to live. Considered by all as one of the greatest Russian novelists, he has served as a model for many philosophers and writers around the world. Among his most famous works are Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, which was made into a movie in 2014 by Yuri Bykov.
He’s a great author to discover (or re-discover) urgently if you’re trying to understand the Slavic soul and the Russian language.
It is well known that many of the most beautiful women in the world are in the countries of Eastern Europe, and especially in Russia.
Natalia Vodianova, born in Siberia in 1982, certainly fits the description.
With a striking gaze, silky white skin, and a voluptuous physique, she is one of the most fashionable models of her generation. Nicknamed “Supernova”, she has walked for some of the biggest names in fashion, posed for the most famous photographers, and made the cover of the most renowned magazines.
Natalia Vodianova, born in 1982, is a top model in Russia and around the world
The mother of five children, a fashion figure, and businesswoman (she has been collaborating with French lingerie brand Etam for several years), Natalia Vodianova manages all her activities with seeming effortless grace.
The supermodel is also engaged in the protection of Russian children, thanks to her foundation, Naked Heart, created in 2004.
She’s a true icon that plays her role as an ambassador of Russian culture around the world.
Check out our article on how to decide whether to go to Moscow or St Petersburg!
The Bird of Fire, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring … if you are a fan of Russian ballets, you will instantly recognize these names. They are all part of the work of composer, conductor, and pianist Igor Stravinsky.
Considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, his modern and multi-faceted music was notably illustrated in the famous animated Disney films Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
Igor Stravinsky, 1882-1971, is one of the most notable figures in Russian classical music.
Stravinsky also spent several years living in France and befriended many notable French figures of the day, including designer Coco Chanel and the famous composer Maurice Ravel.
To many, Russia often seems synonymous with athletic success. Indeed, since the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952, Russian athletes have never fallen below 3rd place in the world rankings.
Yelena Isinbayeva is undoubtedly one of the great sportsmen who helped keep Russia in this pole position. Her sport is the pole vault, and she was twice the Olympic champion: in Athens in 2004, and then in Beijing in 2008. She is also a triple world champion and European champion in her discipline.
Yelena Isinbayeva, born in 1982, is a Russian athlete and Olympic champion
She’s a very controversial figure in the West after supporting a 2013 Russian law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda”, but has still been rewarded on many occasions, including receiving the title of Athlete of the Year by the IAAF three times in 2004, 2005 and 2008.
You can find the whole of her awards and news on her competitions in her Wikipedia article!
Leon Tolstoy (1828-1910), whose real name is Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, is an iconic Russian writer. He’s known almost universally for his major works such as War and Peace, or the most famous of them: Anna Karenina, which has been adapted into a movie several times.
The British actress Keira Knightley took on the role of Anna Karenina in the 2012 adaption, acting alongside Jude Law, in a film from Joe Wright.
In his books, Tolstoy describes the daily life of the Russian people under the tsars.
The writer has inspired many philosophical arguments by his critique of patriotism, inequalities of wealth, and religion. His ideology of “non-resistance to evil by violence” even influenced Gandhi to develop his doctrine of “non-violence”. The two men had a brief correspondence towards the end of Tolstoy’s life.
The novelist was a major player in the structuring of the Russian soul and popularizing the Russian language across countries and throughout the ages.
In the lineup of Russian supermodels, let us introduce you to Irina. Real name Irina Chaikhlislamova, this beautiful brunette of 31 years boasts ideal measurements and has in just a few years, become one of the most popular supermodels on the planet.
With smooth tanned skin, people often assume she has Latin American origins. But in reality, she owes these physical characteristics to her father, who has Tatar heritage.
She was propelled into the spotlight in 2007, when she posed for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated magazine and became the first Russian woman to cover it in 2011. Also in 2011, she was named “the sexiest woman in the world” by the Spanish magazine DT Lux.
Top Russian model Irina Shayk, born in 1986, and her fiancé, actor Bradley Cooper
A spokeswoman for many different brands and gracing the covers of a multitude of magazines around the world, Irina Shayk has also been presenting Russia’s Next Top Model on Russian television since 2012.
In 2016 she became engaged to actor Bradley Cooper, and in March 2017 Irina gave birth to a baby girl named Lea de Seine, in tribute to the special affection that the US-Russian couple bears for France.
A worthy ambassador for her country around the world, we are sure that many people dream of learning the Russian language by Irina’s side.
Last, but certainly not least is Peter Tchaikovsky, who it would be impossible to leave off of any list of great Russians. Born to a Russian father and a French mother, the composer gives his works a more Western style than many of his contemporaries.
Tchaikovsky composed music for all genres, but is especially celebrated for his revolutionary ballet musician their symphonic richness. Although they did not meet with immediate success, two of his ballets are today considered some of the greatest masterpieces of classical music, namely Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.
When he died in 1893, Russia honored him by organizing a national funeral, involving no less than 8,000 people.
Our list of 10 emblematic Russian personalities is obviously not exhaustive, there are many who could also be mentioned as geniuses or celebrities.
But this top 10 gives you a good base of reference that will be useful for you during your Russian language lessons, or simply as you learn about the history and culture of Russia.
With so much knowledge now, you just have to apply for a Russian visa!