To really get to know Russia, you need to interact with the people there. In the end, there is no real substitute for human interaction. But there are a lot of things you can do to make those meetings go smoother, like learning Russian, develop a common frame of reference and study Russian culture and history. Besides enhancing your stay there, it’s also a lot of fun. As Gustave Flaubert said; “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.”

How to prepare for travelling to Russia? We gathered a unique list of books, movies, and music that grant you an insight into Russian culture and that will enrich your travels.

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Movies

Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy 1938)

The movie Alexander Nevsky portraits the failed Teutonic invasion in the 1241 and the successful resistance organised by Alexander Nevsky. This movie by legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein portrays the early medieval times of Kievan Rus.

Brother (Brat 1997)

This gangster movie portrays the wild west 90’s after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a low budget movie which quickly gained cult status in Russia. It was followed by the sequel Brother 2. If you like 90s action movies, this is for you.

Leviathan (Leviafan 2014)

Leviathan is a tragic movie dealing with corruption and love in present-day Russia. The film is set in the Murmansk region in the Artic circle. It’s a great film which will leave you utterly depressed.

Our Own (Svoi 2004)

Svoi is a movie set during the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. It deals with the moral dilemmas of war and the different allegiances of people. This was even harder in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union where brutal life under Stalinist rule was replaced by brutal fascism.

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg 2002)

Are you going to the Hermitage museum or are you not able too? Anyway, watch this movie to marvel at all the wonders of the Winter Palace. The movie is filmed in one take and goes through the cities 300-year history.

Books

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is the Magnus Opus of Tolstoy and a colossal book. It tells the story of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) from the perspective of the Russian nobility. This novel is grand in its writing and scope. It is especially interesting for those planning to visit St. Petersburg and its many palaces as a big part of the book takes place here.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Apricot Jam and Other Stories is a bundle of stories by Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The stories cover the tumultuous 20th century in Russia. From the Revolution to the Civil War and from the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) to the fall of the Soviet Union. It focuses on the people who are crushed and swept aside by the tides of history. The stories are tragic but also full of dark humour. This book is great to get an overview of the misfortune many people in Russia had to deal with during the previous century and gives some insight into the national psyche it developed.

The Road: Short Fiction and Essays – Vasily Grossman

The Road is another bundle of stories mainly covering the first half of the 20th century, this time written by Vasily Grossman. Vasily Grossman was a war correspondent and wrote first hand reports of many pivotal battles fought by the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War. The stories in this book cover the war, it includes the famous ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ a first-hand report of the liberation of the Nazi Death camp. But it also includes fictional stories about live under Communist rule and the hard choices and decisions forced upon its people. A great companion piece to Solzhenitsyn book to help you understand the harsh reality of life in the Soviet Union.

Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik is a book that tells a fictional story about Russia in the near future. This dark parody seems to be a satire of present day Russia and the rule by Putin. Read this book because it’s a great work of fiction and also because it will give you an insight into present day Russian politics and its dark machinations.

Memoirs of Catherine the Great – Catherine the Great

Although the Memoirs of Catherine the Great only deal with the time before she became empress, it’s still a very interesting primary source to read. It gives a rare first-hand insight into live at the 18th century imperial Russian court. Read this if you want to know more about the woman who built the beautiful palace outside St. Petersburg and who started the gigantic art collection which formed the basis for the Hermitage Museum.

Music

Leningrad (Rock)

Leningrad makes popular rock music with strong language which celebrates but at the same time parodies contemporary Russian life. Especially their video clips are nice to watch as they play with Russian stereotypes.

Pharaoh (Rap)

Pharaoh is a young an upcoming Moscow rapper. As many rappers, he is mainly concerned with rapping about money and success but with a more nihilistic twists to his songs and videos.

Igor Stravinsky (Classical)

This Russian composer gained fame with his ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Our favourite is The Rite of Spring. Good music to get into Russian Ballet.

Monetochka (Pop)

Monetochka or Liza Gyrdymova, is Russia’s new pop star. The music sounds like what you would expect from 21st century pop music.

Dmitri Shostakovich (Classical)

Shostakovich was one of the most favoured composers of the Soviet regime. Although his relationship with the regime had its highs and lows. He composed ‘Suite on Finnish Themes’ to be played by the victorious Red Army marching through Helsinki. The Winter War was not successful, and it wouldn’t be played until 2001. He dedicated his seventh symphony to Leningrad, the city which would endure the longest siege during the Second World War.