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Cultural baptism: Russia, how to prepare your visit.

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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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.


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.


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.


Cultural baptism: Japan

To really get to know a country or a place, 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 a language, develop a common frame of reference and study the 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.”

We prepared our trip to Japan incredibly well. I don’t think we’ve prepared anything this well since our high school exams. We did spend this extra effort since it’s was that more alien then the average other western country we normally visit. We read half of the internet, saw all kind of YouTube videos, the latest movies, read some books about Japan and learned to read, write and talk some Japanese. To help you on your way to get a bit more background knowledge of Japanese culture we selected the best sources we used.

The links used are affiliate links. By buying through the links we may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.



Japanese cinema deserves much more attention than this small list of movies, so use this as a simple starting point.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka 1988)

A heart-breaking movie about two brothers during the last months of the second world war. The movie is not as much about war as it is about isolating yourself from society, a theme which is more common in Japanese culture than in Western culture.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari 2013)

Drawn in a simple style, this movie retells the tale of princess Kaguya or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest Japanese folk tales dating back to the 10th Century.

Nobody knows (Dare mo shiranai 2004)

Another dark story about isolation from society. It tells the tale of the abandonment of 4 children by their mother who are then left to take care of themselves.

Departures (Okuribito 2008)

This movie about death and the funeral rituals gives a great insight into the taboos on this subject in Japanese society. It provides an interesting window into a part of the culture which normally stays closed to the casual visitor. The movie won an Academy award for best foreign language film in 2009.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary 2015)

A lighter movie then the previous ones, this movie focuses on family relations and life in the seaside town of Kamakura.

Shin Godzilla (Shin Gojira 2016)

This 2016 release of the Godzilla franchise focuses less on the monster and more on the bureaucracy that comes with so much destruction. It still offers some of the spectacle of Japanese monster movies and at the same time gives interesting insights into the societal hierarchies in Japanese society.


General travel guides: Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Fodor’s.

General travel guides are always a good starting point to get an overview of the highlights, a quick history and other general background information.

Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore (Umibe no Kafuka 2002)

It’s hard to choose one out of the many great books Murakami has written. This was the first one we read and the one that got us interested in his oeuvre.

Murasaki Shikibu – The tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 11th Century)

This 1000-year-old book is one of the oldest novels in the world. Written by a noblewoman at the Imperial court, it is a book that tells a story about love and at the same time paints an interesting picture of early 11th Century court life in Japan.



AKB48 is one of the highest earning music groups in Japan. Its female members must follow strict social rules, like refrain from dating. They have their own theatre where they perform almost daily, the 48 group members form different teams, who rotate for the different shows. Membership of the group also changes continuously and older members are promoted to other groups. AKB48 has sister groups throughout South-East Asia.



SMAP was Japan’s most famous boyband. Where many of the new and female groups constantly change the membership, the members of this group stayed the same for 20 years. The group also had their own weekly variety tv-show which often was the most watched show in a year.

Hatsune Miku

Hatsune Miku is not a real singer but a vocaloid, a singing computer program. Combined with holograms and a band of real persons she is still able to give live shows. She also stars in commercials for example on with Scarlet Johansson and virtually guides tourist in Japan.


To show that Japanese music is not all sweet and flowerly we end with Babymetal.

Youtube channels

Simon and Martina

Simon and Martina are a Canadese couple who live in Tokyo and share their experiences in Japan. The channel is mainly focused on food but also shows the cultural differences that exist. We really got to like this couple and still follow them on YouTube.

That Japanese Man Yuta

Yuta interviews Japanese people on the street to give his audience some insight into the Japanese mindset to a broad range of topics. Also provide Japanese learning courses.



Memrise is a great app to help you learn any language you want. It offers some great free courses to learn Katakana, Hiragana, Kanji and Japanese words and sentences.


Kanji Study

Kanji study is an app solely dedicated to learning the three different Japanese alphabets. IT works with flash cards and you have the ability to practise drawing the different symbols yourself.

If you’re ready to explore Japan, take a look at our 5 day itinerary for Tokyo and its surrounding area.