Top 10 Surprising Ways Russia Has Shaped Popular Culture

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Many in the United States have a very specific picture of Russian culture, developed through the lens of the Cold War. While some Russian stereotypes have some truth to them, in the end they are people just like the rest of us. What is surprising is that many things we consider to be icons of American culture, were actually never really American to begin with. Some of the most deeply American things owe their inspiration in part or in whole to the Russians.

10. The Music For A Famous Scene In Fantasia

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One of the most famous scenes in the early Disney movie Fantasia involves Chernabog emerging from Bald Mountain and summoning all of his evil minions, who dance as he throws them into the fiery pit of the mountain. The demon is finally driven away with the dawning of the sun. What many don’t realize is that, not only was the music for the scene written by the famous Russian composer Modeste Mussorgsky, but that the entire scene was inspired by his famous work. Mussorgsky’s piece was indeed supposed to be about a coven of witches having a black mass on Bald Mountain, and dancing furiously until the ringing of the church bells and the morning sun drove them away. Apparently Comrade Mickey loved Russian music.

9. Franz Ferdinand’s “Love and Destroy”

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In the popular Franz Ferdinand song “Love and Destroy,” just like in the famous Russian novel “Master and Margarita,” Margarita becomes a witch with the help of the devil, and soars over the skies of Moscow. She exacts her revenge on all those who caused the one she loved to despair. And, just like in the novel, she joins Satan as the Queen of his black ball. The refrain of the song is even “Margarita love and destroy.” Master and Margarita is a famous novel and certainly very culturally significant, but one cannot help but wonder at the mental state of Franz Ferdinand with lines like “Rip the robes right off my chest” and “I’m going to rip, rip, I’ll never rest.” It seems his favorite part of the story was a woman going crazy, ripping her robes and flying around mutilating people. But to be a successful musician, you pretty much have to be completely insane.

8. Pearl Jam’s “Pilate” and “Low Light”

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The songs “Pilate” and “Low Light” was also inspired by “Master and Margarita.” In an interview, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament explained the song “Pilate” was the question he had been asking himself when writing the album, and “Low Light” was the answer. Even though that kind of makes him sound like a stoner explaining Pontius Pilate alone on the mountain with his dog, unable to finish his last conversation with Jesus in the story, relating to a recurring dream he has of being alone on the front porch when he gets old with his own dog, there is no question that they were successful songs, and that without reading the novel they never would have been created.

7. Columbo Is Inspired By A Detective From Crime and Punishment

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The famous detective Columbo, played by the late Peter Falk, was an iconic television character and the inspiration for all those hour-long detective specials you see today. To many, his character was an American icon, but what people don’t realize is that the entire idea of Columbo was based on a novel by Feodor Dostoevsky. The creators of the show admitted in interviews that their detective, known for badgering people until they finally gave up and admitted to the crime, was based on the detective Porfiry Petrovich from the world famous novel “Crime and Punishment.” The creators of the show had read the novel in college, and were greatly amused by the fat detective Porfiry, who questioned Raskolnikov’s motivation’s and psychology, constantly suggested things, and asked him questions until he gave up and confessed. It was basically a more longwinded version of Columbo’s famous line “Oh, one more thing!”

6. Andy Warhol’s Work Is Inspired By The Art In Russian Orthodox Churches

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Some may be surprised to learn that Andy Warhol’s birth name is Andy Warhola, and that he actually is of Carpatho-Rusyn descent, a little known people, from a Slavic country near Russia. And considering that he was openly gay in a time when that was hardly acceptable, many people do not know that he was a lifelong member of the Ruthenian Rite Church, and that the iconography in orthodox churches was his first exposure to art, and greatly influenced all of his artwork.  One need only compare the art in orthodox churches to Any Warhol’s work and it is easy to see the influence.

His religion was one of his greatest kept secrets, but he was certainly proud of it; he took great joy in financing one nephew’s study for the priesthood, and a priest who knew him was certain he was responsible for at least one conversion. Near the end of his life, the religious influence can be seen clearly, where he created many explicitly religious paintings. The largest canvas had 112 portraits of Christ, recalling the repeated icons in Byzantine art.

5. Peter and the Wolf Was Originally A Symphony Written By A Russian

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While many in the music world know of its original author, many do not realize the piece was written by a Russian. This can especially be said for Americans, who often seem to believe that everything worthwhile in popular culture was due to their efforts. While it was eventually turned into a cartoon in America, the original piece, along with the entire story, was written by Sergei Prokofiev, who originally thought that his piece was a complete failure. Unfortunately, this is often the case with great works: they are disliked during their time and abandoned by the author who created them, only to enjoy a renaissance years later, after the artist is no longer around to see just how popular and beloved it has become. Though perhaps he would be irked that, even to this day, many do not realize where proper credit belongs for his great work, stolen by those dastardly Americans.

4. Method Acting Was Created By Constantin Stanislavsky

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The style of method acting was inspired by the great Russian playwright Chekhov and created by Constantin Stanislavsky. Lee Strasberg brought the system to America, but always credited Stanislavsky as the creator of the method. He taught such famous actors as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Without this system of acting, many great performances by prolific method actors would never have existed, or would have been wholly different than they were.

It is also important to note that Heath Ledger was a method actor, and some suggest that getting too deeply into the role was why he died, but also why he put forth such a great performance and received the only posthumous Oscar for Supporting Actor ever awarded. The point here is that, without the Russians, we wouldn’t have had the spectacular Joker in The Dark Knight, and that would have been a tragedy.

3. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”

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Perhaps The Rolling Stones’ greatest hit is the song “Sympathy for the Devil”, and as it turns out, many believe that this too was inspired by Master and Margarita. It seems those Reds just have their hands in everything, and are secretly influencing the culture of the world without anyone even realizing it. In this famous song, Lucifer emerges, as does Pontius Pilate, and some lines seem to almost directly mirror events commented on by Bulgakov in the novel, such as “I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for change / killed the Czar and his ministers, Anastasia screamed in vain.” The song seems to almost perfectly mirror the novel, which may not necessarily say much for Mick Jagger’s sanity.

2. Ayn Rand Was Born And Bred In Russia

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One of the most deeply ironic things is the incredible popularity of the work of philosopher Any Rand. She believed strongly in what many call an “objectivist” philosophy, that the morally superior position was to put yourself above all else. In her novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “Fountainhead,” she espoused her belief that altruism was evil, and that the right path was to take care of your own interests and be all you can be, without regard for anyone else. It was basically capitalism taken to its greatest possible extreme, and to this day many still consider her work an incredible influence on their political beliefs. Interestingly, many of these people also believe that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical foe, and might be surprised to learn that she not only was Rand in Russia, but went to university there as well.

1. Woody Allen Was Deeply Inspired By Russian Literature

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Woody Allen, best known for marrying his own stepdaughter (oh yeah, and making a few movies too) is known by some for having Jewish heritage, but many do not realize his Russian background. He was even once quoted as saying that he didn’t think he could live beyond a thirty-minute radius of the Russian Tea Room.

But it goes much further than that; many of his movies are clearly influenced by Russian literature. He even names one of his films “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” an obvious play on “Crime and Punishment.” The character in the movie even deals with the same question as Raskolnikov does, though in this case the character’s name is Judah, trying to wrestle with the issue of whether one can live a normal life after committing a murder. Woody Allen further explores this in his movie “Match Point.” In this movie, the parallels are even closer, and we even see a character reading the famous Russian novel. However, Allen comes to a different conclusion than Dostoevsky did in his film.

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But to really see the influence, one needs only watch the movie “Love and Death,” a satire on the sometimes-heavy philosophical bent of Russian literature, set during the Napoleonic era. If one is familiar with Russian literature, they will find the film incredibly amusing, as it is stuffed to the gills with silly philosophical speeches and jokes about famous novels.


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9 Comments

  1. ” Interestingly, many of these people also believe that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical foe”

    Not true. Many of the people who’ve adopted Ayn Rand’s writings as the basis of their political beliefs consider socialism and communism, not “Russia”, their greatest foe. While Russia certainly has a communist past and a socialist present, it is not the geopolitical entity that modern objectivists and libertarians have an issue with.

    Additionally, Ayn Rand left Russia for those exact reasons. Then she became an American Citizen, joined the Republican Party (she had no taste for people who wanted to form a party after her ideology), and spent much of her life trying to justify her decisions under her philosophy.

    • Martin Fiero on

      Right, she was born in pre-soviet Russia. her father owned a pharmacy(s). it was taken by the state. it was one of many experiences that shaped her political philosophies. Russia has contributed tons to the world. all the better stuff was precommunism.

      • I mean a lot of these things have very little to do with shaping pop culture. Because the rolling stones were inspired to write one song about something to do with russia? It is a huge stretch. You could have at least said vodka or something that is actually russian

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