Providing an introduction to the exhibition catalogue Russia!, James Billington discusses the development and culture of Russia, looking particularly at its geography, its religion, and its perplexing relationship with Western Europe. Billington provides a background on Russian icons, the Orthodox Church, the nation's architecture, the lineage of tsars, and the Soviet era.
Between the birth of a popular national culture in the tsarist nineteenth century and its destruction in the Soviet twentieth century, Russia produced one of the world's most innovative explosions of artistic modernism. This extraordinarily creative period between the late 1890s and the outbreak of World War I is sometimes called the Silver Age, but is also more accurately described as the Russian Renaissance.
Like the earlier Renaissance in the West, this belated "rebirth" in Russia began with the rediscovery of a forgotten ancient culture. It was radically different from either the populist realism that came before or the socialist realism that came later. Music looked back to real or imagined pre-Christian antiquity for its leap into the pioneering, discordant modernism of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1912) and Sergei Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (1914–15). Painters were dazzled into pure abstraction by the restoration (newly possible) of icons that now revealed their pure lines and colors, long obscured from view by a dark overlay from candle smoke.