Russians are often perceived as cold, distant, and unsmiling – or at best, reserved. Maybe it looks that way on the outside. But there is an unmatched depth to the Russian soul, and that depth is filled with pure, sincere emotion. It is an atmosphere in which cynicism seems crass and vulgar. Someone might be feeling joy or woe or existential dread, but they are feeling it without a trace of irony. They are feeling it fully.
And love is the pinnacle of this kind of sincere emotion. Love is – must be – consuming, sweeping, soul-rending. Love is a spiritual exercise and it is not a joke. This approach runs like a thread through all love-themed Russian art, literature, film, and music. Even stories of heartbreak and disappointment are told with a distinct earnestness.
Take a look at these very different love stories told in very different mediums and see if you can feel it.
The Birthday by Marc Chagall, 1915
Marc Chagall, a leading figure of the modernist movement, was a Russian-French artist born in Belarus. Chagall played with many themes in his work – Jewish tradition vs 20th century modernity, humor, flying fiddlers, dream-like imagery, the entirety of the human experience – but a constant was an overt, unabashed feeling of love.
It was his wife and muse Bella who inspired him. “Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love,” he said of a different painting of her. “I had only to open my window, and blue air, love and flowers entered with her. Dressed all in white or in black, she has long been flying over my canvases guiding my art.” His work revolved around their relationship especially so in 1915, the year he made this painting and the year they were married. Though it was love at first sight, her family disapproved of her choice but it seems impossible to deny a love so deep, true, and transcendent.
In The Birthday, he depicts a surprise birthday visit from Bella, their kiss and their love so powerful that they rise into the air and float.
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, 1825–1832
On its surface, the relationship between Tatiana and Onegin might come off as a trivial tale of unrequited love. But Pushkin was no cheap romance novelist. The eponymous hero of this “novel in verse” is a bored, disaffected, jaded dandy, dying of boredom in the countryside where he’s inherited his deceased uncle’s estate. There he meets Tatiana, his friend’s fiancee’s sister, a contemplative and withdrawn girl with a pure and honest heart, a lover of nature and French romance novels. She writes Onegin a letter – an unthinkable act during those times – a plainspoken and honest revelation of her emotions. Though her mysterious countenance had previously intrigued him, he now curtly rejects her, citing her naiveté, the restrictiveness of marriage, and his own undeserving nature. Many years later, he encounters her in St. Petersburg, transformed, and realizing the mistake he made, begins to pursue her. But Tatiana has always been wise and she has figured him out – his empty, cynical, negative nature – and she rejects him in turn. It’s a masterful piece of literature, a commentary on the vicious effects of societal values, with brilliantly rendered characters, and an insightful look into the Russian soul.
Here is Tatiana’s letter to Onegin, a famous literary passage. A note on the translation: Pushkin is pretty much impossible to translate. There have been attempts, even prize-winning ones, but between the meter and rhyme and his mastery of the language, something is bound to be lost. This translation is by Vladimir Nabokov, a master in his own right, whose translation of Onegin is respectable, even if it loses the rhyme:
I write to you — what would one more?
What else is there that I could say?
‘Tis now, I know, within your will
to punish me with scorn.
But you, preserving for my hapless lot
at least one drop of pity,
you’ll not abandon me.
At first, I wanted to be silent;
believe me: of my shame
you never would have known
if I had had the hope but seldom,
but once a week,
to see you at our country place,
only to hear you speak,
to say a word to you, and then
to think and think about one thing,
both day and night, till a new meeting.
But, they say, you’re unsociable;
in backwoods, in the country, all bores you,
while we… in no way do we shine,
though simpleheartedly we welcome you.
Why did you visit us?
In the backwoods of a forgotten village,
I would have never known you
nor have known this bitter torment.
The turmoil of an inexperienced soul
having subdued with time (who knows?),
I would have found a friend after my heart,
have been a faithful wife
and a virtuous mother.
Another!… No, to nobody on earth
would I have given my heart away!
That has been destined in a higher council,
that is the will of heaven: I am thine;
my entire life has been the gage
of a sure tryst with you;
I know that you are sent to me by God,
you are my guardian to the tomb….
You had appeared to me in dreams,
unseen, you were already dear to me,
your wondrous glance would trouble me,
your voice resounded in my soul
long since…. No, it was not a dream!
Scarce had you entered, instantly I knew you,
I felt all faint, I felt aflame,
and in my thoughts I uttered: It is he!
Is it not true that it was you I heard:
you in the stillness spoke to me
when I would help the poor
or assuage with a prayer
the anguish of my agitated soul?
And even at this very moment
was it not you, dear vision,
that slipped through the transparent darkness
and gently bent close to my bed head?
Was it not you that with delight and love
did whisper words of hope to me?
Who are you? My guardian angel
or a perfidious tempter?
Resolve my doubts.
Perhaps, ’tis nonsense all,
an inexperienced soul’s delusion, and there’s destined
something quite different….
But so be it! My fate
henceforth I place into your hands,
before you I shed tears,
for your defense I plead.
Imagine: I am here alone,
none understands me,
my reason sinks,
and, silent, I must perish.
I wait for you: revive
my heart’s hopes with a single look
or interrupt the heavy dream
with a rebuke — alas, deserved!
I close. I dread to read this over.
I’m faint with shame and fear… But to me
your honor is a pledge,
and boldly I entrust myself to it.
Twenty First. Night. Monday. by Anna Akhmatova, 1917
Anna Akhmatova was one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. Her style was original, characterized by sparseness, emotional restraint, and a distinct clarity of voice. Her poem “Twenty-first. Night. Monday.” does not reflect the sublime love of Chagall or the unrequited longing of Tatiana, but rather disappointment in love itself. There is bitterness at the good-for-nothing (bezdelnik, a person with too much time on their hands) who invented the concept, and she looks askance at those who have fallen for the illusion. It’s no surprise – at this point, she had been in an unhappy marriage for a decade. But what is the secret she refers to in the last paragraph? In fact, she did know love – true, passionate, inspiring love – not with her husband, but with others. So perhaps the secret that revealed itself to her is that love isn’t an illusion after all.
Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing, who knows why,
Made up the tale that love exists on earth.
People believe it, maybe from laziness
Or boredom, and live accordingly:
They wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
And when they sing, they sing about love.
But the secret reveals itself to some,
And on them silence settles down…
I found this out by accident
And now it seems I’m sick all the time.
Why Didn’t You Come by Trio Marenych
Trio Marenych are a Ukrainian folk band, and this is a classic Ukrainian folk song. Dreamy, melancholy lyrics full of longing address a lover who never came. What stopped him? Did he not have a horse? Or his mother’s permission? No, he replies, he had both a horse and his mother’s permission. It was his younger sister who stole his saddle to prevent him from leaving, before his older sister found it and sent him on his way with her blessings. It ends with a plea to speaker’s mother to marry her off to the one she loves.
Halya is Carrying Water by Taisia Povaliy
Another Ukrainian folk song about unrequited love. Beautiful Halya is carrying water from the stream back home, while poor Ivanko “curls like a periwinkle [flower]” behind her. “Give me some water to drink,” he pleads. “There’s plenty in the source,” she replies and tells him to meet her in the garden later. But she doesn’t water him, and he feels mistreated. Over and over she doesn’t give him what he wants but keeps telling him to come back. A song of longing, indeed!
A Million Roses by Alla Pugacheva, 1982
Alla Pugacheva is a beloved singer, national artist, and household name. She exemplifies a certain type of Russian woman: strong, self-assured, unyielding, wise, and most of all, sincere. From 1965, when her career began, to today, she has been a force in the music industry. Her discography is as long as her list of prizes (and marriages!).
One of her most famous songs is A Million Roses (Миллион роз). It recounts a legend about a real Georgian artist by the name of Niko Pirosmani. In the beginning of the 20th century, he was madly in love with French actress Margarita de Sevre. He tried to win her over, painted her portrait, fell at her feet and kissed the traces of her footsteps, but if she acknowledged him at all, it was only with contempt. One day, several carts filled with flowers drove up to the hotel where she lived. Soon the streets in front of the hotel were covered in a blanket of flowers. He had sold everything he had to buy them – his house, his shop, his canvases. She went to him, kissed him on the lips, and left. They never saw each other again.
Ironically, Pugacheva herself was not happy with this song and would turn the radio off whenever it came on. She had a strong artistic vision and she disagreed with the producer and writer about the song, which she found unsuitable for her, and whose melody she found primitive. Unfortunately for her, A Million Roses became one of her most popular song and remains a staple of contemporary Russian music.
My Green Crocodile by Vadim Kuchevsky, 1966
Another story of giving up everything for love, My Green Crocodile is a beautiful, dreamy animated short that tells of hapless crocodile-poet who falls in love with a beautiful cow. Their mutual love of leaves and flowers fuels their love for each other. The rest of the animals don’t understand what she sees in him, but they are happy together – that is, until fall comes and the leaves and flowers wither and die. “It’s all over,” she tells him. “We having nothing more in common.” In a desperate attempt to stop her from leaving, the crocodile turns himself into a green leaf. “If you love them, do something beautiful,” the narrator muses. A drop of rain rolls off the leaf onto a dead flower which blossoms again.
I Will Give You a Star Fyodor Khitruk, 1975
Another charming animated short, this is less a story about love and more about the day to day of domestic life. But what can sustain you through millenia of washing dishes other than love? This cute, funny, and lighthearted short is divided into three parts: the stone age, the modern age, and the future. In each era, the man promises his beloved the stars, and in each era, she is plagued by a sink full of dishes. The stylish animation style and excellent comedic timing make this short a pleasure to watch.
(Here is another version of the video without subtitles but much higher quality.)
Valentin and Valentina by Georgy Natanson, 1986
Based on a play and often billed as the Soviet Romeo and Juliet, this is a movie about teenage love – bright, pure, and romantic. Valentin and Valentina are each other’s first loves and first love never ends. They make plans for their life together, for marriage and the future. But, of course, their parents, who have lived hard lives of their own, think they know what’s best for them and they work to prevent this relationship at any cost. It’s a common story that is given flavor by its Soviet context. The kids’ hopes and dreams, their parents’ fears, the familiar relationships, the carpets on the walls of their apartments – many subtle and nuanced details are specific to the culture in which they live. And yet, the feeling of first love… there is nothing more universal than that.
Watch the film here (sadly, no subtitles).
Office Romance by Eldar Ryazanov, 1977
We’ve saved our favorite for last. Office Romance (Служебный роман) is a Soviet-era romcom that is beloved and often quoted. When praising it, it’s hard to know where to start: the charm, the subtlety of emotion, the sidesplitting turns of phrase, the incredible acting of classically trained actors, the Soviet fashion, decor, and architecture, the soundtrack. The story revolves around a strict, frumpy, unpleasant woman who works as a director at a statistical bureau, and her subordinate, a timid and clumsy single father. He wants a promotion but is afraid to approach her. He reluctantly follows his friend’s suggestion of flirting with her and eventually, naturally, they fall in love. Unlike treacly American romcoms, whose slapstick hijinks bear little resemblance to real life, love, or relationships, Office Romance, though a comedy at heart, shows a love that is sweet, tender, and sincere.
Watch it (with subtitles!) here.
We hope you’ve given these love stories a fair chance, immersed yourself in them, and saw for yourself the nature of Russian love. And we hope you bring this love with you into your own relationships. Happy Valentine’s Day!