Russia has produced many famous people throughout the long history of its existence. Russians have had a great influence (and impact) on the way the global culture and economy evolved.
In this article I would like to talk to you about the most famous Russians (some of them are from the Soviet era and not what you would consider good people) this country has produced.
Some of the most important and interesting literary works have been written by Russian writers. They also excelled in the fields of music and painting (Leo Tolstoy is probably the most well-known writer from Russia).
First, before we begin I would like to add that if you are interested in Russian literature and culture you may want to check out this article about the most famous Russian authors.
Now, sit back and relax, and enjoy this article about the most famous Russians, the works they’ve created and the legacies they have left to Russia and the world.
Famous Russian People
Here we are finally! I would like to start this list of the most famous Russians with a bang by talking about the last Emperor of Russia, and the failings of the Romanov family.
1. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Nicholas II of Russia was born in 1868. He was the last Emperor of Russia, who ruled from 1894 to 1917 (the year he abdicated the throne).
He was involved in some of the most heinous events in Russian history. Historians at the time, blamed him for anti-jewish pogroms (protests against the Jewish communites that often led to the deaths of many Jews).
The worst of these anti-jewish protests happened in 1905 (during the rule of Nicholas II of Russia) . The event happened in the Russian city of Odessa where more than 2500 Jews were killed.
Another one of those horrible events was (and still is) called Bloody Sunday (nothing to do with the U2 song). Bloody Sunday (sometimes also called the Red Sunday) happened on the 22nd of january 1905, in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
Unarmed protestors were fired upon by the members of the Russian Imperial Forces (and were killed). Protestors were trying to present a petition to Nicholas II of Russia.
Tsar Nicholas didn’t do much for Russia. His policies led to the creation of the USSR and he was mostly detested by his own people.
Nevertheless he is still one of the most famous people from Russia, and will always be remembered as the last Russian Emperor .
2. Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin was born in 1878 in a small Georgian city of Gori. He grew up poor.
Stalin was involved in the Russian revolution (we all knew that, right?). This famous Soviet politician became the ruler of the USSR in the second decade of the 20th century. He stayed in that position until the day of his death (5 March 1953).
Some of his “best works” include The Great Purge (also known as the Great Terror). The Great Purge lasted from 1936 to 1938. The event was marred with political oppression, ethnic cleansing and murders .
It’s estimated that more than 1 million Russians lost their lives, during this period. He was responsible for the mass agricultural reforms which led to millions of deaths in Ukraine .
He will be remembered as the most famous Soviet politician. He is also often praised for his leadership in World War II.
3. Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931. He was the last leader of the Soviet Union and is one of the most famous Russians who ever lived.
He was responsible for ending the Cold War (that started immediately after World War II) and for limiting the number of nuclear bombs each of the Great Powers had.
In 1990 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for peace, for his contributions to ending the Cold War and more peace-oriented policies that he enacted (that led to the end of the Soviet era).
In 1996 he published his first book, simply called Memoirs .
4. Ivan The Terrible
Ivan IV (or Ivan The Terrible) was born in 1530. He was the Grand Prince of Moscow (the title he gained at the age of 3, when his father passed away).
When he was sixteen (with the help of his council) he established the Tsardom of Russia, and was crowned as the first Tsar of Russia.
Ivan was an autocratic ruler that was responsible for misguided policies and killings of his own people. He was constantly at odds with Russian nobility, because of his 1565 policy called Oprichnina.
Oprichnina has led to public executions and mass confiscations of land from the Russian boyars (name of the Russian nobility).
In a fit of rage Ivan killed his own son (and heir) as well as his grandson (what a great guy, I don’t get why they would call him Ivan The Terrible).
Ivan The Terrible is one of the most famous Russians, and will always be remembered as the first Russian Tsar (and you know, not a good family man, because he killed both his son and his grandson) .
5. Peter The Great
Peter The Great (born in 1672) was the ruler of Tsardom of Russia (which he later renamed to Russian Empire or Empire of Russia).
Peter expanded the Russian Empire and was responsible for turning it into one of the world’s major powers.
Peter The Great founded the city of St. Petersburg (which was the capital of Russia until 1917). Under his rule (and thanks to his policies) Russia became the biggest exporter of iron in the 17th century.
Peter was succeeded by his wife, Catherine I of Russia. Peter was deeply religious and was a huge proponent of Russian Orthodoxy.
6. Vladimir Putin
What to say about the most well-known president of any country? No, really what can I say? I don’t want to end up suicided or poisoned.
Putin was born in 1952. He is a former KGB operative and a current ruler of the Russian state.
He has a degree in law and is fluent in German (and possibly other languages, we just don’t know, no one does).
He is a highly influential figure in Russian culture and politics. He became the president of Russia in 1999 (I might as well have written king instead).
Putin has a black belt in judo and loves to play ice-hockey (I truly hope I get to live another day). He was also Time magazine’s person of the year in 2007 (Greta Thunberg, you are in great company!).
7. Alexander Nevsky
Nevsky was a medieval Russian ruler, famous for defending the country from German and Swedish assaults.
In 1547 he became recognized as one of the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the 13th and 14th centuries a literary work called “Life of Alexander Nevsky” was compiled and published. In this work, Nevsky was represented as a perfect warrior-king type of ruler (something like Alexander The Great).
He managed to keep the Golden Horde at bay, while at the same time defeating the Germans and Swedish attackers.
Nevsky comes from his victory on the River Neva (Nevsky means from Neva). He was only 19 at the time, when he managed to repel the combined forces of Sweden, Norway and Finland .
8. Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy is one of the most famous Russian writers in the world. Many of his works are considered classics. He was born in 1828 in an aristocratic family.
His greatest literary works include novels such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”.
Leo was a veteran of the Crimean war. He served during the siege of Sevastopol . He was nominated for a Nobel Prize (multiple times) but never managed to actually win it.
Even though almost a century has passed after his death, he still remains as one of the most influential Russian writers.
In his later years he became a big supporter of Georgism (in history known as the single tax movement).
9. Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky
The life of this famous Russian composer started in the year 1882 in a town called Oranienbaum. Most of his family was highly musical. His father, Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky was a famous opera singer.
He achieved international fame with a ballet called The Firebird.
If you want to learn more about the legend behind Stravinsky’s ballet, be sure to check out this article about the Firebird.
He was known for pushing the musical boundaries and rhythmic structure. Later in his life, he moved to the United States. In 1945 he was granted American citizenship.
He still remains as one of the most influential composers in history, and one of the most famous Russians.
10. Maria Sharapova
She is the most famous (and successful) Russian female tennis player in history. She became the number one tennis player in the world, in 2005, at the age of 18.
During her 19 year-long career she managed to win 5 Grand Slam titles (two at French Open and one at Australian Open, Wimbledon and US open).
She appeared as a model in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. In 2007, Maria became the Goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.
She earned more than 300 million dollars during her career, and is considered one of the highest-paid female athletes ever.
In the 2012 Olympics in London, Sharapova won the silver medal for Russia . She lost the match to Serena Williams.
Her charity foundation (called the Maria Sharapova Foundation) has donated millions of dollars to help impoverished children all over the world. She had many cameo appearances in movies and TV shows (including The Ocean’s 8 and Shark Tank).
She officially retired in february of 2020. Sharapova is currently engaged to a British businessman Gilkes, with whom she has been in a relationship for a couple of years.
11. Mikhail Baryshnikov
Mikhail was born in 1948 in Riga (modern-day Latvia). This Russian-American is considered as one of the best (and most influential) classical dancers of the 1970s and 80s.
Baryshnikov began his dance studies at the age of 12, in Riga. The New York Times critic, Clive Barnes, considered him as the most perfect dancer he has ever seen.
In 1974 he defected to Canada, in order to pursue and learn more about dancing. In 1975 he was featured in the BBC television series called Arena .
He was the principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater for 4 years and a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for one year.
After his dancing career, he worked as an artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre and White Oak Dance Project (he founded this dance group with his friend, Mark Morris).
In 1977 he acted in his first film, called “The Turning Point” . For his role in this film, he was nominated for an Oscar.
He also appeared in the show “Sex and the City” as a love interest of the main character, Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker).
In 1991 he co-starred in a movie along with Gene Hackman (the film is called Company Business).
Baryshnikov was in a relationship with Jessica Lange with whom she shares a daughter. He also has three children from his marriage with Lisa Rinehart.
12. Vladimir Lenin
The father (or founder) of the Soviet Union and the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin was born in 1870. In 1887, after his brother (also a political activist) was executed, Lenin embraced socialism.
Lenin played a leading role in overturning the Russian government and replacing it with Bolsheviks. This event is most commonly known as the October Revolution.
The revolution took place in modern-day St. Petersburg in October of 1917 . The so-called Winter Palace (seat of the government, later moved to Moscow) was captured by the Bolsheviks. Their leader was Vladimir Lenin.
The October events did not lead to immediate success. It took Lenin 5 more years before he could establish the Soviet Union in 1922.
13. Wassily Kandinsky
This famous Russian painter and art theorist was born in Moscow, in the year of 1866. Many modern art critics and artists consider Kandinsky as the father of modern abstract art.
He studied to be a lawyer, and finished his studies successfully, after which he was offered a professorship.
History remembers him as one of the most amazing painters, even though he started drawing and painting when he was 30 years old.
In 1896 he started studying art at the Munich Academy. His work was revolutionary and ushered in a new way of thinking and looking at art (in Europe and all around the Globe).
His most famous work from the early 1900s is a painting called “The Blue Rider” . Kandinsky had a great influence on the history of Western art.
Some of his most famous works include paintings like “Several Circles”, “Circles in a Circle”, “Inner Alliance”.
His work called “Study for improvisation 8” was sold at an auction for twenty-three million dollars. He died in december of 1944.
The Bottom Line
We’ve talked about the most famous Russian artists, writers and (sadly) politicians and revolutionaries.
Some of them wrote amazing works of literature, while some of them founded communist nations and murdered millions (at least several of them on this list were really horrible).
Russia is a big state, and even though some of its citizens contributed to global famines, wars and overall horrible and awful things, Russia also gave us novels such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” (so it all kind of balances out, right?).