Notable among the rulers of pre-revolutionary Russia were Ivan III (the Great, 1440–1505), who established Moscow as a sovereign state; Peter I (the Great, 1672–1725), a key figure in the modernization of Russia; Alexander I (1777–1825), prominent both in the war against Napoleon and the political reaction that followed the war; and Alexander II (1818–81), a social reformer who freed the serfs. Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) came to power in 1985, initiated reforms of the old Communist system and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–65), poet and grammarian, also was a founder of natural science in Russia. The poet Gavrila Derzhavin (1743–1816) combined elements of topical satire with intimate, lyrical themes. Aleksandar Radishchev (1749–1802) criticized both religion and government absolutism. Nikolay Karamzin (1766–1826), an early translator of Shakespeare, was the founder of Russian Sentimentalism. The fables of Ivan Krylov (1768/69?–1844) exposed human foibles and the shortcomings of court society. Russia's greatest poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) was also a brilliant writer of prose. Other outstanding poets were Fyodor Tyutchev (1803–73), Mikhail Lermontov (1814–41), and Afanasy Fet (Shen-shing 1820–92). Nikolay Gogol (1809–52), best known for his novel Dead Souls and his short stories, founded the realistic trend in Russian literature. Vissarion Belinsky (1811–48) was an influential critic. Noted radical philosophers were Aleksandr Hertzen (1812–70). Nikolay Chernyshevshy (1828–89), and Nikolay Dobrolyubov (1812–91), satirized the weakness of Russian society. Ivan Turgenev (1818–83) is noted for his sketches, short stories, and the novel Fathers and Sons . Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) wrote outstanding psychological novels ( Crime and Punishment , The Brothers Karamazov) . Leo (Lev) Tolstoy (1828–1910) perhaps the greatest Russian novelist ( War and Peace , Anna Karenina ), also wrote plays, essays and short stories. Aleksandr Ostrovsky (1823–86) was a prolific dramatist. The consummate playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was the greatest Russian writer of the late 19th century. Leonid Nikolayevich Aandreyev (1871–1919) wrote plays and short stories. The novels, stories, and playas of Maksim Gorky (Aleksey Peshkov, 1868–1936) bridged the tsarist and Soviet periods. Ivan Bunin (1870–1953) received the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his novels and short stories. Georgy Plekhanov (1856–1918), a Marxist philosopher and propagandist, also was a literary critic and art theorist, as was Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933).
Russian composers of note include Mikhail Glinka (1804–57), Aleksandar Borodin (1833–87), also a distinguished chemist, Mily Balakirev (1837–1910), Modest Mussorgsky (1839–81), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93), Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), Aleksandr Skryabin (1871–1915), Sergey Rakhmaninov (1873–1943), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Sergey Prokofyev (1891–1953), Aram Ilyich Khachaturian (1903–78), Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904–87), and Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–75). Two of the greatest bassos of modern times are the Russian-born Fyodor Chaliapin (1873–1938) and Alexander Kipnis (1891–1978). Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951), noted conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was important in Russian musical life before the Revolution.
Outstanding figures in the ballet are the impresario Sergey Diaghilev (1872–1929); the choreographers Marius Petipa (1819–1910), Lev Ivanov (1834–1901), and Mikhail Fokine (1880–1942); the ballet dancers Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950), Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), Tamaara Karsavina (1885–1978), Galina Ulanova (1909–1998), and Maya Plosetskaya (b. 1925); and the ballet teacher Agrippina Vaganova (1879–1951).
Outstanding figures in the theater include Kostantin Stanislavsky (Alekseyev, 1863–1938), director, actor and theorectician; Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943), director, playwright, and founder, with Stanislavsky, of the Moscow Art Theater; and Vsevolod Meyerhold (1873–1942), noted for innovations in stagecraft. Important film directors were Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953), Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1864–1956), Sergey Eisenstein (1898–1948, Vasily Shiksin (1929–74), and Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–87).
Varfolomey (Bartolomeo Francesco) Rastrelli (1700–1771) designed many of the most beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg. Other important Russian architects include Vasily Bazhenov (1737–99), Matvey Kazakov (1733–1812), Andreyan Zakharov (1761–1811), and Ivan Starov (1806–58), Vasily Perov (1833/34–82), Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904), Ilya Repin (1844–1930), Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), Leon (Lev) Bakst (Rosenberg, 1866–1924), and Aleksansr Benois (1870–1960). Modern Russian artists whose work is internationally important include the Suprematist painters Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935) and El (Lazar) Lissitzky (1890–1941), the "Rayonist" painters Natalya Goncharova (1881–1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), the Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), and the Spatial sculptor Aleksandar Rodchenko (1891–1956). Famous Russian-born artists who left their native country to work abroad include the painters Alexei von Jawlensky (1864–1941), Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Marc Chagall (1897–1985), and Chaim Soutine (1894–1943) and the sculptors Antoine Pevsner (1886–1962), his brother Naum Gabo (1890–1977), Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964), and Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967).
Prominent Russian scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries include the chemist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev (1834–1907), inventor of the periodic table; Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov (1828–86), a creator of the theory of chemical structure; Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky (1847–1921), a founder of modern hydrodynamics and aerodynamics; Pyotr Nikolayevich Lebedev (1866–1912), who discovered the existence of the pressure of light; Nikolay Ivanovich Lobachevsky (1792–1856), pioneer in non-Euclidean geometry; Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849–1936), creator of the theory on the higher nervous systems of animals and man, who received the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on digestive glands; Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (Elie Metchnikoff, 1845–1916), who received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his Phagocyte theory; Kliment Arkadyevich Timiryazev (1843–1920), biologist and founder of the Russian school of plant physiology; and Aleksandr Stepanovich Popov (1859–1906), pioneer in radio transmission. Among later scientists and inventors are Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855–1935), biologist and plant breeder; Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), scientist and the inventor in the field of the theory and technology of rocket engines, interplanetary travel and aerodynamics; Vladimir Petrovich Filatov (1875–1956), ophthalmologist; Ivan Pavlovich Bardin (1883–1960), metallurgist; Yevgeny Nikanorovich Pavlovsky (1884–1965), parasitologist; Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943), geneticist; and Leon Theremin (Lev Termen, 1896–1993), pioneer of electronic music. Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934–68) was the first person to ever venture into space.