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Regina Spektor | © Warner Music
Regina Spektor | © Warner Music
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10 Famous People You Didn't Know Were Born In Russia

Picture of Varia Fedko-Blake
Updated: 18 October 2016
Over the centuries, Russia has offered the world some of the greatest minds, ranging from exceptional musicians, pioneering artists, renowned actors and groundbreaking authors. Here are ten iconic individuals that originated from this vast nation that may surprise you.
George Sanders | © The Black Swan
George Sanders | © The Black Swan

George Sanders

St. Petersburg was the birthplace of George Sanders, a renowned English film and television actor, songwriter, composer and author. When the turbulence of the Russian Revolution reached its peak in 1917, when Sanders was just 11 years old, his family escaped to England. He was working at an advertising agency when he met actress Greer Garson, who encouraged him to get into acting. Making his film debut in 1936 in ‘Lloyd’s of London’ in 1936, Sanders began to garner attention for his upper-class accent and his sleek manner. For years, he was in great demand in Hollywood, often appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s features. Today, he remains perhaps best known for his role of Jack Favell in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor is not a name that would appear synonymous with Russia, but the pianist and singer owes her roots to the vast country. Born in Moscow in 1980, Regina began studying classical piano when she was just 7 years old. Shortly after, the little girl moved to New York in 1989 where, having parted from her beloved piano back in Russia, she practiced her music by tapping on windowsills. Finally, finding a teacher who could supply her with free lessons, she began songwriting and released her first album ’11:11′ in 2001. Since then, Spektor’s career has rocketed and she has enjoyed great success. To this day, the quirky singer credits her immigration journey as an influence by notably using numerous languages in her songwriting.

Regina Spektor | © Warner Music
Regina Spektor | © Warner Music

Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner was born back in 1920 in far Vladivostok, Russia, to a Swiss-Mongolian engineering family. In his youth, after a short stint as a trapeze artist in France, Brynner moved to the USA where he appeared in his most notable role on Broadway – in 1951, he began playing King Mongkut of Siam in the musical ‘The King and I.’ By 1956, he had even won an Academy Award for best actor for the film version and today, his outstanding performance career is forever recognised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6162 Hollywood Boulevard.

Yyl Brynner | © Paolo Rsmenezes/WikiCommons
Yyl Brynner | © Paolo Rsmenezes/WikiCommons

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand is an American novelist and philosopher, who famously went on to create the theory of Objectivism, stating that it was ‘a philosophy for living on earth.’ Born in St. Petersburg at a crucial moment in history just before the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tzar to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, shortly after in 1925, Rand lied to the Soviet authorities, stating she was going to visit relatives in America, and never returned. As her writing career blossomed over in the States, she made her way to Hollywood and married actor Frank O’Connor. Over the decades, her literary titles made their imprint on the scene, with ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ being her most renowned works.

Ayn Rand | © Vedi Sotto/WikiCommons
Ayn Rand | © Vedi Sotto/WikiCommons

Al Jolson

Despite being widely known as Al Jonson, the singer, songwriter and comedian was actually born Asa Yoelson in Srednike in Russia at the end of the 19th century. Recognized for his high-energy acts and vaudeville performances in America, Jolson received critical acclaim for his musicals and song ‘My Mammy,’ which sold millions of copies – a great feat at the time. Yet, it was his most famous performance in 1927 film ‘The Jazz Singer’ that brought him praise, the feature in itself bringing about the end of the silent movie age and catapulting him into the magnetic movie star that he is known for being today.

Al Jolson | © WikiCommons
Al Jolson | © WikiCommons

Wassily Kandinsky

At the age of 30, Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky took up the study of art, likely influenced by his own musical parents. When he was a little boy, they divorced and Kandinsky moved to Odessa where he took up the piano and the cello at grammar school. Despite also dabbling with his father’s wishes to become a lawyer, he became more and more interested in painting, finally moving to Munich in Germany to pursue his passion. Over the years, the artist was increasingly credited with being the leader of avant-garde art due to his pioneering techniques of pure abstraction. Based on hard lines, dots and geometry, his work continues to be praised by artists and galleries all over the world, over half a century after Kandinsky died of cerebrovascular disease in France in 1944.

Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Jaune Rouge Bleu’ | © WikiCommons
Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Jaune Rouge Bleu’ | © WikiCommons

Isaac Asimov

These days, the name Isaac Asimov is best linked to popular books of science fiction – indeed, throughout his lifetime he wrote a colossal 500 novels and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. Born in Petrovichi in Russia in 1920, Asimov’s family immigrated to the States, settling in New York’s Brooklyn where he finished his education. With time, he became a biochemistry professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, all whilst quietly pursuing his passion for writing. Asimov’s first story was published in 1938 and over the decades, he developed a prolific writing career, perhaps culminating with ‘I, Robot’ in 1950 and ‘Foundation’ in 1951. He died in New York in 1992 from heart and kidney failure, leaving behind millions of fans and ending a colourful career that earned him several Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Isaac Asimov | © WikiCommons
Isaac Asimov | © WikiCommons

Irving Berlin

Today, composer and lyricist Irving Berlin is considered to be one of the most influential songwriters in American history, yet his humble beginnings surprisingly began thousands of kilometers away from the States. Born in Tyumen in Russia in 1888, he moved to New York as a child where his love for entertaining began to grow. In 1911, he got his big break with musical number ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ earning him the nickname of ‘King of Tin Pan Alley.’ The song sparked an international dance craze at the beginning of the 20th century, even reaching far off places like Berlin’s native Russia.

Irving Berlin's 'Ragtime' | © WikiCommons
Irving Berlin’s ‘Ragtime’ | © WikiCommons

Marc Chagall

Raised in a devout Jewish family within the Russian Empire in a small Hasidic community in Belarus, as a child Marc Chagall developed a great interest in art, eventually leaving for Paris in 1907 where he joined an artist’s colony. His influence quickly sent ripples throughout the art scene, especially upon creating perhaps his most famous work ‘I and the Village,’ which garnered attention for its dreamlike imagery and cubist notes. Forced to flee Nazi persecution at the outbreak of the Second World War, Chagall found safety in America, where he became involved in set and costume design. Returning to France following seven years in exile, Chagall continued to expand his artistic repertoire, working in sculpture and mastering the art of stained glass windows. By 1977, he had received the Grand medal of the Legion of Honor, the highest accolade offered by France, and became one of the few artists ever to put on a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre.

Marc Chagall | © WikiCommons
Marc Chagall | © WikiCommons

Sergey Brin

Having been born in Moscow on August 21, 1973, Sergey Brin was the son of a Soviet mathematician economist, whose family emigrated to the United States when he was still a youngster. Many years later, the man became one half of a team that went on to develop one of the most popular and most profitable search engines in the world, Google. While completing his doctorate in computer science at Stanford University, Brin met Larry Page and together they began working on a project with a name based on the mathematical term ‘googol,’ which is number sequence 1 followed by 100 zeros.

Sergey Brin in 2010 |© Boseritwik/Flickr
Sergey Brin in 2010 | © Boseritwik/Flickr