Myth of Russia in German Culture

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In the West a new stage in the understanding of Russia, the Russian character and the Russian soul is connected with the fact of an intense acquaintance with the work of Russian classics in the 1880s starting from I.S. Turgenev and then covering Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. Ivan Turgenev, as is well known, maintained relations with many German cultural figures – writers, critics, opinion journalists, musicians, and he was also a regular in the higher circles. At the same time, his famous “Westernism” and openness to the Western world played an important role. For the Germans Turgenev turned out to be not only the first significant Russian writer, but also the closest in spirit. In the 1880s they publish the first scientific researches and dissertations on the works by Russian writers and the ones by F.M. Dostoevsky in particular. In general, we can say that in the late 19th century Russian literature is finally recognized in Germany.

Thomas Mann’s vision of Russia and the Russians was shaped under the influence of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. In his novel The Magic Mountain the Russian people are associated with freedom, hospitality, and cordiality, but at the same time with negligence and untidiness which proves that the author is ambivalent in his vision of Russia. T. Mann portrays the Russians as a mysterious and controversial nation. On the one hand, they are characterized by the love of freedom, but on the other hand, servility is very strong in their minds. Just like Spielhagen, T. Mann ascribes admirable qualities to the Russian women who are different from his female compatriots. They are independent, open, and sympathetic.

In the 1890s the Germans started to familiarize with Chekhov. The first conceptual evaluation of his work was proposed in 1890 by a translator Johannes Treumann in his first publication about the Russian writer. In Germany during the first two decades of this intensive familiarization 45 critical works on Chekhov (his stories) appeared. Already at that time the German critic, writer and literary historian Carl Busse put Chekhov on a par with such renowned authors as Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky who were already making a great impression on German audience. German readers instantly fell in love with Maxim Gorky’s books as well. In Germany his work was a sort of a comparative background for perception of Chekhov: “In his earlier stories and plays “the alien” did not appear in the form of average people’s routine like Chekhov used to portray it, but in the image of “exceptional” personality combining the traits of a protesting rebel and a low-life proletarian. For the German audience of the naturalism period this was at the same time alien, new, sensational but attractive in a way” (R.-D. Kluge).

At the beginning of the 20th century they start to pay great attention to Chekhov’s dramaturgy. In the late 20th century a profound and complex image, that of a Russian writer, is formed; now it has nothing to do with the portrait of a “recreational” author which was drawn at an earlier stage of familiarizing with Chekhov’s work. This change in German critics’ attitude towards the Russian writer is the result of Thomas Mann’s essay on Chekhov.

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