The Austian myth about Russia

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Russia has strong “familial” ties with the Germans: the tradition of dynastic marriages dates back centuries. Expatriates from German-speaking regions of Europe made up the academic elite of the Russian Empire in the 18th – 19th centuries. The majority of doctors were Prussian, sometimes Austrian. The Swiss, being representatives of a “poor” European people, worked as tutors/governesses, confectioners, doormen at the houses of the rich Russian nobility. However, only Austrians could be granted citizenship. The many vicissitudes in the lives of Jews who settled down on the territory of the modern city of L’viv are described in a tragic and passionate saga Job by Joseph Roth, who had a leading role in creating a demonised image of a “distant” and “neighbouring” Russia in Austrian literature of the 20th century.

In this context, these are the important aspects of how the Austrian myth about Russia formed and evolved:

-firstly, it formed as a result of relations between states that occupied territories which defined the borders of Habsburg and Romanov Empires differently at different times;

-secondly, although modern Austria is a relatively small European country, its cultural memory incorporates historical layers predating the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which is seen in literature of the 20th – 21st century;

-thirdly, the censorship introduced after the Anschluss in 1938 (ended in 1945) played an important role in the formation the myth about Russia in Austrian culture. It is in the context of the Anschluss that the search for national identity becomes extremely pertinent. At the same time, the reception of Russian culture acquires a special meaning and a new perspective.

It is worth noting that this is not a study of how the image of Russia formed in all regions of the former Danube Empire (the Czech Republic, the Balkans, Hungary). We shall focus on general trends in how interest in Russian culture developed and on the works of some writers and scientists who made a large contribution to the general idea the Austrians have about Russia.

Austria and Russia: history of relations and perception

The history of official diplomatic relations between Austria and Russia dates back to the 15th century, when Ivan III (the Grand Prince of Moscow), and Maximilian I of Habsburg, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Germans, exchanged embassies. This meeting was an important point in diplomatic history and it was recorded in the agreement of 16th August, 1490. In History of the Russian State N.M. Karamzin cites the willingness of two countries to find some common ground in identifying their enemies as a reason for their convergence: “The King of the Romans would rise from his throne to greet him and would ask him to sit by his side; the Emperor would do the same. They would hold out their hand while standing in order to show their respect for the Grand Prince. We know nothing more about the negotiations led by Trakhaniot who returned to Moscow with the new ambassador of Maximilian, Georg Delator, on 16th of July 1490. Shortly before that good King Matthias died, and Hungarian nobility agreed to have Vladislaus, Casimir’s son and the King of Bohemia, as his successor <…>. This fact united Austrian policy with ours: Maximilian wished to conquer Hungary, Ivan targeted Southern Lithuania, and they acknowledged Casimir as their common enemy <…>”.[1]

Aside from having a common enemy, the monarchs were expected to be united through a dynastic marriage; it was postponed for fear of Ivan’s daughter being displeasing to the emperor and due to Maximilian’s requirement to change religion. These reasons, according to Karamzin, were crucial in deciding against further convergence with a strategic partner in the West: “…Delator, in order to promote success in the affair, announced that the King of the Romans (widowed at the time) wished to become Ivan’s son-in-law: he wanted to see the young Princess and to know how much her dowry could be. The proposal was courteously declined: our customs were carefully explained to the ambassador. What a shame would befall the father and the bride should the in-law reject her! How could the great monarch wait in agitation and fear to hear the verdict from another sovereign’s servant? Delator was also informed that it was unbecoming of Monarchs to bargain over the dowry; the Grand Prince was certain to appoint it according to the bride’s and groom’s merit, but only after the marriage; for the time being they should focus on the most important matter, namely on the condition that the Princess of Russia <…> must not be converted <…> to which Delator replied that he was not authorised to make such decisions. And so the talk about marriage came to naught”.[2]

][1] Karamzin N.M. Istoriya gosudarstva Rossiiskogo [History of the Russian State]. Moscow, Eksmo Publ., 2009. 1076 p. P. 506.

[2] Karamzin N.M. Istoriya gosudarstva Rossiiskogo [History of the Russian State]. P. 507.

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