The Austian myth about Russia

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During his short life Rilke was rather sociable and carried on correspondence with such outstanding individuals as L.N. Tolstoy, A.P. Chekhov, A.N. Benois, artist L.O. Pasternak and poet B.L. Pasternak.[1] His connection with M. Tsvetaeva can be traced through their amazing correspondence which, however, started only in the last year of his life. He dedicated one of his Duino Elegies to Tsvetaeva. She found in him an artist who was close to her in spirit and mindset.[2] When his Russian migrant friends (due to the Russian Revolution of 1917) and he himself (due to the collapse of Austria-Hungary) lost their motherlands, he found the following momentous words of consolation: «…the deep, indigenous, and forever suffering Russia has returned to her hidden roots, the same way she did once under the Tatar yoke; few would doubt that Russia lives, and, despite the darkness descended upon her, is slowly, almost invisibly in its holy deliberation gathering her strength. <…> ? Your exile, the exile of many people, utterly committed to her is fueled by this restoration of power <…>; <…> and all of you have left her just to remain faithful and devoted to her now, when she is keeping her head down…”[3].

Rilke’s influence on Austrian poets and their views of Russia and the Russians was immense. At the same time, we should note that during that period in Austrian culture Rilke was not the only one who mentioned a special Russian spirituality. Poet and translator P. Celan (who was in a correspondence with M. Tsvetaeva), writers S. Zweig, A. Schnitzler, R. Musil and others played an important role in popularization of Russian literary works of the late 19th – early 20th centuries and the Russian “view of life”. After World War II the image of Russia created by Rilke became once more relevant in the work of I. Rakusa, I. Bachmann and E. Canetti who represented Group 47. The first and especially the second waves of emigration made Austria–Russia relations even closer. Numerous Russian intellectuals, including S.L. Frank, B. Zaytsev, and Dm. Merezhkovsky, received a warm welcome in Vienna.

Austria in the 20th century and the image of Soviet Russia

Diplomatic relations between Austria and the USSR were established in 1924, frozen in 1938 and renewed in 1945 г. Trade cooperation was developing step by step, Agreement on Trade and Shipping (1955), Consular Treaty (1959), Agreement on Cultural and Scientific Cooperation (1968) were signed.

We can hardly name any one postwar Austrian writer who was not influenced by classic and contemporary Russian literature: E. Canetti in his novel on fascism Auto-da-Fé gave his protagonist the traits of a Gogol personage, T. Bernhard named the people in his plays after Chekhov’s characters, P. Handke learned from Dostoevsky and his characters how to stand up to the terrible process of dehumanization.

The intellectuals of the 1950s were well familiar with I. Ilf and Ye. Petrov, M. Zoshchenko, A. Akhmatova, M. Bulgakov. Their books were translated and published, often more openly than in the USSR. It was perceived as a country where a poet had to fight if he wanted to be heard; this once again bestowed an idea of martyrdom upon Russian literature. For many years to come Soviet culture became attractive, mysterious, and interesting for Western writers who lived in better conditions. Slavists were eager to get to the USSR, where life was in full swing: poets were being prosecuted, publication of books was prohibited. There was a strong competition between the most brilliant students for the chance to study at Lomonosov Moscow State University and Pushkin Leningrad State University.

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke and Alexandre Benois. St. Petersburg, Egida Publ., 2001. 267 p.

[2] From the correspondence between Rilke, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak in 1926. Voprosy literatury [Literature questions]. 1978. No. 4. P. 233–281.

[3] Slepynin O. Tol’ko Rossiya granichit s Bogom… [Only Russia borders with God]. Available at:

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