The British Myth of Russia

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Common Christian roots of the European and Russian cultures cause the similarity of their basic values. At the same time, there is a big difference in ways of understanding, of interpreting these values:

  • The value of a personality – in British culture, as well as in European, in general, the personality is ‘received as a supervalue’, in other words, as such a value which, being free from firm connections with any higher categories, is characterized by independence and self-sufficiency.[1] Peculiarity, originality, freedom and independence of a person – these are the ideas that serve as the basis of the European personalist (from Lat. ‘persona’) tradition and the humanitarian ideology. Concerning the value of a person for the British world (in its central – English – element) the scholar and critic Easthope writes the following: “The English subject is envisaged pre-eminantly as a moral subject, self-conscious, responsible for choice, oblidged to defer judgement”.[2]
  • Susceptibility to other positions, people, cultures as a characteristic of the British national consciousness. It plays a significant role in British culture, as can be judged by the official text of ‘A Guide for New Residents’ (‘Life in the United Kingdom’). It poses susceptibility and openness among fundamental values of modern British culture and reveals peculiarity of ‘British openness’:
  1. This is, for the most part, temporal openness – the feeling of the present, open to the past and ‘unfold’ for the future that supplies it with new meanings. This is easily to be perceived in the following formulae concerning the life in modern Britain: “Britain is a fantastic place to live: a modern, thriving society with a long and illustrious history. Our people have been at the heart of the world’s political, scientific, industrial and cultural development. We are proud of our record of welcoming new migrants who will add to the diversity and dynamism of our national life”.[3]
  2. This is, as well, social and cultural openness, that means tolerance for other cultures, points of view, religions, world visions. The word ‘tolerance’ itself, generated from the verb ‘to tolerate’ denotes certain borders of this openness. According to the results of the sociological experiment done by the scholar D.N. Karavaeva in England, “arrogance, dissociation” are to be denoted among “national constant features of Englishmen”. This is one of two basic “national constants” characteristic of all English respondents.[4] At the same time, at the opposite edge of this social and cultural openness, according to the results of this sociological experiment, there are such constant features as “diplomatic behavior in respect of another culture” and “social openness”. “Tolerant attitude towards representatives of another faith or of other views” are declared a basic value of the British world in ‘A Guide for New Residents’.[5]
  • Liberty, freedom – for British culture this is, it seems, the most significant value. It is declared as the basis of two major principles of life in Britain – those of democracy and individual liberty – in ‘A Guide for New Residents’. The notions of political freedom, freedom of believes, freedom of speech and freedom of privacy serve as the ideological basis of both British political institutes and organization of social life there.

The difference between the meanings of the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ is significant. The distance between the semantic fields of Russian and English words denoting the notion of freedom is also conspicuous. For the word ‘freedom’ the basic meaning is that of ‘the self’ from the point of view of being included in the group of those belonging to ‘the self’.[6] The word ‘liberty’ is of Latin origin, it denotes a specific concept of ‘being free from outer influences’ – a concept, inherited by European consciousness from the ancient Roman culture. The word’s semantic core is ‘the self’ implying its opposition to ‘the other’.

There are two words to denote the corresponding notion in the Russian language. This is the word ‘свобода’ (svoboda), the meaning of which ‘in general’ is similar to the meaning of the word ‘freedom’, and it nominates the state of being ‘a member of one’s clan’. However, the corresponding word ‘vol’a’ (воля) has the specifically Russian meaning of ‘spaciousness in deeds’, not connected with ‘the notion of law’.[7]  Inside the semantic field of the word ‘vol’a’ the meanings of ‘spaciousness in deeds’, ‘arbitrariness;, ‘creative activity of mind’ and ‘willingness’, ‘desire’, ‘freedom from slavery’ – and, at the same time, ‘power’, ‘strength’. Therefore, the opposition of ‘the self’ to ‘the other’, argued (or stated) in the word ‘svoboda’ is blurred through concentration on the self-sufficient ‘I’, implied in the word ‘vol’a’. The word ‘vol’a’ fixes the desire of non-restricted personal freedom (with the meaning of ‘the self’ above ‘the other’) and, at the same time, the tendency of mixing, blurring personal ‘freedoms’ (in this case ‘the self’ is not sharply distinguished from ‘the other’).

To generalize, for Russian culture it is the person’s inner creative freedom of a person that is of utmost importance, while in British culture it is the person’s privacy, separation, remoteness from others that is more significant. Among the arguments to support this idea, the polysemy of the word ‘privacy’, and the frequency of its usage, is, probably, one of the brightest. ‘Privacy’ supposes not only the necessary separateness of private life from outer interferences, but also the ‘autonomy of the person’, which means, in its turn, that a person is more oriented on his/ her own personal (inside and outside) world.  As Jeremy Paxman puts it,  “The importance of privacy informs the entire organization of the country, from the assumptions on which laws are based, to the buildings in which the English live.”[8]

[1] P. Gurevich, Lichnost’ kak tsennost’, in Gurevich P.S. Filosophiya kul’tury (Moscow, 1995): http://www.gumer.info/bogoslov_Buks/Philos/gurevich/07.php

[2] Easthope A. Englishness and National Culture. London and NY: Taylor and Francis e-library, 2005. 243 p. P. 90.

[3] See.: Life in the United Kingdom, a Guide for New Residents. Электронный ресурс: https://lifeintheuktests.co.uk/study-guide/?chapter=1/#start0

[4] The second one is “unwillingness to do a simple job”. See: Karavaeva D.N. English identity and discourse: Britain – England – North England. P. 141 – 143.

[5] “<…> tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. See: Life in the United Kingdom, a Guide for New Residents.

[6] The word «free» goes back to the proto-German *frijaz and to the pre-Indo-European *prijos – ‘dear’, ‘self’. See: Oxford Concise Dictionary of the English Etymology. Oxford, 2003. 528 p.P. 182.

[7] Bulygina T.V., Schmelev A.D. Yazykovaya kontseptualizatsiya mira. M: Mstera russkoi kul’tury, 1997. P. 485 – 486; Stepanov Yu. S. Konatanty. Slovar’ russkoi kul’tury. M., 2001. P. 126.

[8] Paxman J. The English. A Portrait of a People. London: Penguin Books, 1999. 309 p. P. 118.

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