The British Myth of Russia

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19th century and the formation of a new layer

At the turn of the 19th century the myth about Russia is fully integrated into the British literature and culture. In a different way, the Russian theme is congenial to the sentimental poet Thomas Campbell, the romanticists Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and later, in the Victorian era, also to the writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning as well as the writer, poet and journalist William Thackeray and the poet of the decadence Algernon Charles Swinburne. In the works by most of these authors the Russian theme unfolds into more or less elaborate statements, that are ambiguous and interact with several layers of the myth about Russia existing in their culture.

The victories of the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768–1774 and 1787–1792, during the reign of Nicholas I, in 1828–1829, and of Alexander II, in 1877–1878, were regarded with apprehension by the British. By the end of the 18th century Russia obtained the Crimea, the northern Black Sea coast and the Kuban region; as a result of the Partitions of Poland, the Empire acquired vast territories in the South-East of Europe. In the course of the Crimean War that broke out later (1853–1856) the Russian army confronted the British in the fight for the Ottoman succession and the dominance over the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Balkans. The Crimean War was preceded and accompanied by an increased anti-Russian sentiment in the British press. However, the defeat of the Russian army caused a wave of a more sympathetic interest in Russia.

In the 19th century the traditional “demonization” of the Russian image took a political turn which was primarily caused by the growing political and military power of Russia. In other words, a new layer in the myth about Russia took form, based on the image of a rival state, an enemy state opposed to the British Empire in the system of notions like “righteousness” / “unrighteousness”, “democratism” / “despotism”, “peaceful intentions” / “belligerence”. On the whole, the Russian people is seen as strong in the military and political spheres and dangerously inclined to expand its territory. Meanwhile, from the end of the 18th century the image of common Russian people in the British travellers’ books more and more often includes a motif of a victimised nation, and the defects of the national character that are pointed out – sloth, inactivity, superstition, infantilism – are linked with the serfdom, the dependence on the master’s will or on that of someone with a higher rank.

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