The British Myth of Russia

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For example, the British historian J. Geddie asserts in his monograph The Russian Empire: Historical and Descriptive (1882) that despite big geopolitical changes in the world in general, the “most marvellous would be the enormous development of the Russian Empire” – an ambitious “rival” to Britain.[1] The surprise caused by this development gave way to a wary interest and hostility. In the widely popular sketches written by the English journalist E. J. Dillon (under the penname E.B. Lanin) in 1889–1892 and published first in Fortnightly Review magazine under the common title Russian Characteristics, then as a separate publication under a very typical title, Russian Traits and Terrors, the extremely negative view of the Russians is closely related to the image of the political regime in the Russian Empire. Noteworthy is the list of “Russian characteristics” already given in the table of contents: “lying”, “fatalism”, “sloth”, “dishonesty”. The description of the contemporary Russia in the book opens with a statement, saying that “low level of morality” in the country “is in perfect keeping with the crass ignorance and brutalising superstition in which the masses (i.e. the Russian people) are still hopelessly plunged”. The author admits that “by nature the Russians are richly endowed”, but throughout his book he systematically proves that “these gifts <…> are turned into curses by political, social and religious conditions” and that the Russian people has become a “good-natured, lying, thievish, shiftless, ignorant mass”, a polar opposite to West European nations (“differ from West European nations”).[2]

At the same time, the 19th century is marked with a growing number of works by Russian authors being translated into English. The famous Specimens of the Russian Poets by John Bowring was published in 1821. A new edition (1826) had a preface in which author not only remarked on the increased interest in Russian literature among the audience, but also identified its causes: the hopes “of the future progress of that vast empire in civilization and virtue and liberty” and the “observations”.[3]

[1] Geddie J. The Russian Empire: Historical and Descriptive. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1882. 528 p. P. 9.

[2] Lanin E.B. Russian Traits and Terrors. A Faithful Picture of the Russia of To-day. Boston, Mass.: Benj. R. Tucker, 1891. 295 p. P. 1 – 3.

[3] Specimens of the Russian Poets / tr. by John Bowring (with preliminary remarks and biographical notices). London: R. and A. Taylor, 1821. 284 p. P. ix.

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