The British Myth of Russia

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Lord Byron should be considered the key figure in developing the image of Russia in English literature of the first half of the 19th century. There are some explanations for that: the relative popularity of his works among his contemporaries, the political motivation of his poetry, his deep personal and artistic interest in Russia, a greater attention paid in his poetry to the Russian theme, in comparison with the works of other English poets of Romanticism.

In the majority of Byron’s works that mention Russia, the Russian world is associated with Napoleon and his eventual defeat. Thus, in Mazeppa the thwarted plan of Charles XII to seize Moscow and his defeat in the battle of Poltava are compared with Napoleon’s defeat in Russia that became evident after his army left still burning Moscow. Fate, Fortune, luck and time (“Fortune”, “The Power and Glory of the War”, “a day”, “a year”) that used to favour both, suddenly desert them and side with their opponents. In their defeat, in the way it is depicted in the poem, one can see not a mere coincidence, but an act of Providence, and feel the relentless ruling of the inconceivable Fate.

The poem Don Juan is the first work by Byron to create a vivid image of Russia and its people. The reasoning behind addressing the Russian theme is unveiled in the narrator’s remark on the “might” of the Russian Empire and the falsehood of its “flattery”. It is fair to say that the use of Russian images in the poem is explained by the wish to expose the autocratic, and thus unacceptable for the author and the modern paths of human development, foundation of this empire: “For me, I deem an absolute autocrat / Not a barbarian, but much worse than that”.[1]

In the poem the Russian world is shown through two major figures – Suvorov and Catherine II, as well as through the “crowd” scenes characterising the Russians as a nation. Cantos VII and VIII describe the long siege and seizure of the Turkish fort of Ismail by the Russian army under Field Marshal Suvorov and note the military aggression of the Russian empress and her government, the “grim and gory” Russian commanders who seek to bring other nations to heel and conquer new territories for Russia.

Suvorov is portrayed as an embodiment of barbaric cruelty, bloodlust and trickery laced with a passion for buffoonery – a “hero, buffoon, half-demon, and half-dirt”, “Harlequin in uniform” who likes to lecture “on the noble art of killing” and deems people “common dirt” (“lecturing on the noble art of killing, – for deeming human clay but common dirt”). He can turn stories of the atrocities of war into funny rhymes and teach soldiers to fight ferociously in a war of aggression “for cash and conquest”.[2]

[1] Byron Lord. Don Juan (canto IX, stanza XXIII) // Byron Lord. The Works. Vol. 6. P. 381.

[2] Byron Lord. Don Juan. Canto VII, stanza LV, LXIV // Ibid. P. 320, 323.

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