The British Myth of Russia

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At the same time, internal and external aggression of the Russian Empire contemporary with Byron is presented not as a unique manifestation of a different world, but as one of the many similar episodes in the past and the present; it is a clear testament to the inevitable “fall” of mankind from happiness to unhappiness, from freedom to unfreedom.

In the first half of the 19th century the British myth about Russia represented a complex sociocultural phenomenon. Its most recent layer was formed in the context of a clash between the British military and political interests and the interests of another, in many respects, “alien” power. The clash resulted in new semantic elements in the structure of the myth (such as “political enemy”. “political power”, “military power”, “military aggression”, “depravity”, “unfreedom”, etc.) and serves as a breeding ground for a new, in-depth interpretation of Russian images, facts of Russian history, national character and Russian wildlife in English literature.

The Victorian era in the history of Britain is usually defined as the period of Queen Victoria’s reign. Socially, that was a time of rapid technological and social development, the expansion of the British Empire and its acquisition of vast colonial territories.

Russian images appear in Victorian novels either sporadically and tenuously (e.g. in some novels by Dickens), or they are thoroughly elaborated in other genres and types of literature, e.g. in historical novel (E. Bulwer-Lytton), politically sensitive and patriotic poems (A. Tennyson), burlesque poem (W. Thackeray), dramatic dialogue (R. Browning) and, finally, in poetry of decadence and symbolism (A.C. Swinburne). Let us focus on the most prominent images of Russia in British literature of the time, those found in the works of A. Tennyson, R. Browning and A.C. Swinburne.

Poems of A. Tennyson that refer to Russian images are mainly patriotic. Being shocked by the suppressed November (1831) and January (1863) uprisings in Poland, Alfred Tennyson wrote two sonnets in his different periods. The first (1831) was titled Sonnet: on hearing of the outbreak of the Polish insurrection and the second (first version also written in 1831, a new version with a different title and a stronger rhetoric was written in 1872) was titled Sonnet: on the late Russian invasion of Poland (the later title – Poland).

In his second sonnet the poet addresses God in a sorrowful cry coloured with an inquiry of “how long”. His cry merges with the imaginary “tears of blood” shed by the Polish on the fields of their homeland soaked with “sacred blood”. By the Russian “oppressor” not only a powerful tsar is meant, but the whole country as well. Once again, but this time more explicitly than in Tennyson’s earlier poems, it is endowed with barbarous, Eastern and even demonic features: it is called an “overgrown Barbarian in the East” with iced heart (“icehearted Muscovite”) and “brute Power”; it is the youngest and the most unworthy of all nations (“the last and least of men”), a country threatening to swallow the whole world (“transgress its ample bound to some new crown”).[1] In other words, it is an “anti-world”, opposed to Poland such different principles like “high – low”, “bestial – human”, “demonic – sacred”, “Eastern – Western”, “Northern – Southern”, “aggressive – oppressed”. These principles interact with all layers of the British myth about Russia: the “core” connected with the themes of a bestial and demonic anti-world; the layer formed in the 16th century and defined, in particular, by the motifs of cold, the North, vast territories, barbarity, despotism; and, finally, the layer of the 18th–19th centuries that was contemporary to Tennyson and accentuated the notions of “the East”, the orientality and the aggressiveness in the foreign policy of Russia.

In a similar way, in his famous poem Hail, Briton! (1832, published in 1969) Tennyson again depicts Russia as a “savage land” which unites the “coarse extremes of Power and Fear”. Like Thomas Campbell, the poet prophesies the fall of monarchy in Russia as a deliverance from the great evil decided by God: “So pure a hope is rendered vain / Till God rise up and break in twain / The iron scepter of the Czar”.[2]

In the works of Algernon Charles Swinburne – a poet standing at the turn of the 20th century – the image of Russia has a special dynamic of development and a special array of mythological elements. He first discusses Russia in 1865 in his essay Of Liberty and Loyalty. In Russian character, especially in the behaviour of the Russian soldiers, he sees not a service chosen freely, but impersonal discipline commanded by fear, passive obedience and silent, unreasoning submission.[3] All “Russian” poems of Swinburne are written in the manner of opposing the lively English freedom and the love of freedom to the lifeless Russian slavery, despotism and obedience.

In Swinburne’s best-known declaration on Russia – the ode Russia (1890) – through an evident combination of political subtext with the primary layers of the British myth the author creates a grotesque image of the state originating from hell. However, innocent people are suffering there – the Russian people, enslaved by the state.

Russia is metaphorically likened to hell and, all at once, to a horrible realm of unknown underground and underwater monsters: “Out of hell a word comes hissing, dark as doom, / Fierce as fire, and foul as plague-polluted gloom <…>”. Doomed and cursed innocent people are suffering in this infernal realm – the Russian people: “<…> wherin the sinless damned endure / More than ever sin conceived <…>”. It is as if “souls and bodies” are left there for beasts to devour (“Souls and bodies as by fangs of beasts devoured”). Even Dante never met “fiends” in Hell who “could match the Muscovite” – the ruler of Russia, the tsar (“prove thee regent, Russia – praise thy mercy, Tsar”). The poet prays to God, addresses people and supreme forces asking to destroy this horrendous tyranny (calling for “Tyrannicide”): “God or man, be swift <…>/ <…>/ Fall, O fire of Heaven and smite <…> / Halls wherin men’s torturers <…> dwell!”[4]

[1] Tennyson A., Lord. Poland // Tennyson A., Lord. Complete poetical works. Cambridge, Boston: The Riverside Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1898. 887 p. P. 25.

[2] Tennyson A. Hail, Briton! // Tennyson A. Poems: in 3 vols. Harlow: Longman, 1987. Vol. 1. P. 529 – 530. P. 529.

[3] Swinburne A.C. Complete Works : in 20 vols. L., N.-Y.: W. Heinemann Ltd., G. Wells, 1926. Vol. 16. P. 44 – 46.

[4] Swinburne A.Ch. Russia: an Ode (Written after reading E.B. Lanin’s account of “Russian prisons”) // Lanin E.B. Russian Traits and Terrors. P. 137 – 140. P. 137 – 140.

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