The British Myth of Russia

14 page

To sum up, in Victorian era the image of Russia in Britain acquires the evident features of its political rival, a gloomy half-savage “barbarian” from the East that is ready to crush the civilized world of Europe. At the same time, the British culture adopts the idea of the Russian people as a martyr, a victim of the tsarist regime; the images of Russian peasants are introduced into literature. In Victorian literature Russian images are frequently used, they become multidimensional, though still solely in a negative sense: these are the images of a political and war enemy, of social inequity, darkness, evil, ancient elemental forces, bestial and paganistic ways.

The turn of the 19th-20th century and Russia’s spiritual image
The end of the 1880s and the beginning of the 1920s was the time of crisis and revolution for the British and the entire European culture. Literature and social thinking are filled with themes of aggressive, callous nature, “commercialization and industrialization” (Autocracy and War by Joseph Conrad, 1905), the fragility of the European culture (Waste Land by Thomas Eliot, 1922), and the threats that the masses – the “huns” and “vandals” of the western civilization – pose to high culture (Henry James, 1886). In modernist literature and in the culture on the whole a particular interest emerges for the unconscious part of the human psyche, for the irrational in a human being. In this atmosphere of losing the European culture a new interpretation of the Russian culture emerges as of a culture essentially religious, soulful and spiritual – a culture that is not only “alien” but also “one’s own”.

The process of getting closer to the “alien” Russian culture as the genuine – but lost – “own” one was carried out in the traditional moral and ethical dimensions related to Christianity and hence to the ancient layers of the myth, formed in the 12th and 16th centuries. The new layer of the British myth about Russia contained a complex of ideas and images of soul, religiousness (mysticism), service to others and a great inner world.

In The Mainsprings of Russia (1914) by Maurice Baring, a philosophical and artistic research, one of the most treasured books about Russia of this time, a new notion in the British understanding of Russia emerges, according to which “the Russian peasant is a mystic”, and his religion “does not come to him through books or study or spiritual sciences, but it is the outcome of his experience”. More than that, Baring, English writer and essayist, believes that “once the whole of Europe, and especially the English, looked on religion as the Russian peasants do now” and that their vision of religion is not “ignorance” or “dark philosophy”, but the foundation that breeds generosity, tolerance, kindness and admiration for human beings.[1]

[1] Cf.: «<…> the Russian peasant is a mystic. His religion does not come to him through books or study or spiritual sciences, but it is the outcome of his experience <…> once the whole of Europe, and especially the English, looked on religion as the Russian peasants do now <…> The Russian temperament is generous, unstinted, democratic, and kind <…. He is the most tolerant of human beings <…>» Cf.: Baring M. The Mainsprings of Russia. L.: Thomas Nelson and sons, 1914. 328 p. PP> 47, 57, 162.

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