The British Myth of Russia

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The interest in all things Russian could be seen in fascination with Russian ballet and in readiness to hold English-Russian or Russian and European exhibitions of contemporary art. Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons, first organized in London in 1911, were highly praised by British public.[1] Theatre’s first tour across Europe in 1906 definitely played its part in bringing Russian theatre and English audience closer together (although England never got a chance to see MAT (Moscow Art Theatre) performances).

The Russian theme in British literature of the late 19th – the early 20th centuries is much more widespread than in prior periods of the existence of the British myth about Russia. Russian figurativeness runs deep into the works of the realist writers and playwrights such as Rudyard Kipling, Herbert Wells, Somerset Maugham, Bernard Shaw; the representative of aestheticism Oscar Wilde; and the modernists Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and David Lawrence. Distinguishing features of this period include ambiguous interaction (which swings from animosity to love) between the Russian and British worlds within the art space of the same work; a motif of a British character entering the Russian world; ambivalent assessment of the Russian “point of view”, values and mentality and leaving behind the topic of confrontation between Great Britain and Russia.

Since the end of the 19th century social and political description of the Russian world has become extremely popular: “five out of six” novels about Russia had a “nihilistic plot”, relied on the thrill and necessarily included conspiracy, bombs, prison and prison breaks.[2] All of that formed a kind of canon of the British literature about Russia, which after the revolution of 1917 bred a whole stream of novels about the “red terror”, horror, threat and aggression. For instance, a novel by a H. Newte had an eloquent name The Red Fury: Britain under Bolshevism (1919). Interestingly, the novel had, except for a few minor changes, the same plot as the previous novel by the same author The Master Beast (1897).[3] Another novel named Konyets by M. Hussingtree recounted a story about the occupation of Europe by Bolsheviks and the subsequent end of the world.

At the same time, elitist literary works represented much more multidimensial, versatile and deep images. In English spy novels by Kipling and Conrad and short stories by Maugham the politics intertwine with national psychological issues, ethnic and cultural and even mythological themes. Specific social and political features of the country’s image were closely linked to the national character and the natural world.[4]

[1] Cf.: Johnson A.E. The Russian Ballet. London: Constable and Co, 1913. 296 p.

[2] Cross A. The Russian Theme in English Literature. P. 45.

[3] Cross A. The Russian Theme in English Literature. P. 77.

[4] Cf.: Kipling R. Kim; Conrad J. Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent; Maugham S. Ashenden, etc.

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