The British Myth of Russia

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The British myth about Russia in the 20th century: a brief overview

The 20th century – under the sign of Bolshevism

Russia’s new image – the image of the terrible totalitarian USSR and the Soviet people as faceless mass, a complex of cogs in its machine – was being shaped in Britain step by step starting from Stalinist purges. While in the beginning of the 1930s “the British intellectuals’ and ordinary people’s liking for the USSR”[1] was rather strong, by the end of the 1940s the British vision of the USSR as a political, social and human threat firmed up considerably.

Since 1945, despite the fact that the Soviet troops liberated Europe from fascism, the USSR was more and more perceived as a military and political threat. The external cause for this was the strengthening of the political position of the “Soviet state” and its control over Eastern Europe and some other countries. Already in 1945, as directed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Great Britain began preparations for the war against the USSR.

There was also an internal cause – of social and mental nature – for an unambiguous assessment of the USSR’s actions and its actual existence. Firstly, the whole history of the existence of the British myth about Russia (except for the layer formed in the beginning of the 20th century) encouraged a certain interpretation of external actions and the internal organization of the socialist state. Secondly, the British intellectual elite were naturally disappointed with the outcome of the Russian Revolution, which was equally far away both from the social “heaven on Earth” and from the establishment of democratic freedoms similar to the British ones.

Not only the impression from the news of the “Soviet state’s” massive repressions, shootings, collectivization, five-year plans, and State plans led to the disappointment. English society was deeply impressed by Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968), where he depicted Stalin and the whole system of government in the most somber tones. Other factors like “fear of losing identity due to the empire’s collapse” in the post-war era and the impact of several waves of the Russian emigration also played an important role.[2] Russian emigrants took an active part in forming a new layer of the myth about Russia which accentuated inhumanity, government’s unlimited power and people’s powerlessness as well as in forging a new vision of imperial Russia as a “golden age” of Russia’s history and of the Russian Revolution as a definitive national disaster.

[1] For further details, see: Gromyko Al.A. Obrazy Rossii i Velikobritanii: real’nost’ i predrassudki [The images of Russia and Great Britain: reality and prejudice]. Moscow, European Institute RAN; Russkii suvenir Publ., 2008. 96 p.

[2] Khabibullina L.F. Spetsifika stereotipizatsii obraza Rossii v sovremennoi angliiskoi literature [Specificity of stereotypization of Russia’s image in modern English literature].// Vestnik Nizhegorodskogo universiteta im. N.I. Lobachevskogo [Proc. of the UNN]. 2014. № 2 (3). P. 170 – 175. P. 172.

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