The British Myth of Russia

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Perestroika and modern times (the 21st century)

Shaping of contemporary Russia’s image in Britain starts during the era of realignment (Perestroika) namely in the late 1980s until 1990s. The ideas of Gorbachev’s Perestroika were generally perceived as extremely positive both in Britain and in Europe; Gorbachev, being the ideologist of restructuring country’s one-party rule into the socialism “with a human face”, “enjoyed great popularity in Britain”.[1] This came as no surprise since the British welcomed the detente in the military sphere and they were once again inspired by the pro-Western “democratization” of the USSR. Moreover, they were delighted that the Soviet “empire” might collapse just like the British one and cease to be one of the world leaders.

However, when the situation in the USSR deteriorated in the early 1990s and the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the British developed a new complex of feelings toward the Russian world. It comprised the fears of the chaos which could be unleashed by an uncontrolled collapse, “wild hordes” of the poor, and abandoned Russian cities, towns and villages as well as the feelings of disdain and superiority towards the weakened political opponent.

During the last decades Russia’s image in Great Britain has been changing and is becoming an object of cautious interest again. Nowadays, Britain is wary of Russia reverting to an empire, to unlimited power and even to a totalitarian state. For example, in an article under the eloquent heading “Stalin rises again over Vladimir Putin’s Russia, six decades after his death” published on February 24, 2016 in The Independent they mention the fears that Putin in his efforts to make Russia a “resurgent superpower” “is returning to his (Stalin’s) methods”.

Just like during the previous period, British literature is now using the existent stereotypes, including those broadcast through mass media, and is reinterpreting them at the same time. The literary canon of depicting Russian social and political world in a negative way also never fails. At the same time, it is supplemented by some new trends. Firstly, British protagonists of popular spy and detective fiction not only confront Russian characters but also come out as their saviors. Secondly, among the things that draw the readers’ attention is not only contemporary “historical turmoil” in Russia, but also despondency, instability, unpredictability as a core feature of the Russian mentality and the Russian world. Quoting an aphorism that follows like this: “Russia is again in a period of transition between two periods of transition”, author and journalist A. Miller emphasizes: for British authors Russia is “a place where anything can happen”; suffering and pain have coalesced with this place.[2] According to the author’s logic we can say that during the last decades it was the concept of movement that attracted the British consciousness to the Russian world: it is nothing else than the capacity of human movement (external and internal; free and forced) that unites the “unpredictability” of a situation and human “suffering”. For the contemporary British world, which enjoys stability and comfort, such borderline situations filled with pain and uncertainty give people the opportunity to comprehend themselves and the world, which is the only thing keeping human culture alive. Thirdly: authors often see in Russia not “an alien” but rather themes common for all humans and through “the Russian world” they talk about the English and human world on the whole.

The literary canon of depicting the Russian social and political world in a negative way is particularly pronounced in contemporary popular novels such as F. Forsyth’s political detective The Icon (1996), spy novels about James Bond now by John Gardner, Robert Harris’s thriller Archangel (1998). In The Icon Russia is depicted as a country slipping into neo-fascist abyss, being sold and tormented by the mafia, torn apart by corruption and plagued by all sorts of crimes. It is not the miracle that saves Russia but British intelligence operative Nigel Irvine and American Jason Monk who was invited by Nigel.

At the same time, using Russia’s image contemporary English authors pose questions not only about Russian “aliens”, but also about themselves and about “their own people” which, first and foremost, deal with the problem of self-knowledge (of a character, of an author-narrator, of a reader, etc.) – this is exactly what we find in Julian Barnes’s stories and novels (including his last novel The Noise of Time, 2016), in Tom Stoppard’s plays (including his trilogy The Coast of Utopia, 2002), in le Carré’s novel The Russian House (1989).

[1] 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. P. 17.

[2] «Russia is again in a period of transition between two periods of transition; It remains a place where anything can happen <…> A great slab of unprocessed pain sits toxically at and on the country’s heart)». См.: Miller A.D. Why Western authors are in love with Mother Russia // The Observer. December 19, 2010. The New Review Section, p. 37.

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