The British Myth of Russia

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At the same time, Perry’s book clearly demonstrates the mechanism of putting the image of Peter and his actions into the system of the British values. Perry emphasises the tsar’s systematic choice of the European model of social development, his approving remarks on England and the English, his wisdom in choosing progressive English models and technology of shipbuilding, clothes-making, their mode of dressing and even coffin manufacturing.

Perry’s book not only reinforced the positive view of the great Russian tsar by the English, but also started a tradition of putting Peter in opposition to the Russian people. Perry underlines “the Superstition of the Russes in Matters of Religion”, “the great Ignorance and Stupidity of their Priests” and “the Reformation in which the Czar endeavour’d in in order to encourage Learning and better Education in his country”.[1] “The juxtaposition of a rude and barbarous Russia and the shining image of a reforming, ‘Europeanizing’ Peter was obviously appealing to European, and British, minds” and easily became an integral part of the English myth about Russia.[2]

English writers also turn to portraying Peter in the beginning of the 18th century. On the whole, the positive view of the energetic and active monarch who is interested in the Western technical achievements and culture: in this regard, the poem The Northern Star (1718; by 1739 it had five editions) by Aaron Hill and the fragment about “immortal Peter” in James Thomson’s poem The Seasons (1726; Winter) are very representative.

During the reign of Catherine II Anglo-Russian trade, political and cultural relations were growing stronger; more and more architects, artists, doctors and travellers came to Russia from England. At the same time, the military victories of the Russian army made the English wary: to Europe, Russia was still a “barbarous” state with a despotic regime, but at that time it also became politically dangerous, aggressive.

The images of the country with a powerful military, of vast areas and a terrible cold in winter, of a civilised Petersburg, a peculiar and reasonable way in which daily life is organised, a strong, but lazy and infantile people, ridiculous snobbery of the high society and horrifying displays of cruel despotism build up the motif structure of the book written by a Scottish scholar, William Richardson. The book Anecdotes of the Russian Empire (1784) was written in the wake of his four-year stay in Russia. In 1768–1772 he accompanied ambassador William Cathcart in his mission to Russia; upon his return to Scotland, Richardson was appointed professor at the University of Glasgow. Later, his book about Russia was perceived as a truthful description and had a great impact on a British reader.

The book systematically advances the idea that the character of the Russian people developed under the direct influence of the tsarist regime’s inhuman cruelty, and if the regime changes, then “the defects which appear in their national character” can be remedied. Among those Richardson mentions, first of all, “sloth”, “inactivity”, “love of pleasure”, infantile levity and carelessness (“infantine”, “thoughtless”, “careless”), superficiality (“The Russians, though they have great quickness in learning the rudiments of art and knowledge, seldom make great proficiency”), preponderance of sensibility over the firmness (“they have more sensibility than firmness”). All of this – starting with despotism – is opposed to the positive pole of Britishness: “real freedom”, “strength”, “agility”, “love of exertion” and even adult graveness (“old, bearded boors divert themselves with such pastime and gambols, as in our grave country we should think too trifling for a child”). Certainly, it is done with another opposition in the background, between the happy freedom the British people and the slavery in Russia (“the natives of our happy islands enjoy more real freedom” – “slavery”).[3]

In the second half of the 18th century the first mentions of the Russian writers and poets appeared in books by English travellers, as well as did first English translations of their works (from French). Thus, an uncharacteristically kind (for the English audience) book by the British diplomat (of Irish origin) George Macartney, An Account of Russia (1768) refers to the names of Kantemir, Sumarokov, Lomonosov. A Chronological Abridgement of the Russian History (published in London in 1767 in abridged form) by Lomonosov was translated into English in the second half of the 18th century. N.M. Karamzin’s stories have been published in London since 1789, and his History of the Russian State was translated between 1816 and 1826.

The perception of Russia as a political enemy, a strong potential opponent to Britain first takes form in the public opinion of the British people in the 18th century. Beginning with the Age of Peter the Great, the interest in Russia is growing due to a number of reasons: direct contacts with the Russian world, the very figure of Peter, the Europeanisation of Russia and its increasing influence in global affairs. This interest manifests both in newspaper and magazine publications and in the less sporadic portrayal of the Russian world in fiction. In this regard, the appearance of the first translations from Russian at the end of the 18th century is important.

[1] Perry J. The State of Russia, under the Present Csar. In Relation to the Several Great and Remarkable Things He Has Done […]. London: pr. for B. Tooke, 1716. 280 p. P. 178.

[2] Cross A. Peter the Great through British Eyes: Perceptions and Representations of the Tsar since 1698. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 208 p. P. 48.

[3] Richardson W. Anecdotes of the Russian Empire. In a series of letters, written, a few years ago, from Saint Petersburg. L.: printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1784. 478 p. P. 212 – 217.

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