The British Myth of Russia

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The understanding that the Russian world was not so “alien” after all was initially due to the social and historical backgrounds and closer personal acquaintances and contacts with the Russian world. Historians note the unprecedented political rapprochement between the two countries since 1907, when the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed. In Russian Review (1913), the article on the relations between Russia and Britain in 1907–1913, this rapprochement is attributed to Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and to the therefore “mitigated” image of the “most-feared” (and even “invincible”) enemy in the eyes of the English.[1]

The process of reinterpretation of the Russian world in Great Britain took place amidst the Russian political exiles’ activities.[2] One of its most important outcomes by the end of the 19th century was the widespread understanding that the Russian government and the Russian people are two phenomena that are very far apart and whatever attitude the British might have to the former, they have no reason to feel anything but compassion towards the latter.[3]

In the period from 1856 to 1916, several hundred books were published in England with authentic information on Russian history, geography, society and politics, along with about 300 novels and collections of poetry on the Russian theme. In 1893 the Anglo-Russian literary society was set up in England on the initiative of Edward Cazalet and Donald Mackenzie Wallace. A special Russian Supplement in the London Times newspaper has been published since December, 1911. In 1907 the School of Russian studies in the University of Liverpool was opened. In 1914 such courses as Russian history, language and culture were included in the curricula of Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Manchester.

The perception of Russian novelists of the second half of the 19th century deserves special mention. The liking for Russian novelists among English readers was sparked with Ivan Turgenev’s works.[4] Through translations of Anna Karenina and War and Peace in 1887 English readers got to know Leo Tolstoy, another Russian writer. Tolstoy’s novels became a “new word” in the world literature for many English writers of that time. Since the late 19th century the Russian literature was already associated with a number of names in English people’s minds and became a major European phenomenon. At the same time, the list of Russian novelists, really known not only to the wide audience but also to the high-brow readers, was very limited. It, of course, included Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, “two pillars of  Russian modern literature”, “two greatest writers of the world literature”, as well as Anton Chekhov and only partially Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreev, Ivan Bunin, and Aleksandr Kuprin.[5]

[1] Lebedev B. England and Russia in Recent Years // The Russian Review. Vol. III, No 1, 1913. P. 126.

[2] For further details, see: Kaznina O.A. Russkie v Anglii: Russkaya emigratsiya v kontekste russko-angliiskikh literaturnykh svyazei v pervoi polovine XX v. [The Russians in England: Russian emigration in the context of Russian-English literary ties in the first half of the 20th century]. Moscow, IMLI RAN Publ., 1997. 416 p.

[3] Stepniak S. At the Dawn of a New Reign: a Study of Modern Russia. London: Chatto and Windus, 1905. 347 p. P. xiii.

[4] For further details, see: Feklin M.B. The Beautiful Genius. Turgenev v Anglii: pervye polveka [The Beautiful Genius. Turgenev in England: the first half-century]. Moscow, MSPU, Oxford: Perspective Publications, 2005. 240 p.; Turton G. Turgenev and the context of English literature, 1850–1900. London, New York: Routledge, 1992. 229 p.

[5] Baring M. An Outline of Russian Literature. L.: Williams and Norgate, 1914 – 1915. 256 p. P. 196.

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