The British Myth of Russia

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An interesting interpretation of Russia’s image is given in a comedy Great Catherine (Whom Glory Still Adores) (1913) by Bernard Shaw. In the comedy Shaw hyperbolically recreates and mocks Englishmen’s stereotypes about Russia and about themselves as a nation. At the same time, Shaw also places emphasis on political matters, connected with the image of Empress’ hypocritical liberal views and despotism.

Mythological features of the Russian character, which became part of the myth about Russia back in the 16th century, such as strength, drinking and messiness, extravagance, astuteness, moral impurity and wild temperament were all combined in a character named Patiomkin with the features of the Russian character, related to spiritual and mystical layer of the myth, and exaggerated to the limit.

All these “alien” features stand in stark contrast to Captain Edstaston’s virtues, such as reserved straightforwardness, spirit independence, self-confidence, and belief in his righteousness, willingness to act and fight for himself and for his interests and confidence in his advantages as of a free English citizen over other nations.

Bernard Shaw’s play reveals a fundamental lack of congruency between the Russian and British values and, at the same time, their true, non-obvious “lining” hidden behind opinions and stereotypes. Behind Patiomkin’s warm-heartedness, naivete and abysmal messiness we can also see outsight, shrewdness, intellect and good judgement and behind his servants’ piety we see a habit and waiver of rigorous moral code; and as for Edstaston, under the surface of gentlemanly principles there is nothing but wishful thinking and failure to “face the facts”, and beyond his strength and self-confidence lies his lack of foresight, ignorance, and complacency.

It was during this period that proficiency as a prominent feature of the Russian world first became part of the British myth about Russia and could be found in portrayals of the Russians in the works by Bernard Shaw, David Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. For the modernist David Lawrence one of the most important motifs of “the Russian theme” was the struggle of Russian people against the challenges of civilization (ref. poems about Russia by D. Lawrence). Mysteriousness and proficiency along with inexplicable appeal became the key motifs in depiction of Russian characters, elements of their culture and way of life, and references to Russia in the novel Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf.

Despite the convergence of the two worlds, the Russian world never stopped being “alien” in the British literature of the early 20th century. This convergence means acceptance and repulsion, understanding and misunderstanding on the part of Britain. The mystery of the Russian world is most often attributed to its inner freedom and balancing on the edge of human capabilities, thoughtless impulses, and the abyss of chaos.

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