Donald Rayfield reviews two recent essay collections on cultural relations between England and Russia in the TLS: Anthony Cross, A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture and Russia in Britain, 1880-1940, edited by Rebecca Beasley and Philip Ross Bullock.

The links are broader and deeper than geography might indicate. Rayfield notes, “When Ivan the Terrible first saw in Elizabeth I his sole refuge, should he be driven from his throne, and welcomed her merchants and the loan of a personal doctor, he was no more interested in British culture than were the English sailors travelling to Archangel in search of a short cut to China interested in Russian culture. Even the idyllic period of anti-Napoleonic alliance, when the Russian ambassador Count Vorontsov received the Tsar’s permission for his daughter to marry the Earl of Pembroke, was based only on mutual admiration of Russian military strength and English manners.” 

The special relationship soured when “the War Minister Sidney Herbert ruined the political relationship by ordering the Royal Navy to shell his uncle Count Vorontsov’s palace in the Crimea,” but Russians continued to read English literature: “Slavophile Aleksei Khomyakov asserted that the term English or Anglian ‘was just the nasal form of the Slavonic term Uglichi,’ the lost tribe of Eastern Slavs, and that the Anglo-Saxons and their Protestant heirs had thus conserved the essence of Russian native justice and Orthodox Christianity. Shakespeare, Byron, Dickens and Thackeray all became embedded in Russian culture. Hamlet cut Russian rulers so much to the quick that both Catherine the Great and Stalin banned it, but novelists found Shakespearean figures all around them: Ivan Turgenev in ‘Hamlet of Shchigry District’ and ‘King Lear of the Steppes,’ Nikolai Leskov in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Dostoevsky’s work was shaped by David Copperfield, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace by Vanity Fair.”

The relationship was not reciprocal, since English translations of Russian works were difficult to come by. “While French and Russian novelists have eagerly read each other in translation, English and Russian writers (with a few exceptions, such as the Soviet sympathizer C. P. Snow, and Leo Tolstoy in his didactic phase) have rarely felt a need for mutual understanding.”

The effect on Russian literature penetrated to popular English fiction. An essay by Muireann Maguire’s, “Crime and Publishing: How Dostoevskii changed the British murder,” “shows how R. L. Stevenson, George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton learnt the art of crime and detection from Dostoevsky.” Agatha Christie can be added to the list: Her “Hercule Poirot was modelled on Porfiry Petrovich, from Crime and Punishment, and [the] denouement to Murder on the Orient Express follows the Dostoevskian maxim that ‘we are all guilty.” 

Times have changed, as “Britain now has a cohort of very skilled translators from Russian who have not only caught up with the standards of the best of the Soviet school of translators, but have achieved what hitherto seemed impossible: the late Stanley Mitchell’s Eugene Onegin belies Nabokov’s assurance that Pushkin could never be adequately rendered into English, and Peter Daniels has proved that Vladislav Khodasevich’s poetry can be fully, as well as finely, translated.”

But Rayfield speculates that mutual understanding might not be the best thing for Anglo-Russian relations: “Russians will never like British music or painting as much as the British like Russian music or painting, nor will the English learn Russian with the facility that Russians learn English.” Indeed, “Perhaps the relationship thrives on incompatibility, inequality and mutual inscrutability.”

More on: Russia, England

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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