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Myths about Russia: Nothing Has Changed Since the Middle Ages

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Myths about Russia: Nothing Has Changed Since the Middle Ages


Svetlana Smetanina

One must turn to history in order to better understand the reasons behind the often-negative attitudes that countries have toward Russia today, especially in the West. Svetlana Koroleva is the director of the Russkiy Mir-supported project to create “National Myths About Russia,” an electronic resource for research and education, and a professor at the Linguistics University of Nizhny Novgorod. She explains how this myth took shape as early as the chronicles of the Middle Ages and still flourishes today, even in the age of the Internet.

Where did the idea for this resource come from?

Let me begin with its prehistory. It happened like this: In 2009 I received financing for a proposed project to study images of Russia in English literature. As a result, my book The Myth of Russian in British Culture and Literature appeared. A little later I devoted my PhD. dissertation to this same topic. All in all, this brought me around to the conviction that Russians needed to know more about what the representatives of Western European countries thought of them, as well as what their unconscious attitudes. They needed to know how the myth of Russia was created, what its prehistory looked like, and how to trace the roots of the ways people interpret what is happening in our country today.

Map A Description of Russia, Muscovy, and Tartary by Anthony Jenkinson, 1562

In the West, and in Great Britain specifically, there are many works dedicated to this topic. It’s interesting that the subject of the literary and journalistic images of Russia is much more thoroughly researched in England than it is in Russia. In my work, Ive tried to present the myth of Russia not as the sum of separate images at various times but as a unified ideological structure—a large structure in the collective unconscious of another nation, which has a tenacious memory and its own laws. Such a structure started taking shape in England back in the 12th century. Later, this primary conceptual impulse was compounded by their peculiar response to the Mongol invasion of Rus in the 13th century. In the 16th century, a new layer of the myth took shape, one connected to the discovery of Muscovy by British sailors and merchants. This myth maintained its fundamental images and basic conceptual impulses in all these layers, and a common lynchpin unites them: the evaluation and conception laid at the very beginning, during the first stage of the myths formation.

The primary conceptual impulse shaping how the English of the 12th century saw Rus was the image of an extraordinarily removed and unusually powerful enemyor at least a potential enemy. The historical basis for this image was the Crusades. As is well known, the Crusades would later affect Rus directly: in the 13th century, when Alexander Nevsky had to defend northern Russia in battles with Swedes on the Neva and with Teutonic knights on Lake Peipus. But Rus arose at the periphery of the European consciousness earlier than that. Some news arrived about the principalities in Rus and people of this land. In England they traded Russian furs. Most importantly, the image of Rus started to enter their literary and, consequently, cultural world. For instance, through the work The Chronicle of the Dukes of Normandy by Benoît de Sainte-Maure.

Sainte-Maure was a court poet and historiographer. His primary task was to display the heroic history of the conquering Normans. The Chronicle describes Rus as the most vivid example of the lands that lay beyond the Danube, outside of Europelands of unruly tribes, savages and pagans. It was an island where an incredible number of people lived, all of whom were mighty warriors and acted like a single organism. It was a people who could attack large kingdoms and cause massive bloodshed. The author describes how the Russians would come out in mighty swarms, like bees from a hive, and beset their enemy.

Later, Rus is mentioned in the English chronicle during the 13th century, in connection with the Mongol invasion. This is also an interesting story. On the one hand, one can hear sympathetic intonations for a Christian country that was devastated and conquered by some monstrous people. At the same time, there also appears a certain Schadenfreude directed at these heretics (from a Catholic point of view). Its interesting that the authors of the chronicles themselves (for instance, Matthew Paris) sound sympathetic, while notes of joyful malice appear when they are paraphrasing the perspectives of English bishops.

But the most interesting part of this story is the continuing association between Russia and the world of the Mongols, or Tartars, a group who appears in the English chronicles as not simply a terrible invader but even the spawn of Tartar. (Tartar is a deep, dark abyss in ancient mythology. In the Middle Ages, people started calling the far-off lands in the East controlled by the Tatar-Mongols Tatary.Ed.) Naturally, their information about what was happening in a country at so great a distance was based on rumors, around which incredible details accumulated. They associated the name Tatar with the word Tartar and related quotes from the Old Testament about invasions by savage tribes as punishment for sins. They wrote that these spawn of Tartar drank blood and ate raw meat. And all of this was immediately connected with their perception of Rusthere followed a lot of information about how Rus had been taken and conquered. Of course, we know that Rus didnt only survive during that time but it also managed to preserve its culture and freedom of religion. Nonetheless, its association with these spawn of Tartar would later start to act very strongly on the British and Europe-wide myth of Russia.

A Russian Hug for the Young Emperor.

Anti-Napoleonic caricature from the beginning of the 19th century.

We all know the famous expression that is sometimes ascribed to Napoleon: Scratch a Russian and youll find a Tartar (le Tartare in French). This saying exists in English as well. Its no accident that in the English map of 1562 made by Anthony Jenkinson, a large territory (albeit, one larger than Russia) stretching from the Black Sea to South Siberia is called Tartary.

The Russiansalongside the American Indiansstand in a long line of foreigners who, firstly, need to be colonized or at least civilized; secondly, have been discovered by the heroic Brits for the rest of the world; and thirdly, have resources that can and must be used in Britains own interests.

In general, the 16th century is an entirely new stage in the history of the British myth of Russia. And its also a surprising one. Why? At this time, the English were making direct sea voyages to us for the first time, and from their perspective they were discovering Russia (which fit into the general context of the Age of Discovery). For this reason, Hakluyts famous anthology compiled from the notes of English travelers of this time places stories of Muscovy in their corresponding place between stories about America and China. And in practice, therefore, the Russiansalongside the American Indiansstand in a long line of foreigners who, firstly, need to be colonized or at least civilized; secondly, have been discovered by the heroic Brits for the rest of the world; and thirdly, have resources that can and must be used in Britains own interests.

One other very interesting bit of 16th-century context is how the British Protestants perceived all of the religious details tied to the ceremonialism of Orthodoxy. They stigmatized it completely: for the English Protestants all the rituals and mysticism of Orthodoxyall of its outer manifestationsare pseudo-religiosity. Correct religiosity, from their point of view, is associated primarily with knowing the New Testament of the Bible. And of course, another important component in the English image of Russia at that time concerns Russias natural landscape. They noted the countrys natural giftsfish, honey, wax, furs, and grainbut also its winter freezes and snows.

Are the majority of Englands ideas about Russia negative then?

The various periods of contact with another nation create diverse layers around a certain central image and central evaluation. In the 12th century, Rus existed for England as an image of a powerful enemy, which joined together all at once the traits of a knight and those of a zoomorphic monster. The layer added in the 16th century was associated with the image of a land rich in resources and savage people. In the notes of English travelers of the time, Russians shared the fundamental traits ascribed to all foreigners: simplicity and cunning, immorality and unpretentiousness (they sleep in the snow), lack of discrimination (including in food: they can eat spoiled fish), and so forth. At that time, there also appears a contrast between the Russian tsar and the English monarch.

This was right at the time of Ivan the Terrible, who was in correspondence with the English Queen Elizabeth I.

Yes, they would draw a contrast between the Russian tsars relationship to the boyars (who were disenfranchised in the opinion of these English observers) and the English kings relationship to independent barons. In Britain at this time, the merchant class influenced the crown and the queens decisions. Ivan the Terrible writes to Elizabeth: It appears that in your country other people besides you rule, and not just people but tradesmen… But sometimes the Brits also let well-wishing observations get out, which, I think, were provoked by an attempt to look at the situation objectively. For instance, Richard Chancellor writes: O, if only our bold rebels were so submissive and knew the duty they owe their rulers!

And when did these ideas form into a discernible ideology of Russia being a rival and competitor?

This happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was then that the idea arose that Russia was a rival and political enemy. At the same time, Britain saw a leap in the development of journalism and the greater part of the population was seized by the influence of the print press. Therefore the 18th and 19th centuries are already associated with the conscious formation and exploitation of a negative image of Russia.

English caricature, 1877

Meanwhile, the older layers of this myth havent gone anywhere; quite the opposite, they are continually reproduced. For instance, we find in Byrons Don Juan that he calls the Russians polished bears. The image of the Russian bear arises in British drama as early as the 17th century. In a certain sense, this reflects historical realiaafter all, in the 16th and 17th centuries Russian bears were brought to England for the popular entertainment of hunting bears with dogs. From then on, it seems, the association between the image of Russia and bears stuck. It was said that bears walk down our streetsand that idea lives on to this day! For instance, the Austrians who attend our university were warned at home: dont go to Russiabears walk down the street there. That is, despite all of the seeming freedom of speech in the West, the thinking of a Westerner is very much preprogrammed, and this is connected to the influence of the mass media.

So, this means that the present negative attitude toward Russia has roots in images from the Middle Ages?

Yes. If we take as an example the English spy novels of the 20th century, Ian Flemings James Bond novels in particular, we see in them more than the clichéd images of the Soviet periodsuch as the mechanical rigidity of the system, political aggression, and heavy-handed propaganda. They also contain, right at the level of the words, allusions to older images, that is, to ideas that have long ago entered the British myth of Russia. Words like muzhik, whip, and coarseness. That is to say, this chain of meanings and images continues to live on in the unified structure of myth.

In this context, Russia represented just such an exotic, strange civilization, the heir to Byzantium and Byzantine Orthodoxy. At the same time, Russians are perceived as a people who managed to maintain a natural spiritual perception of the world.

And are there examples of a positive attitude toward Russian in this same English literature?

Yes, of course. The beginning of the 20th century was a totally unique stage in how Russia was perceived in England, as well as in the West in general. This is primarily related to internal causes. This was the time when Western society began to have a need for such specific qualities as Russian spirituality. This was related to the sense of a crisis in Western culture as a whole. Here, we can note Nietzsche and all the modernists in general, who were searching for new paths in art and culture. That is, they were looking for a way out of a spiritual crisis. Which way should they go? It was already impossible to escape into religion, as they didnt feel truth in it. So Europeans started turning to the cultures they saw as exotic.

In this context, Russia represented just such an exotic, strange civilization, the heir to Byzantium and Byzantine Orthodoxy. At the same time, Russians are perceived as a people who managed to maintain a natural spiritual perception of the world. On this basis, the works of the Russian greatsTurgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhovhad a major influence on all European culture. They began to esteem highly Russian music, painting, and even icon-painting. Around this time, complex, spiritualized, and alluring images of Russia and Russians appeared in the writing of Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, and Virginia Woolf.

Kill That Eagle. Caricatured map of Europe during the First World War

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, a motif also took shape in English literature of sympathizing with the Russian people while absolutely rejecting Russian tsarism and evaluating it only negatively. English poets were prophesizingand one might even say calling fora Russian revolution throughout the 19th century. We see this in Campbell, Tennyson, and Swinburne. In the beginning of the 20th century, the image of the Russian people contrasted against this one-sided anti-tsarism joins together traits of a righteous victim of the regime, a carrier of natural spirituality, and a primitive, uneducated, barbarous slave.

Its well known that countries arent often fond of their neighbors, with whom they share borders. But how do you explain such a strong negative perception of Russia, a country that has been, for all these centuries, at a considerable distance from England?

That is a very complicated question. Firstly, this is related to the characteristic way in which one nation perceives another. Any other nation will be perceived negatively. After all, ones own culture provides a standard of values, and everything that contradicts that standard seems incorrect. But in the case of Russia, there are also other important factors. Specifically: Distance and unfamiliarity, which are always suspicious qualities. Incorrect Christianity. A different governing and political system. Then, discovering us as one of several resource-bearing foreign countries. And of course, the scale and speed of growth of the Russian government in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the impossibility of controlling this growth. This frightened the Brits. After all, in Great Britain, the imperial impulse was very powerful.

Even such a brief excursus on the history of the British myth of Russia enables us to understand better where our European neighbors get their current attitude toward our country

I hope so. Ill mention that we hope that our electronic resource National Myths about Russia (which will be available in several languages) includes information not only about various European myths about Russia, but also about their basis in Russian culture and government so that we can preempt possible questions among our Russian and Western readers. We will show those divergences between Russian and Western culture that provide the basis for the birth and growth of negative ideas about our country. The main idea is to bring home to our readers that a certain mythologized negative relationship to our country goes back centuries.

Russia in 2008. Contemporary English caricature.

Its impossible to break completely this negative relationship in persistent mental structures that have been reinforced for centuries in stark images, stories, and stereotypes. We can uncover its inner causes and show the forgeries and deformations that take place in it. This is what we are trying to do. But you also have to know how to work and communicate in spite of this negativityknowing about it, while not giving into its provocations, and trying to avoid overly sensitive spots.

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