Reading Russian: Russian Studies and the Literary Canon

One of the chief aims of the UK-Russian Year of Culture is to explore the transformative effects of Russian and Soviet Culture on British intellectual life over the last two centuries. It builds on a rich field of previous research that has been effective in highlighting the role of particular individuals in disseminating Russian culture in Britain, as well as that of institutions, disciplines and groups, such as libraries, periodicals, government agencies, concert halls, universities, publishing houses, theatres and film societies.

Russian literary culture has long seen itself in a global, as well as a national, context: Gorky’s aspiration of translating the canonical works of world literature for Soviet readers in his Vsemirnaya literatura project is a good example of this phenomenon, along with journals devoted to foreign literature and the activity of poets obliged to undertake translation when their own work was banned, e.g., Pasternak. In Britain there was a marked interest in and thirst for discovering Russian culture of all types, not only through the reading of literature in translation, but also for Russian music and the visual arts – painting, sculpture, plays, etc. For many who enjoyed these things, this interest led to a desire to study the Russian language per se and to use it as a tool to gain access to materials in the original that were not translated, or simply to savour the often untranslatable nuances of an original writer’s text.

Hence, Rebecca Beasley will investigate the development of Russian studies in schools and universities during the early twentieth century, in order to analyze the shaping of curricula and the creation of an academic literary canon in Russian and Soviet literature. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, the British canon of Russian literature was largely the creation of a small number of amateur translators and critics, but at the turn of the century the study of Russian was becoming professionalized, with increasing numbers of schools and universities offering courses in Russian – language and literature, plus history and other fields of study. James Muckle’s excellent study The Russian Language in Britain has already been the subject of a talk to the GB-Russia Society by the author; Rebecca Beasley’s talk will focus specifically on the teaching of Russian literature, rather than Russian language or Russian studies more generally.

Dr Beasley is Tutorial Fellow in English at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and University Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford. She has recently edited (with Philip Ross Bullock) the volume Russia in Britain, 1880-1940.

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