A good deal was written in Britain about the ‘Russian Soul’ during the years before 1914. Most of those who used the expression were convinced that Russia was in some way different from Britain. The translations of the novels of writers including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky allowed thousands of people to become familiar with a literary world of which they previously knew little. The tours of the Ballets Russes to London dazzled audiences with elaborate stage sets and new forms of dance. Organisations were set up to increase understanding and knowledge of the Russian Orthodox Church. There were, however, many other Russias competing for the dominant place in the British imagination. There was the Russia that supposedly threatened Britain’s imperial interests in Asia. There was the Russia of despotic barbarism that appeared in the novels of writers like William Le Queux and G.A. Henty. There was the Russia of economic opportunity that appealed to readers of The Times Russian Supplement. And there was the Russia that increasingly seemed to be a possible ally in a possible war with Germany. The outbreak of war helped to reposition the country in the imaginative geography of many Britons, but older images endured, complicating the alliance between London and St Petersburg.
Michael Hughes is Professor of Modern History at Lancaster University, and the author of numerous books and articles on Russian history and Anglo-Russian relations. He is also currently Hon Treasurer and Council Member of the Royal Historical Society. His most recent book is Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham (2014).
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