This comprehensive, interdisciplinary account of British fascination with Russian culture from the 1880s right up to the eve of the Soviet Union's entry into the Second World War in 1940, aims to move the discussion of British interest in Russian culture away from literature and translation, focussing instead on networks, institutions and the flow of ideas across borders.
According to Philip,: “Anybody who knows, say, the essays of Virginia Woolf or the short stories of Katharine Mansfield, will know now transformative Russian literature proved to be for British modernist writers, but we know far less about other, equally fascinating aspects of this crucial cultural encounter.”
“The book includes articles by theatre historians who look at Victorian melodrama and twentieth century naturalism, as well as studies of film societies (MI5 were very keen on keeping tabs on fans of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, for instance). We also have contributions from a dance historian (who traces some fascinating links between the first British performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and reactions to the women’s suffrage movement), and from intellectual historians who have looked at Tolstoyan simple life communities, East End lending libraries and left-wing reactions to the rise of Stalinism in the 1930s. There are also studies of Kandinsky’s spiritual writings and their impact on British art journals, and accounts of how Russian came to be studied at a range of British universities in the early twentieth century,” adds Philip.
Written by a team of leading international scholars, the interdisciplinary approach shows the interconnection of the arts in the period. By focusing on the role played by institutions, disciplines and groups, libraries, periodicals, government agencies, concert halls, publishing houses, theatres and film societies, this collection marks an important departure from standard literary critical narratives, which have tended to highlight the role of a small number of individuals, notably Sergei Diaghilev, Constance Garnett, Theodore Komisarjevsky, Katherine Mansfield, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf.
Drawing on recent research and newly available archives, Russia in Britain shifts attention from individual figures to the networks within which they operated, and uncovers the variety of forces that enabled and structured the British engagement with Russian culture.
The resulting narrative maps an intricate pattern of interdisciplinary relations and provides the foundational research for a new understanding of Anglo-Russian/Soviet interaction. In this, it makes a major contribution to the current debates about transnationalism, cosmopolitanism and 'global modernisms' that are reshaping our knowledge of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British culture.
Philip explains how the book came about: “As Lecturer in Russian at the School of Slavonic and European Studies, University College London from 2004 to 2007, I had become fascinated by the late Victorian and Edwardian interest in Russian music, and was working on a book that I eventually published in 2009 about the pioneering critic and translator, Rosa Newmarch. A chance encounter with Rebecca Beasley, then teaching at Birkbeck, University of London, and now Tutorial Fellow in English at The Queen’s College, who was researching a book on British modernism and its debt to Russian culture, led to a conference that set our shared research interests in a broader context. The conference took place at the Institute for English Studies in London in summer 2009, and Russia in Britain is the product of the papers and discussions held we heard then.”
Describing the project he adds: “Editing a book is always a lot of work – chasing contributors to meet deadlines, fact-checking, copy-editing and engaging in debates about sources and interpretation. But invariably you end up knowing more than you ever suspected possible, and the result is far more than could ever be achieved by a single author. But most of all, it’s been a total joy to work with my co-editor, Rebecca, who’s been a real intellectual inspiration throughout; academic writing can often be a lonely business, and collaboration makes a real change to the way I’ve worked in the past.”
The book’s dust-jacket is a Tenniel cartoon from Punch, which illustrates the growing military and diplomatic ties that bound Russia and Britain from the late nineteenth century (after the two countries had been enemies in Crimea). “It shows a British Lion and a Russian Bear – although which is me, and which is my co-editor, I can’t really say…,” jokes Philip.