Russian Culture and Britain

Image: Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Robert Bell Wheler, A Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon (Coventry, Henry Merridrew, c 1830s?)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In spite of the fact that there were only a few Russian visitors to Britain and the Midlands in the 18th  and early 19th centuries, it was they who created the image for Russian society, of a technically developed Britain, with strong political traditions and a rich cultural and literature heritage.

Vassilii Malinowskii (1765-1814) was among the Russian travellers whose English impressions might have influenced Pushkin. He was the first Director of the Lyceum where Pushkin studied in 1811-1817. Malinowskii was in England in 1789-1790 (and spent some time with Karamzin accompanying him in London). He later described his impressions in the article ‘A Russian in England’ (published anonymously in the journal ‘Priiatnoe i poleznoe preprovozhdenie vremeni’ (‘A Pleasant and Useful Way To Spend Time’) in 1796. Describing the monuments of Westminster Abbey, he wrote: “The respect of the British for their countrymen who were distinguished by their talents is extraordinary. They mostly celebrate Newton and Shakespeare who is shown full-length, leaning on an urn with his arm, and pointing with the other one to verses from his works carved there.”  In spite of the fact that many Russian travellers of that period expressed different or even contrary point of view, the idea of the significance of a poet for a nation and country was particularly close to Pushkin’s heart.

The importance of a poet’s house for national culture was formulated by the poet P.Vyazemskii, when after Byron’s death he published in the journal ‘The Moscow Telegraph’ an article dedicated to Newstead, the family house of Byron: “What ever the fate of  Newstead may be in the future, it will remain for ever a commemorative place. Time might cover its walls by grass and weeds, or a rabbit might dig a burrow under its ruins. Newstead might even become the property of an ignorant grandee or a rich villain – never mind! It was the house of a great poet! Now its name is connected with immortal fame, and it will pass to descendants on the most famous page of the national history.”

An attempt to bring this attitude to reality was made in 1837, after Pushkin’s death. His grieving friends tried to commemorate places associated with him. In 1837-1838 they commissioned a set of engravings ‘Views of Pskov and its Environment’ from the local artist I..Ivanov. The set included ‘View of Mikhailovskoe’ and ‘View of Sviatogorskii Monastery with Pushkin’s grave’. In the description of the first of them the artist said: ‘Here the family estate of the Pushkins is shown. This house must be as precious for the Russians as the Shakespeare’s house is precious for the British.”

[He probably did not know about demolishing of the Shakespeare’s New Place house in Stratford-upon-Avon by Reverend Francis Gastrell in 1759].

In Russia belles-lettres have traditionally played a vital role. The Russian men of letters who visited Britain looking for traces of great writers like Shakespeare, Walter Scott, or Byron, did much for imbuing Russian society with the idea of the value of a poet and a writer and the need to keep and respect their memory and preserve their houses and memorabilia. In the 19th and particularly in the 20th centuries the striving to see ‘a poet’s house’ or to make a pilgrimage following in the steps of great writers became a significant feature of Russian national culture.

Alexander Turgenev, Shakespeare’s Stratford and other Literary Connections

Image: Stratford-upon-Avon Church where Shakespeare was buried. Robert Bell Wheler, A Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon (Coventry, Henry Merridrew, c 1830s?).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars reduced the stream of the Russians to France. They were re-oriented to Germany and Britain. At the same time the social position of the travellers changed considerably – there were fewer members of the nobility but more travellers from the middle class – men of letters, officers, students, who came to England in pursuit of their cultural interests. For many of them England was already synonymous with the name of Shakespeare, which naturally brought them to Warwickshire.

Alexander Ivanovich Turgenev (1784-1845) was the elder brother of Nicolas Turgenev who was sentenced to death in absentia after the suppression of the Decembrist revolt (14th December 1825). Alexander spent more than 20 years travelling, only returning to Russia occasionally, for short periods. Visiting Nicolas who had become a political refugee in London, Alexander Turgenev came to England four times: in 1826, 1828-1829, 1831 and 1835.  He was greatly attracted to British places of literary significance. In 1828 he undertook a long journey around Scotland following the steps of Walter Scott’s characters and made the acquaintance of the great Scottish writer. He described Scott’s estate of Abbotsford in detail for Russian correspondents.

In 1828, Turgenev visited Warwickshire and Stratford-upon-Avon:

“20.07.1828. We were going to look for the ancient church where Shakespeare and his spouse are buried, and came across the Town Hall where there is monument to Shakespeare erected by Garrick. /…/

The porter led us along an avenue overshadowed by tree branches to the church. From the outside it didn’t appear so huge as the inside appeared to me. The monuments – ancient and new, big and small cover walls and floor. Suddenly the guide stopped us and pointed to an inscription on the floor carved on Shakespeare’s gravestone, which was composed by Shakespeare himself as the guide assured us. Here it is:

Good Frend for Jesus sake forbeare

                        To digg the dust encloased heare

                        Blesed be the man that spares thes stones

                        And curst be he that moves my bones.

The view from the bridge to the church, where the Shakespeare’s ashes remain, is truly delightful. The wood casts shadows on the tomb of the bard and philosopher, and the Avon reflects it and keeps it evergreen, like his fame.” 

His eldest, much beloved brother, Andrej (1781-1803), who died before him translated ‘Macbeth’ into Russian from an English original in 1802. He admired Shakespeare and wrote: ‘the more one goes into him, the more sacred he becomes.’ So Alexander’s visit to Stratford might have been done in memory of his deceased brother.

Alexander Turgenev represents one more – indirect – connection between the Midlands and Russia. In 1828 in London he made the acquaintance of Thomas Moore (1779-1852), and met him constantly during 1828-1829. Russian readers mainly associated Moore with Byron, but apart from this, many of his poems were translated into Russian and became very popular. Moore wrote down for Turgenev his poem Those Evening Bells, which is said to have been written in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, listening to the bells of the St Oswald’s church. It is remarkable that Those Evening Bells had been translated into Russian one year earlier, in 1828, by the Russian poet Ivan Kozlov and set to music by A. Alyabyev. Even today it is still one of the most popular songs in Russia, although the name of its author is often not mentioned.

Russian Military Visitors

Image: Blair and Sutherlands, Gun Makers, Brook Street and Harper’s Hill, Birmingham. Advertisement from Bisset’s Magnificent Guide, or Copperplate Directory, for the Town of Birmingham (Birmingham, R Jabet, 1808)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Russian military visitors were interested in the products of the British armaments industry. The most important national centre of gun making was Birmingham and the town supplied weapons to Russia to fight the French in the Napoleonic Wars. Blair and Sutherland’s advert describes the firm as “Manufacturers of Arms to his Majesty’s Ordnance; and all kinds of proved guns and pistols for the European, Asian, African and American markets”. Images of war dominate the engraving.

The Napoleonic Wars brought many Russian officers to England. In 1814-1815 the Russian army and particularly Russian Cossacks made a great furore in London. ‘The Cossack War Song’ was composed, the “Russian” opera ‘Narensky, or, the Road to Jaroslavl’ was performed, and dozens of portraits of the brave ataman Platov were engraved. For many Russian officers, England was on their way home. It was then that a young poet Konstantin Batiushkov wrote his poem ‘The Shadow of the Friend’ with its famous first line “Ya bereg pokidal tumannyi Albiona” (“I was leaving the foggy shore of Albion”) which exists today in mind of any Russian, often independently of the poem itself. But most Russian officers had no chance to travel far from London – and Batiushkov called his dearest’s name not farther than the “blossomed fields of Richmond”.

Soon after the war England even formed a part of the Grand Tour of a member of the Imperial family – the Grand Duke Nicholas (the future Emperor Nicolas I) who was finishing his education in 1816. Unfortunately, despite the fact that England was the main destination of his tour, the high-ranking traveller was not particularly interested in it. His companion, the cavalier Grigorii Glinka wrote: “It is not easy to share the impression which was made on me by the sight of so many towns, castles and picturesque landscapes because we are leading a wandering life, quickly moving from one place to another. Instead of staying for several days for a close examination of Bristol and Bath, two big cities with many interesting things, we will spend there only a couple of hours” 7 . Much later a historian of the Tsar’s family commented: “The long stay of Nicolas in England gave him an opportunity to make the acquaintance of various politicians and statesmen of the country of whom it was then proud. But the Grand Duke preferred the company and conversations of the representatives of the British army” 8

7 Shilder N.K, Imperator Nikolai Pervyi, iego zhizn’ i tsarstvovanie, (St Petersburg, 1997). Vol 1, p.233.

8 ibid.

Vassilii Pushkin: a Collector of Books

Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Rev A H Caldicott, 1940.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

After the short reign of Paul I when it was forbidden to go abroad, on the 22nd March 1801 the young Emperor Alexander I decreed freedom for travelling. One of the first travellers of the new reign was Vassilii L’vovich Pushkin (1766-1830), a friend of Karamzin and a connoisseur of literature. He was also a poet, like his more famous uncle, Alexander Pushkin. Vassilii went abroad in April 1803 and during 1803-1804 visited Germany, France and England. Unfortunately, only two of his letters from abroad have survived. Both of them were addressed to Karamzin, the first letter (28.06.1803) – from Berlin, the second one (12.09.1803) – from Paris. That is why we can only guess about his English visits and interests. There is, however, some material for speculation:

Vassilii Pushkin was curious, passionate in his literature interests, credulous and easy going. It was a common for his friends to make jokes about him. In 1803 his friend, Ivan Dmitriev wrote a humorous poem The Journey of N.N. to Paris and London, Written Three Days Before the Journey. The third and last part of the poem described Pushkin’s supposed journey to England in the following terms:

My friends, I am in London, and
To you I hold out my arms!
How much I want to see you again!
Today I send to the ship
All my purchases from two famous countries!
I am beside myself with admiration!
In what boots I shall appear in front of you!
What tailcoats! What trousers!
Everything in the latest fashion!
What a wonderful choice of books!
Count – I tell you at once:
Buffon, Rousseau, Mably, Cornelius,
Homer, Plutarch, Tacitus, Virgil,
The complete Shakespeare, complete Pope and Hume;
The magazines of Addison and Steele…
All of them produced by Didot and Baskerville!

50 copies of the poem was published ‘for friends’ in 1808 and were decorated with a vignette shown the French actor Talma reciting for Pushkin. Some of the names and titles mentioned were accompanied by explanations: Didot and Baskerville – “again for some people: Didot is a famous French printer, and Baskerville – an English one”.
The name of John Baskerville (1706-1775) should attract our attention. The reference confirms that Baskerville’s editions were well known among Moscow bibliophiles.

Vassilii Pushkin was a passionate collector of books, particularly of fine editions. His library was so rich that it was said that the famous Moscow bibliophile Count Rostopchin had envied it. The Virgil and Addison mentioned near Baskerville’s name may show that among Pushkin’s books were John Baskerville’s Birmingham editions: Virgil’s poems – his first book printed in 1757 and re-printed in 1766, or Addison’s works printed in 1761 (purchased, of course, before the journey!). Unfortunately Pushkin’s collection of books was burned in the Great Fire of Moscow in 1812, so again we can only guess what kind of editions he brought back from England and where he was able to buy them.

In spite of the fact that Vassilii Pushkin was mainly a man of letters, his curiosity brought him not only to places of literature and art. Among the many sights of Berlin he visited the Arsenal and Porcelain factory. So it is possible to guess that the Wedgwood factory or Soho Manufactory might also have attracted his attention.

Literary Contacts: Princess Ekaterina Dashkova and Prince Mikhailovitch Karamzin

Image: Medallion of David Garrick produced at the Soho Mint, Birmingham, 1773.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office (206)

Princess Dashkova was glad to meet poets, writes, and actors in London. Among her acquaintances were Horace Walpole and the actor-manager, David Garrick, who lived for part of his early life in Lichfield, Staffordshire and was instrumental in reviving Britain’s interest in Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson, the Lichfield-born literary master was also another influence. Soon after her return to Russia, Catherine the Great appointed Princess Dashkova as President of the Russian Academy (1783). In this post she initiated and supervised the compilation of an Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language, which was modelled, in part, on Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language(1755).

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766-1826) made his European journey in 1789-1790. He was neither a rich grandee doing his tour according the fashion, nor a shy provincial sent abroad to study. He was a young well-educated writer who had many literary theories and who wanted to test them against reality. He wished to get to know modern European life, and to meet philosophers and writers. For him a journey was a delightful dream:

For how many long years has this journey been my fancy’s most pleasing dream? Have I not told myself with delight: “At last you are going!” Have I not awakened each morning with joy? Have I not felt a surge of pleasure at the thought: ”You are actually going!” For how long a time have I been unable to think of anything, to be interested in anything save this journey? Have I not counted the days, the hours?” 4

Karamzin sold his part of his father’s inheritance to his brothers in order to visit Prussia, Saxony, Switzerland, France and England. His own route around these countries was different from the official fashionable routes. It included seeing Emmanuel Kant in Koenigsberg (Prussia), visiting Weimar (Germany) because of Wiland, Herder and Goethe, going to Lausanne (Switzerland) for “those beautiful places where the immortal Rousseau placed his romantic lovers”, and looking in Calais (France) at the places associated with Laurence Sterne.

England was the last country on his route, so he was already too short of time to see many places apart from London. On the way from Dover to London he passed Canterbury and Rochester, and during his stay in London he visited Greenwich, Windsor, Richmond and Twickenham:

I went to Twickenham, a pretty village where the philosopher and poet, Pope, lived and died. There are many handsome properties here, but I was most interested in seeing the poet’s house, now the property of Lord Stanhope. I saw his study, his armchair, the bower where, on summer days he translated Homer – the grotto with its marble bust of him, and from which the Thames is visible – and finally, the century-old willow, which has bifurcated in a wonderful manner, beneath which the philosopher loved to think, the poet to dream. 5

Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller, were published in 1791-1792 in The Moscow Journal, and in 1797 in book form. They reflected his thoughts and impressions. But they were not real letters, but a literary work in epistolary form probably based on notes taken or on a diary kept during the journey. Many descriptions were borrowed from other written and published sources, particularly for his relatively brief description of England. In contrast to the grandees, he did not bring back home valuable paintings or marbles. His treasures were of a different sort – “notes, accounts, books, little stones, dried grasses and twigs” which called to mind places he had visited, amongst these was “the willow beneath whose shade the Englishman Pope wrote his best verses!” 6

Even without visiting the Midlands where he might have met Erasmus Darwin or Sir Brooke Boothby, or have seen the achievements of Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, or have visited Shakespeare’s tomb in Stratford, he not only laid a new – mainly literary – route to Europe, but demonstrated his admiration for the great European writers and stimulated his Russian readers’ interest in places associated with them. Later Russian travellers would follow Karamzin’s steps. Many of them would literally carry his Letters, and compare their impressions with those of Karamzin.

4 Karamzin N.M, Letters of a Russian Traveler. (N-Y. London. 1957), p.29.

5 ibid., p 326.

6 Ibid., p.340. For Karamzin in England see: Cross A.G., “A Love Affair with England: N.M.Karamzin”, in “By the Banks of the Thames”. Russians in Eighteenth Century Britain (Newtonville.1980), chapter 10, p.252-263.

Princess Ekaterina Dashkova’s Visit to Soho, Handsworth

Image: Soho Manufactory. William West, Picturesque Views… of Staffordshire(Birmingham, 1830). Engraving by T Radclyffe was based on a drawing by F Calvert. This is an untypical view of the building from the rear and presents the complex of forges, mills and engine houses behind the neo-classical façade of the factory. The Soho Works became a tourist attraction as people came to view Boulton’s manufacturing processes. The image shows visitors in the foreground.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The Princess Ekaterina Dashkova (1744-1810), first came to England in 1770. Her interest in the country was enhanced by the fact that two of her brothers, first Alexander and then Semion Vorontsov, were both Russian ambassadors in London. She travelled from London through South England to Bath and Bristol and then back through Oxford, which was described in her article The Travels of a Russian Noblewoman Around Some English Provinces. This was published in 1775. In the Introduction she wrote:

I prefer England to other states. Their government, education, manners, public and private life, mechanics, buildings and gardens – everything depends on the organisation of the first [i.e. the government] and surpasses the efforts of other nations in similar enterprises. 1

She chose Edinburgh University for the education of her son and spent the years 1776-1780 in Britain. Her Edinburgh salon and meetings with William Robertson, David Hume, Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith were described in her Memoirs. 

After her son had graduated, she travelled around Ireland. In May 1780, she sailed from Ireland and landed in Holyhead. On her journey to London she passed through the West Midlands and visited the Soho factory in Handsworth. Unfortunately, she did not find Matthew Boulton at home, as he was staying in London. But her visit is described in detail in the letter from the Soho employee John Hodges to Boulton in London:

Soho 15 May [1780]


This is purposely to acquaint you that the Princess Dashkaw with her son and daughter from Russia visited Soho this afternoon. – I waited upon her Highness etc. over the manufactory. The shops in general were but thinly peopled. I had a good apology by saying it was Whitsuntide holiday. – She asked if you had not an Exhibition room in London for your manufactures, I unform’d her that you had a small apartment of paintings and vases etc.
I have given her your address and she seems very desirous of seeing you and purposes being in town on Thursday or Friday next.-
She beg’d I would write to inform you of her coming and that if you were about leaving Town before that time, that you would if convenient stay a day or two longer, as she much wish’d to have a conference with you. /…/
She desires to be a subscriber for a Copying machine – she saw the operation and was much delighted and astonished at the invention.
The Fire Engine was not in Order and she could not stay while it was set going. –
Her Highness purchased a set of buttons and several small pictures, in all about seven Guineas worth. /…/
The Princess and her family reside at No17 Cork Street, Burlington Gardens.

This visit is not mentioned in her Memoirs, that is why it has not been noticed by modern scholars. But without any doubt, Princess Dashkova was one of the most eminent visitors to Soho, who came there, not by fashion or idle curiosity, but by a deep interest, desire for knowledge and respect for modern technology and science. Her visit was an important event in local history.

1 Dashkova E.R. Zapiski. Pis’ma sester M.i K.Wilmot iz Rossii. M., 1987. p.114.

2 Puteshestvie odnoi znatnoi gospozhi po nekotorym Anglinskim provintsiiam. – ‘Ya bereg pokidal tumannyj Albiona…’Russkie pisateli ob Anglii. 1646-1945. M., 2001. p.31-44.

3 Birmingham Central Library. MBP 313. Hodges, No16.

Russian Visitors to the English Midlands

Text: Olga Baird

Image: Russian Medallion to commemorate the erection of Peter the Great’s statue in 1773. Peter the Great had spent five months in Britain in 1698 to learn about British shipbuilding techniques. Visits and commercial relationships were developed during the reign of Catherine the Great. The medal was struck during Catherine’s reign and indicates a link between the two westernising monarchs. The image shows on one side, a large number of people transporting a huge rock whilst onlookers view the scene. The other side contains a bust of Catherine.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office (605)


Britain had never been the main destination or place of pilgrimage for Russian travellers. Until the 18th century Russian-British contacts were more accidental than planned. By the mid-18th century Russian grandees were already widely travelled around Europe, doing their version of the Grand Tour. But their most usual destination was Italy and France, and particularly Paris, which was considered as the world capital of arts, fashion and fine taste. They visited cathedrals, galleries, ancient ruins, universities and academies, artists’ studios, bought Renaissance and contemporary paintings, and classical or Italian marbles. This was the time when many of the great art collections in the estates and palaces of Russian noblemen were formed. The situation changed considerably in the second half of the 18th century, because of Catherine the Great’s interest in British commerce, naval power and technological achievements. Russian students were sent to famous universities, to the Royal Academy of Arts, or to British shipyards, and more members of Russian nobility appeared in Britain. Russian travellers of that period are particularly notable because of their influence on Russian society.