Friday 5 September 2014

The Russian view of the English as Seen Through Literature (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume CII No. 2

By Yelena Korshunova

The 21st century is already marked by a great increase in communication between the many different nations that make up the modern community. Stereotypes are an essential part of this cross-cultural communication, providing individuals with stable, if mythical, ideas about their native country and about the character of other nations.

Fiction has long been one of the most important sources of such ideas in Russia. Here, linguistic, geographical and other constraints create conditions of sharply limited cultural contacts and so for many years the  Russian people have drawn their knowledge of the customs, behavior and of the peculiarities and national characters of their neighbours through the peculiar prism of writing and particularly fiction.

Above all, it is English fiction that arouses the most interest in Russia, just as it does all over the world. (English is truly the world’s second language.) It is through novels written in English that the Russian audience forms many of its ideas about the ‘typical Englishman’. Even when Russians go on to meet real Englishmen, or women, they follow (partly unconsciously) these ideas. The flesh and blood English readers of this piece would, I am sure, be surprised both at their popularity in the Russian context – and by the characters created there for them. It is with this mismatch in mind that I argue here for a pause for reflection over the broad issues in this sphere of ideas as  part of preparing for a new generation to the balanced cross-cultural contacts.

The background to this article is research carried out in 2010 in Omsk, in Western Siberia, where the task was to try to find out more about how much Russian readers know about English literature nowadays but also to gain insights about how ordinary Russians imagine the English national character. It seemed interesting to compare the perspectives of two generations: that of the current generation of Russian students and that of ‘Cold War’ generation, their parents. For the research, one hundred families were contacted. There were two research participants drawn from each family – a student and one of the parents. The research project required the participants to rank possible sources of Russian information about England and the English, according to their perception of their importance. From this, we obtained some interesting results.

The most important things to stress is that both the student generation and their parents clearly privileged real life links with England as their most important source of knowledge about the English character. However, then the views of the younger and older generations diverged. For the older generation, their second most important source was English fiction, whereas the new generation students put in second place  things like English language lessons and associated English course materials, leaving English fiction to occupy the third place. Parents put in the third place cross-cultural literature, meaning books such as the English anthropologist Kate Fox’s book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (2004).

Since the older generation did not have any access to information about the English from language lessons and courseware, it was inevitable that they placed sources like these second from last in their list. Curiously, it was here that the students placed the Internet. It seems remarkable that despite the popularity and the constant presence of the Internet in a modern life, it wasn’t rated by either of the two generations of Russians as one of the most significant sources of knowledge about England and the Englishmen. Instead, knowledge obtained via the Internet is interpreted as transient, momentary, based on commonplace notions and information.

And so our survey illustrated that, one of the main sources of information for many Russians about England and the Englishmen is English fiction. But what English books exactly do we mean here? The results of the survey again revealed some interesting differences between the generations.

According to the survey, the most popular books for parents were the various detective mysteries written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in himself something of an English stereotype. After The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, came  Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of a man extracted from society:  Robinson Crusoe. But following shortly after this were some works of fiction of a much lighter vein:  A. A. Milne’s, Winnie the Pooh; Jonathan. Swift’s Gulliver's Travels; Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Jerome K. Jerome’s  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) and last, but not least, Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre.

This then is what ‘England’ means to Russians born after the Second World War. But which books were the new generation reading?

Winnie the Pooh came in top of the poll in the students’ view, followed by Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels, with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in fourth place. No prizes for spotting that all of these are light, entertaining fiction. Half of the students read the more challenging books of Daniel Defoe  and Shakespeare, but few had read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Many respondents, both students and their parents, knew of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, Lord of the Rings, but few of them had really read the book. Rather, they knew of, and had usually also seen, the recent, popular film. Which, incidentally, is set in New Zealand.

Despite the younger generation having supposedly studied ‘English’, the knowledge of the older generation about serious modern literature was much greater than that of their children. The members of this generation had read James Joyce, George Orwell, Lewis Stern, Virginia Woolf, Edward Forster, William Golding (who wrote a dsytopia with political significance called Lord of the Flies) and Benjamin Disraeli (more often remembered as a British Prime Minister). The overall picture reveals that parents knew the names, the authors and the contents of the English books considerably better than students. In addition, the parents give various and correct characteristics for many of the heroes of English fiction. That said, one or two books were equally well known by both generations. Which were these? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

When asked to suggest some ‘favourite literary heroes’, an odd and childish mix emerged: Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, Alice, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins were the names offered by both of the two generations. For many Russians the idea of the ‘typical Englishman’ is associated more with images of Winnie and Pickwick than with more contemporary figures, such as Harry Potter. Perhaps it is because these heroes of English literature seem to be very strange, ready to do something not ordinary. But Winnie and Pickwick are not so simple and foolish as they seem at first sight. They are indeed very clever, optimistic and noble, and always ready to help their friends.

Popular literature is the dominant source of the basic imaginations about the English, particularly children’s literature. What image of a ‘typical Englishman’ does it construct for readers?

The list of the most often cited widespread associations made about the expression ‘a typical Englishman’ revealed a number of constant character elements. These are mainly positive features: evaluated by the participants as follows: punctuality, conservatism, pedantry, intelligence, politeness, accuracy. However, a small number of negative features were also identified by both generations. Among these: reticence, arrogance, pride, greediness, insensibility, a strange humor and egoism.

Both the parental and the student participants identified ‘the English sense of humor’ as the most important feature of the Englishman’s character, a trait of course emphasized in the particular literary sources they were using. Parents also noted, however, the eccentricity of the English, again supporting this idea by examples from English fiction such as Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick. Pickwick, to recall, is fat old man who becomes a romantic adventurer, and discovers ethics and wisdom as the novel progresses. By the end of the novel he has become the incarnation of charity and goodwill.

It is evident that, for the most part, all the associations offered for the ‘typical Englishman’, have a direct literary origin. They included such things as: a stove-pipe hat,  horseracing, a tail-coat, a pince-nez, a monocle, a pocket watch, white gloves, and so on. All these trappings are clearly drawn from fiction, not from daily life. Other associations are clearly connected to their literary and cinematographic image of Sherlock Holmes: the gentleman with a strict suit, a tobacco-pipe, a walking stick, tall, thin, tidiness, politeness, punctuality, good manners of behavior, restraint, gentlemanly behavior and so on.

The differences between the reading habits of the two generations led to significantly more character associations, by which I mean personal qualities such as pragmatism and conservatism being given by the parents. Students were much more likely than their parents to characterize the typical Englishman merely through appearance, meaning that their views were considerably more superficial.

The results of the research brought me to conclude that  Russians do have a well-defined and precise image of a ‘typical Englishman’. However, this image is not determined by aspects of  real life or from personal experience of communication; this is a construct, that has been formed by a more complex sociocultural process, among which the choices of the reading circle play a great role. The powerful influence of fiction upon mass consciousness is largely due to the fact that fiction vividly, holistically, and emotionally describes and represents certain features of the English character.

It is only to be expected that fiction should try to show us sharper, brighter heroes than individuals can ever be in real life. But in conditions when the image of the national character of one nation is formed in the minds of peoples in another country in many ways all due to the fiction, it represents a particular and  potentially dangerous displacement of the reader’s perception.

In the context of cross-cultural communication, cultural stereotypes, created by the literary ideas, seem to be primary, structuring and often modifying real experience. The way the view of one nation about another is created and develops, and the adequacy and coloration of the view is influenced by the fictional countries explored, and the choice of books becomes not only an indicator of common culture, but a real factor, determining many other aspects of the cross- cultural dialogue.

Comparing the reading circle of two Russian generations, we noticed a rather precise difference, which seemed to us to confirm a certain inter-generational tendency. The parents were seeking at a more realistic and a more complete understanding of people than the new generation. This in turn influenced their literary preferences and then the particular books that they chose to read in turn provided a more developed and complete view of the English. By contrast, the children’s literature popular with the students, created an image of the English in the students’ minds that was both more mysterious and fantastical, and less accurate or even complete.

The new generation reads books – both those drawn from their native literature and those from foreign sources -  far less than their parents. We can conclude that parents are appreciably more erudite in the sphere of the English fiction, especially the Classics, than the students, who often did not know or remember even the most famous classical or modern works.

It seems likely that this decrease of erudition in the sphere of writing leads to a shallower image of people from other cultures, and not only a shallower but a more externalized and random characterisation. In modern conditions reading from the very beginning is inevitably loaded by the stereotypes, but the problem appears about the quality of these stereotypes.

As the students in our survey are the generation of the future, it seems to us that our research reveals a need to do everything possible to raise the interest and motivation of society to develop its knowledge of other cultures, not least, through the reading of serious books. One element, we believe, is in the sphere of the expansion of the cross-cultural contacts between countries, of which, the publication of this article in The Philosopher is a small piece.

Ethnic conflicts may arise from the elementary ignorance of the national character of other countries, or the negligence to seek to understand the mentality of our neighbours; such problems should be guarded against and solved beforehand, not least by considering the influence of literary stereotypes. National character is a dynamic concept. Time will pass, nations will change and the contacts between Russia and Britain will doubtless soon be on a different level, forming in turn, in the future, very different views. We can only hope that the Russian understanding of ‘the typical Englishman’ over the years will expand and be enriched, and create a more complete image of the nation.

Contact details: Yelena Korshunova  is a social scientist and English teacher based at Omsk State University in Russia. She can be contacted via:

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