The Perpetual Drama of Russia and Britain

A turbulent relationship between Russia and Britain is nothing new.
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Russia and Britain are old foes, and War and Peace is a complete fictional world with its own extraordinarily lifelike exuberance but, as with most Russian novels, it is also about Russia’s vision of itself — its quest for its rightful place in civilisation and its struggle with the outside world.

Between 1805 and 1812 Russia was tormented, through the might of Napoleonic France, by the contradictions between its Frenchified aristocracy — so gorgeously re-enacted by the Beeb — and the simple, sacred purity of Mother Russia made up of illiterate peasants. Tolstoy’s novel is at least partly about how the fops of St Petersburg came to recognise the essence of their own nation.

In 2020 it is fitting that we are enraptured by Russianness, for the country is on our minds: we are more disapproving and terrified of Russia, and Russia is more hostile and disdainful towards us than at any time since the death of Stalin. No figure in international affairs so fascinates and unsettles as Vladimir Putin. But if it seems that the tight britches and diamond necklaces of Tolstoyan drama belong to another Russia, think again. The hairstyles may be different but the war of power and culture now is the same as that described by Tolstoy.

Today’s Kremlin despises the decadent, hypocritical US and Britain while promoting an aggressive nationalism and Russia’s special mission in world history. Yet these same potentates still travel in English cars, buy English homes, watch English football and educate their children at English schools.

As we denounce Putin’s autocracy and brinkmanship, we are in the grip of our own Russomania because, contrary to the Kremlin’s paranoic narrative, we revere Russian culture and history — Tolstoy, Pushkin, the Hermitage, the Bolshoi, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, while the triumphs and tragedies of the Romanovs thrill us.

But if culture seems a safe way to engage with Putinist Russia — as it seemed with the Soviets — the exchange has always been fraught because power and culture are as interwoven in life now as they are in Tolstoy.

The fascination between Russia and the West is an ancient one, based on a brew of expediency, envy, fear and admiration — and nothing is as simple as it seems: one thinks of the crenellated red walls of the Kremlin itself as utterly Russian in their forbidding grandeur, yet they were the work of Italian Renaissance artisans imported by Ivan the Great between 1485 and 1495.

After 1613 the Romanov tsars hired English or Scottish mercenaries, artisans and doctors but kept them separate from their own people. The menacingly hyperactive Peter the Great forced Russia to embrace Western manners, ranks and culture in his new capital St Petersburg (even writing a “how to” guide, The Honourable Mirror, which told Russian men not to spit or vomit in public and women not to paint their teeth black). He enforced it by personally punching guests in the mouth and caning his henchmen if they transgressed.

By the accession of Catherine the Great, French language and English style dominated the court. She and her partner Potemkin dubbed their tastes “Anglomania”. They adored the paintings of Reynolds, hired English gardeners (hers was aptly named Mr Bush), Scottish architect Charles Cameron to design neoclassical palaces, Jeremy Bentham and his brother to design ships and Scottish admiral Samuel Greig to command them. Yet then as now, Anglomania was mixed with hostility between London and St Petersburg.

Alexander I of Russia, by George Dawe.

By the time of Catherine’s grandson Alexander I, the tsar in War and Peace, some courtiers spoke better French than Russian. When Alexander fought Napoleon, Tolstoy’s hero Pierre Bezukhov idolised Napoleon and French modernity while despising Russian backwardness. Napoleon’s 1812 invasion helped Tolstoy’s characters Pierre and Natasha rediscover their Russianness.

This new zeitgeist was personified by Alexander I’s successor, Nicholas I, who saw Orthodox Russia as a holy-nationalist crusade. His delusions led to defeat in the Crimean War by Britain and France, the two cultures Russians most revered (and resented), and this accelerated the freeing of the serfs and the liberal blossoming of Russian culture in the form of War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (both serialised by one Russian newspaper proprietor who pulled off probably the greatest scoop in literary history).

Tolstoy travelled this journey himself. Starting as a swaggering Frenchified officer and compulsive fornicator with the serf girls he owned, he ended as a puritanical Christian socialist who idolised Russia’s peasantry.

After 50 years of frosty relations with Britain and France, Alexander III and his son Nicholas II allied Russia with those two Western democracies — at the very time they unleashed a narrow Russian nationalism in their own country. Nicholas saw himself as a 17th-century grand prince, not a Europeanised emperor, and imposed Russian over ethnic languages — yet his love letters to Alexandra were in English and the dynasty was by then mainly German thanks to centuries of marriage to Teutonic princesses.

After the revolution, Stalin, while espousing Marxist internationalism, embraced aggressive xenophobic nationalism — which ironically included the promotion of Count Tolstoy’s view of 1812 as the moment that proved Russian moral superiority.

The fall of communism in 1991 reversed that: the worship of Western ways — American culture, London luxuries — paralleled the worship of everything French in War and Peace.

Now the backlash has come again. Our relations are arctic, Western culture disdained, Russian supremacy trumpeted: “The Russian people are the core of a unique civilisation,” says Putin, sounding just like Nicholas I. And yet… here we are: we’re still watching Tolstoy and they still dream of Chelsea football and living at Downton.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is an award wining historian and author of The Romanovs.

The Romanovs