Главная Журнал «Россия и Запад: диалог культур» Главная Рубрики Актуальные проблемы регионоведения Vladimir Yelistratov "Structural Types of Western Mythologized Perception of Russia"

Vladimir Yelistratov "Structural Types of Western Mythologized Perception of Russia"

Vladimir Yelistratov –

Doctor of Cultural Research, Professor

Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Tel.: (499) 783-02-14

E-mail: vse.slova@mail.ru

Structural types of Western Mythologized Perception of Russia.

Russian culture is perceived by the West through the prism of stereotypes that form a sort of myth. The myth of Russian culture is a complex synthetic image comprised of different levels – everyday life, literature and socio-political life. Mythologems of different levels often overlap and reproduce each other. By analysing various sources of cultural myth production, this article explains why the West’s vision of Russia diverges so much from the Russian realities. It also argues that the mythologised perception of Russia should be overcome by means of studies into the structure of the existing myth.

Key words: Russian culture. Russia and the West, perception of Russian culture, stereotypes

One of the most important problems in today’s intercultural contacts is the aberration of perception of a foreign culture, which is usually formulated as the problem of stereotypes.

The word "stereotype" has long become a term of cultural studies and, though it "works" quite successfully in certain fields of knowledge, in our opinion it does not embrace all the problems involved.

A stereotype is a discrete fragment of the generalized image of a country, nation, culture and language which takes centuries to form. If we were to use this definition, we would need to build a complex system of stereotypes, a "stereotypical thesaurus" of a sort. For instance, French-Russian and Russian-French dictionaries of cultural stereotypeswould have to register multi-level system of stereotypes (everyday, political, anthropological, psychological, etc.) of how the French view the Russians and vice versa. A French-Russian dictionary would then contain the following key lexemes: "Lovelace", "cheese", "thrift" (greed), "fashion", "perfume", "woman", "rhetoric" (garrulity), etc. A Russian-French dictionary would feature words like"winter", "bear", "poverty", "war", "monarchy", "space", "Siberia", and so no. We do not set ourselves the taskof compilingsuch dictionaries. What we want to emphasise is that there arewhole systems of stereotypes of national cultures that are not justfixedsets of words and perceptions. Such systems liveaccording to the laws of a complex, synthetic image[1], and asthey form collective national images, we can speak (at least, within the framework of this study) of “myth”.

Russia and Russian culture belong to that type of countries and culture which, willingly or otherwise,exert a great influence on the surrounding Eurasian and global space. And the stronger the influence, the stronger the myth-makingpower is. A national myth is created both "externally" and "internally". Any national culture is not only subjected to interpretation by other cultures but also deliberately or involuntarily cultivates a myth of itself. The Russian self-myth making is no exception.

Thus, speaking of Russian culture, we should distinguish between Russian culture proper,an objective reality, and the myth of Russian culture, which is represented by a system of "internal" and "external" perceptions and stereotypes. These systems do not coincide but they are not completely different either. For illustrative purposes, they can be presented as two overlapping circles, with the area of overlapping being considerably smaller than that of the discrepancies between myth and reality. How can this be accounted for?

First of all, this can be explained by the fact that Russia is not included into what we know to be the Western civilized world. Inside this world there are also certain vernacular "family" stereotypes, like "all French are greedy" or "all English are reserved", etc. However, these stereotypes do not form strong mythological systems. Active myth-making is only possible when the mythologizing and the mythologized agents represent different types of civilizations.

Humans have been creating myths since the beginning of time. The inhabitants of Greek policies created myths of Egypt, Crete, Scythia, Atlantis, etc. Myth has always beenstructured with some elements of fantasy and exoticism. Ancient Romans exotized Libya (Africa), Gallia, the eastern provinces.The same is true for the Middle Ages. A surge in "country" myth-makingtook place in the era of great geographic discoveries, which gave rise to avast literature of fantastic travels and utopias. It seems that the flow of this literature has successfully reached the present day: authors of numerous detective stories and thrillers choose exotic “third world countries” as setting for their semi-fantastic stories.

The Western myth of Russia also originates in travel literature. Russia is seen by the West in the same exotic colours as New Guinea or Peru.Some western travellers, however, obviously feel certain affinity to Russia. As V.O.Klyuchevsky put it, "...not many of them, but the most impartial and scrupulous ones occasionally make hints that in the Ancient Rus society, beneath its Asian form, they felt the presence of sources close to those with which Western Europe lived ...".[2]

We will refer to this structural type of mythologized perceptionas everydaymyth. The everyday myth of Russia persistedboth in the 19th and 20th centuries. Marquis de Custine in the 19th century,Leon Feuchtwanger and Andre Gide in the 20th century, all watched intently the life and morals, habits and customs of people inhabiting the country they were visiting. Evaluations might have been differentbut descriptions of “exotics” were still present in those modernreports from Russia. Some mythcreators (e.g. Custine) looked down on Russia as an under-civilized country; others (e.g. J. Reed, Feuchtwanger) createda sort ofproto-Soviet neo-utopias; but all of them generally contributed to the construction of a global myth, formulated mythologems and thus aggravated the aberration of Russia's image.

It must be said that the everyday myth inevitably misrepresents the real image of culture. In fact, understanding the everyday life of a culture requires getting accustomed to it, becoming part of it. And as daily life in Russia is wellbelow western standards, a civilized personis usually not prepared to step down to lower living standards. He prefers to stay in conditions artificially created for him (hotels, etc.) and plays the role of a passive observer. Fora detached eye, though, many phenomena of everyday culture remain obscure, and explanations dressed in “civilized” notions distort them even more. (It should be noted that from this point of view,adjustment of Russians to Western civilization takes place muchmore easily and quickly).

The everyday myth is based on ethnographic and geographic material. It includes mythologems associated with the climate and national psychology of the country. It may also comprise emblems of material culture (vodka, troika, balalaika, samovar, Matryoshka doll, etc.). This type of myth is supported by exports of folk craft items and the tourism industry, and has long become one of the most profitable trade products. This myth can be sold, and some countries rely on it as the sole source of income.

However, it is not the only variety of national myth.

Another type - structurally more sophisticated, as a rule –is created in that area of culture which is most developed in the given nation. Naturally, in Russia it was predominantly the sphere of literature.

While the everyday myth of Russia originates in travel notes of Westerners, its literature myth emerges from western interpretations of Russian classics. It should be noted that this type of mythologized perception of Russia has been prevalent not only in the West but also among Russian Westernizers. It is based on the identification of the fiction world of Russian classical literature with the Russian reality as such. A part stands for the whole as in synecdoche. Literature becomes the only prism through which to view the Russian life. The formula is: “Literature equals life”,though it is applied only to those parts of Russian literature which are most comprehensible and accessible for the Western mentality. Western and pro-western mythcreators consistently select those names and texts which successfully fit into the myth. For example, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Herzen, Gogol, Tolstoy, etc. but not S.Maximov, Leskov, Melnikov-Pechersky and others.

Many Russian thinkers have spoken about the need to overcome this myth-making. I.Solonevich, in particular, in his "People's Monarchy" adopts a highly polemical tone: "A nation's mentality cannot be understood on the basis of its literature. Literature only reflects separatescraps of a nation’s life;what is more, these scrapsare coloured in the same way as the observer's lorgnette. Thus, Lev Tolstoy, a disappointed serf-owner, on the one hand, depicted the life of the Russian aristocracy tinctured in the pink colour of idealization, and on the other hand, reflected a sense of doom that overwhelmed the social estate to which the writer himself belonged. F. Dostoyevsky showed the life of a declassed and embittered raznochinets, painted in the tones of the writer's epilepsy. A. Chekhov –the life of intelligentsia, with tinges of tuberculosis. M.Gorky –the life of a social-democratic vagabond. L.Andreyev simply depicted his alcoholic hallucinations. Nobody considers Edgar Poe’s alcoholic hallucinations to be the expression of the North-American soul, and nobody regards Byron's pessimism as the expression of the British idea. There probably were Bezukhovs and Bolkonskies in Russia. ButKaratayevs and Svidrigailovs could not have existed. Perhaps there were Plyushkins, as well as Oblomovs, but none of those heroes represented the national psychology of the Russian people".

I.Solonevichalso mentions that before the Second World War the Germans conduced thorough studies into Russian national character drawing on texts by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, etc. The result proved to be deplorable: instead of repenting intellectuals, Manilovs andOblomovs, the Germans were metby robust and determined men (muzhiks), quite aggressively disposedtowards the invaders.

We are not going toabsolutizeSolonevich's arguments, especially because similar ideas, worded in a slightly different way, were expressed by many other writers, philosophers and publicists (from K.Leontyev and V.Rozanov to I.Shafarevich and L.Annensky). But two points should be emphasized.

Firstly, it is obvious that literature does create a medium for myth-making. Though, it is not the writers who are to blame but those who interpret literature as a true reflection of life. Such interpretation is inevitably based on selectivity and synecdoche generalizations. Russian interpreters can and often become myth creators themselves. In some sense, westerners adopt a more passive position:they just select what is comprehensible and can be fitted into the pre-chosen concept. Then the active myth-making virtually ceases, and all the new material is squeezed into the ready-made templates.

Secondly, it must be stressed that the literature myth of Russia is not limited to the period of classics. The mythological "prism" was in use in the subsequent decades. At that time the western reading public made acquaintance with Russian literature largely through the intermediary of official Soviet representatives (e.g. I.Erenburg) or Russian émigrés. Naturally, in either case objectivity was out of question. The army was seen through the eyes of soldier Chonkin, the life of intelligentsia - through the eyes of A.Zinoviev's heroes, and so on. It would be probably safe to say that the greatest mythologem of the 20th c. literature – the so-called homo sovieticus, acompletelyabstract stereotypical creature – never actually existed, like Svidrigailov or PlatonKaratayev.

Chronologically, the literature myth of Russia was formed much later than that of daily life, but both systems continue developing, as has been said, in parallel and up to this date. These mythological systems overlap but operate at entirely different levels: at the level of general knowledge of the country, material culture and everyday life, and at the level of intellectual culture, respectively. These myths are characterized by different degrees of complexity and have different spheres of application.

A significantly more "dangerous" sphere of myth-making is socio-political life. Political myths about Russia, in the same manner as literature myths, began to take shape in the 19th century, although the European notion of Russia as a despotic country had appeared much earlier.

Just like the literature myth, the political myth was formed both inside the country and outside it.

Let us consider the Russian history from this standpoint.

Political and philosophical Westernization, or the philosophy and ideology of Russia's Europeanization as the only right path of development, can be viewed as an inherent motif of Russian culture. The legendary Rurik already faced the reality of having the "field" with nomads on the one side and Italian merchants on the other. Yet, awareness of historical alternatives and the ideological implications of the choice came only with the adoption of Orthodoxy.

Prior to that, as far as we can judge from such a historical distance, Europe and Asia were not separated in Russian consciousness, as it had been the case in Europe since the times of classical antiquity. The route "from Varangians to the Greeks" was not the route from "Europe" to "Asia", especially because Constantinople was much more civilized than barbaric Varangians. For the KievanRus, the "steppe" was probably the "prototype" of future Asia, while the river, first and foremost the Dnieper, represented a proper "European" element, the sphere of trade and cultural contacts. Further, in the process of colonization of the North-East, the Ancient Russtarted to explore woods, the former domain of the Finno-Ugric tribes. So, initially Russia faced not the choice between Europe and Asia (civilization and barbarism, democracy and tyranny, etc., as werethe ideological oppositions in the European antiquity), but rather an ethno-geographical triad: the European river with cities built on it (the Greek, Germans, Romans), the Turkish steppe and Finno-Ugric woods (many historians, including V.O. Klyuchevsky,have discussedthis triad).

To all appearances, there was no ideological antagonism between these alternatives. Nor was there any linguistic antagonism, as Greek, German, Turkish and Finno-Ugric loan-words easily entered the Slav speech. The very fact that contemporary researchers disagree on the prevalence of either Turkish or Slavicvocabulary in "The Song of Igor's Campaign" (seestudies by D.S. Likhachev and O.O. Suleimenov) suggests that Turkish words were deeply entrenched in the Russian language. Today’sheated debates on the subject testify to the peaceful co-existence of Turkish and Slavic languages in the past.

Judging by the studies of modern researchers of Eurasianism, L.N. Gumilyev in the first place, there was no antagonism between Russia and the steppe.Periodic invasions are not a sufficient indicator of confrontation. Gumilyev also denies the concept of the TatarYoke.  As for the Russian-Finnish contacts, Russian scholars, beginning from Klyuchevsky, all describe them as peaceful. (There is a different opinion, though: e.g. see works by D.K.Zelenin, and others).

Thus, before the adoption of Orthodoxy and, to a great extent, before the rise of Moscow, Ancient Russian literature and language did not oppose Europe to the East;they were deeply Eurasian by character and evenly synthesized both "European" and "Asian" elements: Indo-European (European), Finno-Ugric, Turkish.

The introduction of Orthodoxy and schism in the Christian Church changed everything. This is how "Latin" Europe and "non-Christian" Asia emerged. From that point on, Russia began to be viewed assomething separate, opposed to both, and was commonly seen in the West as beingsubmerged into gloomy messiahship, detachment andanimosity. In reality, things were different at the grassroots level. Not many Russians actually knew about Filofei’s concept of Moscow as the Third Rome. The real Russian culture and the Russian language were found ‘at the bottom level’, in ordinary parishes and in direct everyday contacts with foreign nations, the character of those contacts remaining truly ecumenical and Eurasian. Russians did not perceive those nations as strange or alien. To western countries the attitude was different, though.

As the Catholic West considered Russians to be schismatics, Russia’s stand towards the Westwas rather cautious. Its perception of "Asia", orpagans (Finno-Ugric) and Muslim Turks, was completely different. In the 20th century, Eurasianism historians suggested a new perspective on the problem. Now Turkish conquerorsbegan to be seen as Turkish allies against Europe’s unceasing attempts at expansion, and Finno-Ugric paganism was viewed as an element consonant and congeneric with Russian paganism, which was mixing with Orthodoxy. Russian church hierarchsappeared to get on well with the Tatar khans; Russian commanders (e.g. Alexander Nevsky) recruited Turkish horsemen to fight against crusaders, who had a horror of encountering Turks in battle. Russian priests seemed to turn the blind eye to pagan festivals, in which Russians participatedalongside idol worshippers, etc.

In the Moscow State we observe both official and unofficial rejection of Europe, as well asa latentorientation towards Asia, which was not proclaimed as an ideology, of course, but was not prohibited either. Russia, mainly as a peaceful colonizer, expanded eastward, enhancing its cultural and linguistic contacts with Asia. While absorbing certain Asian features, Russia russified Asia, in a way. In many respects this process is similar to the Greeks’Hellenization of Asian territories. Characteristically, in the subsequent centuries Russia never formulated any anti-Asian ideologies. The only Asians who raised some concern were the Chinese and their ‘yellow-faced Chinese positivism’ (according to D. Merezhkovsky). That nation wasoutside the orbit of Russian influence.

So, we can say that the culture of Muscovy, as well as that of KievanRus, was quite Eurasian, though with an implicit slant towards Asia.

Europeanization of Russia, which intensified under Peter the Great, andrapprochement with Europe produceda whole layer of political and philosophicalWesternizers (who certainly existed during the reign of AlekseiMikhailovich,or Ivan IKalita, but did not formulate their doctrine). Now the country’s whole history was clearly divided by westernizer scholarsinto "light" periods, i.e. the times ofpro-western orientation, and the periods of obscurantism, i.e. the times of despotic "Asianization" of Russia. KievanRuswas presented as a ‘European’ stage, the Moscow State – as an ‘Asian’ stage, the Petrine empire (up to 1917, with the exception of the "bad" times, such as, for instance, the reign of Pavel I) - again as a ‘European’ stage. The Soviet Union brought Russia backto the state of despotism. Post-Soviet Russia has achance to "join" the civilized world.

Such is the mythological interpretation of the Russian history, couchedin terms of the opposition oftyranny and democracy. The Asian "evil" is opposed to the European "good". The European God and the Asian devil struggle for the Russian soul. Mythologems of Russian national character, shapedby the Russian literature of the 19th – 20thcenturies, are infused into the political myth, giving rise to newsymbioses of literary and political mythology. The brightest example of this is N. Berdyaev ("eternal femininity in the Russian soul", "the power of spaceover the Russian soul", etc.), one of the most popular Russian philosophers and advocates of the "Russian idea" in the West.

The philosophical myth created by Berdyaev and others is very influential, and will most probably continue to be so in future. The structure of the modern Western myth of Russia, as we have tried to show, is rather complex. It comprises at least three levels - everyday, literary and political –all synthesized into an aesthetically and rhetorically exquisite, and, one has to admit, compelling philosophical doctrine. This doctrine has practically nothing to do with the real life, or, rather, it is related to it in the same way as myth is connected with reality. The Western myth of Peter the Great and the real Peterhave some features in common (for example, any western student knows that Peter dabbled in dentistry), but the mythological interpretation of the tsar has little basis in reality.

Recently, we came to be witnesses of the mythologization of Russian political history. It suffices to remember the mythologized,if not canonized,figure of M.S. Gorbachev and his real personality and activity, as well as the Russians’ attitude to the politician. Myth and reality are so different that people lose a sense of reality, or, rather, the myth becomes a part of reality.

The modern political myth is being created literally right before our eyes. Now myths take not thousands of years or centuries but hours to form. To give an example, the myth of the so-called "coup" sprang upduring one live TV broadcast.

So, the modern Western myth of Russia has a syncretic and complex structure. The system of its constituent mythologems (in other words, stereotypes) is hierarchical, but mythologems of different levels (everyday, literary, political) interact and interweave, creatingan unpartitionable cosmos, a post-modernentity, we may say, in which an everyday myth can be explained by a historical one, a po­litical myth can be confirmed by a literary one, and so no. A poem by I. Brodsky provides a good illustration:


Lackey is trembling. Slave is laughing.

Butcher is sharpening his pole-axe.

Tyrant is shredding the capon.

Winter moon is shining.

That's native land, a print.

Soldier and Fool-girl are on the stove-coach.

Old woman is itching her dead side.

That's native land, a print.

Dog is barking, wind is blowing.

Boris and Gleb are fighting.

The pairs are going round at the ball,

On the floor there is a dunghill in the hall.

The moon is shining, injuring the eyes.

And under it there's a cloud, as separate brain,

Let the artist, a parasite, draw some other view.



This poem seems to listall standard mythologems about Russia - everyday, historical, political and literary ones. Russia is a country of tyrants and silent victims (as well as one of butchers and lackeys). Debauchery is rampant, dunghills are left on the floor, people are constantly fighting, etc. I. Brodsky shows these and other stereotypes against the background of travestied literary archetypes (moon, ball). The whole Russian history, literature and everyday life are combined intoa mythological alloy, whose tendentiousness is obvious.

To conclude, it should be stressed that the myth of Russia does exist. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the West continue studying Russia on this mythological basis. To all appearances, myth-making is in human blood. Is it possible to overcome the Russian myth? In our opinion, this is inevitable and should be accomplished through further research into the structure of the myth.


  1. Kluchevskiy V.O. Legends of Foreigners of Muscovy. Petrograd, 1918

[1]On National Images, see: Gachev G. National Images of the World. - M., 1988 (The author analyzes the national vision of the world, but not the perception of the given nation by other nations. However, herewedealwithinteractingsystems).

[2]КлючевскийВ.О. Сказания иностранцев о Московском государстве. Петроград, 1918.С.6

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