British modernism and the idea of Russia

Russian art, dance and music influenced many modernist writers in the first half of the 20th century, while the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 heightened both communist and anti-communist feeling in Britain. Matthew Taunton explores the influence of Russia on British modernism.

Throughout the 19th century, and right up to the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia were unremittingly hostile. The ‘Great Bear’ occupied an important position in the cultural imagination, but if Russia’s rulers were viewed with hostility, among the intelligentsia there was an increasing fascination both with the achievements of Russian literature – of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov – and with Russian folk traditions. British intellectuals’ enthusiasm for Russian painting, music and dance reached its peak in a ‘vogue for Russia’ during the 1910s and 1920s.[1] Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 provoked left-leaning writers and intellectuals to respond to the coming of the world’s first avowedly socialist state.

Portrait of Lenin

Image of Lenin

Produced during the Russian Revolution (1917–21), this portrait of Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, draws on folk traditions and religious iconography.

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Edwardian Russophilia

The first decade of the 20th century saw a growing surge of interest in all things Russian. One important strand of Edwardian Russophilia saw progressive intellectuals drawn towards the Russian peasantry, with their folk art and religious rites. Stephen Graham was an influential travel writer and novelist whose books – including Undiscovered Russia (1912) and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem (1913) – did much to create the image of Russian peasant life as one of simple beauty and spiritual wholeness, closer to God than corrupted Western Christendom.[2] Where Graham celebrated their spirituality, other intellectuals were beginning to take an interest in Russian peasant art. Frank Rutter and Maria Tenisheva organised an exhibition of Russian art at the Albert Hall in 1908 which showcased the ‘neo-national’ school of Russian folk art, focussing on traditional Slavic themes and techniques while excluding the European modernism which was beginning to take hold among an emergent Russian avant garde.[3] Rural Russia became for many the object of a new anthropology, and the simplicity of its peasant life (even though that was largely a fantasy) could be celebrated in contrast with British society, which was perceived as repressed and overly refined.

Modernism’s debt to Russia

Meanwhile, other intellectuals were working to encourage an engagement with the more sophisticated products of Russian high culture. Perhaps most influentially of all, in terms of its impact on modernist literature, there was the Ballets Russes, first seen in Britain in 1911. A multi media spectacle conceived by Sergei Diaghilev, these London performances brought with them new ideas about performance, set design and artistic spectacle.[4] T S Eliot attended a Ballets Russes performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1921, as he was working on The Waste Land (1922). His review in The Dial praised Stravinsky’s music for its modernity, its ability to ‘transform the music of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music’.[5] Eliot was rather less enthused by what he called the ‘primitive ceremony’ of the choreography, but it might be thought that a similar tension between the ultra-modern and the primitive is integral to the poetic vision of The Waste Land.

Photograph of a scene from The Rite of Spring, 1913

Photograph of a scene from Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, 1913

Dancers from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performing a scene in the original Paris production of Stravinksy’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), 1913.

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The avant garde side of Russian visual art could be seen for the first time in Britain in the Russian section of the 'Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition' in 1912, organised by Bloomsbury Group art critic Roger Fry.[6] And in literary circles, Constance Garnett played an important role as a translator of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky among others. She knew many prominent writers personally, and her translations had a shaping influence on key modernist writers such as Joseph Conrad and Katherine Mansfield.[7]

Letter from Duncan Grant to J M Keynes about the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, 1912

Letter from Duncan Grant to J M Keynes about the Second Post Impressionist exhibition, 1912

In this letter to J M Keynes, the artist Duncan Grant describes working towards Roger Fry’s next major and influential show, the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912.

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Usage terms Duncan Grant: © Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS 2106. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Unknown photographer (pre-1906): This material is in the Public Domain.

Virginia Woolf’s enthusiasm for Russian literature was such that she learned the language in order to read it in the original, and she brilliantly explored the problems of translation in her essay ‘The Russian Point of View’: ‘we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style,’ she wrote. In this essay, Woolf focussed her attention on Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (‘the greatest of all novelists’), finding different qualities in each. In Chekhov, Woolf praised a writer of stories that seemed to lack a central point, but which therefore became open-ended explorations: ‘as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom’. Dostoyevsky she admired for his fearless exploration of ‘this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul’ (a word that constantly reverberates in British discussions of Russia). And Tolstoy she placed above all others as a writer uniquely capable of producing an all-seeing, omniscient perspective: reading his fiction, ‘we feel that we have been set on a mountain-top and had a telescope put into our hands’.[8] Woolf had a clear-eyed sense of the distinctions between these very different writers, but nevertheless sought to understand in them a singular ‘Russian point of view’. Her descriptions of their work read as a kind of manifesto for her own writing practice.

Support for Russian Revolution

Support for Russian Revolution

Papers from the archive of Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky, a Russian Socialist and translator. Koteliansky was a good friend of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, D H Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield.

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Held by© Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky

Revolutionary enthusiasms

Early 20th-century Russia was a place of revolutionary ferment, and in 1917 – with Russia under immense strain from her involvement in the First World War – the autocratic and incompetent tsarist regime finally crumbled and a radical Bolshevik government swept into power. The formal war alliance between Britain and Russia collapsed as the communists made good on the first part of their slogan ‘Peace, Land and Bread’, by withdrawing from the conflict. But while some progress in the direction of socialism had been made in Britain – for example in the National Insurance Bill of 1911 – even relatively moderate socialist intellectuals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb were frustrated by the limited gains, and were losing patience with the gradual approach to social and political change that the Fabian Society had long advocated. Russia – and the radical communism with which it was rapidly becoming synonymous – started to emerge as an alternative model for change.

As the revolutionary turbulence of the 1920s died down and Stalin’s Soviet Union emerged as a new global power, the Webbs wrote a book celebrating its success, entitled The Soviet Union: A New Civilization? (1935) (the question mark was dropped, tellingly, from subsequent editions). They were just a few of the older generation of Edwardian intellectuals – perhaps most prominent among them George Bernard Shaw – who bought into Stalinist propaganda with alarming fervency. But, disenfranchised by domestic politics and increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, younger writers were also drawn towards Russian communism.

The so-called ‘Auden gang’ – a group of male, Oxford-educated poets and writers consisting of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood – increasingly felt that the 1920s modernism of James Joyce and T S Eliot and Ezra Pound could not meet the political challenges of the 1930s. ‘Who are they to tell me that I must not preach?’, asked Cecil Day Lewis in his ‘Letter to a Young Revolutionary’, going on to make a case for writers to join the Communist Party and accept its discipline.[9] For Day Lewis, the Russian Revolution had provided a means of bringing the stakes of a specifically British literary politics into focus. A more overtly political and indeed didactic literature was required, and, briefly at least and to varying degrees, Soviet communism was the recommendation offered by this important group of 1930s writers.

Literary anti-communism

Anti-communism was just as important as communist enthusiasm in shaping literary views of Russia.[10] In his essay ‘Inside the Whale’ George Orwell made outspoken criticisms of the political leanings of ‘Auden, Spender & Co’:

Between 1935 and 1939 the Communist Party had an almost irresistible fascination for any writer under forty. ... For about three years, in fact, the central stream of English literature was more or less directly under Communist control.[11]

Orwell went on to argue that ‘Communism’ had ‘degenerated’ from a revolutionary movement into ‘an instrument of Russian foreign policy’: the Auden gang, he believed, were effectively being manipulated by a hostile foreign government.[12] Orwell’s critique of 1930s communist sympathisers went on to inform his immensely successful novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in which Soviet communism was subjected to a savage satirical treatment.

Review of Animal Farm by Kingsley Martin, from the New Statesman and Nation

Review of Animal Farm by Kingsley Martin, from the New Statesman and Nation

Kingsley Martin, who was still sympathetic to the Soviet Union in 1945, criticised George Orwell’s portrayal of Soviet communism in Animal Farm.

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Unlike Orwell, many of the most prominent anti-communists of the post-1945 period had been communists or sympathisers in the 1930s: indeed they included many of the ‘Auden gang’ whom Orwell had berated. Spender was perhaps the figure whose views changed most dramatically. He had been recruited to the Communist Party of Great Britain by its secretary Harry Pollitt in 1937, announcing his membership in his article ‘I Join the Communist Party’ in the Daily Worker (19/2/37).[13] His involvement with communism was shortlived, however, and in 1950 he became one of six former communist sympathisers to tell the story of his disaffection with communism in a fascinating and controversial book, The God That Failed. In Spender’s essay for that volume, communist Russia could now be used negatively, as an example of all that could go wrong if poetry was shackled to politics:

The effect of centring art on to politics would, in the long run, mean the complete destruction of art, and it would eventually mean great misfortune for many people… In Russia, the arts are in fact already effectively destroyed.[14]

The Auden gang had fallen out of love with Russia, and Spender here reacts against the politicisation of art which it had come to represent. Russia was crucially important in 20th-century British debates about the relationship between literature and politics.


[1] Caroline Maclean, The Vogue for Russia: Modernism and the Unseen in Britain, 19001930 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), p. 1.

[2] See Michael Hughes, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014).

[3] Louise Hardiman, ‘Infantine Smudges of Paint … Infantine Rudeness of Soul’: British Reception of Russian Art at the Allied Artists’ Association, 19081911’, in A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013), pp.13347.

[4] Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.30029.

[5] T S Eliot, ‘London Letter’, The Dial, 71:4 (1921), pp. 4523.

[6] Anna Gruetzner-Robins, Modern Art in Britain 19101914 (London: Merrell, 1997), pp.10507.

[7] Patrick Waddington, ‘Garnett, Constance Clara (1861–1946)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33332, accessed 4 Jan. 2016].

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Russian Point of View’, in The Common Reader (London: The Hogarth Press, 1925) pp.219-31

[9] Cecil Day Lewis, ‘Letter to a Young Revolutionary’ in New Country Anthology ed. by Michael Roberts (London: Hogarth Press, 1933), pp. 2542 (p.28).

[10] See Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton, ‘Introduction: Literatures of Anti-Communism’, Literature & History 24:2 (2015), pp. 510.

[11] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume One, 19201940, ed. by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 54077 (pp. 56162).

[12] Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, p. 562.

[13] John Sutherland, Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 208.

  • Matthew Taunton
  • Matthew Taunton is a lecturer in literature at the University of East Anglia, specialising in literature and culture from the late Victorian period to the present. He is the author of Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris (Palgrave, 2009) and chapters and articles on various aspects of 19th and 20th century literature and culture. He is a major contributor to the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, and is currently working on a book about British literary responses to the Russian Revolution.

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