Monday, 25 August 2014

Friendly Russia

Tsar Nicholas II: "Cute but dim." —L. Trotsky
Non-fiction ~ essay
Published in The Herald [Tamworth], 19th June 1915*
Approx. 1,500 words
(First read 25/08/2014)

In a shameless bit of propagandizing, EFB sings the praises of Russia.  Unfortunately my knowledge of the various campaigns of the First World War is pretty hazy (particularly as regards the Eastern Front), so I'm not sure why Benson felt the need to produce such an article at this precise moment.  In truth, about three quarters of it is more 'Hymn To Holy Russia' than 'Believe Me: Russia Is Okay'.
He begins by praising the progress that Russia has made over the past 20 years in dragging itself into approximately the middle of the 18th century.  [Oops, I'm editorializing here.]  After comparing the country's approach to its disastrous war with Japan as that of a 'careless, contemptuous and derisive' schoolyard bully [remind you of anyone?], he claims Russia 'grew up' as a result.  Yeah right.
Our intrepid propagandist then goes on to argue that the English and the Russians are kindred spirits, finishing his paragraph with this flight of fancy:
[...] epithets are always unsatisfactory, and to take a concrete illustration, which puts the matter in a nutshell, we may say that Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, perhaps the most distinctively English novel in our language, is completely and essentially Russian. The whole spirit and sentiment of it, the love and the ruthlessness of it, its stern fatalism, its noble tenderness, come not only from the moors of Yorkshire, but from the heart of Russia.
I can more or less see his point here.
Nige Insky in Afternoon Fun (1912)
EFB next tackles Russian Culture, which he ~ inevitably ~ thinks is wonderful: while admitting that not all the icons he names are Russian strictu sensu (Chopin had decidedly Polish leanings, apparently), he omits to mention that they're all comprehensively dead ~ the most recent is Rimsky-Korsakov.  Stravinsky was churning 'em out in 1915 ~ but I dare say Fred would sooner have eaten his own feet than mention him.  He might've given poor old Nijinsky a nod, though.
In the last section EFB talks about the 'removal of misunderstandings' between the UK and Russia, over India, the Black Sea, y'know ... little things like that ~ least said soonest mended.
Benson's ideas about Russia are (particularly with the benefit of hindsight) distinctly half-baked, romantic, idealistic ~ but I'm fairly sure he never visited Russia or even got anywhere near it, and the essay is meant as a piece of 'puff', so we'll let him off.

*This is indeed where I found it: it's marked 'All Rights Reserved' so I'm assuming it was an exclusive.  As far as I'm aware, EFB had no association whatever with Tamworth.

The article is reproduced in full below ... well, in full except for a few illegible bits (suggestions welcome!).  This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time it's appeared free of charge for all the world to see since it's first publication 99 years ago.

Friendly Russia by E. F. Benson
Never perhaps in the history of the world has any generation seen such amazing change take place in a people as the last twenty years have seen in the case of Russia. It is not that the character of the nation has altered, for the character of nations as of individuals is their one permanent and constant possession, and can no more be changed than can the skin of the Ethiopian or the spots of the leopard, and persists through any vicissitude of disaster or expansion of victory that may happen to them. But in all except character (that collective individuality which marks off nation from nation and people from people) it is impossible to conceive a greater contrast than the aspect presented by Russia of a generation ago when compared with the stern, calm and sober millions, who both in the battle-line and in the vast territory behind it wait in unshaken confidence for the inevitable issue of their conflict with the barbarism that has suddenly flamed out in central Europe. Unchanged in character, in the essentials that lie at the base of the nation's soul, Russia of to-day has nothing else in common with the Russia of twenty years back.
The change is one of growth and civilised development. Conscious and rightly conscious of her enormous strength, Russia entered the Japanese war, careless, contemptuous and derisive. She was like some huge youth, who, untrained, and without control of his limbs or knowledge of how to use them, went out, hardly taking off his coat, to fight a practised and intelligent foe, who with not one quarter of his adversary's bulk, was quick, decisive and disciplined. There were other disadvantages, circumstances also which have never been fully appreciated, for at that time Russia was not only at war with Japan, but with herself; she was internally dismembered by sedition and revolution, and was shaken by the storm of intestinal trouble. She was beaten, and then there began to rise in her the leaven that was already there, the leaven of her dawning maturity, of her sense of national responsibility. She said nothing, for Russia in adversity is as silent as her own winter nights, but shutting her door, she set herself to win the place that she knew was rightly hers in the hierarchy of the nations. She had been, as we have said, like some big, unthinking boy, and now she disciplined herself into manhood. But her character did not alter, she developed on her own lines, but grew in mind and in self-control. She schooled herself after the example of her own great men with the result that, as far as military matters go, she knows now how to use her inexhaustible strength in sobriety and wisdom and faithfulness to herself and her friends.
It is to English people more than to any of the nations of Europe that the Russian character so strongly appeals. A very foolish proverb, often quoted and supposed to be enlightening, tells us that if you scratch a Russian you will find a Tartar. That is so flippant a view that it only deserves the flippant answer that if you scratch anybody you will probably rouse his temper. But if you make friends with a Russian, if you try to be in sympathy with him instead of scratching him, you will find a very different being. You will discover a loyalty and simplicity that are child-like in their unquestioningness, you will find too, whether your Russian is a boulevardier of Paris, or a moujik of the central steppes, a wild romantic soul that reminds you of the sea at dawn, dim and immense and utterly indescribably. It is a northern nature like ours, sensitive to ridicule, shy of expressing itself, and above all romantic, with the romance of the north. But epithets are always unsatisfactory, and to take a concrete illustration, which puts the matter in a nutshell, we may say that Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, perhaps the most distinctively English novel in our language, is completely and essentially Russian. The whole spirit and sentiment of it, the love and the ruthlessness of it, its stern fatalism, its noble tenderness, come not only from the moors of Yorkshire, but from the heart of Russia.
We have been told very often during the last six months from Berlin and other places where the Kaiser has been, that the conclusion of the present war willwitness the spread of German 'Kultur' over the whole of this fortunate planet. We are learning a little about German Kultur, and have been permitted to see it cursorily at work in Belgium, and as the weeks go on we are happily beginning to realise that this infernal millennium is getting further off than ever. But we see more and more that another element of civilisation, not enforced by megalo-mania and barbarism and piracy will certainly take its place. For a long time now those who have studied Russian literature, Russian music, and the Russian arts, generally have been aware of the wonderful culture. Turgenieff, Gogol, Lermontoff, Tolstoi expressed it, and in music Chopin, Tschaikowsky, Rubenstein, Rimsky Korsakoff were among its children. Some of these were Poles, other were Cossacks, but all in spirit as in nationality belonged to Russia, and all of them had that sea-like unfathomable suggestions which is the meaning of Russia, and with which in arms as in instincts we find ourselves so intimately allied. It is not easy to express or to give any definite account of the quality that underlies it, for it appeals much more to the emotions than to the mind, and produces in us not so much a train of thought as a mood, often sad, sometimes deliriously light-hearted, but always with the glamour of large spaces and infinite horizons about it. Though trained and ordered, the fruit of industry and endless patience, it never degenerates into artificiality, or loses itself in mere technique. The quality which, after all, is best called Russian, permeates it; it is always romantic, always elemental, born of the steppes and the limitless plains, and the Arctic night light by the remote Aurora of the north. For a long time now its first freshets, the rivulets that earliest began to come down from the vast mysterious [hills?], have been flowing westwards, and they come to us bringing the sense of home with them.
Already in this crisis of the danger common to Russia and to us, namely the barbarous nest of hornets in the midst of Europe, much misunderstanding has been removed from between us and our Eastern allies. No longer do we fear or have cause to fear what we thought of for years as the Russian menace to India. Germany, who for so long has tried, not always successfully, to promote dissension between nations with whom she professed friendly relationships, no [illegible] one time did encourage our Ally to [illegible] warm-water outlet southwards, and point a diplomatic finger towards India and the Persian Gulf. Now in the utter ruinous fiasco that has befallen Teutonic diplomacy, and now that the day prophetically [illegible: probably dreamt] by Bismarck has dawned, (and that [illegible] ) friendship between Russia and England [illegible] Russia looks, and will not look in vain, towards its natural outlet through the Black Sea and the Dardanelles. Hereby another misunderstanding has been removed, for even as in Whitehall it was thought that Russia turned longing eyes to our Eastern Empire, so in Petrograd it was believed that England would fight to the last drop of her blood in preventing Russia from obtaining this access to the Mediterranean. And once more we are indebted to the blundering diplomacy of Germany, which instead of fomenting has but healed the mutual distrust which for years existed between us and our Ally.
A cordial understanding, an unswerving purpose unites us with France. We work with our Latin neighbours in complete accord; we admire and revere their wit, their warmth, their brilliant achievements in the arts of peace no less than their courage and tenacity in these critical days, but I cannot believe that we are such natural allies with France as we shall prove to be with Russia. Let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that we need anticipate difficulties with our Western Ally, or feel that tact will be necessary to secure the solidity of our alliance; only, in Russia we seem to have found, now that all ground of misconceptions has been removed, our natural and ideal friend. A psychical affinity binds us to her, a certain unity and accord of character that is worth all the treaties in the world, for though they will be loyally kept they cannot in binding force equal or approach the inviolability which springs from characters that naturally fit each other, and from the identity of aims that are dictated by primal and ingrained instincts.

Reproduced from The Herald [Tamworth, Staffs., UK], 19/06/1915

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