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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: A Unique Look at Russians Abroad




"Russians in England" (Russkiye v Angliye) may be an unprepossessing title for a book, but it was hailed as "the publishing event of the week" by the Ex Libris weekly journal. This large-format, 416-page book by Olga Kaznina, a scholar with the Academic Institute of World Literature in Moscow, has the weighty subtitle "Emigration in the Context of Russian-English Literary Bonds in the First Half of the 20th Century," and contains a wealth of information about the everyday life of Russian intellectuals in Britain in the first half of the century.


Kaznina immersed herself for several years in the archives of Oxford and the University of Leeds, and the Bakhmetev Archive at Columbia University, as well as delving into Russian sources. It was time well spent: She managed to find lots of new material about many first-rank Russian authors, including Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Nabokov.


There were 100,000 Russians in Britain in the early 1920s, half of them living in London. While Russian emigres on the continent huddled in their own closed communities, those who went to Britain tended to become more deeply integrated into the culture. Many of them used English in their everyday lives, felt at home in England, and considered it their second (or even real) home.


To prove the last point, Kaznina cites Vladimir Nabokov, who was a student at Cambridge at the time: "The kind of Russian family to which I belonged -- a kind now extinct -- had, among other virtues, a traditional leaning toward the comfortable products of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Pears' Soap, tar-black when dry, topaz-like when held to the light between wet fingers, took care of one's morning bath. ...] All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls. ... I learned to read English before I could read Russian."


The first part of the book deals with a dozen Russian organizations in London, from the 1917 Bratstvo/Fraternity to the North Russian Association, Ltd. It is also devoted to many famous Russian politicians, journalists and clergymen who lived in Britain.


The second part describes the role of Russian scholars in British universities, and the third, and by far the longest, consists of 18 biographical essays about famous Russian writers in England. Among them are the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, later executed by the Cheka, the "Red Count" Alexei Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Bunin, Marina Tsvetayeva and Nikolai Roerich, among others.


The book, published in conjunction with the Naslediye Publishing House, is a bargain at the ruble equivalent of $5.