Georgina Byrne's Blog

History and the evolution of British perspectives on Russia

March 12, 2013

‘First or second-hand, […] original or translated, accurate or inaccurate, the accounts of Russia published in England during this period agree in their general tone of superiority, often amounting to contempt, and in the picture, essentially unchanged throughout the century, which they paint of a backward and barbarous country and people.’


While it is easy to jump to the conclusion that this quotation refers to contemporary Western perspectives on Russia, it is taken from the article ‘English Views of Russia in the Seventeenth Century’ by M. S. Anderson (published in the Slavonic and East European Review and available on JSTOR).


While worth reading in its own right, the article includes many thought-provoking passages on how Russia and the Russians have been viewed throughout British history and how these attitudes were shaped by the first-hand accounts of foreign visitors to Russia from the fifteenth century onwards.


The accounts of travellers such as Richard Chancellor  and Adam Olerius  are intriguing and important historical documents which reveal much about the individual travellers and times in which they lived. However, in my opinion, the most interesting thing about these accounts is how they – more through a lack of alternatives than any other factors – became the authoritative guides to Russia and Russian culture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Passages such as ‘“He [Ivan the Terrible] is advised by no council, but governeth altogether like a tyrant”’ – shaped how the newly-discovered country was imagined in the minds of a population which knew very little of the world outside of Britain.


Obviously, contemporary dispatches from Russia differ greatly from these initial accounts. Advances in communications, infrastructure and transportation mean that information about other countries is disseminated around the world more quickly than it has ever been – we now have more opportunities than ever to learn about Russian culture, politics and society. Yet, at the same time, the information with which we are presented in the media is not as diverse as the advances of the modern world allow it to be; rather it is the product of a chain of decisions on what is counted as ‘news’, as well as editorial changes designed to produce stories to pique our curiosity.


Despite the potential for a wide range of stories about Russia, we can see that the UK print media frequently choses to produce news items which use Putin and masculinity as a ‘lens’ through which to analyse developments in Russia. Despite the fact that we have more information on Russia and the Russians than ever before, reporting on the country generally remains within a narrow framework which frequently relies on using Putin as a ‘point of reference’ in stories which are concerned with unrelated subjects. See, for example, this recent article on the status of wrestling in the Olympics, where Putin is described as having ‘immediately flexed his renowned muscles’ and as ‘better known for throwing his weight around on the judo mat’.


Observing how such reports are quick to refer back to the figure of Putin in order to contextualise the information they relay about Russia – and trying to understand why they do this – is an important exercise in critical media analysis. Yet it is also important to consider the political implications of such an approach.


Despite the rise of alternative forms of media, the UK press is arguably still highly influential in British politics and public life. The way in which the printed media presents individuals and events will undoubtedly influence their readers’ perspectives on the world – and in the case of UK ‘broadsheets’ these readers will include powerful politicians and decision-makers. What is said about Russia and Putin in the UK media can thus have an impact on how bilateral relations are conducted.


Just as the words of Richard Chancellor in the seventeenth century shaped British perspectives on Russia’s ‘arbitrary and tyrannical system of government’, today’s correspondents reporting on Putin’s feats of daring or his conduct at international summits are contributing to the construction of a particular image of Russia in the national popular consciousness. This image can then influence real political decisions and potentially set the tone of British-Russian diplomacy.


It is for this reason that what the British media say about Russia and how they choose to say it is incredibly important and in need of extensive analysis. This will be my task for the next two months – to critically analyse the UK print media, questioning why Putin is often the focus of contemporary dispatches from Russia, and why he is almost exclusively framed within a ‘masculine’ persona. The history of British perspectives on Russia was, I feel, a good place to begin. 

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