Depictions of Russian Culture in Cold War British Fiction: An Examination of the works of Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)

This is part of our special feature, Diversity, Security, Mobility: Challenges for Eastern Europe.


There are a lot of obstacles impeding the understanding of one nation by another including differences in ways of thinking, everyday life, traditions, value systems, as well as the accumulated stereotypes and preconceptions. Often, the stereotypes are not true, but they affect the relationships between the two countries and their people. In general, in the eyes of foreigners, Russia is a huge country with inexhaustible natural resources, the harsh climate, financial difficulties, social turmoil, the need to obey an unenviable fate, but at the same time, patience, breadth of soul, hospitality, generosity, and romance.

The isolation of the USSR and the generally negative reaction western European, particularly British and American leaders had towards the rise of a communist regime colored not just contemporary views towards the Soviet Union, but also its predecessor, Tsarist Russia. Russia came to be viewed as backwards, ruled by cruel tsars, and dominated by a harsh climate.

However, foreign opinions have long been of particular interest to Russian (and Soviet) governments and people. As far back as Ivan the Terrible, foreigners were brought in to advise and build Russia. Peter the Great paid great attention to the perceptions of Russia in Western Europe and sought to modernize the country in a way that was in tune with what the Dutch and English felt about his country. Later, Tsarist regimes and the Soviets deployed vast networks of spies to gather information on and influence the perception of Russia abroad. Even in the Russian Federation, more media coverage is devoted to opinions of Russia abroad than the British or American press gives to such issues, and Russian people are very aware of and interested in the opinions of foreigners.

Russia relies on outside opinions for a critical look at its problems (i.e Peter the Great and foreign experts brought in to the USSR to evaluate industry and agriculture) and monitors opinions abroad, particularly in English language media to see the image of Russia that is being projected to potential friends and enemies. Unbiased foreign opinions are very important to create a more complete and objective image of Russia. However, understanding cultural differences is possible only on condition of having a sincere desire to understand the culture, political system, or histories being studied, and this should be done from the standpoint of unbiased observation, or better yet, sympathy for these people. Intolerance blocks the path to understanding. In the case of Russia, political biases against the USSR, and great power rivalries created (and continue to create) an unsympathetic view of Russia abroad—where Russia is often relegated to playing the role of “Evil Empire” in history and politics, and a backwards force that needs westernized and democratized culturally.

Despite the prevailing trend to demonize Russia, we can find sincere sympathy for and understanding of Russia and the Russian people in the fiction of the bestselling British novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). Russia, Russian culture, and Russian identity are prevalent themes in twenty of her twenty-six novels.

In her lifetime, Iris Murdoch repeatedly confessed her love for Russia and Russian literature, calling it great literature. In her interview for the Literary Gazette (December 2, 1992) during her visit to Moscow with her husband John Bayley, Iris Murdoch was asked: “What is Russia in your life?” She replied: “I have almost a religious feeling for Russia. It came through reading Russian novels of the 19th century and is associated primarily with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Literary circles in England are just crazy about them. Of course, there is still Lermontov, Turgenev … But these two are the kings. I think they are the greatest novelists of all time. They are even greater than Dickens, Proust.” (7)

Consequently, Murdoch’s favorite writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, are the most frequently mentioned authors in her fiction. She often cites them, refers to their names, and her characters love to read their works.

In the novel The Green Knight, one of the characters, Emil by name, is very impressed with the library of Peter Mir, the main character of Russian origin. Seeing his library books by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Pushkin, Emil concludes that Peter Mir is a very educated person:

…And his library, have you seen it?… There are also some Russian books, my Russian is poor, but I see Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, in fine old editions, he is of course a cultured man… (333)

Here we find, instead of backwards peasants, Russia being associated with learned men, authors, and creators of culture. In addition, the ability to read literary Russian is portrayed as a mark of a well-educated person.

The title of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is mentioned three times in Murdoch’s novels. Twice it occurs in the novel Nuns and Soldiers. First, the main character of the novel, the Count, arguing about his literary preferences, claims that he likes War and Peace: “He had a secret weakness for Trollope and also liked War and Peace.” (Murdoch34). Another character of this novel, Anne, was in the process of reading the novel War and Peace: “She had just finished The Heart of Midlothian, which she had brought back with her from France. She was now reading War and Peace.” (Murdoch432).

In the novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, the main character reads aloud a passage from Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot to his wife and son without attributing this passage to Dostoevsky. Iris Murdoch was confident that the British readers of her intellectual fiction were familiar with the Russian classical literature. For her, it is clear, Russian literature was an integral part of a good education.

Everyone knows the first sentence of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Tolstoy3). Iris Murdoch knew this passage well. However, Toby Ghashe, the character of her novel The Bell, came to a conclusion disproving Tolstoy’s famous quotation. He believed that the behavior of spouses is an incomprehensible thing, and there are many ways to make a marriage successful: “But then the behaviour of married people was so unaccountable. Contrary to what Tolstoy seems to maintain in the first sentence of Anna Karenina there are a great many ways in which marriages can succeed.” (Murdoch, 2004: 48).

David Levkin, a character of the novel The Italian Girl, says that he wants to go back to Russia, his motherland, as “nothing means anything to him outside Russia.” He also adds: “The poet says, ‘Russia shines in my heart.’” (Murdoch 52).

This is a line from Sergey Yesenin’s poem “Oh, ploughs, ploughs, ploughs…” published in 1918. But David Levkin does not mention Yesenin’s name, he just calls him “the poet.”

We can assume that Murdoch does not want to overload the text of her novels with precise details and references to some specific sources. It is enough for her to indicate the author of some idea, or just to quote some line, and the rest is for the reader. If the reader is educated and well-read, he will understand what work is referenced.

Russian culture throughout its centuries-old formation has played and still plays a colossal role in world history. Iris Murdoch wanted to emphasize in her works that the most important component of the image of Russia is the great Russian literature. Since Murdoch herself perceived Russia through its classical literature, was very fond of the Russian novel, and was very devoted to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, she wanted to convey this image of Russia to her readers, to make them understand that Russian literature is an integral part of world culture, without which no educated Englishman can do.

Iris Murdoch herself was proficient in the Russian language, and she read Russian literature, such as Dostoevsky in the original, although it was really challenging for her. Such an interest in the Russian language is definitely reflected in Murdoch’s novels.

The main character of the novel The Time of Angels is a Russian emigrant Eugene Peshkov. He is very homesick for Russia and the Russian language. It is bitter and hard for him to hear how the British pronounce his name because in their mouths the beautiful Russian sounds are butchered:

Won’t you call me by my name, ‘Eugene?’” He gave it the English pronunciation of course. It had been a long grief to him that English people mispronounced both his first name and his surname. The beautiful Russian sounds had become a secret. (Murdoch 54)

          Then Murdoch explains Russian names of Eugene Peshkov’ relatives, and we see how well she knew the Russian language. She knew the pronunciation of names in Russian, the difference between the full names and their short forms and brings her understanding of and appreciation for these cultural nuances to her work:

“What was your sister’s name?”

“Her name was Elizabeth. Elizaveta in Russian.”

“Then later on I married my wife in the camp. Tanya was her name. Tatiana, that is. She was Russian.”  (Murdoch 55)

Murdoch demonstrated to her reader that Russian culture should be understood and respected. That people should give these characters dignity and esteem by using the correct forms of their names. The inability or unwillingness to learn correct pronunciation of Russian words and names is a hallmark of many Cold War works of fiction, particularly films and TV shows, and was another way to dehumanize and “otherize” Russian culture. Here, Murdoch returns Russia’s humanity by showing the alienation that incorrect pronunciation created, and the sense of intimacy the use of short form names create.

She continues this theme, honoring Russian names in another of her works, The Green Knight. Peter Mir, the main character, explains the meaning of his last name in the following way:

My name is Mir, spelt M-I-R, and spoken as in ‘mere’, not ‘mire’, a word which in the Russian language means both ‘world’ and ‘peace’ – world peace, a felicitous combination you must agree. (103)

And indeed, at the end of the novel, Peter Mir brings peace and harmony into the lives of all the other characters, thus confirming the symbolism of his name.

Additionally, Murdoch, chooses Russian birth places for several of her characters in her novels. The characters of her two novels are emigrants originally from St. Petersburg. She writes particularly fondly of St. Petersburg (Leningrad), on the basis of which it can be concluded that she had special feelings for this city.  How she describes St. Petersburg is of interest. It is a romantic place of rivers and spires and a myriad of colors. These descriptions stand in sharp contrast with popular imagery of the USSR as dismal grey and dominated by Constructionist and Brutalist architecture.

David Levkin, the character of The Italian Girl is going to return to his native city of Leningrad at the end of the novel:

I am going back to Leningrad… I want to see the Neva again,” he said. “I want to touch those blocks of granite along the quays, to see the Admiralty spire in the sun.  (150)

For David, Leningrad is a place of memories and beauty. A long lost and sorely missed homeland.

The main character of another novel The Time of Angels a Russian emigrant Eugene Peshkov was born in St. Petersburg before the revolution into a wealthy family. His childhood was extremely happy. But his family fled after the revolution to Riga, then to Prague, and then during the Second World War, he was in the camp. But he carried the memories of Russia, of his happy childhood through his wanderings:

We had two houses, one in St. Petersburg and one in the country.” He remembered it all so very clearly. His Russian memories came in brilliant colour. All his other memories were monochrome. He could see the pink front of the big house by the Moika. …the English shop on the Nevsky Prospect… The sun shines upon the gilded dome of St Isaac’s and upon the slim finger of the Admiralty spire. (52)

Again, St. Petersburg appears before us in all its glory, and Murdoch describes its main attractions: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the spire of the Admiralty, the river Moika, Nevsky Prospect. All these places create the image of beloved Russia in Eugene Peshkov’s memory.

Eugene remembered how he and his family had lived in Prague, after fleeing from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution:

Of course, there were a lot of Russians in Prague. We helped each other. We carried Russia with us. (Murdoch 54)

When World War II began, Eugene got into the camp. After the war, he got into several other refugee camps. In total, he spent nine years in these camps:

Yet he had thought about Russia so much in that camp, lying on his bed through interminable summer afternoons, feeling hungry and smelling the pines and the creosote, and had imagined himself surrounded again by his own language and his own people (Murdoch 56).

When Eugene Peshkov was already in England, his son Leo blamed him for artificially creating a little  Russia around himself and for forgiving the Soviet Union:

‘You’ve made a little Russia all around you. You are living in a dream world. … And you’ve forgiven the Soviet Union.’

‘I haven’t forgiven the Soviet Union. Well perhaps I have. I can’t alter history. Why should I hate my country?’ (Murdoch 115-116).

So we can see that for Eugene hating the Soviet Union does not make sense. Since altering history is not an option, he prefers to still love his country no matter what political system it has. Even if it’s already the Soviet Union, Eugene always refers to it as to Russia and he is still faithful to it, though he is still far more nostalgic about Tsarist Russia.

Throughout his wanderings Eugene Peshkov keeps a Russian icon “The Blessed Trinity” which was given to him by his mother. This icon symbolizes all that he has lost, his dear ones, the years of his life, Russia.

This icon is described in Murdoch’s novel The Time of Angels three times, and V. Ivasheva, an expert in Iris Murdoch’s fiction, considers that its description accurately reproduces the icon of Andrey Rublev “The Blessed Trinity” painted in the fifteenth century. This is the most famous of his works and one of the most famous and glorified Russian icons in the world:

…it is the most extraordinary picture which Pattie has ever seen. It is painted on wood and partly with golden paint…It shows three angels confabulating around a table. The angels have rather small heads and very large pale haloes and anxious thoughtful expressions.

‘What’s that?’ says Pattie.

‘An icon.’

‘What’s an icon?’

‘Just a religious picture.’

‘Who are these people?’

‘The Blessed Trinity.’

Because Eugene says ‘The Blessed Trinity’ and not just ‘The Trinity’ Pattie assumes that he believes in God.” (Murdoch 11)

One can only wonder how deep Murdoch’s knowledge of Russian culture, traditions and customs was. For example, in the novel The Black Prince we can find a description of a true Russian custom “to sit down before you leave:”

“I had my suitcases ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual.” (Murdoch 21)

The novel Nuns and Soldiers is Murdoch’s only novel filled with a negative attitude towards Russia. This is due to the fact that one of the main characters of the novel is an emigrant of noble blood from Poland, nicknamed the Count. He hates Russia and the Russians and accuses them of all the troubles of Poland and the Poles:

The Count’s father got married in 1936. Then Stalin intervened in his life. The Polish Communist Party had never been more than a puny inefficient instrument in the hands of the great Russian leader. Polish communists would be displeased by a Russo-German rapprochement. Besides, they were infected by the virus of patriotism, and could play no role in Stalin’s plans for Poland which could not be better played by the Red Army. So, with that calm purposive clear-headed ruthlessness, so characteristic of his policies and of their success, Stalin quietly had the Polish Communist Party liquidated. (Murdoch 7)

An early memory was of his mother saying that Rosa Luxemburg deserved to be murdered because she wanted to give Poland to the Russians. (His father, whom he could scarcely remember, had of course performed a first paternal duty by telling him that all Russians were devils). (Murdoch 7)

The Red Army is mentioned only in a negative context in this novel. The Count often recalls Stalin’s plans for Poland, how during the Warsaw Rising the city windows rattled from the roar of guns of the approaching Red Army, how the Red Army entered Poland in September 1939. These examples illustrate the Poles’ complicated attitude to the role of the Russians in their history.

In Murdoch’s another novel Henry and Cato one of the characters, Lucius by name, who spent years on writing a book about Marxism, decided that he would rather write about himself as he had at last got the Marxism virus out of his blood:

Capitalism, the Soviets, just two methods of government, equally muddled and clumsy, only ours is better because it isn’t a tyranny. Socialism is just an out-dated illusion. Ask anybody in Eastern Europe. (Murdoch 127).

So we can see that in I. Murdoch’s novels there are some examples indicating the negative attitude of the world towards the Soviet regime. But what makes her different from other writers outside of Russia is the prevailing sympathy for Russia and its people, her sincere interest in Russian literature, history, language.  For Iris Murdoch Russia is perceived first and foremost through the great Russian literature and the Russian language. For this British novelist the image of Russia includes the beauty of the architecture of St. Petersburg and the Red Square in Moscow, a negative attitude towards Stalin and Soviet power, ancient folk traditions and the strength of the Orthodox faith. For her Russia is a Russian word and a Russian name.

Complete, holistic understanding of Iris Murdoch’s characters and their complex relationships, the realities and events in her novels, is possible only through the understanding of the historical and cultural setting of her novels. Using Russian phrases, Russian names of characters, describing Russian traditions sometimes seem random, insignificant pieces of text. However, these episodes and descriptions create a certain cultural and historical background and subtext, which discloses Murdoch’s novels for trained readers. Besides, the image of Russia, created in the novels of Iris Murdoch, fosters a positive attitude to our country in the English-speaking reader. It makes the readers look at Russia with admiration and respect, contains a lot of historical, cultural and linguistic information.


Olga Chuprakova is senior instructor of  the Foreign Languages and Methods of Teaching Foreign Languages Department at Vyatka State University, Kirov.

Published on December 6, 2017.



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