Russians in London: Introduction

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of posts entitled ‘Russians in London’. The project came to mind when I was researching Dostoevsky and the Crystal Palace earlier this year. I started thinking about his description of Whitechapel and the Haymarket in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and imagined him haunting those areas. It also brought to mind some of the other London connections of Russian writers, thinkers and political activists I’d come across – Solov’ev’s vision in the reading room of the British Museum, the blue plaque at 16 Percy Circus, where Lenin lived… and as a form of reflection on the connections between my own life in London and my work, I began looking for other traces and researching some of these visits. This series reflects the initial results of that process.

My main interest, as with my other research, is in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it would be absurd to ignore Peter the Great’s three-month stay in London in 1698, so that is my starting point. I then move on to more familiar territory, and many of the first set of posts I’ll be publishing relate to the almost twelve years that Alexander Herzen spent in London. Herzen was a significant figure among the European radicals who settled in England following the failure of the 1848 revolutions, but E. H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles (1933) aside, he has received relatively little attention in this context. A recent collection of essays on the subject, Exiles from European Revolutions: Refugees in Mid-Victorian England, ed. Sabine Freitag (Oxford: Berghahn, 2003), has only a handful of references to him. I hope my work will help restore him to his rightful position.

A lot of the other Russian visitors to London in that period, Dostoevsky included, came specifically to see Herzen, so in addition to to these two figures, there will therefore be posts on Tolstoy, Bakunin and Turgenev. The latter’s visits continued long after Herzen’s departure, creating a bridge to the next significant wave of Russian visitors: the radicals who took up residence in the 1880s following the assassination of Alexander II and the collapse of Narodnaia volia (The People’s Will). Only one representative of that group is included in the present set, but the one who had the longest-standing connection with London: Kropotkin. A future set of posts will feature some of Kropotkin’s colleagues, including Stepniak-Kravchinsky, and the subsequent generation of revolutionaries. The final post in the current batch will be on Solov’ev, who doesn’t fit neatly into any category. He did have contacts in London, though, including Olga Novikova, the notorious right-wing journalist and mouthpiece of the Russian government, but she will have to wait for another day.

My approach differs from subject to subject, depending on what type of resources are available, and also, I have to admit, on my interest in the figures in question. I will never be able to garner a great deal of enthusiasm for Turgenev, so the post on him seems perhaps more of an academic exercise than some of the others. In any case he is, in this context, mainly significant for his wide range of acquaintances among the cultural and political elite, whereas my focus is generally on the more substantial traces provided by connections with places. Whether that involves poring over maps, both contemporary and historical, and gazetteers – of which I’ve done a good deal – or visiting the places in question, my aim has been to collect and present information on Russian visitors’ interactions with the city itself. For that reason, I will be presenting a map annotated with details of the Russian associations, which I will update to coincide with the publication of each post – there will be a link at the top of the page. My thanks to John Levin for his help in deploying the map.

‘Russians in London’ is very much a work in progress, and I envisage it continuing for some time. I’m in the process of researching another 7 or 8 figures and groups from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are numerous other visitors that I haven’t even begun to investigate. Chernyshevsky’s brief visit in 1859 may well have to go by the wayside, as practically nothing seems to be known about it. But at present I don’t know whether there’s enough material available to make posts on Mikhail Katkov or Nikolai Nekrasov, for example, viable. My hope is that over time I will be able to fill in the gaps and produce as complete a picture as possible. That may also involve returning to some of the figures included in the current set as more details come to light.

All the portraits and 19th-century illustrations included in the posts are in the public domain. All other photographs were taken by me, and are covered by my usual Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative works 2.0 England and Wales License, unless otherwise stated.

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  1. Walk through the sites of revolutionary thinking, 23 November | Notes of an idealist

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