A People Passing Rude
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16.  Russia and Russian Culture in The Criterion, 1922-1939

Olga Ushakova

In 1922 T.S. Eliot founded The Criterion as an international literary review with the aim of introducing the literatures and cultures of different countries and to discuss cultural, social and political problems of global relevance. In ‘Last Words’, his farewell ‘Commentary’ published in The Criterion’s final issue in January 1939, Eliot emphasized the international mission of his periodical: ‘It was the aim of The Criterion to maintain close relations with other literary reviews of its type, on the Continent and in America; and to provide in London a local forum of international thought’.1 The international character of Eliot’s literary review set it apart from the traditional type of British quarterly. The Criterion became the practical embodiment of modernist universalism and cosmopolitanism, the realization of Eliot’s concept of ‘the mind of Europe’. The presentation of Russia and Russian culture played an important part in the journal’s international programme.

The main themes of the ‘Russian items’ were the country’s classical and contemporary literature, its arts and philosophy, as well as the political situation in the USSR and debates on Communism and Socialism. The themes and content of the pieces published and the range of names and subjects treated reflected the historical and social changes of the period. The sixteen years of The Criterion reflected also global changes in intellectual and artistic output which required new images and words. The dancing of Russian ballet stars during the Diagilev seasons in the reviews of the 1920s, for example, gave way in the 1930s to beating drums and Stalin shaking hands with the Arctic heroes on the Red Square (the poem ‘Chelyuskin’) and to new songs about Lenin sung by folk bards, (‘ashugs’, ‘bakhshis’, ‘hafizes’) in the Soviet Far North, Middle Asia and the Caucasian highlands.2 ‘Russia’ was present throughout the life of The Criterion, beginning with the first volume in October 1922 (F.M. Dostoevskii’s Plan of the Novel ‘The Life of a Great Sinner’, translated by V. Woolf and S.S. Kotelianskii),3 to the very last issue of January 1939 that offered a review of Sergei Bulgakov’s The Wisdom of God, a Brief Summary of Sophiology by G. Curtis.4 In general, the subjects and themes of the articles reflected the three main elements of Russian influence on Western and English modern culture: Russian Literature, Russian Ballet and the Russian Revolution.

Russia and Russian culture were presented in various genres: the short stories and letters of Russian writers, poems on Russian themes, essays of literary criticism, articles on the political situation in Russia, notes on Communism and Socialism, chronicles of cultural life in the Soviet Union (‘Russian chronicles’) and reviews of Russian periodicals, reviews of Russian books and monographs on Russia by Western scholars. What follows is merely a selection from a very long list of titles spanning a wide range of genres: short stories (Ivan Bunin’s ‘A Night at Sea’, translated by N.A. Duddington, April 1926; Panteleimon Romanov’s ‘A Catastrophe’, translated by E. Vishnevskaia, January 1931); essays (V.I. Pudovkin’s, ‘Acting—The Cinema v. The Theatre’ (October 1933)); poems on Russian/Soviet themes (Hugh McDiarmid’s ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’, July 1932; Michael Roberts’ ‘Chelyuskin’, January 1936); literary criticism (C.M. Bowra’s ‘The Position of Alexander Blok’, April 1932; D.A. Traversi’s ‘Dostoievsky’, July 1937); reviews of books by Russian/Soviet authors (Vasilii Rozanov’s Solitaria (February 1928); Dmitrii Merezhkovskii’s Napoleon. A Study (April 1930); Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (April 1932); Lev Shestov’s In Job’s Balances (June 1933); Nikolai Berdiaev’s The Bourgeois Mind (April 1935); Karel Radek’s Portraits and Pamphlets (July 1935); Dmitrii Mirskii’s The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (July 1935); N.I. Bukharin’s Marxism and Modern Thought (January 1936)); reviews of books on Russia and Russian culture (H. L’Anson Fausset’s Tolstoy: The Inner Drama (January 1928); P. Istrati’s Russia Unveiled (July 1931); C.F.A. Maitland-Macgill-Crichton’s Russian Close-up (July 1932); W. Gurian’s Bolshevism: Theory and Practice (January 1933); M. Muggeridge’s Winter in Moscow (July 1934); S. and B. Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation (April 1936); Prince P. Levin’s The Birth of Ballet-Russes (October 1936); B. King’s Changing Man: The Soviet Education System (January 1937)).

The articles on Russia reflect dominant preoccupations of the time, particularly the widespread interest in literary theory (cf. Boris Eikhenbaum’s Tolstoi’s ‘War and Peace’, No. 42, October 1931) and cinema (cf. Pudovkin’s already mentioned essay on film theory). By the time of this publication Vsevolod Pudovkin was already known in England as a director and theorist, not least for his book Film Technique, translated into English in 1933 by the British director Ivor Montagu. In the essay he published in The Criterion Pudovkin reviews his experience as a director. His piece starts by emphasizing that a film actor should not over-perform or exaggerate his gestures, as he might in the theatre:

It was clear to me that the man before the cine-camera must behave differently from the man behind the footlights […] In the cinema […] the camera commands an ever-changing distance. It takes the spectator face to face with the actor, and, at will, makes the actor a mere speck on the horizon. The actor is thus freed from the necessity of overcoming distances. His slightest movement is conveyed to the spectator, not because he exaggerates it, but because it is stressed by the camera which is the eye of the audience drawing nearer.5

Pudovkin also discussed his theory of ‘Montage’, explaining that directors use this technique to reveal the character’s psychology by focusing on small details and shades of expression. Thus at the editing table the director is able to highlight emotional moments and create a new psychological and aesthetic reality: ‘When I am speaking of realism I mean pieces of reality, which has nothing to do with the copying of actuality’.6 Pudovkin’s essay provided an important contribution to the theory of film-making, later echoed in film reviews published in The Criterion.

Articles on Russian topics followed the changing features of British public interest in Russia. For instance, the 1920s issues of the journal clearly reflect the British cult of Dostoevskii between 1912 and the early 1920s.7 It is generally accepted that that Dostoevskii’s fame in England swelled after the appearance of Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov in 1912. By the 1920s most Dostoevskii’s works had been translated into English. The zenith of his cult coincided with the time of the First World War being the important catalyst of the tragic events and global social and psychological changes. The 1920s became the period of reconsideration and re-reading of his heritage. The Dostoevskii’s publications in The Criterion reflected this process of more thorough and detached interpretation of his works. It was also important to present some new ‘artifacts’ to the readers. Thus the first volume of The Criterion (October 1922) introduced the English translation of Dostoevskii’s Plan of the Novel ‘The Life of a Great Sinner’. It was in this same issue that one of the most ‘Dostoevskian’ of Eliot’s poems, The Waste Land, was also published. Eliot’s masterpiece reveals the influence of Dostoevskii’s Weltenschauung on the English poet’s idea of the decline of Europe. Moreover modern Russia, seen through the prism of Dostoevskii’s art, plays a role in the poem. In lines 368-76 Eliot describes the collapse of Western civilization:

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only.

The reference to H. Hesse’s A Glimpse into Chaos, specifically the passage in which the German writer analyzed Dmitrii Karamazov’s song in the contemporary historical context (the Russian Revolution), demonstrates that Eliot’s take on Russia and Dostoevskii shared widespread stereotypes among contemporary Western intellectuals. In particular Eliot’s mystical urban visions of London in The Waste Land recall Dostoevskii’s descriptions of Petersburg. Like Dostoevskii Eliot combined biblical imagery and mythological patterns to condemn social inequality.

This ‘Hesse-Dostoevskii’ influence in The Waste Land is testified by Eliot’s thoughts and reflections on the Russian Revolution and the political situation in Russia—which he also expressed in regular editorial commentaries appearing in subsequent issues of The Criterion. In the fragment of A Commentary entitled ‘Light from the East’ (January 1925) Eliot mentions: ‘A revolution staged on such a vast scale, amongst a picturesque, violent, and romantic people; involving such disorder, rapine, assassination, starvation, and plague should have something to show for the expense: a new culture horrible at the worst, but in any event fascinating’.8 ‘Hooded hordes’ is a poetic image of the Asian threat and the downfall of Europe—the ‘Asiatic Ideal’ that Hesse borrowed from Dostoevskii. In his editorial commentary (August 1927) Eliot writes about a new feeling of insecurity and danger, warning Europeans to develop a new European consciousness to guard their culture against the Asian spirit of the Russian Revolution: ‘For the Russian Revolution has made men of the position of Western Europe as (in Valéry’s words) a small and isolated cape on the western side of the Asiatic Continent’.9

In the first issue of The Criterion Eliot was even more Dostoevskian. In his letter to Hesse of 13 March 1922 the poet wrote:

I have now been entrusted with the founding, in London, of a new, serious review, which will, at any rate, be more important than the existing ones, and much more welcoming to the ideas from abroad. My first thought was to ask for one or two sections of Blick ins Chaos. Unfortunately, the ‘Karamazov’ section is too long for a single issue (only 80 pages in all), and since the review is to appear only once three months, we can hardly subdivide the text. And the ‘Muishkine’ section, I think, should not be separated from the other. But I am sure that you must have many other equally important writings, that I should very much like to be the first to present to the British public […] I find in your Blick ins Chaos a seriousness the like of which has not yet occurred in England, and I am keen to spread the reputation of the book.10

In the same issue Eliot published Hesse’s essay ‘On Recent German Poetry’, in which the German writer developed ideas first aired in Blick ins Chaos. The last paragraph in particular paraphrases the opening paragraph of ‘The Brothers Karamazov—The Downfall of Europe’:

And the new psychology, whose harbingers were Dostoievsky and Nietzche, and whose first architect is Freud, will teach these young men that the emancipation of the personality, the canonization of the natural instincts, are only the first steps on the way, and that this personal freedom is a poor thing and of no account in comparison with the highest of all freedoms of the individual: the freedom to regard oneself consciously and joyously as a part of humanity, and to serve it with liberated powers.11

The last article on Dostoevskii to appear in The Criterion was a critical essay by D.A. Traversi—‘Dostoievsky’ (July 1937),12—discussing M. (sic) Berdiaev’s book on Dostoevskii:

It is interesting to see how this observation connects Dostoievsky with a theme essential to English literature, especially in the metaphysical tradition. Shakespeare and Donne were also occupied with the contradiction essential to human passion—the contradiction between the desire for absolute unity which prompts it, and the final independence of the separate personality upon which that desire breaks. But in the great English poets the contradiction is resolved by the intensity of emotion. The element of separation by ‘devouring’ time is seen as necessary to a greater intensity of living, as the condition of a new life of ‘sensation’ (using the word to imply a completeness of human experience, bodily, mental, and spiritual), whose value is absolute. Dostoievsky’s ‘metaphysical’ impatience made such a conception impossible for him.13

In his resumé Traversi adopts traditional British stereotypes of Russian writers: ‘The finding of criticism, I suggest, is that Dostoievsky was the master of all explorers of physical and spiritual disorder, and that his findings expose an erring adventure in human experience—the experiment, ultimately, of replacing the true balance of living by the despotic activity of the independent mind’.14 His interpretation of Dostoevskii in the context of the metaphysical tradition chimes with Eliot’s vision of Dostoevskii as a metaphysical author. As we know from a note by American scholar Ronald Schuchard, Eliot planned to publish a further piece on Doestoevskii based on a lecture on Chapman, Dostoevskii and Dante that he gave at Cambridge University in November of 1924.15

Eliot may have planned to write further articles on Dostoevskii for The Criterion as we can infer from his letter to Kotelianskii dated 23 May 1927:

Dear Koteliansky, I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long but have been exceedingly busy as I understand that you are particularly anxious to know about the ‘Rozanov’. I am sending it back to you. It may be merely that I do not understand it. As for ‘Dostoevsky’, that is quite another matter to me and I have simply been waiting to clear up the next two numbers in order to consider how and when I should be able to use it. I am probably going away for a few days but I should very much like to see you on my return.16

The correspondence between Eliot and Kotelianskii in the years 1923-7 reflects some of the tensions encountered by the Russian in its dealings with The Criterion—for example on the occasions when Kotelianskii’s pieces were rejected by the journal. However, notwithstanding the occasional disagreements, Kotelianskii and the other Russian contributors to the journal, Mirskii and Cournos, played the important role of mediators between Russian (Soviet) and British culture.

Mirskii, in particular, was the author of several articles and reviews, as well as the subject of reviews of his work.17 The Criterion, in its turn, seems to have influenced Mirskii in more ways than one. For example the format of Versty, a magazine co-founded by Mirskii in Paris in 1926-8 while he was working at The Criterion,18 seems to be modelled on the English periodical. Although the chief editors of Versty, Mirskii and Petr Suvchinskii, launched Versty as a vehicle for the dissemination of Eurasian ideas in actual fact the journal soon became a cosmopolitan forum for a wide range of political and artistic ideas.19 The most distinctive feature of the 1927 issues of Versty, for instance, was the participation of a number of non-Russian critics, such as Bernard Groethuysen, Ramon Fernandez and many others. Among the most remarkable articles to appear that year was the essay by E.M. Forster, ‘Contemporary English Literature’ and Mirskii’s review of The Book of the Bear, edited by Jane Harrison and Hope Mirrlees20 in which Mirskii introduced the works of the British authors to Russian readers. Interestingly Mirskii writes about writers whose names often appeared in The Criterion. In the review mentioned above, for example, Mirskii analyzes Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, works by James Joyce, and describes The Golden Bough as ‘the Bible of anthropology and symbolic book of English literature’. The two writers were further mentioned in Mirskii’s review of contemporary French journals (where translations of Eliot and Joyce had appeared) and in an essay marking the fifth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses.

John Cournos (Johann Gregorievich Korschoon, as he introduced himself in his Autobiography)21 was the most active Russian contributor to The Criterion, the author of numerous reviews of Russian periodicals and analytical essays. Cournos was a man of exceptional gifts, with a wide range of interests. Among his works were novels, poems, writings on literature, art, politics, and translations of Russian literature. Cournos became a regular reviewer of Russian periodicals starting from June 1926 when his first article on Russian literary journal appeared. The piece was devoted to the January-February issue of Blagonamerennyi, a journal published by Russian émigrés. Cournos rates this number of the journal as ‘excellent’ and analyses some contributions by leading Soviet critics and authors: ‘an amusing article’ on ‘Proletarian Lyricism’ by K. Mochulskii and ‘a particularly terse and valuable’ article, ‘On the Present State of Russian Literature’, by Prince D. Sviatopolk-Mirskii. Other ‘interesting features’ he recommends include the article ‘A Theatre Without a Repertory’ by E.A. Znosko-Borovskii, aphoristic thoughts ‘Concerning Gratitude’ by Marina Tsvetaeva, and fragments of a travel diary by Ivan Bunin.

Cournos wrote a succession of reviews on Russian literary periodicals, newspapers and ‘thick journals’ (‘tolstie zhurnali’, a term alluding to their usually 200-plus pages per issue. Many novels, short stories, poems were first published in such journals). For instance, in his review published in October 1936 Cournos introduces to British readers the leading Soviet journals Literaturnyi kritik and Oktiabr’ and the newspaper Literaturnaia gazeta. Cournos also analyses in detail 3 articles published in Literaturnyi kritik: the opening commentary of the March issue, devoted to the polemics on ‘formalism’ and ‘naturalism’, a literary-historical study by G. Lukitch on ‘The Intellectual Countenance of the Literary Hero’, and ‘an extensive consideration’ by Selivanovskii of the new novel by a Soviet writer, Leonid Leonov. In his review, supported by numerous quotations translated into English,. Cournos emphasises the excellent quality of the journal, ‘perhaps indicative of the general upward trend in criticism during the past year or two, which no observer can have failed to notice’.22

In his essay ‘Russian Chronicle: Soviet Russia and the Literature of Ideas’ (January 1935) Cournos focuses on Russian literature in the early 1930s. He examines the issue of the relationship between literature and the social and political context and identifies the social message as the basis of Soviet literature. Cournos also provides a survey of the first Congress of Soviet Writers of 1934, which he considers ‘an event of outstanding importance’, and comments ironically about the famous characterization of a Soviet writer as ‘an engineer of human souls’: ‘[…] Stalin provided the slogan of the Congress in the phrase, ‘the writer is the engineer of the spirit’. In the old days the word would have been ‘priest’, but Russia is ‘engineer-mad’—so I am told by a returned traveller—and Stalin’s word, in any case, more aptly describes the mood of the new Russia, building on materialist doctrines and attaching the greatest significance to technical achievements’.23

Although the critic strives to look at Soviet literature with appreciation Cournos’s tone is polemical, his literary judgements often sarcastic and his appreciation is for contemporary writers belonging to the pre-Soviet tradition: ‘With a free conscience one may affirm that what has been good in the literature of Soviet Russia during the past several years—and I have such names in mind as Babel, Pasternak, Sholokhov, Leonov, Ivanov, Alekseyev, etc.—is something that belongs to the old rather than to the new, to tradition rather than to Communism’.24 He concludes his essay informing readers about the death of Andrei Bely. In Cournos’s opinion ‘as thinker and writer, he was infinitely greater than either Bunin or Gorky’,25 drawing comparisons between Bely’s Petersburg (which Cournos was to translate in 1959) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The article contains deep insights on the historic, philosophic and aesthetic aspects of the so-called ‘Russian tragedy’ embodied in Bely’s novels Petersburg and Silver Dove.

Fascinating material can be found in Cournos’s essay ‘Myth in the Making’, in which he attacks the creation of the Lenin myth in Soviet Russia. Cournos remarks, with a sarcastic reference to Greek mythology: ‘As for the connection of the Lenin legend with literature, it is true—the critics of Soviet Russia frankly admit—that no Homer has yet arisen adequately to sing the epic of his or Russia’s deeds begun in 1917’.26 The closing paragraphs of the essay provide the English translations and an ironical commentary of two folklore songs about Lenin, ‘A Kirgiz Song’ and ‘A Ferghana Folk Song’, as examples of the new Communist mythology.

It should be noted that many passages in Cournos’s articles are the result of deeply-felt experience, rather than academic debate. In 1917 Cournos joined the Anglo-Russian Commission sent by the Foreign Office to Petrograd to observe the Bolshevik Revolution and returned home with a very pessimistic view of events. The immediate outcome of his experience was a pamphlet London under the Bolshevics: Londoner’s Dream on Returning from Petrograd (1919), where he describes ‘the realities of the Bolshevist nightmare’. In The Criterion Cournos also published a number of book reviews on works describing life in Soviet Russia, including New Russia by A. De Monzie, Youth in Soviet Russia by K. Menhert, and Winter in Russia by M. Muggeridge.27 The last review by Cournos of Russian periodicals appeared in January 1938.

The quantity, variety and intellectual and artistic quality of the articles published in The Criterion provide not only a record of Russian history and culture but were instrumental in shaping the perception and reception of Russian culture in Great Britain.


  1   The Criterion: The Collected Edition, XVIII (London, 1967), p. 271.

  2   See the essay ‘Myth in the Making’ by John Cournos, published in January 1934. The Criterion: The Collected Edition, XIII (London, 1967), pp. 225-9.

  3   The Criterion, I (London, 1967), pp. 16-33.

  4   The Criterion, XVIII (London, 1967), pp. 346-50.

  5   The Criterion, XIII (London, 1967), p. 1.

  6   Ibid., XIII (London, 1967), p. 3.

  7   The ‘Dostoevskii’ publications included F. Dostoevskii: Two Unpublished Letters (No. 3, April 1923), L.N. Tolstoi and N.N. Strakhov: Extracts from Letter relating to F.M. Dostoevskii (No, 10, January 1925), Dostoevskii on ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (No. 3, June 1926), a review of the book Dostoevskii Portrayed by his Wife, edited by S.S. Kotelianskii (no. 4, October 1926). On the popularity and literary influence of Dostoevsii in Great Britain see also Muireann Maguire, ‘Crime and Publishing: How Dostoevskii Changed the British Murder’ in this volume.

  8   The Criterion, III (London, 1967), p. 163.

  9   Ibid., VI (London, 1967), p. 98.

10   The Letters of T.S. Eliot, I (1898-1922) (San Diego, New York and London, 1988), p. 510.

11   The Criterion, I (London, 1967), p. 93.

12   The Criterion, XVI (London, 1967), p. 585-602.

13   Ibid., XVI (London, 1967), p. 601.

14   Ibid., p. 602.

15   ‘TSE gave his lecture on Chapman before the Cam Literary Club at Cambridge University on 8 November 1924 […]. On 12 November TSE wrote to Virginia Woolf that after all the labour it had not proved worthy of publication, and on 30 November he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, pleased that she liked some poems that he had sent: ‘They are part of a larger sequence which I am doing—I laid down the principles of it in a paper I read at Cambridge, on Chapman, Dostoevskii and Dante - and which is a sort of avocation to a much more revolutionary thing I am working on’. He planned to revise and publish the essay in The Criterion, where he announced to his readers that due to illness the editor had been ‘unable to prepare his essay on ‘A Neglected Aspect of George Chapman’ for this number’ (April 1925, p. 341). The essay is lost, but TSE may have given a summary of it in a review, ‘Wanley and Chapman’ (TLS, 31 December 1925, p. 907). […].TSE did not return to the manuscript […]’. T.S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, edited and introduced by Ronald Schuchard (San Diego, New York and London, 1996), pp. 151-2.

16   British Library, Koteliansky Papers. F. 107. Add. 48974.

17   Most notably a review of Mirskii’s seminal A History of Russian Literature to 1881 was published in June 1928.

18   Mirskii’s essay ‘Chekhov and the English’, for instance, appeared in October 1927.

19   For example, the second edition of Versty contained some English materials, including Mirskii’s review of T.S. Eliot’s Poems, 1905-1925.

20   Versty, 2, 1927, pp. 240-6; Versty, 3, 1928, pp. 158-160.

21   John Cournos, Autobiography (New York, 1935), p. 8. See also on John Cournos as a contributor to The Criterion: David Ayers ‘The Criterion and Communism’, in Otobrazhenie i interpretatsiia istorii v kul’ture SShA, ed. Larisa Mikhailova (Moscow, 2001), pp. 302-12.

22   The Criterion, XVI (London, 1967), p. 195.

23   Ibid., XIV (London, 1967), p. 289.

24   Ibid., p. 290.

25   Ibid.

26   The Criterion, XIII (London, 1967), p. 227.

27   Ibid., XII (London, 1967), p. 524; The Criterion, XIII (London, 1967), p. 490; The Criterion, XIII (London, 1967), p. 670.