Friday, January 04, 2013

Russian Emigrants: 'Shiftless and undependable'.

WS Maugham.

There is a persistent romanticised view of the Russian post-Revolution emigration: the noble, impoverished and dignified in their suffering intellectuals fleeing the horrors of bolshevist regime.

The reality was, of course, far from romantic. And by the end of 1930s the attitude to Russian emigrants had changed.

W Somerset Maugham's novel Christmas Holiday (1939) is an exploration of the Raskolnikov question, first articulated by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment: can you kill a fellow human being to prove yourself that you can and in doing so to prove that you are a superior being. An experiment that was part of the revolutionary psychology.

Christmas Holiday is one of the most 'Russian' works of Maugham. Possibly, more insightful than Ashenden, the writer's account of his work as the British secret agent in Russia in 1917. The book is full of witty observations on Russians and comparisons with the English and the French.  

One of the main characters in the book is Lydia, a young Russian woman who works in an upmarket brothel under the name of 'Princess Olga'. It is through her that Maugham makes his comments.

This one is when Charley, an Englishman who comes to Paris to spend Christmas, meets Lydia:

Tell the Princess Olga to come here." Then to Charley: "She's Russian. Of course since the revolution we have been swamped with Russians, we're fed to the teeth with them and their Slav temperament; for a time the clients were amused by it, but they're tired of them now. And then they're not serious. They're noisy and quarrelsome. The truth is, they're barbarians, and they don't know how to behave. But Princess Olga is different. She has principles. You can see that she's been well brought up. She has something, there's no denying it.

And later in the book, when we learn more about Lydia:

It was true that her father had been a professor of some small distinction at the university, but in Russia, before the revolution, and since then Paris swarmed with princes and counts and guardsmen who were driving taxis or doing manual labour. Everyone looked upon the Russians as shiftless and undependable. People were sick of them. Lydia's mother, whose grandfather had been a serf, was herself hardly more than a peasant, and the professor had married her in accordance with his liberal principles; but she was a pious woman and Lydia had been brought up with strict principles. It was in vain that she reasoned with herself; it was true that the world was different now and one must move with the times: she could not help it, she had an instinctive horror of becoming a man's mistress.
Later in the book we discover that Lydia is in fact different from other Russians, or at least doesn't fit with the stereotype that had formed, according to Maugham, among the French.

The full text of the novel is here (link takes to the passage quoted in this post) and a Russian translation is here.  

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