From the archive
In tsarist times Russian liberals based themselves in London; in Soviet times Russians who wanted uncensored news secretly tuned in to the World Service; today those who fall out with Putin, such as Berezovsky, instinctively flee to London. The place is fetishised by liberal Russians and loathed by advocates of the authoritarian tradition. But dissidents make up only a tiny percentage of anglophiles. Many of the Russians in London make their money in Russia and work hand in glove with the Putinoids. But they want their children to go to British schools, and keep their money in British banks and property. There’s a sense that Britain, unlike Russia, is inherently stable and reliable. The Russian idiom ‘as safe as an English bank’ isn’t ironic.
One reason for the widespread anglophilia is that many of the most popular TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s were beautifully produced adaptations of 19th and early 20th-century British writers: Brandon Thomas, Stevenson, Charles Snow, Priestley, Chesterton, and a terrific version of Sherlock Holmes. This is the TV that Russians who still remember the USSR grew up on, and their ‘light’ reading was full of Walter Scott, Dickens, Galsworthy, Jerome, Kipling. The historian Kirill Kobrin has called the phenomenon ‘late Soviet Victorianism’. One reason for it is that during the Brezhnev ‘stagnation’, most Russians privately stopped believing in Soviet myths and identities. Anglophilia offered a covert way of reconnecting to pre-revolutionary social forms officially censured by the ruling ideology.
Under Putin, the nostalgia has come out of the closet: members of the new Russian elite obsessively try to trace their family trees to pre-revolutionary aristocrats, and ape their manners; in international relations, Russia now thinks of the world in terms of 19th-century spheres of influence and great power politics. In this hyper-real recreation of the 19th-century worldview, Britain resumes its role as the ultimate imperial rival. So England is adored for allowing Russia to reconnect to its 19th-century identity, but then hated when a version of that identity is performed in the political sphere.