Novels are a second reality, and in the absence of the first reality they do serve a source of information. Foreign readers have until now drawn ideas about the Russian national character from Russian novels in particular. The article about this surprising phenomenon was published by Vsevolod Bagno, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the “Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences”.
There are countries, the idea about which has been formed for centuries by literature, among other things. We draw information from the medieval literature of China, Persia and Japan, fairy-tales of “Arabian Nights”, “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, works by many other authors. However, there are countries, where literature practically does not participate in the image formation. Russia belonged to them till the end of the XIXth century. Some definite notions about Russia emerged in the West in the era of Peter’s the Great reforms. During the reign of Nicholas I, Russian foreign policy was based on the imperial idea, which in combination with Slavophilism created the myth about the “Russian threat”. However, during the last decades the XIXth century, the first translations of Russian novels into European languages appeared, and foreign readers discovered quite a different country.
Russian literature and culture received hot feedback in Europe, as they were simultaneously similar to western ones and unlike them, and even Orthodoxy, the foundation of the Russian culture, had common nature with western Christianity, at the same time being different from it. The first foreign readers of Russian novels did not probably realize that they dealt with the artistic picture of the world, but not with reality itself. Nevertheless, henceforward this artistic picture created to a great extent the notion about the Russian national character and the Russian people. Russia has only gained benefits from it as the first ideas about the country were formed with its own assistance, i.e., not only by efforts of foreign politicians, publicists and travellers but also by those of Russian people.
However, literature is a wide field for creating myths. One of the best remembered and viable myths is the idea about mysterious Russian soul. Besides, a translated novel is perceived by readers of a different culture with inevitable distortions, and the creative work starts to evoke associations, which could in no way be the author’s intention. In Spain, for instance, the translation of “Anna Karenina” had great success, but the most heated discussion were provoked by Karenin’s behavior, who forgave the infidel wife. But in India, the attention was drawn to the immoral behavior of a married woman, and the novel had not been translated for a long time, despite Tolstoy’s enormous fame as a thinker.
So far, Russian classical literature has been popular in the West, but as a source of notion about the country it undoubtedly yields to mass media, which create negative image of Russia. That is why the question by a foreign teacher - specialist in Russian philology, “Why did Raskolnikov kill the moneylender old woman?” can unfortunately be answered as follows, “Because he is Russian.”.
However, works by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are still being read, and in many respects thanks to them Russia is now perceived as one of few contemporary countries not only taking something from other nations but also offering new spiritual, ideological and aesthetic guidelines.