Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Until today, Britain has been a member of the European Union for almost 47 years. Only people in their mid-fifties can have accurate memories of British life before accession to the Common Market. In Russian terms, 47 years is just short of the time between the Battle of Stalingrad and the collapse of the Soviet Union. No one would dispute that those 47 years mark off two totally different worlds, but plenty of people are ready to think that life before Britain’s EU (EEC) membership is instantly familiar and easy to recover.
These are gloomy thoughts, and I’ve been reading a few pages of Siegfried Sassoon every day to distract myself from them. I’ve noticed two things. One is his preoccupation with the passage of time. He captures with mesmerizing fluency places that recently existed but have really gone forever. The other is his vantage point on the periphery of Europe.
Sassoon during the First World War
(image in public domain)
Sassoon was obsessed with the recent past. Not as a phenomenon to explain or describe, but as a place to inhabit. In 1937, when he was middle-aged, he travelled back to his childhood house and imagined the people who filled his life forty years earlier. He takes in the whole scene: a tutor here, his mother there, a servant running down the hall. ‘And then’, he writes, ‘an unexpected gust of wind slams the door on the past.’
He seems ineffably English, perched only on the edge of Europe. But the periphery of the continent has always been as European as its centre. Sassoon’s life was European, whether he was fighting Germans in France, consuming imports from abroad, or experiencing other countries’ cultures.
On a summer’s evening in 1914, Siegfried Sassoon was walking through London on his way to Covent Garden. He was wearing his ‘smartest clothes’, including a top hat (what Russians call a ‘cylinder’), with a scarlet carnation in his buttonhole and a cane in his hand. He had taken tea with his great-aunt at Garland’s Hotel, bumped into his former housemaster on St James’s Street, gone back to his rooms at Gray’s Inn for two boiled eggs, and then set off for a gala of the Russian ballet. Sassoon was a gentleman of leisure with a passion for fox-hunting; he was also a struggling poet, intellectually self-deprecating, with conventional musical tastes. He was not sure of what to expect. Russia offered an evening of exotica, not quite the usual thing, but no doubt within the bounds of comprehensibility.
As we wonder what will happen to post-EU Britain, history might be a useless guide, at least if we are looking for parallel situations or data that we can apply. After all, when it comes to moments of major change, you can choose what you want from the past to illustrate the future that you would like to predict. ‘No one could tell what was going to happen any more than I could see beyond our safe-looking hills,’ Sassoon pointed out. But we can still read him with eyes on the future. Sassoon warns us that time passes quickly, old worlds disappear, but that Europe — from Covent Garden to the Bolshoi Theatre — is inescapable, surprising, and always recognizable.