Since (and even before) our founding in 1932, Folger Shakespeare Library staff has come together with a wide variety of arts and humanities organizations to celebrate the powerful nature of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Shakespeare’s works represent a literary place to which many of us turn in times of turmoil, both personal and on a broader stage. His works have been used to support many different viewpoints, and many different types of causes—regardless of what use Shakespeare’s words have been made to serve, we can agree that they are powerful and compelling in the hands of orators and writers.
The Folger Institutional Archives are full of documentation showing individuals and institutions reaching out to us in friendship, based on what Shakespeare meant to them. Recently, I dove into the portion of our archives from World War II, searching for a list of collection items that were sent away from the Folger for their preservation and safety. The story of the items that were shipped in secret by train away from the tempting target of the nation’s capital and up to Massachusetts shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is fascinating in its own right, but today’s post focuses on a different aspect of the Folger’s wartime experience—an unexpected letter from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In late 1942, almost one year after the United States entered the war, Joseph Quincy Adams (Director of the Folger from 1934-1946) received an unsolicited declaration of friendship from a group of Soviet scholars, critics, and actors. The First Secretary of the USSR’s embassy here in D.C., Vladimir Bazykin, passed on their greetings, and offered to facilitate the Folger’s response should we wish to make one. You can read the declaration, signed by Russia’s “Sarah Bernhardt,” Aleksandra Yablochkina, and several others below, along with Bazykin’s offer and our Director’s response.
Shakespeare’s works likely first came to Russia and neighboring countries in the mid-17th century through troupes of actors who traveled into the Baltic regions, but they didn’t really catch on until later in the 18th century. With an influx of French culture, translations of Shakespeare’s works finally began circulating, and Catherine the Great even penned her own adaptations of Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens (though she banned Julius Caesar). Knowledge of and admiration for Shakespeare grew through the following centuries, influencing well-known literary figures such as Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev. Of course, not all Russian writers and thinkers shared that admiration—Tolstoy apparently detested the plays, the playwright, and their good reputation, writing in 1906 that “free-minded individuals, not inoculated with Shakespeare-worship, are no longer to be found in our Christian society.”
Overall, however, Shakespeare has been as admired and imitated in Russia, as elsewhere in the world. During the difficult times surrounding the Second World War, Boris Pasternak (best known as the author of Doctor Zhivago) translated many of the more popular Shakespeare plays as a means to criticize the oppression of Stalin (though he was forced to edit them considerably). Unable to publish his own work, Pasternak was able to speak, at least somewhat, through the mouth of a man who had been dead for three hundred years.1 Pasternak’s contemporaries, the Soviet actors, scholars, and theatrical critics who signed the letter to Joseph Quincy Adams and the Folger Shakespeare Library, clearly also found strength and inspiration in Shakespeare’s words to continue fighting fascism: writing that “today the sublime idealism embodied in the works of Shakespeare serves as a living bond for the unity of all progressive mankind in the tremendous battle against the dark forces of violence and falsehood.” Of course, at the end of World War II, many anti-fascists, intellectuals, artists, ex-POWs, and other Russian citizens ended up persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured by their own government.
But, their statement remains as true today as it ever was, and this exchange serves to highlight how (regardless of national allegiance, race, or ethnicity) literature and art remain vital to our understanding of the human condition, of one another, and of what we might achieve together. In his response, Joseph Quincy Adams pledged to help uphold institutions dedicated to literature and the arts, in order to help make “a fine and free culture in which all nations may find a unifying bond of sympathy and understanding.” Staff at the Folger, whether in our Theater, our Education Department, or here in Central Library, is proud to continue this legacy.
Butchard, Dorothy. “Why Shakespeare is an Honorary Russian.” Russia Beyond the Headlines, November 1, 2016.
Correspondence with Vladimir Bazykin, 1942. Folger Institutional Archives. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC.
Dickson, Andrew. “As they like it: Shakespeare in Russia.” The Calvert Journal, 2015.
Makaryk, Irena. “Russia and the Former Soviet Union.” In The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson, Stanley Wells, Will Sharpe, and Erin Sullivan. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Tolstoy, Leo. “On Shakespeare and the Drama.” The Fortnightly Review, n.s. 480 (1906): 963-983.