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Curious incidents: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Russia

Curious incidents: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Russia

After news of the return of BBC series Sherlock prompted rejoicing in Russia, Sam Kinchin-Smith and Nancy Gryspeerdt investigate the origins of Russia's on-going obsession with the great detective

10 July 2014
Text Sam Kinchin-Smith
Text Nancy Gryspeerdt

The announcement last week of the return of the BBC’s Sherlock in 2015 prompted little bubbles of excitement all over the English-language internet. In Russia, however, the imminent return of Benedict Cumberbatch’s contemporary take on the world’s most famous detective prompted a tidal wave of joy and speculation – an outpouring of enthusiasm that represents, in fact, only the latest iteration of the country’s obsessive relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation.

Even before the BBC’s rather contrived Twitter revelation (#221back) the passion for Sherlock (and Sherlock, generally) in Russia was palpable. During a recent trip to Moscow and Irkutsk, every person under the age of 30 had some anecdote about the Sherlock freaks they know doing weird geeky stuff, like writing songs inspired by the syllables of “Cumberbatch”. Each story served to confirm the impression that this is a proactive and deeply rooted cultural phenomenon: spend an afternoon exploring the “Sherlockology” group on the social network VK, with its YouTube videos of Sherlock-inspired flashmobs and Russian girls wishing Cumberbatch happy birthday, and you’ll see what we mean.

This mania is not without precedent, though. It’s reminiscent of another fixation that took hold in Russia at the beginning of the last century – what George Piliev, writing in the introduction to a recent collection of Russian Holmes pastiches translated into English, has termed (rather annoyingly) “Sherlockomania”. The year was 1902, and Holmes had just been “resurrected” by Conan Doyle to star in his first Sherlock story for eight years, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Russian translations of the first wave of Holmes tales had sold modestly, but the reaction to this new work was astonishing: dozens of Russian publishers competed to meet the extraordinary popular demand. One imprint released twenty-eight stories with a combined print run of more than two million copies.

Russian anthologies of Conan Doyle’s stories were published so swiftly that UK and American publishers struggled to keep up, and ended up imitating the Russian editorial selections. Bolstered by a flourishing culture of cheap, titillating ‘penny dreadful’ publishing, an entire genre of proto-fan fiction emerged, with Russian copycats attempting to mimic Conan Doyle. At first their efforts were quite faithful, but soon authors such as P Orlovetz and P Nikitin had Holmes holidaying in Ulyanovsk, Novorossiysk and Tomsk.

“Graphically pornographic slash fiction about Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is all over the Chinese internet”

Of course, Russia wasn’t the only country where Holmes went viral a hundred years ago – just as it isn’t the only audience obsessing over Sherlock. Conan Doyle’s stories have made Danish and Indian publishers an awful lot of money, for instance, and the early 20th-century penny dreadful pastiches that were published in Germany are, by all accounts, even more slavishly devoted to the patterns and nuance of Sherlock’s original Adventures than the Russian ones. Meanwhile, graphically pornographic slash fiction about Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is, supposedly, all over the Chinese internet.

But what makes Russia’s “Sherlockomania” so particularly interesting is the fact that over the past century, it has reared its deerstalkered head again and again. In Russia, Holmes isn’t an imported fad, he’s a cultural cornerstone.

The Sherlockomania of 1902, and the Sherlock-omania of 2010–present, represent only two of the three key peaks in the story of Sherlock Holmes in Russia. Just over halfway between them – and potentially towering higher than either – is the most well known manifestation of the Holmes myth in Russia: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Arguably the most successful television programme of the entire Soviet period, and certainly the definitive Holmes for most Russians (as well as a few British hipsters), it was produced between 1979 and 1986 and reignited the Sherlockian gaslight in Russia, at a time when it had started to flicker.

It wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm for English detective fiction that had resulted in Holmes’s popularity starting to fade – rather, it was precisely the opposite, a glut of bland lookalike literature crowding out Conan Doyle’s sleuth. Despite some Stalinist repression (on account of their dangerously individualistic heroes, and sustained focus on private property) countless English whodunnits were published in the Soviet Union, both famous – more than fifteen of Agatha Christie’s stories were translated into Russian between 1966 and 1970 – and amusingly obscure: Josephine Tey (A Shilling for Candles, anyone?) has been bigger in Russia than she is in the UK for several decades now.

“Russia has frequently found itself fascinated by the ambiguous politics and frumpy fashions of English culture”

Russian affection for the wider genre of Golden Age English detective fiction invites the suggestion that Holmes’s appeal resides, primarily, in its general Englishness rather any particularly unique qualities. After all, according to scholar of the Russian theatre Laurence Senelick, Anglophilia has been a potent undercurrent in Russian culture ever since Peter the Great got so excited about being in diarist John Evelyn’s house in London that he trashed it, “like a rock star in a hotel room”. Russia has frequently found itself fascinated by the ambiguous politics and frumpy fashions of English culture, particularly those which reside in its literature. Russian artists have – according to the recent exhibition at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, English Books in a Russian Style – often relished the opportunity to play with English architecture and landscape with new illustrations of scenes from classic novels and folk tales; Russian teenagers continue to lust after London life; Russian dissidents sought refuge in, of all things, English Nonsense literature throughout the 20th century.

It is, however, an obsession with a mythical, cartoonish version of English etiquette – “merrie olde England”, with its tea, self-deprecating humour and rigid protocols of politeness – that seems to dominate the currents of Russian Anglophilia. Anastasia Klimchynskaya, a Belarusian Sherlock Holmes scholar based in the US, is keen to emphasise the prominence of this dimension in The Adventures: “In the first episode,” she explains, “Watson’s having this traditional English breakfast with a silver teapot and toast and jam and eggs and this whole spread of traditional English food while God Save the Queen or something of that sort plays in the background.”

Igor Maslennikov, director of The Adventures, was quite open about the fact that he played up these tropes in order to remind Russians how much they had missed Holmes. He admitted in an interview that the resemblance between his iconic theme music and a BBC World Service jingle was no accident. Every facet of the programme was designed to “play in the English style”. But these elements of pastiche aren’t the whole story: they don’t explain the unprecedented popularity of The Adventures, and neither do they mean that Sherlockomania as a whole can be situated within the broader sweep of Russian Anglophilia – and its occasionally exciting but usually rather quaint energies.

“Panin’s remarkable Watson looks like a cross between Vladimir Putin and a French clown”

The Adventures are a strange, brilliant and unconventional creation. Placing to one side for a moment the fact that Baker Street looks like (and is) Riga, and Watson’s wardrobe is as exuberantly un-English as the countryside architecture on show in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the adaptations are strikingly, almost unnecessarily, true to the contents of Conan Doyle’s stories – more so than most English adaptations. Similarly, the performances are exceptionally good, occasionally even transcending Conan Doyle’s characterisations. Vasily Livanov, who was awarded an honorary MBE for his Holmes, described his own performance, and that of Vitaly Solomon as Watson, as “remarkable in being very human and convincing” – and he’s not wrong.

More importantly, though, the adaptations have a quality that is uniquely and proudly Russian, a product of a national tradition of avant-garde theatre and actor training that produced directors and teachers like Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov and Maria Knebel, and that places a unique emphasis on timing, gesture and the relationship between psychology and physiology. It manifests flickeringly: in a particularly elegant tableau here, a sustained period of silence there, with a carefully controlled note of farce or some expressionistic lighting in between.

Sherlock Holmes looks good when he’s inserted into many different cultural traditions and vocabularies. In Russian, though, he looks really good. Why is that?

Similar qualities are in evidence in the latest Russian adaption of the Holmes stories, Baker Street 21B, which aired for the first time in November 2013 and is destined for cult status as, amongst other things, acclaimed actor Andrei Panin’s last project – he died a few months before it saw the light of day. Klimchynskaya sees this new version as derivative in a different way: “It gets a lot more influences from recent American and British films and adaptations of Sherlock Holmes than it does from Soviet cinema and the Soviet adaptations,” she suggests, pointing to the eccentric, antisocial Holmes and the prominent role given to Watson – for neither trope appears in the majority of Russian retellings. This, she explains, is all part of a wider trend in Russian television of “trying to emulate the west, making copies of Grey’s Anatomy etc”.

But while its editing, grading and quirkily hyperactive Holmes all certainly point west, Klimchynskaya ignores Baker Street 21B’s altogether Russian overtones. Not only is it really quite bad at being “western” – the music is inaccurate and tremendously uncool, eccentric minor characters (such as a camp morgue technician) are badly judged, and so forth – certain scenes would look completely out of place in the rattling headrush of Sherlock or its American cousin Elementary. Most of these involve Panin’s remarkable Watson, who looks like a cross between Vladimir Putin and a French clown, and whose characterisation is as ponderous as his physical presence is nimble. When, in the first episode, he enters his new bedroom for the first time, rolling off his bag and sitting on his bed, it takes the best part of a minute, and his movements are suffused with the compelling choreography of Moscow’s legendary Vakhtangov Theatre.

“Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories seem to represent a unique vessel in which Russia’s own creative energies can play out”

It is these scenes – slow, intense and deeply theatrical – that are Baker Street 21B’s most successful. That this is the case is an important clue to understanding the success, more generally, of Sherlock Holmes adaptations in Russia. Both The Adventures and Baker Street interact with the source stories (and to some extent, previous adaptations: the latter directly references the former, for example) with a fierce intensity, before transcending them. And this transcendence is achieved in a manner that serves to emphasise what Russia – as famous for its intellectual seriousness and the quality of its actor training as it is maligned for the inferiority of its television – does better, probably, than any other country on earth.

This balance between interaction and transcendence is what makes Sherlock Holmes’s place within Russian Anglophilia as a whole so interesting. Sherlockomania can’t be explained away with reference to politics, fashion or a passive affection for “merrie olde England”; rather, Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories seem to represent a unique vessel (which just happens to be English) in which Russia’s own creative energies can play out, with immensely fruitful resolves – as successive generations of artists and audiences keep discovering. New adaptors may be led to Holmes by unspecific Anglomania, but once they engage with him, they often, quickly, find themselves moving towards something more interesting.

Russian fan art depicting different Sherlocks

Maslennikov once reflected on the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes in Russia in an interview published in Soviet magazine Avrora in 1981: “What is the attractive power of this fictional literary person Sherlock Holmes? What did he catch us with? What is the charm of this hero from short stories which frankly are of average literary quality, set in a past epoch and distant from us geographically?”

He concluded, as indeed did Livanov, that the answer must be something to do with Holmes’s reliability and loyalty in a world that no longer seems to value either. It’s a reasonable assessment: it would be fair to suggest that in the 20th century (and into the 21st) Russia’s need for a reliable hero, dependent on an architecture of logic that didn’t change in 1917, or 1945, or 1989, was unrivalled.

Another passage from the same interview feels somehow more revealing, though. Reflecting on the adaptations and general baggage orbiting Conan Doyle’s stories by the late 1970s, Maslennikov exclaimed: “What Holmeses I found there! They were funny and gloomy, kind and evil, arrogant and friendly, tall and short, thin like a match and mighty like fighters.” Holmes could be a constant, but he could also be all things to all people, as slippery as a shapeshifter. He continues: “We decided to forget them all, throw them out of our heads.”

There is something within Conan Doyle’s greatest character – some combination of the cliched and the brilliantly inventive, perhaps – that inspires both a peculiarly passionate engagement with the source material, with archetype and precedent, and also a forceful creative wrench into new territory. Would it be unfair to characterise 20th-century Russian cultural history in somewhat parallel terms: conservatism and radicalism coexisting, clashing and frequently crushing one another – or trying to, at least? Can we see in Russian culture as a whole the same struggle with preservation, rejection and transformation that defines every new iteration of Holmes?

Sherlock and Russia, Russia and Sherlock: they were always going to find one another, weren’t they?

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