Category Archives: Reading Group

Reading Group: Timothy Phillips on ‘When British Intelligence saw Battleship Potemkin’

Timothy PhillipsThe Anglo-Russian Research Network will be holding its autumn reading group at 5:30 on Friday 1 December at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury ( This session will look at the way in which early Soviet cinema first entered the UK, most famously Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but also other works by the celebrated cinematographer and the work of Vsevolod Pudovkin.

The discussion will be led by Dr Timothy Phillips, author of The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age, which was published by Granta in September.

The British Government was extremely nervous when it learned in the mid-1920s that reels of Soviet films were circulating on the international market. These films, it was thought, had been created explicitly for propaganda purposes and with the aim of fomenting world revolution. In the UK, it fell to the British Board of Film Censorship (forerunner of today’s BBFC) to decide whether Soviet films could be shown. But the BBFC felt nervous about reaching this decision alone and, on a number of occasions, invited Whitehall mandarins and officers from MI5 and police Special Branch to attend secret Soho screenings in order to help it come to a view. These screenings resulted in confidential write-ups, in which attendees critiqued Soviet films and gave their views about what to censor. The write-ups have now been declassified and Timothy Phillips has studied them as part of his research for his new book.

In addition to reading a selection from these unique documents, and the associated correspondence, we will also look at the other side of early British reactions to the first Soviet feature films, in particular the role played by the Film Society, under whose auspices Potemkin eventually received its first (private) British screening in 1929. The early Soviet contribution to world culture is often thought to have been strongest in the field of cinema, something that many intellectuals, in Britain and elsewhere, already argued at the time. But the specific geopolitical context in which these films came into existence, and the intentions of their makers and funders, have always meant that aesthetic and ideological appraisals have had to compete for attention.

Biography: Timothy Phillips is the author of The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age (Granta Books, September 2017). He holds a doctorate from Oxford University, where his thesis was on the development of leisure resorts in 19th-century Russia. His first book was Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 (Granta Books, 2007).

The Anglo-Russian Research Network organises termly reading groups for those interested in the interactions between British and Russian culture and politics in the period 1880-1950. These are informal events with plenty of discussion and wine, and are open to all. You can read more about the reading group and listen to podcasts]. If you plan to attend, it would be helpful if you could let Rebecca Beasley ( and/ or Matthew Taunton ( know. The discussion will finish at 7, and anyone available is very welcome to join us for dinner nearby.

Readings for 1 December can be found here.

Reading Group: What Did Cultural Diplomacy Ever Do For Us – and Them?

Pauline Fairclough: What Did Cultural Diplomacy Ever Do For Us—and Them? Performing the Musical State in Britain and Russia

The Anglo-Russian Research Network will be holding its spring reading group at 5:30 on Friday 12 May at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury ( We will be reading about and discussing the role of music in Anglo-Russian cultural understanding.

The discussion will be led by Dr Pauline Fairclough of the University of Bristol. The readings can be downloaded here.

At first glance, the mutual showcasing of national musical cultures looks like a diplomatic strategy that cannot fail. As the most superficially ‘harmless’ of the arts, music’s role as a neutral pacifier and conduit for bland cultural admiration has been exploited many times over; yet this apparent innocence has masked many a more dubious strategy, as recent Cold War studies of music exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union have demonstrated. And during the Soviet period, political undercurrents can be found at every level of a composer’s reception, as the case of Shostakovich in Britain makes abundantly clear. Yet Russian and British musical exchanges were well underway before the Bolshevik Revolution, and even in less ideologically fraught times, critical receptions of music within both Russia and Britain reveal ways in which the two cultures regarded each other, at times with condescension, at times with admiration, and at other times with mutual incomprehension. Pauline’s talk will touch on all these issues, looking at pre-revolutionary and Soviet eras to ponder the nature of music’s role in facilitating, or even obscuring, processes of cultural understanding.

Pauline Fairclough is Reader in Music at the University of Bristol. She is a cultural historian specialising in Soviet musical history, and has published widely on Shostakovich and music of the Stalinist era. Her last book, Classics for the Masses. Shaping Soviet Musical Identity Under Lenin and Stalin (Yale, 2016) looked at how Soviet symphony orchestras made the transition from pre-revolutionary bourgeois concert culture to a tightly scrutinised Stalinist administration, yet in many respects consciously preserved the ‘bourgeois’ identity of musical life. Her current project is a century-long look at Anglo-Russian musical connections, focusing on the importance of personal relationships in shaping exchanges and critical reception.

If you plan to attend, it would be helpful if you could let Rebecca Beasley ( and/ or Matthew Taunton ( know. The discussion will finish at 7, and anyone available is very welcome to join us for dinner nearby.


Reading Group: ‘Never more close, intimate and cordial’: The ‘Projection of Russia Campaign’ on the BBC Home Service, 1941-45. Introduced by Claire Davison

The Anglo-Russian Research Network will be holding its spring reading group at 5:30 on Friday 3 March at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury ( We will be reading and discussing the role of the BBC in nurturing Anglo-Russian cultural relations after Russia entered the Second World War in 1941.

The discussion will be led by Professor Claire Davison of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. The readings can be downloaded from the link below.

Claire writes: ‘My presentation will be focusing on Anglo-Russian cultural relations as projected and nurtured by the BBC after July 1941. The explicit purpose of the ‘Projection of Russia Campaign’ was threefold: to improve public perceptions of the new Ally amongst both the British civilian population and the Forces, thereby eclipsing the dominant anti-Bolshevist sentiments cultivated in the 30s; to transmit a positive image of British solidarity to Russian politicians and diplomats; and to boost public morale in Britain, now at its lowest ebb as Nazi positions strengthened across Europe. The overall success of the campaign, and the waves of popular admiration and support for the Russian war effort, are largely acknowledged by historians, but generally omitted or sidelined by school textbooks, the film industry and the public imaginary today.

‘My quest to understand the spectacular success of the campaign, and the equally spectacular feats of collective amnesia in commemorative, cultural and historical accounts today, took me to the Written Archives Centre and the Sound Archives of the BBC, the Radio Times and The Listener. Here I was able to trace rich and sometimes dazzling examples of the campaign’s broad cultural coverage, and of the figures promoting the campaign’s success whether front stage or from the wings. I could also find abundant proofs of the successful reception of the broadcasts, as letters from listeners testified regularly. No wonder that by October 1944, Churchill could confidently assert that ‘British relations with Russia had never been more close, intimate and cordial than at present’– even as plans were being drawn up to curtail the campaign and override its impact at the earliest opportunity.

‘My presentation will be focusing on one of the highpoints of the four-year campaign: ‘Russia Night’, a three-hour long feature on the evening of November 8, 1943, broadcast on the Home Service and (in a slightly shortened and altered version), on the Forces Programme. We’ll be looking at the script for ‘The Spirit of Russia’, a forty-five minute broadcast presented as a ‘panorama of Russian life’: it adopts a pageant-type format, with sequences of narration, dramatic eclogue, poetry recital and musical interlude to conjure up Russia’s vast history, geography and resilient cultural vibrancy.’

Claire Davison is Professor of Modernist Studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, where her teaching and research focus on intermedial borders and boundaries of modernism: translation and reception of Russian literature in the 1910s-20s; literary and musical modernism; modernist soundscapes and broadcasting.  She was the Chair of the French Virginia Woolf Society (SEW) from 2008 until 2016. She is the author of Translation as CollaborationVirginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky (2014) published by Edinburgh University Press, and the co-editor of a number of recent volumes on literary modernism, including the fourth volume of The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, in Four Volumes (Edinburgh 2012-6); and The Collected Poetry of Katherine Mansfield (Edinburgh, 2016). Her ongoing research project has involved extensive explorations of radio archives from the war years, in preparation of a monograph on cultural diplomacy and the coverage of trans-European modernism on the BBC Home Service, in the 1930s-40s.

The readings and other material for this Reading Group is available here.