AS THE internet steadily shrinks the global village, it is becoming much more rare to experience a genuine culture shock. The sight of Robert Burns reading A Red, Red Rose in Moscow’s Red Square does the trick though. The double-take moment is intensified by groups of Russian schoolchildren listening to Burns declaim and then turn to one another and, in heavy accents, say: "It’s Robert Burns."
Actor Chris Tait is not Robert Burns but, when dressed up to resemble Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait of the bard, he certainly looks the part. A manager at John Lewis in Edinburgh by day, his skills as a Burns impersonator have been much in demand in Russia over the past few years and it no longer fazes him that Scotland’s most famous poet is just as well known in Moscow as in Motherwell. "Russians are very romantic people," he says. "They love poetry and they love Burns."
That the ploughman poet had more than just an eye for the ladies is well documented but, even in his wildest fantasies, Burns could not have imagined that he would end up seducing Mother Russia. Russians have taken Burns into their hearts and homes as well as their schools and libraries.
The poetry of Burns is taught in Russian schools alongside their own national poets. Russia, not Scotland, was the first country in the world to honour the man with a commemorative stamp in 1956. Burns societies flourish from Volgograd to Vladivostok. There have even been Burns nights held in the Kremlin Palace with television channels across the nation cover it.
The newly emergent Russian middle class are now looking at Scotland as a prestigious travel destination and Robert Burns is a considerable part of the appeal. The Russians are a literate and widely read people, but their specific love affair with Scoltand’s national bard could lead to a much-needed direct infusion of tourist cash into our Burns heritage industry at home.
SCOTTISH TOURIST CHIEFS are certainly hoping so. Russian tourists spend twice as much as any other nationality, but at the moment only around 30,000 of them come to Scotland each year. Transaero, Russia’s first private airline, is extending its direct flights from Moscow to Edinburgh this June and the hope is that the combination of accessibility and familiarity with our cultural icon will see Russians arriving in their droves.
A parallel phenomenon in Scotland to the Red Square response to our Burns impersonator is scarcely imaginable. Were a Shakespeare impersonator to strike up Hamlet’s soliloquy in Glasgow’s George Square then people would recognise him. Were an array of Russian look-a-like literary giants from Tolstoy to Turgenev to stage a mass reading on Princes Street, it’s long odds that passing shoppers would nudge one another and say, "Is that not Dostoevsky?"
Of course, Burns is popular all over the world. While doing a reading at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Tait was approached by a Taiwanese woman who recited all of Auld Lang Syne to him... in Taiwanese.
Though Burns is widely recognised on a global scale, the Russians seem to have a special affinity for him. The roots of Russia’s receptiveness to Burns could lie in the long history of Scottish connections with Russia. Charles Cameron, who moved to Russia in 1779 at the invitation of Catherine the Great, was the architect at the Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk palaces outside St Petersburg. There is an annual Highland Games in the grounds of the Peter & Paul fortress in St Petersburg. The brothers Roman and Yakov Bruce, who claimed descent from the Scottish royal family, were close associates of Peter I, the city’s founder. The Scottish architect William Hastie designed bridges, while Scotsman Charles Byrd’s factory manufactured Russia’s first steamboat.
Peter the Great’s principal adviser, General Patrick Gordon, was a rear admiral in the empire’s navy, as well as being the highest-ranking and most influential foreigner in Russia of his day. Samuel Greig from Inverkeithing also served in the Russian Navy and became Catherine’s most accomplished and devoted naval commander. There is a plaque on the wall of Greig’s house in Inverkeithing noting his achievements. Last but not least, Alexandra, wife of the last Tsar Nicholas II, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas himself was a commander in the Scots Greys and visited Balmoral on hunting trips.
Dr Dimitri Fedosov works at the Institute of History at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. A Burns scholar and active member of the city’s Caledonian Club, he has several theories as to why Burns should be receiving a resounding yes in Yakutsk. "He was big from the mid-19th century onwards. People regarded him as a democratic figure which endeared him to Russian radicals and democrats both at that time and during the Soviet period."
Among Russia’s literary greats, Burns’ poetry was very highly thought of. The 19th-century poet and novelist Turgenev visited Scotland several times and in his correspondence called Burns’ work "the clear fountain of poetry".
"Pushkin, the great Russian poet, had an edition of Burns in his library," says Fedosov, "and Lermontov, a man who is as big as Pushkin in our literature and whose forebears came from Fife, even translated small bits from Ae Fond Kiss. Unfortunately Lermontov was killed in a duel so he couldn’t follow it up."
In one of those curious twists of fate which history sometimes throws up, Lermontov was killed in a place called Little Scotland which had been founded by Scots missionaries in the Caucasus.
The most famous and effective Russian translator of Burns was Samuil Marshak. Looked upon as a founding figure in Russian children’s literature, Marshak’s work on Burns has fired the imagination of generations of Russian schoolchildren since the first half of the 20th century. When he was buried, it was not just his Order of Lenin medal that was laid to rest beside him but also his badge as the honorary president of the Burns Federation which had come from Scotland.
According to Fedosov, Burns’ popularity in Russia is largely to do with Marshak’s translations, which he calls "very good".
"I can appreciate the original Scots poems and compare them to the Russian translations," he says. "Although it’s extremely difficult to render poetry in another language, he does capture the spirit and the vigour of the verse as well as the form, the metre."
There is some irony in the fact that Burns’ popularity in Russia was probably at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s when the Iron Curtain had all but closed off Russia from the West.
Burns was a great admirer of the egalitarian ethos behind the French Revolution. Whether he would have recognised the same principles at work in the Soviet State at its most repressive is moot. This didn’t stop the Communists from claiming Burns as one of their own and incorporating his work into their state propaganda.
Alan Thompson is a member of the St Andrew’s Society in Moscow. Made up mostly of ex-pats in business, the society aims to promote Scotland in Russia through helping local charities. Two of the ways in which they do this is through Burns suppers and St Andrew’s Day balls. Chris Tait’s Burns makes regular appearances at these events. Thompson points out that reading was encouraged by the Soviet State and Burns was on the approved list of books.
"During the Soviet Union, there was a move to tag symbols on to foreign literature and bring to them some sort of association with Soviet life," says Thompson. "For Burns, they could say, ‘Here is a good Soviet revolutionary in Scotland’.
"He was seen as the common man who was striving for the promotion of the common man. You can interpret it anyway you want to. It was a good propaganda tool for the Soviet State. Scots in general were regarded by the Soviets as more socialist than the English were because of the shipbuilding yards."
However Burns was portrayed in the Soviet State, both Thompson and Fedosov acknowledge that his work has transcended any spin that was put on it. If Burns was previously held up as an exemplar of socialism then the past 15 years of rampant capitalism in Russia have not tarnished his reputation.
Tait puts the bard’s continuing popularity in Russia down to his universal appeal. ‘The common man’ is a phrase often heard when talking to anyone about Burns in Russia but for Tait that common or collective experience is as much about the minutiae of life as the more sweeping ideals.
"He wrote about nature, about mice, about headlice, everyday subjects that people have in common the world over and so they can automatically relate to it," he says.
School children apart, headlice are thankfully less common today than they were in Burns’ time. Love and loss happen to everyone though and Burns loved and lost to Russia.
The closest he ever actually got to Russia was squiring the ‘sweet Isabella Lindsay’ during his Border tour of 1787, the daughter of a Jedburgh doctor.
Twenty-four days after her tryst with Burns she married another man who worked in Russia and left Scotland, never to return. "Sweet Isabella Lindsay, may Peace dwell in thy bosom, uninterrupted, except by the tumultuous throbbings of rapturous Love!" lamented Burns. "That love-kindling eye must beam on another not me; that graceful form must bless another’s arms, not mine."
Fedosov puts Russia’s love affair with Burns down to shared characteristics between Scotland and Russia. Burns never set foot in the country but if he had, he would have seen plenty of ‘sweet Isabellas’ and Russian Davie Sillars.
"Scots and Russians are very much alike in terms of national character," Fedosov says. "Burns, being such an eloquent spokesman for the Scots character, strikes a very deep note with us as well."
Martial valour, a sense of hospitality, immediacy and sincerity are all qualities that Fedosov attributes to the Scots and Russians alike. He also points to a fondness for strong drink taken neat; whisky and vodka rather than English ale or Irish stout.
Putting Burns in a wider literary context, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott were also popular in Russia. For Fedosov, "this literary tradition which expresses national character was perceived as something very similar and akin to what we have here".
Back on Red Square, there has been a hiccup in Russian-Scots relations. A burly gentleman in plain clothes is insisting that we need a permit to photograph Burns outside Lenin’s tomb. Convinced that this is merely a shakedown for a few roubles, a little gentle bribery is tried to no effect. Somewhat weary with Russia’s still Kafka-esque bureaucracy, one of our party asks to see our interrogator’s credentials.
With a sigh, he pulls an impressive-looking wallet from his pocket and shows a badge to our translator. She blanches and explains that we have probably got enough pictures to be going on with and perhaps it’s time to move on without testing the patience of this nice man any longer.
Later that afternoon, Tait is back in his 400 custom-made wig, moleskin britches and Chanel make-up to give a reading at a travel trade fair. The VisitScotland stand has quite a crowd around it and, although Tait is reciting in Scots, the assembled Russian throng are rather more welcoming than our friend in Red Square.
More than 200 years after his death, Burns still speaks to Russia and Scottish tourism chiefs are banking on the irony that Russia just might return the favour as they turn up in Alloway and help us rebuild our Burns industry at home.
No one knows if Burns will still resonate with them in another 200 years but a more contemporary Scottish export is also gripping the nation. Judging by the number of people clutching JK Rowling books on the Moscow Metro, there may well be an opening for a Harry Potter look-alike on Red Square.