Despite the fact that Robbie Burns was an eighteenth century Scottish poet, he had a tremendous impact on 19th and 20th century Russian thought. His posthumous success hinged on his class awareness, putting into poetry Marxist sentiments that would eventually inspire the Russian Revolution in 1917.
During the 19th century, the Tsarist regime ruled Russia. It was a brutal monarchy that set up a strict social hierarchy. At the top were the royalty and the landed elites, and then underneath were the farmers and peasant workers. The majority of citizens were grindingly poor, often unable to earn enough to put food on their tables.
Russia’s Fascination With Robbie Burns
Most poets of the time wrote for the elite, but not Burns. Instead, he took a keen interest in the plight of the common man, showing empathy for the poor and oppressed. He had sympathy for revolutionary action and gained both a working and middle-class following.
English-speaking Russians could read Robbie Burns’ writings in the 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the first Russian language translation became available.
The most first (and most famous) Russian translator of Burns’s work was student Samuil Marshak. He studied at the University of London in 1914, just three years before the fall of the Tsar, and dedicated himself to turning Burn’s work into something ordinary people in his home country could read. In 1924, he published the first compendium of Robert Burns’s works.
Soviet censorship and restrictions, however, meant that Burns’s work took on a different tone. Adaptations did not bear much resemblance to the original, but rather reflected the ruling Leninist and Stalinist party lines. Marshak’s translations stressed the value of religious resignation and duty to one’s country more so than Burns ever intended.
During the height of the Soviet Regime, authorities published and republished translations of Burns’ books. In doing this, they hoped to isolate the Russian public from ideas that might threaten the stability of the communist regime. They continually promoted works, such as “Love and Liberty” and “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” that appeared to empathize with the poor and oppressed. They held up Burns as the ideal anti-Christian – a man who opposed God with all his might, again bringing him closer to the common man.
The Whiskey Connection
Robbie Burns is now heavily associated with whiskey. On Burns night, people enjoy Scotch single malt, haggis, neeps and tatties, and some of the man’s great poems. In Russia, people still sing his songs, despite the fall of the Soviet Union more than thirty years ago. Now it’s tradition, as it is in other parts of the world. People love the songs and poetic genius of the great bard. Burns is so popular in Russia that St. Petersburg still hosts its annual “Days of Scotland,” a series of cultural events involving a Burns supper, Scottish music and, of course, plenty of scotch.
Because of Burns’s influence, Russian elites are developing a taste for malt whiskey. There’s currently a fascination about the various styles available from Scotland and other parts of the world. Successful young businessmen are looking to buy malts at the top of the market, eschewing vodka and other local fare.