29.2.12

V.V. Ovchinnikov - Britain Observed


Rating 7.3

The Britain observed by V.V. Ovchinnikov dates back to the end of the 1970s. And the cover of this book with its Pacman-like graphic and the "O" of "observed" shaped as the Soviet sickle & hammer (sorry, no picture available) tells you something more on the odd anachronism of reading it on 2012.

However, I have to admit that Mr Ovchinnikov wrote a pretty good little book on Great Britain (plus Eire and Northern Ireland). The kind of observations the former correspondent of Pravda does here are somehow between a tourist guide of the 1950s and what an author like the Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote about Britain and the Britons in the 1990s selling an awful lot of books.

Here you can find many clever but old-aged notes on the British way of life as it was 25 years ago but also plenty of observations which are still valid nowadays.
The only downwards of Ovchinnikov's work is that he had the weird tendency to compare the UK with Japan and China where he spent years as a correspondent before being sent to London. And sometimes he even states the Britons and Japanese are similar. Oh well, that's news!

That said, the good part of this book is that its author never indulges on the Soviet superiority over the UK, poking fun at Britons sometimes but always stressing out how their way of, say, washing dishes without using running water is a cultural difference rather than a barbarian act.
I think that, in this aspect, Britain Observed reflects the period in which it was written with the glasnost at the door and a Soviet Union no longer under the unbearable rhetoric and political influence of Lenin and then Stalin.

Vsevolod Ovchinnikov doesn't have the wit of Ilf & Petrov who themselves wrote a marvelous account of a visit to the US in the 1930s but - at the same time - was never asked to wrote an elegy on a canal dedicated to Lenin as happened to the comic duo.
I don't know what this guy was writing as a correspondent from London for the Pravda and how much freedom he enjoyed in his articles, but Britain Observed has a very relaxed and pleasantly ironic pace without doing any annoying proselytism.
This is what I call well-documented escapism and I'm not surprised that the book, with its Russian-Soviet title meaning The Roots of an Oak-Tree (?), sold well in the USSR. At least that's what the cover of my British edition says.

Check for the chapters on the British politics and you will be surprised on how good Ovchinnikov is in describing how the English parliament works. Given his training at home with the elephantine structure of Soviet government, I assume the author had no problems at all in grasping the mechanisms of the UK democracy.

All in all, this book stands out as an interesting historic document including many brilliant observations on the UK provided from an unusual half-communist point of view with such funny oddities like Ovchinnikov touring Ireland following the steps of Engels

2 comments:

  1. Maria. Russia. 41 yo
    I read the book many years ago when I was just interested in travelling. Now my son studies in England and I decided to read this book again. The chapter about Public (private) School explains a lot of the British education system. Now I understand better what 'houses' and 'games' are about, and overall. The question is how actual is it now? Probably, If British traditions count centuries, not much has changed since 30 years.
    Kind regards.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Maria, thank you so much for your comment. Now that you mention it, I remember that the part regarding British public (private) schools was particularly good. In that respect, I don't think much has changed in the UK.

      There was an education reform in 1976 introducing comprehensive state funded schools and (in theory) abolishing private grammar schools. The attempt was to reduce the gap between wealthy students and non-wealthy ones providing equal opportunities to brilliant pupils. And yet, from what I could see and read in the years I spent in England, that gap is still around and it's tough for brilliant students attending comprehensive schools to make their way to Oxbridge.

      As for the other topics Ovchinnikov deals with (politics, etiquette, social issues), I'm afraid the book cannot be considered up to date. Which is not a bad thing as it has become a historical document in its own way. And a well written one.

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