With its international reputation and celebrated university, Oxford is a remarkable city not far from London that has long upheld connections with Russia. From famous alumnae of the University to its twin town of Perm, it has well maintained its historical connections to Russia, as well as encouraging new links amongst young people today. Yet it could be difficult to see where this connection with a small English city has come from – Russia was once named ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ by Great Britain’s most famed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, a quote which would at best suggest a tenuous relationship with the nation. What exactly is Oxford’s connection to Russia, a country over 5,000km away from England? How do the two places maintain their links with each other in an era where tensions seem to be ever-worsening between East and West? Russian Art + Culture researches Russia’s presence in one of England’s most treasured cities.

Felix Yusupov’s matriculation photo

Russia’s first connections with Oxford start with, of course, its royalty. In 1909, Prince Felix Yusupov enrolled in Oxford University to study Forestry and English (later switching to Fine Arts). It was the beginning of a long-standing Russian connection to the city and an eventful university career. During his time at Oxford, Yusupov founded the Oxford Russian Society in his first year, and was also a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club. However, it was his actions after his university degree which perhaps made him so well-known. In 1914, a year after leaving Oxford, he married Tsar Nicholas II’s only niece, elevating his already high status further; however, by 1916, he had murdered perhaps one of the most important men in Russia at the time. Grigori Rasputin, the Russian holy man to the Tsarina who had long been thought of as suspicious by many Russian citizens, was allegedly killed by both Yusupov and three other men one night in the winter of 1916. Yusupov and Rasputin had first met each other in 1909, with Yusupov noting that ‘something inside me made me suspicious of him’, despite the fact that they knew nothing about each other. It seems that over time, Yusupov (like many in Russian high society) resented the influence Rasputin was having on the Tsarina and thought that the country may be better off without him. It was this that led to his murder. Yusupov was quickly exiled to his own estate in Belgorod Oblast. But whatever his reputation became among Russian nobility, it was clear that his time in England had perhaps had the most profound impression on him. According to notes on russianpresence.org.uk, he later remarked that ‘the three years that I spent among them [English people] were perhaps the happiest of my youth.’

Some of Russia’s most talented literary figures have also been drawn to Oxford, one way or another. The Pasternak family are strongly connected to the city – many of them settled in Oxford in the early nineteenth century. Leonid Pasternak, the father of the celebrated author Boris Pasternak, was a post-impressionist painter who first came to Oxford in 1938. Having spent several years travelling in Europe and latterly in Germany, his wife’s homeland, he decided to escape Hitler’s regime and seek refuge somewhere more peaceful. The last six years of his life were spent in Oxford, working and living in the city. You can still look round his apartment today by appointment; it is a permanent exhibition of his paintings, and has been wonderfully preserved. His son, Boris, probably most famous for his novel Doctor Zhivago, was reportedly not allowed to visit his father in Oxford, probably due to the fact that he was not very politically favoured (Doctor Zhivago contains his own personal view of the 1917 Russian revolution).This must have been difficult, especially as his sisters Josephine and Lydia had also settled in the city. Like her brother, Lydia was a talented poet as well as a translator, often rendering Boris’s Russians poems into English. She came to Oxford shortly before her father and sister, but passed away in 1989 in Park Town, just a short walk from Oxford city centre and its university. She was buried in nearby Wolvercote Cemetery, alongside her parents and sister.

Anna Akhmatova also has ties to the city – in an interview held in Oxford in 1989, it was reported that Akhmatova herself even named Boris Pasternak ‘a great friend’. Born in 1889, Akhmatova is well known internationally for her poetry, as well as being shortlisted for a Nobel Prize. It was in 1965 that she was invited to Oxford to receive an honorary doctorate. During her visit, she stayed at the Randolph Hotel, a five-star establishment in the city centre. According to the notes of her travel companion, published in 2014, Akhmatova dined with the Pasternak sisters shortly after the ceremony where she received her doctorate. Accompanied by Isiah Berlin, another Russian alumna of the university, there was much to talk about during this dinner, given the literary backgrounds of the women and the connection to Boris. Lydia had even translated some of Akhmatova’s poems, but she reportedly didn’t care for them, which was a ‘slight cause of contention’ between them. Nevertheless, it was a significant meeting between three significant Russians in one of Oxford’s most established hotels.

Anna Akhmatova (bottom left) in Radcliffe Square, Oxford, on the occasion of her receiving an honorary degree from the University, 1965. IB is behind the car on the right, Dimitri Obolensky on the left, and Anna Kaminskaya, Punin’s granddaughter, is in the back of the car. Is this the only photograph of AA and IB together? (Photographer unknown.)

Today, Oxford is brimming with Russian tourists wishing to explore the ancient University colleges (some college buildings were once a filming location for Harry Potter, which has particularly spiked holidaymakers’ interests). The University itself has strong links to Russia, with 29 undergraduates holding offers to study either single or joint honours Russian for the academic year 2019-2020. Eleven of these chose to study Russian ab initio, with limited or no prior knowledge of the language.* On their compulsory year abroad, students can choose to stay in any Russian or Russian-speaking citythey choose, and often take courses with RLUS, a UK organisation offering a variety of language programmes across Russia.  For those students who choose to study Russian ab initio, there is an obligatory eight-month course at Yaroslavl University. In the local area, secondary schools teach Russian too, an unusual modern language choice for schools in the UK. Oxford High School GDST, an independent girls’ school, offers students the chance to learn Russian from age 13 upwards, with preparation for both GCSE and A level qualifications. There is also a ‘Russian Club’, held at lunchtimes, which is open to any student with an interest in Russia – regardless as to whether they are studying the language formally or not. Nearby, D’Overbroeck’s secondary school offers an A Level qualification in the language too, and St. Clares Oxford teaches a specialised course in Russian literature, on request, as part of the International Baccalaureate.

Anna Akhmatova (front row center) after receiving an honorary degree, Oxford, June 7, 1965

For those no longer in education but wishing to sustain a connection to Russia, there is the Oxford Perm Association. Since 1995, Oxford has been twinned with the Russian city of Perm, located near the Ural Mountains. This is a thriving organisation, with chairman Karen Hewitt MBE, who has made significant efforts to keep Russian-Oxford connections strong. An exchange to the city takes place every year, with both students and teachers visiting each other’s home towns.

This article covers some of the most prolific Russian connections that exist in Oxford, but of course, there are many more. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich and writer Ivan Turgenev also received honorary doctorates from the university, and the last Tsarevich’s tutor founded the first Russian Orthodox Church in Oxford. But perhaps the most important thing to be learned is that Russian interest is still very much alive in the city today. At a time when there is much scepticism about Anglo-Russian relations, this couldn’t be more crucial for preserving a historic relationship between the two countries for future generations.

With thanks to:

  • ‘Felix Iusupov’, published on org.uk
  • ‘Oxford’s recent Russian history’, published on ox.ac.uk
  • ‘Anglijskaya Akhmatova’, first published in Zvezda, 2014

*Statistics and information provided by Modern Languages Office, University of Oxford