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To Russia, with love

This tribute blog investigates the links between the Trust's collection, Shakespeare and Russia.

Mareike Doleschal

Shakespeare’s works have been a source of inspiration and enduring fascination for many of Russia’s greatest authors. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak includes a poem titled Hamlet, which features the line “I am alone: all round me drowns in falsehood, life is not a walk across a field”, which draws parallels between Pasternak’s tragic hero and the deception endured by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Jenkinson Map of Russia, 1595 (Ortelius and Hogenberg)
Map of Russia (1595)

The Trust’s collection items with a Russian connection are diverse. They not only include translations but also illustrated books, maps, sculptures and paintings. The first item I would like to introduce is a hand-coloured wall map of Russia printed in 1595. Its dimensions are 18 by 14.5 inches, and its visual detail relating to historical, religious, ethnographic and military elements is rich and intriguing. Anthony Jenkins, who was said to be the first foreigner who crossed Russia from North to South, created this map. He based it on his expeditions to find trading routes from Moscow to Persia and China. In Moscow he met Ivan the Terrible, shown in the top left corner of the map, sitting on a throne outside his decorated tent and holding a sceptre in his hand.

Map of Russia detail
Map of Russia, detail (1595)

An intriguing scene depicts the burial customs of a nomadic people called the Kirgese, who used to hang their dead from trees. A text in Latin boxed in a cartouche sheds light on the illustration. The translation reads: “The Kirgessen [sic] people live in troops or hordes. They have the following custom: when a priest performs a religious ceremony, he obtains blood, milk and dung of beasts of burden, and mixes it with the earth. He pours this in a specific vessel and climbs a tree with it, and when there is a gathering, he sprinkles it over the people, and this sprinkling is considered divine and is worshipped. When someone dies, that person is hung up in a tree by way of burial.”[1]

This map depicts burial rites long before the current standards of burials became the norm. Whilst the burial rites might seem peculiar or even cruel to the 21st century mind, the Kirgese were by no means disrespectful of their fellow human beings. By not burying their dead immediately the soil remained free of contamination, which humans depended on for food and survival.

To be or not to be by Leonty Usov

A far more recent item is a sculpture titled to be or not to be. It is made from Siberian pine by the Russian sculptor and former actor Leonty Usov. The artist created the bust in 2010. It is fixed onto a block base and represents William Shakespeare, who holds a quill pen and scroll. Carved square notes with quotes from his plays are references to his works. The most striking features are Shakespeare’s missing torso and his split head, which represents the first line from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Usov has created over three hundred wooden sculptures, many of which are held in private collections, museums, and they also decorate square and streets in his native Tomsk. The title of his sculpture of Anton Chekhov is evidence of the creator’s flair for the dramatic and love of theatre: Anton Chekhov through the Eyes of a Drunken Peasant who is lying in a Ditch and Has Never Read the Story Kashtanka. His works often embody a narrative that the artist tells with a mischievous sense of humour.

Russian Hamlet binding
Konstantin Konstantinovich's Hamlet in Russian

One of pre-revolutionary Russia’s most important translators of Shakespeare was the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, grandson of Czar Nicholas I.

The Grande Duke's Hamlet translation comes in a two-volume set. Konstantinovich presented a copy of his bilingual edition to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1900, and the dedication inside the front of the first volume commemorates this event. Each of the two volumes bears a ribbon. Volume one features a ribbon in the colours of the French and Russian flags, and the ribbon in volume two shows the colours of the German flag. You could interpret them as visual references to the translator’s linguistic abilities. The German may also be a nod to Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, born in Germany.[2]

In 2017 I launched a video project to mark the European Day of Languages. To promote our foreign language editions, I asked Trust staff and European librarian colleagues if they might be interested in doing filmed readings of Hamlet’s to be or not to be monologue in a range of European languages. The European Day of Languages aims to increase intercultural understanding, encourage language learning and promote the rich linguistic diversity of Europe. One of the highlights of this project was the trailer, featuring the first line from Hamlet’s famous speech in twenty-three languages. One of our Russian contributions came from Marina Antipina, who sent me a filmed recording of Hamlet’s to be or not to be monologue. The video features actor Stepan Polezhaev performing Boris Pasternak’s translation of the famous soliloquy in the Arkhangelsk Regional Scientific Library. Even if you don’t know any Russian, you will find yourself moved by Polezhaev’s emotional and beautifully spoken delivery.

We received our second Russian contribution from Evgenia Golubeva, an illustrator and writer. Originally from Siberia, Evgenia used to live in St. Petersburg. She is fond of folk art by Bilibin and Vasnetsov, and we included some of her favourite images as the backdrop in our video. You can view her reading here.

I hope this blog has taken you on a journey, given you a flavour of some of our Russian materials and highlighted some of the Trust’s many Russian connections. I look forward to showing some of these items to our Russian visitors in the hopefully not too distant future.


[1] Hogenberg, Frans and Ortelius, Abraham: Russiae, Moscoviae et Tartariae Descriptio Auctore Antonio Ienkensono Anglo edita Londini 1562 dedicata illustriss D. Henrico Sydneo Wallie presidi.

[2] Ridge, Kelsey: Shakespeare in Russian: Konstantin Konstantinovich’s Hamlet. (accessed 15th March 2021)

Bibliography (accessed 15th March 2021) (accessed 8th December 2020) (accessed 8th December 2020) (accessed 8th December 2020) (accessed 8th December 2020) (accessed 8th December 2020)

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