Sunday Telegraph
Sunday, March 15, 1998

Russia falls for Jeeves and Wooster on web

by Mark Inglefield and Molly Watson

MODERN Russians, horrified by the rapid and violent changes in their country, are seeking reassurance in the novels of P G Wodehouse - which were branded "decadent" and banned by Lenin more than 70 years ago.

The books, now available throughout Russia, have become required reading among the intelligentsia, some of whom have taken to aping the mannerisms of Wodehouse's foppish English aristocrats. Mikhail Kuzmenko, a lecturer in mechanics and mathematics at Moscow University, has set up a Wodehouse website, the first of its kind in any former communist country.

It features translations of all of the books, and details of shops stocking videos. It has registered over 36,000 "hits" since it was started a year ago. Interest in Wodehouse's comic masterpieces, which feature Gussie Finknottle, the bespectacled newt fancier, and tales of Blandings Castle and Lord Emsworth's prize pig The Empress of Blandings, was first ignited by the screening of the ITV series Jeeves and Wooster in Russia a few years ago.

Unlike most Western authors, Wodehouse continued to be published in Russia after the communists seized power in 1917. The Soviet authorities believed his books would show how decadent the West had become under capitalism. With that endorsement, Wodehouse built up a large following. But in the early Twenties his works were outlawed on the grounds that they would corrupt readers' minds.

The catalyst for the ban was a short story, The Clicking of Cuthbert. Published in 1922, it tells the story of Vladimir Brusiloff, a Russian novelist who "specialised in grey studies of hopeless misery where nothing happened till page 380, when the muzhik [peasant] decided to commit suicide".

In the story Brusiloff regales Cuthbert, a typical Wodehouse golfing fanatic, with tales of his foursome round the links with Lenin and Trotsky. "Someone in the crowd tries to assassinate Lenin with revolvers - you know that is our great national sport, trying to assassinate people with revolvers - and the bang puts Trotsky off his stroke. We win the hole and I clean up 396,000 roubles or 15 shillings in your money; some game of golf."

That proved too much, and the books were removed from the libraries and bookshops, although the Soviet elite continued to read them. Mikhail Kuzmenko, who writes his web page under the name of Sir Watkyn Bassett, one of Wodehouse's delightfully stuffy baronets, says he was initially concerned that normal Russians would have no appetite for Wodehouse's brand of frivolous, upper-class satire.

"Wodehouse didn't write about the life of the poor, the hard life of the workers, like Dickens," he said. "He wrote about aristocrats." But despite their renewed enthusiasm for Wodehouse, Russian fans still lag behind their counterparts around the world.

American and Italian Wodehouse Appreciation Societies hold annual conventions at which the delegates dress up as their favourite characters. Activities include re-enacting the antics of the Drones, throwing cards into top hats and betting vast sums on egg-and-spoon races.

[Back to Sir Watkyn Page]