Russians are going wild for P G Wodehouse
An expression of dreamy euphoria crossed the face of Sir Watkyn Bassett,
collector of antique silver and nemesis of the hapless Bertie Wooster.
On the stage of Moscow's Cleopatra restaurant, a bearded Honky Tonk band was
playing Irving Berlin. Nearby a group of girls in their evening finery debated
which of Bertie's aunts was the most detestable.
What Ho, Moscow: Jeeves and Wooster have
proved more appealing than Communism
The decor may have been decidedly New Russian and the food served by the
waiters khachapuri - a sort of Georgian pizza - rather than Dover Sole. But
for Sir Watkyn, alias Mikhail Kuzmenko, it was as though the restaurant had
been transformed into the dining hall of Blandings Castle or the Drones Club.
Outlawed by Stalin in 1929, P G Wodehouse - or Pyelem G Vudhaus as he is known
- has undergone a remarkable revival since the ban on his books was lifted in
There can be few fans as dedicated, however, as Mr Kuzmenko.
advertisementAs president and founder of the Russian Wodehouse Society he has
attracted over 3,000 members, some from as far away as Cheliabinsk and Omsk,
thousands of miles to the east. His monthly Wodehouse dinners at the Cleopatra
and elsewhere are always sold out.
The actors Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have played their part. Ever since
their acclaimed television portrayal of Jeeves and Wooster was dubbed into
Russian, young fans have started flocking to the club.
Wodehouse translations have mushroomed and even a souring of Anglo-Russian
relations has done little to dim the enthusiasm for this quintessentially
"If you look around on the metro you can see lots of people reading
Wodehouse," said Tatyana Komoryeva, a 25-year-old accountant. "All the
bookshops, even the small ones, are guaranteed to sell at least some of his
That there is a Wodehouse fellowship at all, though, is largely thanks to
Natalya Trauberg. A self-taught English speaker, the 79-year-old former
dissident risked transportation to the gulags under Stalin for translating the
theological works of C S Lewis and G K Chesterton in samizdat.
Although she came across an English copy of Damsel in Distress in 1946 (only
Russian translations were banned), Mrs Trauberg was too frightened to attempt
a translation until 1989. Her first attempt, the Blandings short story Birth
of a Salesman, was also produced in samizdat - not for political reasons but
because publishers doubted that there would be any public interest.
"From 1929 to 1990 very few, if any, Russians knew anything of Wodehouse," she
said. "It was a big gamble." As the popularity of the books spread and the
publishers changed their mind, a forerunner of the Russian Wodehouse Society
was formed, with each member taking their name from a Wodehouse character.
Mrs Trauberg became the Princess of Matchingham, the scheming Sir Gregory
It might seem odd that Russians find such an affinity with tales of young
upper-class twits stealing policemen's helmets and elderly upper-class twits
stealing each other's pigs. After all, Wodehouse - who died in 1975 - only
really touches on matters Russian in The Clicking of Cuthbert when a Soviet
author recounts how an assassination attempt caused Lenin to miss a two-inch
putt whilst playing golf with Trotsky.
For Mrs Trauberg, however, Russia's love affair with the author is far from
surprising. As decades of repression has given way to a new era of cut-throat
commercialism, Wodehouse represents a madcap innocence that many Russians
yearn to emulate.
"Russians need freedom and laughter very much," she said. "They had none for
so long. Wodehouse encapsulates this spirit of freedom.
"He also saves souls. His books are all about innocence and joy and purity.
"The reader is lifted into an English paradise, which many Russians believe is
the best paradise of all."