The Oxford connection to Russia and Russians runs deep. Suffice it to say that the university purchased a Russian font for its press in 1696. This and many other fascinating tidbits of Oxford-Russia history may be gleaned from Victoria Bentata’s article, “Oxford’s Early Russian Connections,” for the Oxford Today website.
Surely one of the most important buildings in this relationship is the roundish Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street. This is the location where Oxford presents its honorary doctorate degrees and a surprisingly large number of Russians have received them. The first figure of Russian culture and art to be so honored was the novelist Ivan Turgenev. In fact, according to an article by J.S.G. Simmons on the Oxoniensia.org website, he was the first novelist of any nationality to receive that high honor. The event occurred on June 18, 1879, somewhat more than four years before the great novelist’s death, and just 75 years, to the day, before I was born.
Simmons writes: “At this period the undergraduate members of the audience at the University’s annual Encaenia still exercised their traditional privilege of voicing their opinion of the University’s notabilities and honorands – and though Turgenev was perhaps at the peak of his literary fame in England at the time, he feared that recent memories of the Russo-Turkish War and the bitter divisions which it had engendered in English political life, might lead to embarrassing demonstrations against a Russian Honorary Doctor. But in the event all went well…”
Reportedly, Turgenev wrote to a friend a few days later to point out that he had received louder applause than any of the seven other recipients that day.
Some other Russian honorary doctors include the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the poet, translator and children’s author Kornei Chukovsky, the great literary scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachev, the poet Joseph Brodsky, and, of course, the poet Anna Akhmatova. Some of these individuals might have passed through the gates leading to the theatre, as seen directly below, as well as passing a guard or greeter, perhaps similar to the one who was overseeing foot traffic the day I made these photos last week. As it happens, degrees were being bestowed on the fortunate and fastidious that day as well.
Anna Akhmatova received her honorary doctorate here at the Sheldonian on June 5, 1965. It was a Saturday and the ceremony began at 2:30 in the afternoon. Readers of my last post may recall that I drew my account of Akhmatova’s visit to Oxford from the memoirs of the poet’s companion Anna Kaminskaya. I do so again here. Kaminskaya, it should be pointed out, sometimes refers to Akhmatova affectionately as Akuma.
“We found ourselves almost at the head of the procession on the street. A man of small stature lead us all. He was dressed in a medieval, black suit with a mace in hand. He was followed by two ceremony masters carrying staffs, also in black. Next in line were Vice Counsellor Doctor Kenneth Wheare and Mr. Brian Brown [I have not been able to verify this individual. My thank you to Hugh Macmillan for identifying the first, see comments below – JF], followed by Anna Andreyevna who leaned on my arm in a red gown with gray cuffs and sleeves. Behind us were three other laureates also dressed in red and gray gowns. Further on were professors in black gowns. The procession, which has not changed its outward appearance since medieval times, made its way through the tiny old streets of Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre and stopped alongside the two-story, 18th-century Clarendon building with its central porte-cochere. We passed into a small room on the first floor where a book lay on a table. Four of the year’s laureates left their signatures in it and received sheets printed with the salutatory speeches. The room was lit only by the light entering through a window made of small panes of glass. As such it seemed as though we were plunged into a medieval gloom. When we passed further through a portico, the procession entered a large cobblestone yard before the Sheldonian, where the ceremony was to begin at 14:30.
“(When we walked through the yard where the public was waiting, eager to greet the laureates, Akuma was extremely tense. In order to calm her I surreptitiously gave her a validolum tablet which helped her cope with her nerves. A few seconds later she said to me, ‘I’m moving. I’m moving. I’m fine.’)
“The heavy doors of the theatre opened; spectators had filled the amphitheatre. Anna Andreyevna was the first to be honored. She entered slowly, leaning on my arm, her head slightly bowed, looking at no one, attempting to conserve her energy for the event that was to come. We sat in our designated seats. During the speech Anna Andreyevna was supposed to stand in the center of the hall, but, violating tradition, an exception was made for her.
“…After the triumphant reception of Anna Andreyevna, we went out onto the square. A crowd of admirers of Akhmatova’s poetry was waiting on the street, and it was joined by professors, students and guests who had come out of the ceremony. A living corridor of applause was formed and the victory parade continued. Anna Andreyevna did not expect such a triumph.
“Sir Isaiah [Berlin] approached us and led us to the car belonging to the family of Prince Obolensky. Akuma was uncommonly pleased and happy, primarily because everything was now over with. On the road to the hotel she said that it all reminded her of “An Easter Procession in Kursk Province” (a painting by Ilya Repin), lacking only the horsemen and holy banners. Otherwise it was just like any large church holiday in Russia.”
Kaminskaya’s Russian-language memoirs may be accessed on the website of Zvezda (Star) journal.
In a recent short piece called “A Sheldonian Experience” by Sagar Gubbi, we hear a bit about Akhmatova’s receiving her doctorate from another source. “The final speaker of the evening,” writes Gubbi about an event in 2009, “was Sundance Institute’s Kenneth Brecher, who did an outstanding job of describing the history behind the evening’s venue, Sheldonian Theatre. He narrated a particularly moving and inspiring story of Anna Akhmatova, an incredibly talented Russian poet who, after many years of struggle under the Soviet rule, was finally recognised by the University of Oxford for an honorary degree. It was here at the Sheldonian that the University’s Head broke its age-old tradition by climbing down from the stage to confer the degree to a physically frail Akhmatova.”