Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Let’s Talk About Russia -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

Grand Duchess Anastasia’s selfie

Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].


A spectre is haunting Downton Abbey. It is the spectre of the Russian Revolution.

In last week’s episode, Tom Branson described the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the only worthwhile thing to come out of World War I. This week, we learn that Rose is planning to become involved in relief efforts for Russian refugees in York, and Lord Grantham and Tom butt heads again on the subject. The episode is almost deliberately expository, even falling back on what can only be described as Corapedia: when, for instance, Lord Grantham calls Miss Bunting a “tinpot Rosa Luxemburg,” Cora helpfully explains that Luxemburg was a “German communist who was shot and thrown in the canal.” Why this sudden, intense interest in Soviet affairs, in a show that’s usually so insular it barely leaves the grounds of the Abbey itself?

The Russian Revolution of 1917 shocked a generation. A series of uprisings over the course of that year overthrew the Tsarist autocracy and replaced it with a communist government led by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin. In July 1918, the Tsar and his family were executed, though rumors that his youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Anastasia, might have survived circulated for decades. The revolution removed Russia from World War I, sparked years of civil war between revolutionary (Red) and counter-revolutionary (White) forces, laid the foundations for the USSR, and fueled wild fears and hopes around the world.

As part of the Allied forces in World War I, Britain joined in action against the Red Army in 1918 during the final offensive against Germany. Even after the end of World War I, the British continued to offer support to the White forces, offering equipment and political and military missions to the counter-revolutionaries and participating in a blockade against Russia. By 1920, though, the British government recognized that the Bolsheviks were going to remain in power.

The events in Russia prompted an anxious Red scare in Britain, tinged with anti-Semitism because some Bolshevik leaders were Jewish. The government feared any hint of Bolshevism within political organizations at home and undertook surveillance efforts against a wide range of groups. On the other hand, some British people were energized and inspired by the revolution: a similar effect, perhaps, to the one Miss Bunting is having on Tom Branson. The British Communist Party grew, Labour activists visited the Soviet Union to see the new system in action, and the Trades Union Congress threatened a general strike in 1920 if the government intervened in the Russo-Polish War.

An estimated 2.5 million people left Russia in the wake of the revolution and civil war: aristocrats, but also activists, artists, and soldiers. Only a very small percentage of this group went to Britain, but their presence animates much of the episode’s political conversation. Rose, who plans to help Russian refugees, is explicit about her sense of class solidarity. She explains that she was moved by the thought of how revolution had upended aristocratic lives much like her own: the Russians were, she says, “dancing and shopping and seeing their friends and then suddenly being thrown out to fend for themselves in the jungle.”

Lord Grantham puts it even more strongly. In his words, the Russian refugees are now “scattered all over Europe, trying to establish communities to save their culture after the ravages of revolution,” while those who stayed behind were “tortured and murdered in their thousands.” It’s a powerful statement of empathy and alliance, and one whose message is underscored by the references to two other sanguinary revolutions.

Defending the new regime in Russia, Branson draws a comparison with the English Revolution of 1641, which saw the execution of King Charles I. Lord Grantham replies, “I didn’t kill him personally,” to which Branson retorts: “I didn’t shoot the Imperial family.” Imagined as the founding of the constitutional monarchy in Britain, the revolution of 1641 was followed by decades of civil war and, ultimately, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that brought in William and Mary. For Lord Grantham this history would be both sacrosanct and troubling, a reminder that even Downton is founded on upheaval as well as tradition.

And the French Revolution, that famous slaughterer of the old regime, also makes an appearance. An art historian, Simon Bricker, is visiting Downton to view a Renaissance painting by Piero della Francesca. Cora, ever the gracious hostess, explains how the second Earl bought it while on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1789: “We’ve a letter from his mother. She’d heard about the fall of the Bastille and her son was going through France. She sent it by special messenger.” Cora offers the sentimental conclusion: “Mothers. Some things never change.” But the story clearly has another moral, too: even if the Crawleys were perhaps on the side of revolution in 1641, by 1789 they were firmly in the establishment camp, protecting precious art and domestic affection from the howling mob.

There are no Soviets, yet, at Downton, and Lord Grantham even gets his way in the matter of where to site the war memorial, but the forces of democratization are nonetheless visible. Under duress, Carson and Lord Grantham agree to hire a wireless in order to listen to King George V’s first-ever radio broadcast, a speech opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. In a conversation that reveals their ambivalence over their own evolving relationship, Carson and Lord Grantham discuss whether the speech is, for the King, a humiliation imposed by ministers or an exercise in endurance: rather than a triumph of royal charisma and connection, Downton tells us that this King’s speech is evidence of the dangerous power of modern media. After gathering to listen to the speech, Isobel wonders whether a bit of approachability would be such a bad thing for the royal family. Violet, ever the cool realist, replies: “Only if they want to stay at Buckingham Palace.”

Married_Love_CoverThe stakes of Russia are clear for the Crawleys: the revolution there represents their nightmare future, a world in which the Bransons and the Buntings can no longer be shouted down but instead become judges and executioners. At a moment when the London real estate market is intimately tied to the fate of the ruble and the Russian oligarchs, it’s perhaps especially timely to remember the limits of insularity.

Postscript: The friends with whom I watch Downton Abbey were more than a little alarmed that I was planning to write today’s column about Russia rather than Lady Mary’s “laycation” with Tony Gillingham. Suffice it to say that the whole business with the contraception is too silly for words. Once again Marie Stopes’s venerable Married Love, which I wrote about last year, makes an appearance. Last year Mrs. Hughes confiscated the publication, which includes information on contraception, from the scheming maid Edna; this year, Mary produces it in order to get Anna to buy a device for her from the local pharmacy. To understand why this makes no sense at all (from creating blackmail fodder to the necessity of getting caps fitted), you can’t do better than to read this blog post by the excellent historian and Wellcome Library archivist Lesley Hall. My only other comment is that, if I were hoping to woo a woman with a sexy weekend away, I wouldn’t start by using the word “scrumptious.”


Curtis Keeble, Britain, the Soviet Union and Russia (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000)

Helen Kopnina, East to West Migration: Russian Migrants in Western Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005)

Keith Neilson, Britain, Soviet Russia and the Collapse of the Versailles Order (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again