THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

7 posts from August 2017

18 August 2017

Devil, Rascal, Love Machine? The Afterlives of Rasputin

One of the exhibits in our current exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is a cartoon from the satirical magazine Novyi Satirikon. It shows the religious mystic Grigorii Rasputin sitting on a throne, gazing out with his trademark intense stare. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra crouch at Rasputin’s feet while the German Kaiser Wilhelm II stands behind the throne.

Rasputin Novyi Satirikon
Novyi Satirikon
,  No. 23,April 1917. RB.31.c.900

This reflects the popular view at the time that Rasputin had undue influence over the Russian royal family and that he and the German-born Alexandra plotted against Russian interests during the First World War. The same belief is reflected in a Japanese cartoon of the period, which shows the Tsarina, Kaiser and Rasputin (in the guise of a demon) sitting conspiratorially round a table.

Rasputin ORB 30 757
Cartoon from Itō Chūta, Ashurachō (Tokyo, 1920-21). ORB.30/757 

But one interesting point about the Novyi Satirikon cartoon is that it was actually published in April 1917, four months after Rasputin’s death (and two after Nicholas’s abdication). Such a caricature would of course have been hard to get past the censors while Rasputin was alive and enjoying the patronage of a still-intact monarchy. But it is striking that, even after his death and the fall of the monarchy, his image was a powerful enough symbol of corruption to make the front page of a satirical magazine.

This is an early example of Rasputin’s afterlife in propaganda, history, conspiracy theory and popular culture. Rumours and legends – such as his wartime plotting and the belief that he and Alexandra were lovers – had grown up before his death but afterwards they were given ever freer rein, with stories of a criminal youth, of wild parties and orgies in St Petersburg, of hypnotic powers, and of an almost supernatural resistance to his murderers’ poison and bullets.

Rasputin's Diary
‘Rasputin's Diary’, a White Russian propaganda leaflet published in Rostov-on-Don (private collection)

A look at some of the books about Rasputin in our catalogue give an idea of his reputation. Titles describe him as ‘Holy Devil’ (10790.pp.22.), ‘Prophet, Libertine and Plotter’ (010795.aaa.7.), one of ‘Twelve Monstrous Criminals’ (06055.ee.17.), an ‘All-powerful Peasant’ (010795.a.52.), ‘Satyr-monk and Criminal’ (10796.aa.37.) and ‘Rascal Monk’ (10796.a.28.). This last was by the thriller-writer and conspiracy theorist William Le Queux who, perhaps thinking that ‘Rascal’ might sound rather playful, followed it up with the more strongly titled The Minister of Evil.

Rasputin Le Queux
William Le Queux, The Minister of Evil (London, 1918) 010795.a.9. 

However lurid and fanciful some of their claims, these works were presented as factual – even George Sava’s bizarre Rasputin Speaks (London, 1941; 10795.p.27), supposedly Rasputin’s own story told to Sava through a Russian spirit medium. But of course Rasputin made his way into works defined as fiction too, beginning as early as 1923 with Ivan Nazhivin’s Rasputin (English translation New York, 1929; 010795.aa.66). Since then he has featured in everything from straightforward historical novels to elaborate conspiracy thrillers where he wields supernatural powers or works evil from beyond the grave. More recently Rasputin has appeared in graphic novels, usually in his more fantastical guise as in the Hellboy universe or Alex Grecian’s Rasputin series  (vol. 2, 2016 at YKL.2017.b.2935).

Rasputin in fiction
A selection of Rasputin-related fiction from the BL collections

Rasputin appeared on film even before he appeared in fiction, starting in 1917 with The Fall of the Romanoffs, featuring Rasputin’s former ally and later antagonist, the Monk Iliodor, as himself. The 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress led to a lawsuit from Prince Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s assassins, and his wife Irina, angered in particular that a character believed to represent Irina was portrayed as Rasputin’s lover. A curious, if indirect, aspect of Rasputin’s legacy is that the lawsuit resulted in the introduction of the now-familiar disclaimer in film credits that the characters ‘bear no resemblance to living persons’.

Rasputin Yusopov trial
Some of the press coverage of the Yusupovs’ libel case, reproduced in Sir David Napley, Rasputin in Hollywood (London, 1989) YC.1990.b.3188.

Of course Rasputin is a gift for any actor with a powerful presence and intense gaze – step forward, among the Brits, Christopher Lee (Rasputin the Mad Monk, 1966), Tom Baker (Nicholas and Alexandra, 1971) and Alan Rickman (Rasputin, Dark Servant of Destiny, 1996). While the latter two are straight historical dramas, the first is at the lurid end of the scale. But perhaps the nadir of Rasputin’s film career is the 1997 animation Anastasia in which he returns from limbo (with a wisecracking bat sidekick) to pursue the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia.

In Anastasia, Rasputin gets to sing, as he also does in at least three operas: Rasputin’s End (1958; F.1256.q) by Nicolas Nabokov, and two works simply entitled Rasputin by Jay Reise (1988) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (2003). He has been sung about too, perhaps most famously in Boney M’s 1978 hit ‘Rasputin’ which immortalised him for a generation as ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’. But 45 years earlier Allie Wrubel and Joe Hoover had come up with a similar concept in ‘Rasputin, that Highfalutin’ Lovin’ Man’ (VOC/1933/WRUBEL).

Rasputin and women
Rasputin surrounded by women, reproduced in Rasputin goes to Hollywood.  His elite female admirers were fascinated more by Rasputin’s  mysticism than by any supposed sexual magnetism.

Reputable modern non-fiction tends to reject the more lurid stories about Rasputin or to engage seriously with their origins and likely veracity. However, as so few facts are known about parts of Rasputin’s life and so many things reported as facts cannot be proven or otherwise, we can never know the whole truth. Clearly he was not the evil mastermind depicted by many writers, nor was he the kindly and slandered saint recalled by his daughter Maria in her two books attempting to clear his name of any scandal or wrongdoing. But even for those who seek a balanced and scholarly view of the real Rasputin, there is much fascination in exploring his enduring afterlife in popular culture.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

The exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

15 August 2017

Miracle on the Vistula

The present British Library exhibition on the Russian Revolution also touches upon the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The war started over the disputed territory of Ukraine between Soviet Russia and the newly -created independent Polish state (1918), following the Polish-Ukrainian combats. Poland’s independence was threatened by the advance of the Red Army into Europe, the aim of which was to spread the Bolshevik revolution in the West. The military conflict escalated when Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s Chief of State, formed an alliance against Soviet Russia with the Ukrainian leader Symon Petlyura in April 1920. Following the initial successful offensive in Ukraine by their combined forces the Polish troops were pushed back by the Red Army towards Warsaw, the Polish capital. The turning-point of the war was the Battle of Warsaw, which took place on the outskirts of the capital between 12 and 25 August 1920.

Polish-Soviet War poster LF.37.b.277

Polish poster from Soviet-Polish war, reproduced in Rok 1920 : plakaty ze zbiorów Centralnej Biblioteki Wojskowej im. Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego. (Warsaw, [ca. 2011]), LF.37.b.277

The Soviets planned to take Warsaw by enveloping the city from the north and south, and attacking it from the northwest. The Polish plan assumed the concentration of the Polish troops on the North and South Fronts to counterattack an anticipated Soviet advance. The forces of the third Central Front were to attack Soviet’s weakest positions. The Soviet intelligence discovered the Polish plan but because of its simplicity they considered it a trick to mislead the Red Army.

However, essential to the success of the Battle of Warsaw was the monitoring of Soviet communications which started as early as September 1919. The Polish Army Cipher Bureau (Biuro Szyfrów) was set up in May 1919 and its first head was Jan Kowalewski, a polyglot and cryptologist. With the help of a group of university mathematicians – Stanisław Leśniewski, Stefan Mazurkiewicz and Wacław Sierpiński – Polish cryptologists broke practically all the Red Army ciphers and codes. During the course of the war they deciphered a few thousand Soviet military messages. This significantly contributed to the victory of the Polish Army as the Poles became aware of gaps in the Soviet lines and the manoeuvres of the Red Army.

Zanim zlamano ZF.9.a.3584
Cover of Grzegorz Nowik, Zanim złamano “Enigmę” -: polski radiowywiad podczas wojny z bolszewicką Rosją 1918-1920 (Warsaw, 2004-2010).  ZF.9.a.3584

In the critical days of the Battle of Warsaw Polish radio-telegraphers blocked Soviet commander Mikhail Tuchachevsky’s orders to his troops by reading Bible excerpts on the same frequency as that used by the Soviet radio station. As a result the commander lost contact with his headquarters and the troops marched north instead of following the order to turn south. The decisive moment of the Battle was the recapture of Radzymin, a small town 23 km from the capital, by the Polish forces on 15 August. It halted the Soviet advance on Warsaw, also boosting Polish morale. After the war the Battle of Warsaw was known as the “Miracle on the Vistula”. As we know now it was no miracle; it was down to the Polish military intelligence.

Miracle on the Vistula painting by Jerzy Kossak
Miracle on the Vistula. Painting by Jerzy Kossak (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Feast of the Polish Armed Forces is celebrated in Poland annually on 15 August to commemorate the anniversary of the 1920 victory over Soviet Russia at the Battle of Warsaw.

The Battle of Warsaw has been regarded as one of the most decisive battles in world history, since it saved Europe from the spread of communism at the time.

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

Edgar Vincent, The Eighteenth decisive battle of the world. Warsaw, 1920, (London, 1931).  9100.aaa.20

Adam Zamoyski, Warsaw 1920. Lenin’s failed conquest of Europe. (London, 2008).  YC.2008.a.8810

Grzegorz Nowik, Wojna swiatów 1920: Bitwa Warszawska, (Poznań, 2011).  ZF.2013.a.26243

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

11 August 2017

Bread as a weapon in two Spanish wars

In Anthony Mann’s film of El Cid, the hero lays siege to Valencia, held by Al Kadir, in 1093-4. To quote the novelisation by Robert Krepps:

Al Kadir awoke slowly as was his habit. The pangs of hunger already ate away at his swollen belly [...] He heard a confused noise outside the palace; probably the damned machinery of the infidel was hurling stones already, for he could hear between the babbling cries of the people the short thunks of missiles striking tiles and earth.
[...] He could see only people moving at staggering runs through the dark streets below. One of them waved something. It looked like a big loaf of bread, but could not be. [...]
‘What is it? What is it he?’ shouted, rushing across the broad wall to them.[...]
‘The infidels are bombarding the city,’ said one, saluting without straightening up. ‘With food’. (pp. 196-7)

El Cid film tie-in

 Cover of Robert Krepps, El Cid (London, 1961) X.907/3319

The more sober historian Richard Fletcher writes in The Quest for El Cid (London, 1989; YC.1989.b.6501):

Food shortages began to be felt in the city. No relief force appeared. About the end of May Ibn Jahhaf opened negotiations. Terms of surrender were agreed. Rodrigo Díaz had made himself the master of Valencia.( p. 164)

The great Spanish philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869-1968) was advisor to director Anthony Mann. The plot drew on not only the medieval epic Poema de Mío Cid (1200?) but also the ballads, which supplied the love of the Cid and Doña Jimena.

El Cid 1541

Title-page of a 16th-century printed version of the Cid story ([Seville], 1541) C.39.g.5.

From the 11th century we now move to the 20th, no more civilised.

Here too we find food – bread in particular – as a weapon. Paul Preston writes in The Last Days of the Spanish Republic (London, 2016; YC.2017.a.6495):

It was said that more than 400 people died of inanition each week in Madrid [...]In November [1938], when the Francoists bombed Madrid with fresh white bread, JSU [Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas, actually a communist group] militants denounced this as a insulting gesture and burned the loaves in street bonfires. Alvaro Delgado, a student at the time, told the British historian Ronald Fraser: ‘It came down in sacks with propaganda wrapped round it saying: “This bread is being sent you by your nationalist brothers.” It was beautiful, white bread. Some came through a broken skylight at the Fine Arts School, and when no one was around I and other students ate so much we felt sick.’ On the streets, others trampled the bread in a fury. Despite their hunger, people were shouting: “Don’t pick it up.” Even [Segismundo] Casado recalled later that women and children launched themselves on to some men who were seen picking up the bread. They collected the loaves and took them to the Dirección General de Seguridad, the national police headquarters, whence it was transported to the battlefront and handed back to the Francoists. (p. 41)

Even the most dedicated Waitrose shopper needn’t be reminded that in the 1930s the most prestigious bread was white.

El Cid Bread

Republican soldiers distributing bread in the Spainish  Civil War

I learn from John Aberth’s A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (London, 2003; YC.2005.a.214) that the medieval film scene was not only fictitious, and modelled on the events of the Civil War:

But even [Menéndez] Pidal, who places great emphasis on the Cid’s humane treatment of his enemies, does not go so far as to say that his hero fed the inhabitants of a city he was trying to starve into submission. Instead, the scene closely follows a characteristic piece of Nationalistic propaganda: that its conquering forces were humanitarian ‘liberators’, as evidenced by carefully staged film footage of female members of the Falange distributing bread and food from the backs of trucks to the outstretched hands of a grateful crowd (p. 140).

We can all appreciate the sacrifice the Republicans made in destroying the loaves, but we should also remember that there is a taboo in Spain on wasting food, particularly bread.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

08 August 2017

‘A Czechoslovakian epic’: the Czechoslovak Legion in the Russian Revolution

Throughout the 19th century, a growing sense of Czech national identity was a constant source of alarm to the rulers of the Habsburg Empire. Friction between Czech and German speakers increased, and the first Slavic Congress, held in Prague in 1848, consolidated pan-Slavic sympathies. Although the Congress ended without formal agreement, one important result was the proclamation of a Manifestation to the Nations of Europe, calling for an end to the oppression of Slav peoples and ‘extending a brotherly hand to all neighbouring nations who are prepared to recognize and effectively champion with us the full equality of all nations, irrespective of their political power or size’.

On the outbreak of the First World War, many of the empire’s 8,000,000 Czechs and 3,000,000 Slovaks found themselves fighting under the Austrian flag. Wherever possible, their battalions were dispatched to the Italian front to reduce the likelihood of desertion to join their Russian and Serbian fellow-Slavs. Yet as the need for troops on the Eastern Front grew ever more urgent, this principle could no longer be maintained, and by 1915 many of these men found themselves deployed in Russian Poland.

On 5 August 1914 a battalion of Czechs and Slovaks known as the Česká družina (‘Czech Companions’) was organized within the Russian army to fight against the Austrians and their allies. More regiments were added as the war continued. In July 1917, the battalion, now known as the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda), distinguished itself at the Battle of Zborov when its troops overran Austrian trenches. After this success, the Russians authorised the mobilisation of Czech and Slovak volunteers from Russian prisoner-of-war camps. The brigade was renamed again as the First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia (Československý sbor na Rusi) or the Czechoslovak Legion (Československá legie). By 1918 it contained some 40,000 troops.

Czech Legion Dufka 2 YA.2003.a.16242

An infantryman of the Third Archduke Karl regiment, stationed in Kroměříž. Illustration from Josef Dufka’s memoir Přál jsem si míti křídla (Prague, 2002) YA.2003.a.16242.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council, Tomáš Masaryk, began planning to transfer the Legion to France to continue fighting against the Central Powers. The Bolsheviks granted permission for the Legion to travel from Ukraine to Vladivostok to embark on transport vessels as many of Russia’s chief ports were blockaded, but this was hindered when, in January 1918, the German Army launched Operation Faustschlag on the Eastern Front to force the Soviet government to accept its peace terms. In early March, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had taken Russia out of the war, the Czechoslovak Legion successfully fought off German attempts to prevent their evacuation in the Battle of Bakhmach.

Czech Legion Becvar 9087.aa.29 Czech legionaries on the Siberian border, from Gustav Becvar, The Lost Legion (London, 1939) 9087.aa.29

On 25 March, an agreement was signed ordering the Legion to surrender most of its weapons in exchange for safe passage to Vladivostok. The evacuation was delayed by the dilapidated state of the railways, the shortage of trains and the constant need to negotiate passage with local soviets. There was also mutual mistrust between the Legion and the Bolsheviks. When, on 14 May, a dispute broke out at the Chelyabinsk station between legionaries heading east and Hungarian prisoners of war heading west to be repatriated, Leon Trotsky ordered that the Legion be disarmed and arrested.

This triggered what became known as the Revolt of the Legions. By the end of June, the Czechoslovak Legion had seized Vladivostok and overthrown the local Bolshevik administration. On 6 July they declared the city an Allied protectorate. By early September they had swept Bolshevik forces from the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway and taken all the major cities of Siberia, but their seizure of Ekaterinburg came less than a week too late to save Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Czech legion Vykrik

 Výkřik (‘The Scream’), a magazine printed by the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Civil War. RB.31.c.832.

As the Red Army gained strength and retook several cities the Legion’s enthusiasm waned, and when the independent state of Czechoslovakia  was proclaimed on 28 October 1918, its members had every reason to wish to return home. On 18 November a coup overthrew the leadership of the Whites’ Provisional Government in Siberia, with which the Legion had made common cause, and Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was appointed ‘Supreme Leader’. The Legion was left to defend Kolchak’s sole supply route and the gold bullion which he had captured from Kazan for much of 1919, but most legionaries were uneasy with Kolchak’s rule. On 7 February 1920, the Legion signed an armistice with the Fifth Red Army granting safe passage to Vladivostok on condition that they did not try to rescue Kolchak and left the remaining gold with the authorities in Irkutsk.

Czech Legion Dufka YA.2003.a.16242

Illustration from Přál jsem si míti křídla: ‘One day we were delighted by the news in the papers that Austria was no longer fighting and the Czech Republic had been established.’

It was not until 1 March 1920 that the final Czechoslovak train left Irkutsk, and only in September that the last legionaries sailed from Vladivostok. Many of those who returned brought their skills and experience to the newly-established Czechoslovak Army; others, including Jaroslav Hašek, author of the satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk, joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Still others lived to write their memoirs, including Gustav Becvar, whose account appeared in English as The Lost Legion. It concludes, ‘On 20 June 1920 we crossed the frontier of our newly freed homeland, the Czechoslovak Republic. […] Here, after six and a half years of weary exile, I saw my mother again.’

Susan Halstead (Content Specialist, Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Services

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

06 August 2017

Belarus Celebrates 500 Years of Printing

On 6 August, Belarus will celebrate 500 years of printing, and also 500 years of East Slavonic printing. On that day in 1517 Francysk Skaryna (in various traditions his name has also been spelt as Francis Skaryna, Frantsisk Skorina, Franciscus Scorina and more) published the Psalter, one of the books of the Bible.

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f242r Portrait of Skaryna from his translation of the Old Testament Books of Samuel and Kings, Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv (Prague, 1518). C.36.f.4

Skaryna was born in the oldest Belarusian city, Polatsk. He was educated in universities in Kraków and Padua, and started his publishing endeavours in Prague – then one of the main centres of printing – and continued in Vilnius, which remained the most important centre of Belarusian culture and history from medieval times until the 1920s.

In the Belarusian cultural pantheon, Francysk Skaryna has a very special place. He was the most outstanding figure of the Renaissance and its humanist tradition in Belarus. He is also the most important Belarusian writer and translator of the period; an educator, philosopher and theologian, a fascinating entrepreneur and innovator, and an example of passionate patriotism.

Skaryna intended to publish the whole Bible. Between 1517 and 1519/20 he managed to produce more than half of the Old Testament – 23 books. These were translated into the Belarusian version of the Church Slavonic language then widely used in the Orthodox Church. Skaryna’s translation is close to the ‘Benatska Bible’ published in the Czech language in Venice in 1506 (C.18.b.2.); however, he consulted texts in ancient Biblical languages, as well as Church Slavonic manuscripts. The text of his Ruthenian Bible (Bivliia ruska) was supplemented by the translator’s prologues and commentaries in the Old Belarusian language.

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f001rBeginning of Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

In the prologue to the Psalter Skaryna explained his motives: “Seeing the usefulness of this small book, I decided to print the Psalter in Ruthenian words in Slavonic language for the glory of God in the first place [...] and for the good of everyone, because the merciful God sent me to the world from this people.” Skaryna intended his books for distribution among the common people (pospolityj lud) and other classes of his compatriots, the people of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (contemporary Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine). Interestingly, in virtually all prologues to his books, the printer mentioned his birthplace, the glorious city of Polack.

In 1520, Skaryna left Prague for Vilnius, the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to open his own printing house. Printed Cyrillic books were still a novelty there, and the underdeveloped market dictated a different kind of literature. In Vilnius, Skaryna published The Small Travel Book (1522) and Apostol (1525) intended for daily prayer use by the largest possible audience, both clerics and lay people, as well as for use in primary schools.

Skaryna C.51.b.5 f001r

 Opening of  the Psalter (Vilna, 1522-1523). C.51.b.5

Scholars and churches in Belarus continue to debate Skaryna’s religious affiliation. It is likely that he was born into an Orthodox family but educated by Roman Catholics. He served as a secretary to Bishop Jan of Vilnius and may have converted to Roman Catholicism. In his own prayers (Orthodox in form), Skaryna referred to Catholic dogmas which allows us to assume that he might have been a convinced Uniate (or a Greek Catholic, in the contemporary terminology). Skaryna travelled widely throughout Protestant Europe and was at least once accused by a polemicist of being a “heretic Hussite”, a follower of Jan Hus who was one of the forerunners of the Reformation. Church calendars in Skaryna’s books have some elements in common with the Protestant tradition.

After Belarus became part of the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, all Skaryna’s books were removed from Belarus. They ended up in state libraries in Moscow, St Petersburg, Vilnius and various private collections. Just over 500 books by the first Belarusian and East Slavonic printer are known to survive today, more than half of them in Russia. A significant number of Skaryna’s publications are found in Ukraine. Skaryna’s books were well known in Ukraine and influenced Ukrainian Biblical translation and printing traditions. In Britain, the British Library, Cambridge University Library  and Trinity College Cambridge have copies of Skaryna’s books. The Belarusian Library in London also has a small fragment of one of the Prague editions. Three digitised books printed by Skaryna from the British Library's collections  (Books of Samuel and Kings C.36.f.4; Psalter C.51.b.5; Acts and Epistles; C.51.b.6) will be donated to the National Library of Belarus in September 2017. 

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f065rOpening of part 2 of  Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f139vOpening of Book 3 of  Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

In 1925, both the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Belarusian community in the western part of the country – then controlled by Poland – celebrated 400 years of Belarusian printing. The date related to the first book Skaryna published in Vilnius. For the occasion, the Belarusian State University Library (now National Library of Belarus) purchased ten of Skaryna’s books from a private collector in Leningrad. Since then, no more of Skaryna’s works were acquired for Belarus until February 2017 when one of the Belarusian banks announced the purchase of a copy of The Small Travel Book for its corporate collection. Currently, this copy is on tour to Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy - countries where Skaryna lived - before returning in September 2017 to Minsk for a grand exhibition, ‘Francis Skaryna and his epoch’.

DSCN5676

The first 17 volumes of the facsimile edition of Skaryna's books (Minsk, 2013- ) donated to the British Library by the National Library of Belarus.  Catalogued and photographed  by Rimma Lough. ZF.9.a.11377

The National Library of Belarus, meanwhile, is about to complete a multi-volume facsimile reproduction of all Skaryna’s books (picture above). Digital copies for this project were offered by many libraries and collections from around the world. The National Library is donating this publication to major libraries in Belarus and abroad, as well as to all institutions preserving Skaryna’s works. On February 27 this year a delegation from the National Library of Belarus presented a copy of the facsimile edition to the British Library in the special event held in the British Library. 

Skaryna Kristian Jensen

Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation, greeting the audience at the Belarusian event in the British Library. 

Alongside this project, the National Library of Belarus has been acquiring as many digital versions of all known copies of Skaryna’s publications as possible to create a comprehensive collection and make it accessible to researchers. The Library has truly been the driving force in celebrating 500 years of Belarusian and East Slavonic book printing. Hundreds of events have taken place in Belarus and abroad, and more are still ahead, among them an International Congress “500 Years of Belarusian Printing” and the most comprehensive exhibition of Skaryna’s works; both are taking place in Minsk in September 2017. 

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f241v

Colophon of Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv with the imprint information: Ū velikom Starom meste Prazskom, Tyseshta Pe̡tsot I Osmʺnadesetʹ 

Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London

Further reading:

Ebenezer Henderson, Biblical researches and Travels in Russia, including a tour in the Crimea; and the passage of the Caucasus: with observations on the state of the Rabbinical and Karaite Jews, and the Mohammedan and Pagan tribes, inhabiting the southern provinces of the Russian Empire (London, 1826).  1048.k.28.

Cyrillic books printed before 1701 in British and Irish collections :a union catalogue, compiled by Ralph Cleminson ... [et al.]. (London, 2000). 2708.h.903 and m01/33811

Alexander Nadson,  Skaryna's Prayer Book in: http://belarusjournal.com/article/skaryna%E2%80%99s-prayer-book-89

Arnold McMillin, Francis Skaryna’s Biblical Prefaces and their Place in Early Byelorussian Literature in: http://belarusjournal.com/article/francis-skaryna%E2%80%99s-biblical-prefaces-and-their-place-early-byelorussian-literature-27

P. V. Vladimirov, Doktor Francisk Skorina: ego perevody, pečatnyja izdanija i jazyk (Munich, 1989). X.0909/738(85)

Frantsisk Skorina i ego vremia : entsiklopedicheskiĭ spravochnik  (Minsk, 1990). YA.1994.b.231

V. F. Shmataŭ,  Iskusstvo knigi Frantsiska Skoriny (Moscow, 1990). 2708.h.486

 E. L. Nemirovskiĭ, Frantsisk Skorina : zhiznʹ i deiatelʹnostʹ belorusskogo prosvetitelia. (Minsk,1990). 2708.e.1972

H. IA. Halenchanka,   Frantsysk Skaryna--belaruski i ŭskhodneslavianski pershadrukar. (Minsk, 1993). YA.1996.a.12908

03 August 2017

Triumph and Tragedy: Esperanto and the Russian Revolution

After some initial doubts by the Tzarist censors, the first decade of the 20th century was a period of good relations between Esperanto speakers and the Russian authorities. There were courses and clubs throughout the country. Every year until 1914 an official government representative took part in national Esperanto congresses with the support of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.

When the Russian Revolution broke out, many Esperantists gave it their enthusiastic support. At the same time, they continued promoting the language. Chief among these was an energetic and ambitious young man, Ernest Drezen, who managed to convince the new regime that Esperanto would be an essential tool to enable the world’s proletariat to communicate during the expected proletarian revolution. The Esperanto movement received support from the Soviet authorities at the highest level, which enabled it to develop in a most satisfactory manner.

EsperantoRusiaRevolucioCoverCover of Rusia revolucio de 1917 (Moscow, 1989) YF.2015.a.8476, a  graphic novel about the Revolution in Esperanto

It is important not to underestimate the idealism of the early years, which bore fruit in the fields of language and culture among others. Internally there was a policy of encouraging the use of all the languages of the national minorities, while an important foreign policy aim was the creation of a global proletarian culture. Esperanto fitted naturally into this aspiration for greater internationalism.

Early in 1919 the Bolshevik government made a major contribution to the work of the Esperanto movement. The periodical Esperanto Triumfonta (‘Esperanto will triumph’) reported on this the following year (1920, issue 6):

Moscow: According to the official Communist newspaper ‘Izvestija’ of 16th and 17th January 1919, the Communist government has made a large house available to the Moscow Esperantists.... It will be home to the Moscow Esperanto Society and the Organizing Committee of the Russian Esperanto Federation.... There will also be a bookshop and a large library, a reading room and a meeting room for the club. There are two publications: ‘Oficiala Bulteno’ and ‘Juna Mondo’ (Official Bulletin and Young World).

Drezen knew that any Esperanto association would have to conform to the Bolshevik party line. After various attempts, in 1921 he founded the Sovetrespublikara Esperantista Unio (SEU: Soviet Republics’ Esperantist Union), whose constitution followed the organizing principles of the Bolshevik Party.

EsperantoRevolucioLaKvinjaro

Cover of: L. Sosnovski, Kvinjaro de Sovetlandoj (Moscow, 1923) Above. Below: Portrait of Leon Trotsky from the same book with title-page as Jarkvino de la Oktobra Revolucio. F13/1021

EsperantoRevolucioLaKvinjaroTrocki

Numerous young Esperantists joined the new association, among them many talented people: organizers, journalists, writers, poets. SEU quickly became a strong, healthy and active Esperantist collective with a large membership. To continue receiving state support however it had to publicly cease all relations with the World Esperanto Association (UEA), seen as ‘a “neutral” petit-bourgeois organization in solidarity with the League of Nations’ and therefore not permitted to have members or representatives in the Soviet Republic. This was one of the points approved during SEU’s first congress. Instead, SEU chose to work with the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (SAT: World Non-national Association), which was founded as a non-neutral proletarian Esperantist organization during the same period. SEU recommended that all its members should also join SAT.

EsperantoRevolucioMihalskiCover of : Eugeno Mihalski,  Prologo, (Leipzig, 1929). YF.2012.a.27401

Cooperation between SEU and SAT was initially active and fruitful, but in 1923 there were the first signs of disagreement about the aims and direction of Esperanto activities, when SAT’s executive did not approve some of the decisions made during SEU’s congress. Even so relations remained good, culminating in SAT’s 6th Congress in Leningrad in 1926.

ESperantoRevolucioStamp_Soviet_Union_1926_243

 Soviet stamp for congress of SAT in Leningrad (From Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime the political climate in the Soviet Union was changing. The idea of a world proletarian revolution had fallen out of favour. Stalin, the new leader, believed it was possible to build a Socialist society in a single country. Anyone who disagreed was labelled ‘an enemy of the people’ and punished in accordance with the new criminal code, which came into force in 1926. One Esperanto speaker, Aleksandr Postnikov, had already been executed by firing squad the previous year. He was an army officer, and one of the most active Esperantists in the early 1900s. He was arrested several times, condemned for spying, and only rehabilitated in 1993.

Many groups came under suspicion. In 1936 it was the turn of the Esperantists. There were mass arrests in Ukraine. Torture was widely used to force confessions from innocent people about ‘counter-revolutionary activity’, and the leaders of the Soviet Esperanto movement were made to sign confessions about their participation in the ‘Trotskyite’ organizations SEU and SAT, as well as spying, and even plotting to liquidate the Soviet leadership. The Ministry of the Interior began to arrest Esperantists across the country, because almost all of them were members of SEU and SAT.

Trials against Esperanto speakers continued until 1938. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the two associations were given long sentences of exile, while the leaders of the movement, including Ernest Drezen and the major poet and writer Eugene Michalski were shot. Vladimir Varankin, a novelist and professor of history and foreign languages, was accused of spying and plotting to murder Stalin, and was killed.

EsperantoRevolucioVarankinCover of Stepanov Nikolao. La vivo kaj morto de Vladimir Varankin (1902-1938) (Budapest,1990). YF.2009.a.37695

SEU had never been officially prohibited. Now it ceased to exist, and the national Esperanto movement was extinguished for almost 20 years.

Were Esperanto speakers really so dangerous for the state? Hardly. But their contacts with foreign Esperantists, which allowed them to send and receive ‘undesirable’ information, were deemed dangerous. They receive an ironic mention in the second chapter of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work The Gulag Archipelago: ‘Among those great waves, certain modest little wavelets were also swept away, including [...] the Esperantists (a harmful group which Stalin undertook to smoke out during the years when Hitler was doing the same thing).’

So Esperanto had its triumph during the first idealistic years of the Russian Revolution and its tragedy in the years before the Second World War. But after Stalin’s death it revived, and played a remarkable role during the Cold War, when it was one of the channels for communicating with the West.

EsperantoRevolucioNewMonographs Recent monographs about Esperanto movement in the Russian empire and USSR published in Russia.


Moisej Bronshtejn, Russian writer and journalist.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

01 August 2017

Reforming Switzerland

With 1 August being Swiss National Day and 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seems like an good moment to look at the Reformation in Switzerland. The country boasts two of the early centres of European Protestantism, Zurich and Geneva, and the latter city is still in some ways synonymous with Protestantism.

Zurich was the first Swiss city to introduce the Reformation, under the guidance of Huldrych Zwingli, preacher and later canon at the Grossmünster, one of Zurich’s most important churches. From his first appointment in 1519 Zwingli began to introduce reformist ideas, influenced by both Luther and Erasmus, into his sermons and practice.

Reformation Zwingli portrait
Huldrych Zwingli, from Theodore de Bèze, Icones, id est veræ imagines virorum doctrina simul et pietate illustrium ... ([Geneva], 1580). 611.e.3.

But the decisive move, seen as the real start of Zurich’s Reformation, came in March 1522 when Zwingli attended a meal in the house of the printer Christoph Froschauer during which sausages were served. This may sound trivial to modern minds, but the ‘Zürcher Wurstessen’ was no ordinary sausage supper. It took place during the fasting season of Lent when the Church required its members to abstain from eating meat. By condoning the breaking of this fast, Zwingli was openly challenging the Church’s authority. He wrote a defence of the action and general condemnation of fasting, claiming it had no scriptural authority, and followed this up in with an attack on clerical celibacy.

Erkiesen und Freyheit 3905.d.131
An edition of Huldrych Zwingli’s condemnation of religious fasting, Von Erkiesen und Freyhait der Speisen ... ([Zurich, 1522]). 3905.d.131.

 The Reformation progressed in Zurich, but not without controversy. Zwingli was opposed not only by the traditional Church authorities but by more radical reformers who believed he was too compromising in his stance. Zwingli also disagreed with Luther on key points, notably the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist. A debate between Luther, Zwingli and their respective supporters in 1529 failed to resolve their differences.

Meanwhile, although some Swiss cities and cantons followed Zurich’s reforming lead, others banded together to defend their traditional faith, leading to the first of several confessional conflicts over the coming centuries. Zwingli himself was killed in one of these wars in 1531.

Five years later a young French theologian, Jean Calvin, settled in Geneva. Following a conversion to the reformed faith, Calvin had published Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Chrisitan Religion) as an expression of his own faith and an interpretation of reformed religion for new believers, which he would revise and enlarge throughout his life.

Reformation Calvin Institutio
The first edition of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis (Basel, 1536). C.53.aa.16.

Calvin and his associates began to introduce their brand of religious reform to Geneva. After initial difficulties Calvin was gradually able to develop the city into a centre of Protestantism. It became a magnet for scholars and also a refuge for reformers persecuted in their own countries. Among the latter was William Whittingham, whose English translation of the Bible, known as the ‘Geneva Bible’, became standard in contemporary Protestant Britain and remained popular among noncoformists even after the publication of the King James Bible.

Reformation Calvin portrait
Jean Calvin, From Bèze, Icones...

Another refugee, the Scottish reformer John Knox, described Geneva as ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was … since the days of the Apostles’, but not everyone was so impressed. Voltaire would later complain that, by closing down the convents, Calvin and his associates had managed to ‘turn all society into a convent’ and that ‘for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva’. Calvin’s Geneva still has a reputation as a rigidly puritanical society run as a near-theocracy, where popular pleasures were banned and moral standards strictly enforced.

Yet like that other European stronghold of Calvinism, the Netherlands, Geneva also developed a reputation in the following centuries for tolerance and would offer refuge to figures such as Voltaire himself, as well as remaining a home of strict Protestant observance. Today the city actually has a higher proportion of Catholic than Protestant residents, but still celebrates its history as ‘the Rome of Protestantism’.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies