THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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188 posts categorized "History"

21 August 2017

A Tale of Two Countries

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As we mark 100 years since the Russian Revolution, we should also consider another centenary linked to it. In 2017, Finland has been celebrating 100 years of independence from Russia. Finnish independence was officially declared on 6 December 1917 by Pehr Evind Svinhufvid, the head of the majority in the Senate at the time. With Russian powers supposedly transferred back to Finland in the middle of 1917 thanks to laws enacted by the newly configured Finnish Senate and an election that returned a low number of Russian-supported socialists, Svinhufvid was able to proclaim sovereignty in December and this was formally recognised by the new Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Vladimir Lenin. Independence did not however mean stability for a nation that continued to be influenced simultaneously by various Russian and German forces and the Finnish Civil War ensued in the first half of 1918.

Finland100 - Rodt eller Hvidt

Johannes Erwig, Rødt eller Hvidt? Sandheden om Finland (Copenhgen, 1918) 8095.ee.23. A pamphelt from the period of the Finnish Civil War.

With this tumultuous beginning in mind, Finland is proudly celebrating this century of independence with a host of programmes worldwide under the banner ‘Finland 100’. One project that has been developed for this year between the Finnish Institute in London, The National Archives of Finland, the National Library of Finland and the British Library, with the contribution of other archives, is a ‘Tale of Two Countries’. This is a digital gallery offering ‘carefully curated pieces of the shared history of Finland and Britain and their cultural, political and economic relations.’

The British Library has contributed images from its digitized collections, and has also completed new digitizations of some significant relevant materials, including the first English translation of the Finnish epic Kalevala

Finland100 - Kalevala hero

Ancient Finnish hero from The Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland, translated into English by J. M. Crawford (New York, 1888) 11557.d.8.

Another title to be newly digitized is M. Pearson Thomson’s 1909 travel guide to Finland, part of his series of guides Peeps at many Lands.

Finland100 - Peeps at many Lands cover Cover of M. Pearson Thomson, Peeps at many Lands: Finland, (London, 1909) W10-1152

The folks at the Tale of Two Countries website proudly show off a book that ‘gives us everything we need to spread the good word about Finland. He takes a quick look into history and tells us what the Finns are like.’

Finland100 - Peeps at many Lands woman

 Colour plate of a Finnish woman in traditional dress from Peeps at many Lands. Finland

In Winter sketches in Lapland, Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke travels through Lapland in a sledge describing for the reader the sights of the land and the customs of the people. The book’s 24 lithographs transport us to the winters of the Arctic!

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland

Above and below: Sleigh travel, from from Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke, Winter Sketches in Lapland, or Illustrations of a journey from Alten ... to Torneå ... (London, 1826) HS.74/1112 

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland 2

With a host of material from the various partner organisations, the cultural relationship between Finland and Britain is illuminated in a special way in this virtual gallery. Whether it’s a letter from Jean Sibelius to the British pianist Harriet Cohen, or an issue of the Finland Bulletin  (‘An English Journal devoted to the cause of the Finnish People’), the connected memory of two nations is preserved here.

A look at the website might even inspire your own peep at Finland… For those who have memories of Finland, there is even an option to share your memory through an uploaded image or a story. Have a peep!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Studies

18 August 2017

Devil, Rascal, Love Machine? The Afterlives of Rasputin

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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

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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

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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

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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

03 August 2017

Triumph and Tragedy: Esperanto and the Russian Revolution

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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

19 July 2017

A French Revolution Primer for Bastille Day!

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01 Order de Marche

Ordre de marche pour la Confédération. Qui aura lieu le 14 juillet, & dispositions dans le Champ-de-Mars. ([Paris], 1790). R.659.(32.)

Last Friday, 14 July, the Library’s French Collections curators attended the annual celebrations of the “Fête nationale” at the French Embassy in London. While a current exhibition at the British Library is commemorating the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution the national celebration of 14 July in France gives us the opportunity to provide a sweeping summary of the events surrounding the 1789 French revolution, highlighting the presence of a major collection of c. 50,000 French revolutionary books, pamphlets and periodicals in the library collections, along with primary sources originating from the library of King George III, and a collection of items (manuscripts and prints, as well as engravings and paintings) relating to the doctor, journalist and revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, donated by his bibliographer, François Chèvremont, at the end of the 19th century.

08 Te Deum

A political parody, Le nouveau Te Deum français (Paris, 1790) F.R.82.(4.)

In May 1789, in the context of increasing financial difficulties in the kingdom of France, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General (les états généraux), who met according to their ancient structure of Clergy, Nobility and Commons. An immediate, defining and most contentious issue was how the voting system was to be decided – by head or by Estate. In June, fearing that military manoeuvres around Versailles were intended to disband the Estates General, the Third Estate, together with members of the other two Estates declared itself to be the Assemblée Nationale and vowed, by means of the Tennis Court Oath, not to separate until a constitution had been written for France. By this act, the Assemblée Nationale declared itself to be the supreme legislative authority for a unified Nation-State called France (instead of a collection of provinces with different laws and customs) owing loyalty to the same monarch.

03 Prospectus

 Prospectus d’une souscription civique, proposée aux Amis de la Constitution, pour l’exécution d’un Tableau... représentant le serment fait à Versailles dans un jeu de Paume, par les Députés des Communes, le 20 juin 1789 (Paris, 1790) R.68.(4.)

After the Paris insurrection, which involved the emblematic storming of the Bastille prison, on 14 July 1789, the National Constituent Assembly took a series of measures establishing major legal and administrative changes, promoting liberty, equality and fraternity, abolishing privileges and feudalism, and adopting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A first Constitution written by the National Assembly was accepted by the king in September 1791, sealing the end of the absolute monarchy; it was a period of governmental crisis and political discord and upheaval.

04 Adresse

 Pierre Athanase Nicolas Pépin Dégrouhette, Adresse aux Français de la Société fraternelle des deux sexes, défenseurs de la Constitution séante aux Jacobins S. Honoré (Paris, 1791) F.R.82.(17.)

In the summer of 1792, after the invasion of the Tuileries Palace by the Parisian people, Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned in the Temple prison. The monarchy was overthrown and a new constitution and government were needed. Elections led to the creation of the National Convention, which declared France a republic on 22 September 1792. About a year later, a new revolutionary calendar, replacing religious references with seasonal one, was adopted, using this date as its starting point. While France was at war with Austria and Prussia, Louis XVI, who may have hoped a foreign victory against the French army would restore the absolute monarchy, was tried for high treason by the Convention and beheaded on 21 January 1793.

05 Sentinelle

 Revolutionary periodical: no. 73. 21 Novembre. L’An 1er de la République Française. La Sentinelle, sur Louis le Dernier (Paris, 1792) F.902.(15.) ‘Dieu a calculé ton reigne, et l’a mis a fin, tu as été mis dans la balance et tu as été trouvé trop leger…’

A new Constitution was proclaimed on 24 June 1793, the Constitution of the Year I, but it was not enacted: while counter-revolutionary movements spread, especially in the West of France, Maximilien Robespierre and members of the radical Moutain (Montagnards) party, after having ousted the moderate ‘Girondin’ members of the Convention, started a dictatorial reign of Terror led through the Committee of Public Safety.

06 Constitution

Constitution de la République française, starting with the Déclaration des droits et des devoirs de l’homme et du citoyen (Lons-Le-Saunier, [1795/96]). RB.23.a.37642

In autumn 1795, about a year after the fall and execution of Robespierre on 9 thermidor an II (26 July 1794), the new Constitution of the Year III established a new regime, the Directory. It was governed by five individuals, and established two chambers of Parliament (le Conseil des Cinq-Cents and le Conseil des Anciens). It dealt with wars inside and outside of France and lasted until Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’Etat in 1799, which was followed by the Consulate and Empire.

07 Robespierre

 L. Duperron, Vie secrette, politique et curieuse de M. I. M. Robespierre... (Paris [1793/94]) R.112.(17.)

The collection of French Revolutionary tracts now in the British Library, the second largest in the world after that of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was acquired from the politician and writer John Wilson Croker in three stages in 1817, 1831 and 1856: each set starts with a different shelfmark F, FR and R, and is bound in a different colour, brown, red and blue. Croker was a devoted collector and bibliophile, who enabled the first large scale purchase of revolutionary tracts from a bookseller in Paris. The British Museum later acquired some of Croker’s own collection.


02 Basement

The world of print changed dramatically during and after the French Revolution: the intense political debates leading to the birth of the French republic, and the abolition of the ancien régime corporations removed restrictions on setting up presses. Both in Paris and in different cities, towns and regions of France, small presses were used by groups and individuals eager to share their views in the increasingly public debate, thus contributing to the emergence of a public opinion.

09 Nous mourons

 Alphonse Louis Dieudonné Martainville. Nous mourons de faim, le peuple est las, il faut que ça finisse (Paris, 1794) F.357.(1.)

Pamphlets of various sizes could be printed cheaply and quickly in a standard format and disseminated in relation with current concerns and events. The British Library’s French revolutionary tracts, usually short pieces but occasionally involving longer texts (including the first French translation of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, FR.327(5)), cover a variety of subjects, and in our collection are bound thematically, grouping political ideas and reports on the activities of public bodies such as the états généraux or the Assemblée nationale, economic thought and discussion of financial issues, the death penalty, military events, religious matters, revolutionary festivals...

10 Discours

 Louis Claude de Cressy, Discours sur l’abolition de la peine de mort (Paris, 1791) F.R.223.(6.)

They bear witness to the development of new legislation, social change, power transfer and use of violence in this turbulent period. Under the Terror, many tracts were printed in defence of accused citizens trying to reach the committees in charge of their fate. The collection also includes many newspaper issues, such as L’Ami du Peuple (1789-93), written by Jean-Paul Marat, or the Journal des Amis de la Constitution (1790-91).

The three series of Revolutionary tracts are currently undergoing conservation to repair volumes whose bindings have been damaged by time and use. These books, periodicals and pamphlets, which tell the history of French constitutional government at the time it was formed, are a printed testimony to the growth, evolution and activity of a newly created Nation-State which owes its existence to a seminal event of the modern world.

11 Chanson civique

 Derante, Chanson civique au sujet de la Fédération du 14 juillet... dédiée à tous les bons patriotes. [Paris, 1790]) F.296.(4.)

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance Collections

References/further reading:

British Library Collection guides, “French Revolutionary Tracts”. 

Audrey C. Brodhurst ‘The French Revolution Collections in the British Library’, Electronic British Library Journal (1976) 

Jacques de Cock, ‘The ‘collection of Marat's bibliographer’ at the British Library’, Electronic British Library Journal (1993) 

French Revolution Digital Archive (Stanford University Libraries and the Bibliothèque nationale de France) 

French Revolutionary Collections in the British Library: list of contents of the three special collections of pamphlets, journals and other works in the British Library, relating chiefly to the French Revolution. Compiled by G. K. Fortescue; revised and augmented by A. C. Brodhurst. (London, 1979) X.800/31072.

France Diplomatie, ‘The 14th of July : Bastille Day’ (01/07/2017)

L’Elysée, ‘La fête nationale du 14-juillet’ (01/07/2017)

Des McTernan, ‘The printed French Revolution collections in the British Library’, FSLG Annual Review, 6 (2009-10), 31-44 https://frenchstudieslibrarygroup.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/fslg-annual-review-2010.pdf

The Newberry Library's French Revolution Collection digitised on the Internet Archive 

The Oxford handbook of the French Revolution, ed. David Andress (Oxford, 2015) YC.2016.b.1415

 

17 July 2017

Victims and Pretenders: the Murder of the Romanovs

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After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest. Initially they were held at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside Petrograd, later being moved to the Governor’s Residence at Tobolsk in the Urals.

Although the Romanovs were essentially prisoners, it has been suggested that the Tsar was in some respects relatively content during this period. Relieved of the cares of state and in the company of his beloved wife and children, he could be a private family man, the role he enjoyed most. The family continued to live in reasonable comfort, with the hope of eventual asylum in another country – perhaps Britain or France – being held out by both Russian and foreign governments.

The Bolshevik seizure of power saw both comfort and hope gradually destroyed. The conditions of imprisonment became harsher and official promises of foreign asylum were replaced by vague rumours of secret rescue plots. In April 1918 there was a further move, to Ekaterinburg. Here the Romanovs were placed in a requisitioned villa, known as the Ipatiev House after its owner, but renamed by the Bolsheviks the ‘House of Special Purpose.’

Ipatiev house
A Soviet postcard from the 1920s showing the Ipatiev House, with the high fence built  in 1918 to prevent the Romanovs seeing or being seen by the outside world during their imprisonment. The text describes the house as ‘The last palace of the last Tsar’

In the early hours of Wednesday 17 July 1918, the family and their remaining servants – a doctor, maid, cook and valet – were woken and told to gather in the basement of the house prior to being evacuated to a new location. Once they were assembled, the commandant Yakov Yurovsky announced that the Tsar was to be executed by order of the Ural Regional Soviet. Yurovsky and a group of guards then opened fire on the whole party, each killer supposed to aim at a specific victim.

Accounts of what happened next vary slightly. However, all agree that it was not the swift and efficient execution planned by Yurovsky, but a chaotic and brutal bloodbath. None of the prisoners died instantly, and the Tsarina and her children had jewels sewn into their clothes for safekeeping, which prevented bullets from penetrating their bodies. Eventually they had to be bayoneted, bludgeoned or shot in the head at close range.

Ipatiev house Basement
The basement room in the Ipatiev House where the Romanovs and their remaining servants were killed. Reproduced in Histoire des Soviets (Paris, 1922-23) 1854.g.15.

The first official reports of the murders stated that only Nicholas had been killed and his wife and children had been ‘removed to a safe place.’ This delay in telling the full story, together with the fact that the bodies had been disposed of in secret and attempts made to destroy them, helped to fuel rumours that one or more of the royal children had survived.

The first pretenders emerged in the early 1920s, and one came forward as late as 1995. In the early days, such claimants offered some hope to royalist exiles. Even if individual pretenders were proved false, their carefully-woven survival stories still represented the possibility that a true survivor might come forward.

Although each of Nicholas and Alexandra’s five children were represented by pretenders, the most common identities were those of the Tsarevich Alexei and the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The appeal of believing that the male heir to the throne had survived was obvious, but as the Tsarevich’s haemophilia became more common knowledge, would-be Alexeis had to concoct ever more fanciful medical histories for themselves to explain their survival.

The appeal of Anastasia as a potential Romanov survivor may have been that she was the Tsar’s youngest daughter and said to have been an exceptionally charming and vivacious child. But the number of Anastasia claimants probably also owes something to the most famous Romanov pretender, Anna Anderson. From the 1920s until her death in 1984, Anderson stubbornly maintained her claim to be Anastasia, discovered alive among the bodies in the basement and saved by a kindly Red soldier. She gained some prominent supporters, including people who had known the real Anastasia.

Anastasia and Anna
Pictures of Grand Duchess Anastasia (left-hand page) and Anna Anderson (right-hand page), from Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann. Anastasia: ein Frauenschicksal als Spiegel der Weltkatastrophe (Leipzig, 1928) 010795.aaa.71. The author, a strong supporter of Anderson’s claim, presents all the pictures as images of the real Anastasia.

Anderson’s fame and longevity helped create a romantic myth of Anastasia’s survival, encouraging other claimants and spawning an industry of books, plays and films. But DNA testing after her death finally confirmed that she was unrelated to the Romanovs, and the discovery and identification of the Romanovs’ bodies in 1991 and 2007 finally proved that there had been no survivors of the execution.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

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

14 July 2017

Coppet, Constant and Corinne: the colourful life of Madame de Staël

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‘And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day? […] Might one sing on Bastille Day?’ she asked. ‘Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer.’

David Sedaris, in his memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, 2000; YK.2001.a.13423), recalls his language teacher’s increasingly exasperated efforts to get her class of foreign students to discuss traditional ways of celebrating France’s Fête Nationale. But although the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was quickly recognized as a turning-point in the French Revolution, in 1817 there was one house in Paris where the mood that day was far from festive. Within it Anne Louise Germaine, Madame de Staël, lay dead.

DeStaelPortrait.10667.i.4Portrait of Madame de Staël from: J.Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age. A Life of Madame de Staël (London, 1959). 10667.i.4

Born on 22 April 1766 as the daughter of the Swiss financier Jacques Necker, Director-General of France under Louis XVI, the young Germaine was fortunate in having a mother who hosted one of the most brilliant salons in Paris. Suzanne Curchod, the daughter of a Swiss Protestant pastor, frequently received Edward Gibbon, the Comte de Buffon and other distinguished guests, and planned to raise her daughter according to Calvinist principles but also those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, allowing the little girl to mingle freely with the intellectuals who frequented their home. However, when Necker was dismissed from his post in 1781 the family moved to an estate at Coppet on Lake Geneva, only returning to Paris four years later.

Finding a suitable match for Germaine did not prove easy; not only had she shown signs of precocious brilliance, but eligible Protestants were scarce. Just before her 20th birthday, however, she was married in the chapel of the Swedish Embassy in Paris to Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a Swedish diplomat 17 years her senior; despite the social advantages which it conferred, the marriage, though never dissolved, effectively ended with a legal separation in 1797.

After experimenting with drama and publishing a less than impartial volume of Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (Paris, 1789; R.407. (17.)), Madame de Staël turned to fiction, the field in which she achieved renown with Delphine (1802) and Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807). The first of these suggests a less malicious version of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses: similarly written in the form of a series of letters, it describes the efforts of the eponymous heroine, a young widow, to manipulate the fate of a distant relation, Matilde de Vernon, by arranging a match for her with Léonce de Mondoville, only to become embroiled in a hopeless passion for him which ends in her suicide. The second, composed after the author had travelled in Italy, recounts in twenty chapters the love of the poetess Corinna and a young Scottish nobleman, Lord Oswald Nelvil, alternating between Rome, Naples, Scotland and Florence and depicting not only the landscapes, costumes and artistic glories of Italy but a gifted and independent woman far in advance of her times who nevertheless comes to a tragic end.

MadameDeStaelCorinne
Title-page of  Corinne, ou l’Italie (Paris, 1807) 1578/5030

The author’s life proved no less picturesque and eventful. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, she took an increasingly active role in politics, supporting the constitutionalist cause and rejoicing at the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789 which launched the events leading to the downfall of Louis XVI. Despite the departure of her father after being dismissed from office yet again in 1790, she enjoyed diplomatic protection because of her husband’s position and took advantage of this to frequent the National Assembly and hold court in the Rue du Bac, where Talleyrand and other prominent figures frequented her salon. It was not until 1792 that she was forced to flee on the eve of the September massacres, first to Coppet where she established another salon and then to England before her husband’s reinstatement allowed her to return to Paris in 1794 after the fall of Robespierre.

Baron de Staël’s death in 1802 set his widow free to embark on further adventures, characterized by a running battle of wits with Napoleon, who put her under surveillance before finally, in 1803, forbidding her to reside within forty leagues of Paris. Accompanied by her lover Benjamin Constant, she decamped to Germany and over the next eight years ricocheted between that territory, Coppet, Italy, Russia, Sweden and England, collecting a train of distinguished friends and admirers including August Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. Her turbulent relationship with Constant, commemorated in his novel Adolphe, ended with his marriage to the less volatile Charlotte von Hardenberg, and in 1811 she privately married a young Swiss officer, Albert de Rocca, three years her junior, producing a son the following year at the age of 46. The next year she published De l’Allemagne  an account of the political, social and cultural conditions which she had noted during her German travels.

MadameDeStaelAllemagneTitle-page of the second edition of De l'Allemagne (Paris, 1814) 1570/2030

Both her health and that of Rocca were in decline, and they travelled to Italy in October 1815. She had already met the Duke of Wellington before Waterloo, and their friendship was instrumental in persuading him to reduce the numbers of the Army of Occupation following Napoleon’s defeat. Despite continuing ill-health, she continued to run her Paris salon until her death from a cerebral haemorrhage on 14 July 1817, shortly after a conversion in extremis to Roman Catholicism.

Madame de Staël’s colourful and productive life has been seen as an example for women throughout Europe who, with the collapse of the old order, seized the heady freedoms which the new one offered. It can certainly be argued that, applauding the principles of the French Revolution, she embraced to the full the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity which it proclaimed.

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

12 July 2017

The Trans-Siberian Railway

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The Russian Empire stretched continuously across one-sixth of the world’s landmass, from Poland to the Pacific and from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of Central Asia. According to the data of the General Staff of the Russian Imperial Armed Forces and the Statistical Committee of the Ministry of the Interior, at the beginning of the 20th century Russia’s territory stretched from north to south for nearly 3,000 miles and from east to west for over 6,600 miles. Russian tsars ruled over the second largest territory in the world after the British Empire.

Pictorial Russia 2
Title-page of  Zhivopisnaia Rossia (St Petersburg, 1881-1901) Cup.22.k.1. This multi-volume work described different regions and peoples of the Empire for a general audience and the decorative title-page attempts to depict the range and diversity of Russia’s vast territories in a single image

The Russian Empire was home to some 150 million people divided into around 170 ethno-cultural groups, whose ways of life ranged from nomadic steppe herdsmen and tribute-paying fur trappers to communal agriculturalists, industrial workers and wealthy nobles. Full maps of the Empire were usually published in two sections: European and Asian. The Asian part of Russia beyond the Ural mountains was significantly larger than the European part and occupied nearly two thirds of the entire Russian territory. Most of these territories were industrially and agriculturally underdeveloped compared with the European areas. In some areas of Siberia the population density hardly reached 10 people per square mile, while in the country’s western parts, including Poland and Finland, it was over 100 people per square mile. At the beginning of the 20th century the Asian territories that belonged to the Russian Empire were described as Siberia (including the Far East), nine regions in Central Asia with its population of nearly eight million people, and the so-called Caucasian region or Transcaucasia. The kaleidoscopic diversity of geography, agriculture, industry, culture, ethnicity, religion, history and social structures sustained enduring notions of a land of paradox and unknowable mystery.

It is not surprising that economic modernisation of Russia hugely depended on the transportation system. The vastness of Russia and slowly developing infrastructure could partly explain extreme diversities and difficulties in managing the country.

European Russia Maps 35872.(16.))

A fragment of the Map of railways, rivers and road communications in European Russia, 1914.
Maps 35872.(16.)

As demonstrated in the Map of the Development of the Russian Railway Network, 1838-1918, which shows the railway construction in ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ Russia, the railways remained concentrated in Russia’s most industrial western core.

Development of railways Maps 35797.(8.)

Map of the development of the Russian Railway network, 1838-1918. Maps 35797.(8.)

At the end of the 19th century a journey from Moscow to Sakhalin took about three months. It depended on crossing rivers and was season-bound. In March 1897, on his way to exile Vladimir Ul’ianov, the future leader of the Revolution known as Lenin, wrote in a letter to his mother:

The halt here is a long one and there is nothing to do, and I have decided to write yet another letter en route, my third. I still have two more days’ journey ahead of me. I drove across the Ob [river] in a horse-sleigh and bought tickets to Krasnoyarsk. … The way the trains run here is beyond all bounds. To do that 700 versts [464 miles] we shall crawl for forty-eight hours. Beyond Krasnoyarsk, the railway goes only as far as Kansk, i.e., for 220 versts [145 miles] —and altogether to Irkutsk it is about 1,000 versts [663 miles]. And so I shall have to go on by road—if I have to go at all. Another 24 hours is taken up by those 220 versts on the railway; the further you go, the slower the trains crawl along.
You have to use a horse-sleigh to cross the Ob because the bridge is not ready, although its skeleton has been built. … The country covered by the West-Siberian Railway … is astonishingly monotonous—bare, bleak steppe. No sign of life, no towns, very rarely a village or a patch of forest—and for the rest, all steppe. Snow and sky—and nothing else for the whole three days. They say that further on there will be taiga, and after that, beginning at Achinsk, mountains. The air in the steppe, however, is wonderful; breathing is so easy. There is a hard frost, more than twenty degrees below, but it is easier to bear here than in Russia. It does not seem to me that it is twenty below. The Siberians say it is because the air is ‘soft’, and that makes the frost easier to bear. Quite probably it is so.

Russia’s vast territory lacked infrastructure that could support industrialisation. The building of the Trans-Siberian Railway started in 1891. As minister of transport and later minister of finance, Sergei Witte saw the project as one of the vehicles for economic reforms. 7,000 km was built between 1891 and 1916. However, in 1904 the Trans-Siberian Railway proved slow in carrying troops and supplies over the vast distance which had devastating results on the outcomes of the Russo-Japanese War. After the October Revolution in 1917, the railway became a strategic point, as the Czechoslovak Legion  took control over large areas near the railway.

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

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. As part of the accompanying series of events, on 21 July Railway Historian Christian Wolmar will be giving a talk on the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Revolution. You can find more details, including how to book, here.