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22 April 2017

Lenin's Birthday

One of my very first childhood memories was a happy day, 22 April 1970, when the entire Soviet Union was celebrating the centenary of Lenin’s birth. I still remember an overwhelming sensation of pride, an excitement that spring brings with its smells after long winter, and envy toward the Young Pioneers who were assembled to march along the main street of Moscow to Red Square. I was watching them from the fourth floor flat in this main street wishing to grow up as quickly as possible to become a Little Octobrist and then a Young Pioneer and a member of Komsomol .

   11953569_original
Badges of the Soviet youth groups, l.-r., Little Octobrists (7-9 years), Young Pioneers (10-15) and Komsomol (14-28)

My childhood wish was very easily satisfied as membership of these organisations was technically compulsory. As I grew older Lenin on my badge was also becoming older and bolder. The image of the ‘most human of all humans’ was ubiquitous and based on legendary accounts and fake memoirs. Some historians believe that the attempt on Lenin’s life on 30 August 1918, which triggered the Red Terror, also laid the foundations of a cult of Lenin, as his recovery from the serious wounds was miraculously quick.

45-Lenin-calendar-Cup.645.a.6
Soviet Wall Calendar, 1920s. Cup.645.a.6.(65).

The design of this wall calendar imitates popular traditional motives and the composition of the Resurrection from Christian icons. However, Christ has been replaced with Lenin and the traditional warrior figure on the left bears the hammer and sickle on his breastplate. Lenin himself was not keen on being the object of worship, but even in his own lifetime he could not prevent it, and by the time of his death he was fully sacralised.

Natan Altman, a star of the Russian avant-garde, was interested in immortalising Lenin in the visual arts. His series of drawings of Lenin in his office in the Kremlin was published straight after Altman had finished it. The artist spent six weeks with Lenin in July 1920 and recalled that they spoke a lot about art and revolution. Based on these sketches, he created Lenin’s bust in bronze. It was the first portrait of Lenin to be shown abroad – at the Paris exhibition in 1925, where Altman received a gold medal for his work.

45b-Lenin-Altman-C.135.g.32 (1)-NOT ON THE LIST

45b-Lenin-Altman-C.135.g.32 (2)
Sketches from Natan Altman, Lenin: Risunki Al’tmana (St Petersburg, 1921) C.135.g.22.

In 1920 Lenin was very busy also sitting for the English sculptress, journalist and writer Clare Sheridan, who at that time was having an affair with the prominent revolutionary and Lenin’s Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (government) Lev Kamenev. She stayed in the Kremlin for two months, where she made busts of the prominent leaders of the Russian Revolution. She spoke candidly with the Bolsheviks as she worked, discussing with Lenin his dislike of her cousin Winston Churchill. She later wrote a book Russian portraits, where she described her Russian experience.

Sheridan1
Portrait of Clare Sheridan wearing a Russian-style fur hat from her book Russian Portraits (London, 1921) 9456.d.22.

Book tributes to Lenin started appearing before his death. Such was, for a example, a chronicle of his life published for his 50th birthday.

Lenin's 50th 1765.f.2
Ko dniu piatidesiatiletiia so dnia rozhdeniia Vladimira Il’icha Ul’ianova (Lenina) 
(Moscow, 1920) 1765.f.2

One of the key figures of Russian literary Futurism, Aleksei Kruchenykh, wrote a book where he examined Lenin’s speeches and his style. He endeavoured to study them from a linguistic point of view as an example of propaganda art. Kruchenykh’s artistic study was inspired by academic works coming from the circle of literary critics and scholars called ‘formalists’, who were more interested in analysing the structures of literary texts, rather than in their historical, social and other contexts. Although the book could be seen as part of the trend of the rising cult of Lenin, the foundations principles of formalism were severally criticised under Stalin, and the book was forgotten.

45a-IAzyk Lenina-C.136.b.30-NOT ON THE LIS
Aleksei Kruchenykh, Iazyk Lenina: 11 priemov leninskoi rechi (Moscow, 1925) C.136.b.30.

One of the ‘devices’ of Lenin’s rhetorical style was what Kruchenykh called ‘resoluteness’. He insisted that Lenin was primarily the ‘person of deeds’, and not a ‘person of words’: ‘He doesn’t leave space for hesitation, as many authors or speakers do, when they speak as if asking for an advice from the audience. He sets himself a task not to convince the audience, but to put the audience face to face with the necessity to agree with the [inevitable] facts’.

This ‘resoluteness’ was probably a feature of Lenin’s character rather than only a rhetorical device. The country built by the man who did not know hesitation and probably was incapable of simple empathy collapsed having murdered millions of its citizens. Little did I know on this happy day 22 April 1970 how wrong were my feelings. Unfortunately, the birth of the third child in the family of a civil servant Ilia Nikolaevich Ul’ianov was not such a happy day for the course of the Russian and world history.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.

19 April 2017

Four legs good? A Bohemian Wild Man

The Gazeta de Lisboa reported on 29 August 1825 that a wild man had been found in the Hartzwald in Bohemia. About 30 years old, he howled like a dog, walked on all fours, climbed trees as nimbly as a monkey, and caught birds with ease. Taken to Prague, he resisted all attempts to civilize him.

This news inspired the anonymous author (or, rather, translator, as most of his information comes from the New Dictionary of Natural History printed in Paris in 1803 – that is, Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle, appliquĂ©e aux arts, principalement Ă  l'agriculture et Ă  l'Ă©conomie rurale et domestique; BL 723.i.1-23.) to put together in 14 pages a small anthology of wild men.

Wildman tp
Noticia de hum homem selvagem, apparecido ultimamente; com a curiosa relação de outros muitos, que em varios tempos tem apparecido na Europa (Porto, 1825) RB.23.a.24200.

In 1544 a young man in Hesse had been brought up most carefully by a family of wolves, who had dug a hole in which to hide him. So used was he to walking on all fours that it was necessary to tie splints to him to make him stand upright. Having learned to speak, he told the Landgrave he would sooner live among wolves than men. His natural language consisted of “most expressive gesticulations” and “sharp cries issued from his throat”.

Wildman Lutterell Psalter  Add MS 42130
A mediaeval image of a wild man, walking on all fours, from The Lutterell Psalter, Add MS 42130

There is a remarkable consistency among these wild men: a boy of about nine found among bears in Lithuania also communicated in rough grunts and refused all attempts at education. Another Lithuanian wild boy had forgotten all about his animal life by the time he learned human language.

Tulpius, the Dutch doctor (was he the Dr Tulp of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson?) describes a boy brought up by sheep in Ireland. He lived on straw and leaves, which he could sniff out without mistake.

Tulpius Observationes
Engraved title-page of Nicolaus Tulpius, Observationes Medicae (Amsterdam, 1672) 1607/108

Another recognized his foster mother at a distance, by smell alone, like a dog. Some were still wearing residual clothing, like the boy found in Breslau. Had he run away from a cruel mother or nanny? Initially fierce, he allowed himself to be partly domesticated, but all his life evinced an antipathy to women: their proximity made him shiver and tremble.

Come of these cases are described as unusually hirsute, but in general are said to be well formed. In all cases the senses were developed beyond those of a civilized person. The treatments of these cases are neither voyeuristic, sensationalist or sentimental. Although the idea of the Noble Savage had been current for over a century, these savages are neither better or worse than the people who write about them.

Wildman Peter
‘Peter the Wild Boy’, a famous 18th-century feral child, found near Hamelin in Germany in 1725, from The Manifesto of Lord Peter (London, 1726) 12316.tt.24.

Even though these men and boys in many cases came to speak normally, none of them was reconciled to the civilized life, and sadly all yearned to return to the animal families who had nurtured them.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

16 April 2017

Happy Easter from Imperial Russia

Among various collections of visual material at the British Library we have a collection of postcards (HS.74/2027) published by the pioneer of postcard production in Russia, the Society of Saint Eugenia. The Society started as a charity organisation to support  nurses who had served in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, but after the war had no means of livelihood. Supported by artists and elites the society was patronised by Princess Eugenia of Leuchtenberg (1845-1925), a cousin of Tsar Alexander III, father of Nicholas II.

The Society supported hospitals, subsidised nursing homes and organised learning courses for young nurses to prepare them for work at the front in the war-time. To fund its activities, the Society started a publishing business, producing popular and commercially viable picture postcards with landscapes, photographs, art works reproduced on cards and made especially for the postcard format. Artists close to the World of Art group as well as other famous and popular painters and illustrators, such as Dmitrii Mitrokhin, Nikolai Samokish, Stepan Iaremich and many others took active part in the work of the society and contributed their art works to the print production of the Society.

The first printing endeavour of the Society was a decorative envelope for Easter 1896. Under a different name the Society continued its work after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and in 30 years of its existence produced around 6,500 postcards, with an average print-run of 10,000 each.

Vol 8  sleeve 10

Vol 14  sleeve 22

The use of postcards for holiday greetings definitely commercialised even religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. But we think that you might like to get our sincere Easter greetings with these old Russian postcards.

Happy Easter!

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.