THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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82 posts categorized "Politics"

08 November 2017

Heroes and victims of the Revolution

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 In November 1918, the first anniversary of the Bolshevik military insurrection (as the October Revolution was then known) was ‘celebrated in style’ in Soviet Russia. Around 3,500 metres of red fabric was allocated for decorating the Kremlin in Moscow. Over 400 metres of ropes were supposed to hold posters and panels during the celebration. On 7 November 1918 Lenin, who had made a remarkably prompt recovery after being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt some two months earlier, managed to give several speeches in different parts of Moscow. A large memorial plaque in commemoration of those who lost their lives “in the struggle for peace and the brotherhood of nations” was unveiled on Red Square and a temporary monument to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was also erected in the centre of the capital. A mass show “The Pantomime of the Great Revolution” was staged in the streets. Such mass festivals and reenactments of “revolutionary events” would soon become a usual feature of each commemoration and celebration in the early years of Soviet Russia. You can see photographs of those first anniversary celebrations here.

Those Russian artists who embraced the Bolshevik Revolution were happy to glorify it in arts. Vladimir Mayakovski was quite active in promoting the celebrations. For the first anniversary he wrote a ‘comic opera’ – Misteriia-buff (Mystery-Bouffe) – which was accepted to be part of the festivities. Staged by the famous theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold with designs by Kazimir Malevich the play was premiered on 7 November 1918 and then shown two more times. The author also appeared on stage as a ‘common man’, but then had to play a couple more roles as some actors did not turn up.

Image 1 - Misteriia Buff-Mayakovski-Ac.4635.ca.6

Above: Designs by Kazimir Malevich, from Istoriia sovetskogo teatra ed ited by V.E.Rafalobich, Vol.1 (Leningrad, 1933). Ac.4635.ca.6; Below: Vladimir Mayakovski, poster for Misteriia-buff, 1918. From The Soviet theatrical poster (Leningrad, 1977). HS.74/2256

Image 2 - Misteriia-Buff poster

Seven pairs of ‘clean’ (‘bloodsuckers’) and seven pairs of ‘unclean’ (‘workers’), as well as The Hysterical Lady, The Common Man (The Man of the Future), Devils, Saints (including Leo Tolstoy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) performed a ‘satirical drama’ in The Entire universe, The Ark, Hell, Paradise, Land of Chaos and finally – in The Promised Land. By the end of the year the play was published as a separate edition.

Image 3 - 1st edition

Cover by Mayakovski for the 1st edition of Misteriia-buff. (Petrograd, 1918). C.135.g.23

The Revolution affected everyone in the country, but it was also important for avant-garde artists and the Bolsheviks as well to stress the final divide between the past and the present, the rich and poor, the victors and losers, the heroes and victims and leave no space in between so that each and every one should clearly take sides. This irreversible split was also presented in another work by Mayakovski created for the anniversary – the album of drawings and short verses Geroi i zhertvy revoliutsii (Heroes and Victims of the Revolution’; Cup.410.c.81). Heroes (Worker, Red Army Soldier, Farm Labourer, Sailor, Seamstress, Laundress, Motorist, Telegraph Operator and Railway Worker) and Victims (Factory Owner, Banker, Landlord, Kulak, Lady, Priest, Bureaucrat, General and Merchant) are presented by four artists: Kseniia Boguslavskaia , Vladimir Kozlinskii, Sergei Makletsov and Ivan Puny.

Below are four of the album’s Heroes’: the Red Army soldier, Laundress,  Motorist and Railway worker:

Image 4 (3)


  Image 4 (7)

Image 4 (8)


Image 4 (10)

And here are some of the Victims’: Merchant, Kulak, Lady and Priest

  Image 4 (1)

Image 4 (14)

    Image 4 (15)

Image 4 (16)

It was proven before and happened this time again – Revolution devours its children. In 1919, Boguslavskaia and Puny left Russia for good; in 1930 Mayakovski committed suicide; in 1935, Malevich died of cancer having been banned from exhibiting ‘bourgeois’ abstract art; and in 1940, Meyerhold was shot dead in Stalin’s purges as an ‘enemy of the people’.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

12 October 2017

Righteous Gentile and honorary Irishman: Zdeněk Urbánek

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When Václav Havel, playwright and future president of the Czech Republic, was imprisoned in the 1970s, he came across a novel entitled The Road to Don Quixote (Cestou za Quijote; 1949), freely based on Cervantes’s experiences in an Algerian prison. As he read it, admiring the prophetically modern quality of the book and the author’s imaginative grasp of what it felt like to be a prisoner, he realised that he had actually met the author. At that time, when he was a young man in his early twenties attempting to break into the world of Czech literature and drama, the older man – a writer of short stories and essays, and a translator of Shakespeare and Joyce – inspired his respect, but little more. It was not until later, as they worked together as friends and co-signatories of Charter 77, that Havel came to appreciate the true qualities of Zdeněk Urbánek.

F_urbanek_zdenek_1917_0001

 Portrait of Zdeněk Urbánek (Image from The Archive of Fine Arts, Creative Commons non-commercial use-Share-Alike 3.0)

Urbánek was born on 12 October 1917 in Prague. After graduating he became an editor, first at the publishing house Evropský literární klub and in 1945 of the periodical Svobodné slovo, before working in the Ministry of Information and the Czechoslovak state film company as a script reviewer. In 1957, however, he contracted tuberculosis and left full-time employment to devote himself to translation. He had a special affinity with Irish literature, describing himself as an ‘honorary Irishman’; his translation of James Joyce’s Dubliners (Dubliňané; Prague, 1959; 011313.kk.22) testifies to this.

Among the many British and American authors whom he translated were T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, but his crowning achievement was his translation of seven of Shakespeare’s plays; the British Library holds a three-volume edition of these containing Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and all three parts of Henry IV (Brno, 1992-95; YA.2002.a.740). Of these, Hamlet retained a place in the repertoire of the National Theatre in Prague from 1959 to 1965.

Urbanek Romeo and Juliet

Frontispiece and tittle-page from Romeo a Julie (Prague, 1964; 11760.a.6),translated by Urbánek, illustrated by Ota Janeček.

The British Library is also privileged to own a copy of Urbánek’s earliest published work, a collection of short stories entitled Jitřenka smutku (‘Mourning star’), which bears a dedication in the author’s own hand.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku inscription

 Manuscript dedication on the flyleaf of Jitřenka smutku (Prague, 1939; X.909/81940).

At the same time as he was embarking on his literary career and establishing himself in publishing, Urbánek was also becoming active in a very different sphere. Since the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year he had been living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the growing persecution of the Jews was brought home to him in a particularly forceful way when his friend Jiří Ohrenstein, a Jewish poet who wrote under the name of Jiří Orten, was knocked down by a German ambulance in 1941 and died after being denied hospital treatment on racial grounds. Urbánek could not save him, but he could at least preserve his work and his literary reputation, and wrote an introductory essay for a collection of his writings, Eta, Eta, žlutí ptáci (‘Eta, Eta, yellow birds’ ; Liberec, 1966; X.909/8664). On a more practical level, Urbánek and his wife Věra provided temporary shelter in their two-room apartment for several Jewish fugitives on their way to safer refuges, and also offered a collection-point for food parcels being sent to others who had already been dispatched to Terezín. In recognition of his efforts, Urbánek was subsequently designated as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ by the State of Israel.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku cover

  Cover of Jitřenka smutku.

Urbánek never hesitated to put his personal safety at risk in the service of both humanitarian and literary causes. He was frequently subjected to police questioning, and even his work as a translator exposed him to danger through his choices of authors and the ideas which they expressed, leading him to publish them anonymously or under borrowed names. From 1972 onwards he contributed to various samizdat and exile literary publications, as after 1968 he had been placed on the list of banned writers.

In one of his short stories, ‘The Visit’, translated by William Harkins in On the Sky’s Clayey Bottom: Sketches and Happenings from the Years of Silence (New York, 1992; YA.1993.a.20757), he describes a visit from a State Security representative hoping to recruit Urbánek’s wife to spy on a guest coming to stay with their neighbours. When it turns out to be a mistake (the man was looking for a Party member with a similar name living two floors down), the unwelcome caller departs, grumbling; ‘We’re already loaded down with work and they send me another two floors up. Goodbye then. And keep quiet or you’ll get it.’ In just three short pages Urbánek pithily and trenchantly captures the atmosphere of claustrophobia and distrust which prevailed immediately before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia (the story was first published in May 1992, only months before the ‘Velvet Divorce’ which divided the Czech Republic from Slovakia). He himself had made a significant contribution to the downfall of the old regime through his work with the human rights declaration Charter 77, signed by many leading cultural figures who were punished by imprisonment or dismissal from their posts; Urbánek was forbidden to leave Czechoslovakia after returning in 1969 from a six-month stay at All Souls College, Oxford, and did not do so again until October 1989, when he was finally able to visit the USA as a guest of the Charter 77 Foundation.

Despite the fact that Urbánek was 90 when he died in 2008, Havel declared that he had died before his time. ‘Without him,’ he stated, ‘I can hardly form an adequate conception of what Czech fiction, Czech essay writing, or Czech translation today have to tell us’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

14 September 2017

150 Years of Capital

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The British Library claims an important relationship with Karl Marx and his associates. Arriving to London as an exile in 1849, Marx became a familiar face in the reading rooms of the British Library (then part of the British Museum), making use of their extensive collections to pursue information that would later prove foundational to his famous critique of political economy, Capital. The first edition of this canonical work was received with little fanfare, selling only 1000 copies in its first four years. In 1872, Marx himself presented a copy, published in German, for our collections (C.120.b.1). The donation was acknowledged like any other, with a cursory record in a large, leather-bound index that now sits in our corporate archives. Now, 150 years since its original publication date on 14 September 1867, it is among our most treasured texts.

  Marx register
Marx’s donation index entry. BL Corporate Archives DH53/6

In preparation for the 2018 bicentenary of Marx’s birth, we have been tracing the course of his time with the British Library. It is a well-trodden path; few figures have been subject to as much intense historical and ideological scrutiny, and it is hard to believe that after two centuries our explorations may yield new discoveries. But it would seem that the Library still has secrets to give up. This week, consulting the donation indexes led to the discovery that Marx also presented a second copy of Capital, this one in French.


Marx French
Title page of Le Capital (Paris, 1872) C.120.g.2.

The text, with its intricately-embellished chapter headings and impressive title page, is a thing to behold. Closer inspection also reveals various handwritten annotations in the margins of the page. Words are crossed out, better alternatives suggested, and minor errors deleted. In his search for a common unit of value between two comparable commodities – cloth and coat – the word toile (‘linen’) is substituted for the less accurate drap (‘sheet’): 

Marx corrections 1   Marx corrections 2
Handwritten corrections in the donated copy of Le Capital

There is good reason to suspect that these annotations are written in the author’s own hand. The birth of the French edition was, for Marx, lengthy and tortuous. In his opinion:

although the French edition…has been prepared by a great expert in both languages, he has often translated too literally. I have therefore found myself compelled to re-write whole passages in French, to make them accessible to the French public. It will be all the easier later on to translate the book from French into English and the Romance languages. (Letter to Nikolai Danielson, 28 February 1872, MECW, vol.44, p.327)

One is inclined to feel some sympathy for the long-suffering translator, Joseph Roy, working as he was from the second German edition of Capital handwritten in Marx’s famously dreadful scrawl. Marx was a ruthless editor, and it is easy to imagine the famously rigorous intellectual leafing through the copy en route to the library, unable to resist making a few last-minute alterations.

Marx was also a constantly evolving writer, and the ideas contained in the French edition differed significantly from those of its predecessor. Notably, the much-discussed section outlining the fetishism of commodities was refined. Where the German edition concerns itself with the fantastical appearance of the commodity, the French edition foregrounds the necessary reality of ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’. In short, then, this is a work unpopulated by phantoms; instead, we begin to see how the workings of capital come to modify the essence of human personhood. Marx himself claimed that the French edition ‘possessed a scientific value independent of the original and should be consulted even by readers familiar with German’. Still, it was long neglected by the Anglophone world, largely due to Engels’s own preference for the earlier German incarnation.

  Marx Register 2
Donation index entry for the final instalment of Le Capital. BL Corporate Archives DH53/7

The donation registers show that the French edition was delivered to the British Library in six instalments, between 12 October 1872 and 8 January 8 1876. This period corresponds with various complications in Marx’s life, with frequent bouts of insomnia and liver disease affecting his ability to work. In a letter to Friedrich Sorge on 4 August 1874 (MECW, vol.45, p.28), Marx lamented that ‘that damned liver complaint has made such headway that I was positively unable to continue the revision of the French translation (which actually amounts almost to complete rewriting)’. So the staggered delivery of the manuscript likely reflects these intellectual and physical obstacles, but it is also revealing of the audience that Marx had in mind for his work. The French edition was initially published in a serialized format in workers’ newspapers between 1872 and 1875. ‘In this form,’ Marx wrote,‘the book will be more accessible to the working-class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.’ However, he fretted that the French public, ‘always impatient to come to a conclusion…zealously seeking the truth’, would be frustrated by the wait between instalments. A puzzling concern for a man whose work had hitherto been received with so little public zeal.

For the Library’s administrators, these piecemeal instalments of Capital, and interactions with its author, only proved something of a mild inconvenience. In a letter dated 17 July 1873, the Library’s Assistant Secretary wrote to William Butler Rye, Keeper of Printed Books, with the following request:

Dear Mr. Rye,
I am directed by Mr. Jones to forward to you fasc. IV of the French edition of Das Kapital. In a letter received from Dr. Karl Marx on the 15th, he says: “I feel not sure whether or not I have sent the 6th and last fascicile [sic] of the first volume of the German edition” (of Das Kapital). Would you be so good as to communicate with Dr. Marx on the object: he writes from No.1 Maitland Park Road.
Believe me,
Yours truly,
Thomas Butler

Butler letter 1 Butler letter 2 Butler letter 3
Letter to William Butler Rye, BL Corporate Archives DH4/13

Izzy Gibbin, UCL Anthropology.  (Izzy is working with the British Library on a doctoral placement scheme looking at ways to mark the bicentenary of Marx’s birth)

References

Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected works (MECW) (London, 1975-2004) X.0809/543.

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

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

 

07 July 2017

To the Finland Station in a not-so-sealed Train

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In the weeks following Russia’s February Revolution in 1917, an increasingly frustrated Lenin was stuck in Zurich, forced to follow events from afar. Like other Russian political exiles, he had found neutral Switzerland a convenient haven when war broke out in 1914, but now it was more like a cage. Not only could he play no active part in events back in Russia, but he had no chance to influence or control them as he desired, and meanwhile the new Provisional Government was taking a course that seemed too moderate to Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks

The problem for the Russian revolutionaries in Switzerland was of course the ongoing war. The logical route home led through enemy German territory. Another option would be to travel via Russia’s allies France and Britain, but the two countries’ governments would hardly offer safe passage to people they considered dangerous agitators. In her memoirs, Lenin’s wife recalls him ‘building the most improbable plans’ – flying back to Russia by plane, or using the passports of foreigners from a neutral country.

In the end, the German route offered the most realistic hope. The German government had already flirted with the idea of funding Russian revolutionaries in the hope of destabilising Russia and bringing about her withdrawal from the war. It was possible that they might now be brought to see Lenin’s return as a means to this end. 

Platten
Fritz Platten, reproduced in Willi Gautschi, Lenin als Emingrant in der Schweiz (Cologne, 1973). X.809/19902. 

Swiss socialist Robert Grimm approached the German Ambassador to Switzerland to open negotiations, but it was Grimm’s compatriot Fritz Platten, who brokered the final agreement to allow Lenin and others exiles to travel by train through Germany to neutral Sweden. Platten was also given official responsibility for the party and helped to draw up a document to be signed by all the travellers, declaring among other things that they accepted the risk of imprisonment for treason on their return to Russia.

Reise Lenins facsim
Facsimile of the document signed by Lenin and his companions, reproduced in Fritz Platten, Die Reise Lenins durch Deutschland im plombierten Wagen (Berlin, 1924) 9456.i.18. 

At last, on 9 April 1917, Lenin and 31 other exiles embarked on a train at Zurich station. This has gone down in history as the ‘sealed train’, and and its journey became part of the mythology of the Russian Revolution, helped not least by Platten’s own account, published in 1924.

Reise Lenins 9456i18
Front cover of Platten's Die Reise Lenins...

In fact the ‘seal’ was more symbolic and legal than physical: one of Lenin’s conditions had been that the train should have extra-territorial status, so that it could not be boarded by anyone hoping to arrest the travellers. The Russians were forbidden from leaving the train, and a chalk line on the floor marked a boundary, which only Platten was allowed to cross, between them and their German guards. But the doors and windows could be opened. Various members of the party later recalled Germans coming to speak to them and to offer food or beer through the windows, and at another point in the journey a group of German socialists even came on board hoping to speak to their Russian counterparts.

To a certain extent, however, Lenin sealed himself off, settling in a separate compartment and working on what became known as the ‘April Theses’. He was impatient to reach Russia and irritated by the high spirits of his fellow travellers who could be heard chatting, joking and singing next door. Even when the party had reached neutral Sweden and were travelling more conventionally and able to communicate with the outside world, Lenin devoted most of his time to working, networking and planning his next moves.

A final challenge came on the Finnish border, where the travellers were interrogated and searched at a British military checkpoint, before eventually being allowed to continue. At last, on 16 April, they arrived (on an ordinary train) at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, where Lenin proclaimed to a welcoming crowd the ‘worldwide Socialist revolution’ which he believed was just beginning.

481px-Locomotive_293
Finnish Locomotive 293, which undertook the last leg of Lenin’s journey. It was presented to Russia by Finland and is now preserved at the Finland Station in St Petersburg. (Photo © by James G. Howes, 1998, from  Wikimedia Commons)

Platten, who had been so vital to the journey, was no longer with the group, having been turned back at the Finnish border. He did later enter Russia, eventually settling permanently there, and in 1918 he provided another and even greater service to Lenin. They were travelling in a car together when a would-be assassin opened fire. Platten pushed Lenin down, sustaining a minor injury himself and probably saving the Bolshevik leader’s life. Despite his services to the Revolution, he later fell victim to Stalin’s purges, and was shot on 22 April 1942 – ironically, the anniversary of Lenin’s birth.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin. Translated by Bernard Isaacs (Moscow, 1959) 010600.c.43. (Also available online at: http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/krupskaya/works/rol/index.htm)

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (London, 2016) Awaiting pressmark

Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (London, 2009) YC.2010.a.13366

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 programme of events, on the evening of 25 July Historian Catherine Merridale and writer Viv Groskop will be in conversation about Lenin’s journey back to Russia. Details can be found here.

29 June 2017

Dispersed Polish collections abroad

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Due to the country’s turbulent history Polish collections are spread across libraries, archives and research institutes all over the world. The programme called The Registration of Polish Collections Abroad, carried out at the initiative of the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in the years 2006-2014, included work on the registration and documentation of Polish material in foreign libraries. To summarise the results of the complex research undertaken by librarians and scholars in various European, American and Australian institutions holding Polish book and manuscript collections, an international conference was organised by Warsaw University and the Ministry in Warsaw on 25-26 May 2017. The papers covered a wide range of issues, from cultural heritage in dissolved monasteries to the looted collections in Germany and Sweden, as well as the Polonica holdings of national libraries such as the Library of Congress, Bibliothèeque nationale de France and the British Library.

Conference Warsaw

The programme for the conference (Designed by Katarzyna Seroka, University of Warsaw)

A significant proportion of Polish material can be found in Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania – once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Speakers discussed the problems related to the Polish book and manuscript collections scattered in public, academic and monastery libraries and archives. The focus was on the historical perspective of these collections and their use in current research. Many Nazi-looted objects of Poland’s cultural heritage are still in the possession of a few German institutions and are now the subject of provenance research and consequently their restitution. For example, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin has so far returned about 10,000 items to their legal owners. In Sweden there are innumerable Polish cultural artefacts, including printed material and manuscripts, which were looted during the Swedish invasion of Poland in the mid-17th century. The Swedish plunder resulted in the worst cultural losses in the entire history of the country. However in the 18th century Poland renounced any claims to its treasures in Sweden, so they cannot now be the subject of restitution negotiations. A separate paper discussed restitution issues in the light of international regulations.

The collection of Józef Ossoliński  founded in Lwów (nowadays Lviv) in the 19th century is a different case. It is an example of private property donated by the collector to the Polish nation and as such is part of the country’s heritage. After the border changes in 1945, only a part of the collection returned to Poland. Since the 1990s it has been the topic of recurring discussions between the Polish and Ukrainian authorities. The German collection of books and manuscripts removed from the Prussian State Library for safe keeping during the Second World War was found in Silesia, the former German territory incorporated into Poland after the war. The collection is considered by the Polish authorities only as a “deposit” against cultural losses inflicted on Poland by Germany.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage coordinates the projects with the aim of producing online databases of the dispersed Polish collections – either in digitised form, in the case of printed material, or as a source of information on other cultural objects. These include Polonijna Biblioteka Cyfrowa (‘Poles Abroad Digital Library’)  containing 7,500 titles, and the recently launched portal Polonika  which provides information on objects of cultural heritage abroad.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

12 May 2017

A feisty Finnish feminist: Minna Canth

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In 1820 James Finlayson, a Scottish Quaker and self-taught engineer, received permission from the Senate of Finland to build a textile factory in Tampere using water power from the Tammerkoski rapids. Three years earlier he had been invited by Tsar Alexander I to set up a similar factory in St. Petersburg, and he was now bringing modern industrial methods to Finland, then under Russian rule. Finlayson, a passionate philanthropist as well as a good businessman, was zealous in providing the best possible conditions for his employees; the enterprise throve and grew to become Tampere’s biggest provider of employment, with considerable benefit to the town’s social conditions. Finlayson founded not only an orphanage but also a school for the workers’ children, and it was here that Minna Canth, one of the most important figures in the Finnish women’s movement received her early education.

Minna Canth portrait

Portrait of Minna Canth from Hilja Vilkemaa, Minna Canth: elämäkerrallisia piirteitä (Helsinki, 1931) 10797.b.40.

Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson was born in Tampere on 19 March 1844, the elder daughter and first surviving child of Gustav Vilhelm Johnsson, whose hard work in the Finlayson textile factory enabled him to become a foreman there. At home and at school she was strongly influenced by the emphasis on industry and piety, and when in 1853 her father was promoted to manager of the Finlayson textile shop in Kuopio, she continued her education there, doing so well that she was allowed to enter a school for daughters of the upper classes and, in 1863, to enrol at the newly-founded teacher training college in Jyväskylä  (now the University of Jyväskylä), the first institute in Finland to admit women to higher education and to deliver teaching in Finnish.

However, before completing her studies, Minna married the college’s natural sciences teacher, Johan Canth, who was nine years her senior, and over the next thirteen years produced a family of seven children. Nevertheless, this was not the end of her ambitions, which developed in a literary direction. Canth became the editor of the newspaper Keski-Suomi (Central Finland), and his wife contributed articles on matters particularly relevant to women, including temperance, which she saw as a means of combating the addiction to alcohol which reduced many families to poverty. Her polemical attitude, which her husband shared, compelled them to leave Keski-Suomi in 1876 and to move in 1877 to a rival newspaper, Päijänne, which began to print her stories. Two years later her first collection of these, Novelleja ja kertomuksia (‘Novellas and Tales’) appeared in print.

Minna Canth did not shrink from taking on prominent public figures such as churchmen and authors when the occasion demanded. In 1885 she published one of her most famous plays, Työmiehen vaimo (‘The Wife of a Workman’), the story of a spirited and capable woman, Johanna, whose shiftless husband Risto ruins the family by drinking her money away while the laws governing women’s property render her helpless to prevent him. Set in contemporary Kuopio, the drama created a considerable scandal; that same year, its author spoke out robustly against a bishop who claimed that emancipation was against God’s law and the writer Gustaf af Geijerstam who supported him by arguing that men’s different needs and nature made it impossible for them to achieve feminine purity. Before the year was out, the Finnish Parliament had passed a new law allowing married women to hold property in their own right.

Minna Canth Työmiehen vaimo

Title-page of Työmiehen vaimo (Porvoo, 1885) 11755.df.20

Canth wrote many other plays and works of fiction, but her last drama, Anna Liisa  is among the greatest and is still often performed. Seduced by Mikko, a local youth, the fifteen-year-old heroine conceals the resulting pregnancy and stifles her baby in a fit of panic. Mikko’s mother Husso buries it secretly, but she and Mikko resort to blackmail when, some time later, another suitor, Johannes, proposes marriage to Anna Liisa. Refusing to give in even if it means sacrificing her happiness, Anna Liisa confesses and goes to prison, but with a calm mind and clear conscience. Although critics have argued against the unfairness of a conclusion in which Mikko escapes punishment and Anna Liisa bears it alone, she emerges as a strong woman capable of making moral choices and determining her own future on the basis of their integrity.

Minna Canth Anna Liisa
Title-page of Anna-Liisa (Porvoo, 1895) 11758.df.32

Johan Canth had died in 1879, and while pursuing her literary career his widow continued to manage not only her household and family of seven but the draper’s shop which she had taken over from her father. Her vitality and outspokenness made her a tireless worker for women’s rights and human rights at a time when the Grand Duchy of Finland was striving towards independence from Russia, and her birthday is marked every year as a celebration of social equality throughout Finland.

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