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23 posts categorized "Propaganda"

19 May 2017

Dmitrii Moor interrogates: Have *You* Bought Your Ticket?

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One of the main founders of Soviet political poster design, Dmitrii Orlov was born in 1883 in Novochekassk to the family of an engineer. In 1898 the family moved to Moscow. Although the young artist did not receive a systematic training, he started publishing caricatures in the satirical magazines that thrived during a short period after the first revolution in Russia in 1905. Early in his career, Orlov adopted the pseudonym D. Moor, alluding to Karl Moor, one of the protagonists in Friedrich Schiller’s romantic play The Robbers

Having started as a caricaturist in satirical magazines, Moor was very much influenced by the German satirical publication Simplicissimus (British Library LOU.F459) and the Norwegian artist and designer Olaf Gulbransson, known for his clear lines and emphasis on linking verbal and non-verbal messages. Moor’s artistic style also incorporated imagery from silent films with their exaggerated emotions, which can be seen on this film poster:

Image 1-Моор_кино_Убийца_афиша
Moor’s poster for the lost black-and-white film Ubiitsa (The Murderer)

It is interesting that he returned to a similar style in the 1930s: the worker on this poster bears a striking resemblance to the criminal from the film poster:

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‘Workers of the World Unite!’ Poster by Moor from the 193os. British Library 1899.c.12(22).

Today Moor is probably best known for his famous Red Army Recruitment poster of 1920, which appears on the poster for our current exhibition, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, MythsMoor is  also considered one of the main founders of that unique area of Soviet art – political poster design. His other striking  posters, well known to Soviet audiences, include ‘Wrangel is still alive! Finish him off without mercy!’ and ‘Be on Your Guard!’

Image 3-29-Far East-Krasnaia Armiia-Cup.1247.dd.20.
‘Wrangel is still alive! Finish him off without mercy!’ (left), as reproduced in the album Krasnaia Armiia (Moscow, 1938) designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Cup.1247.dd.20.

Maps CC.6.a.38
‘Be on Your Guard!’ (1920) Maps CC.6.a.38

Here the right shoulder and raised leg of the Red Army soldier actually become the western state border, and thus the soldier personifies the state. His body is the body of Soviet Russia (his back rests against and fuses into the Urals, depicted as the bony ‘spine’ of the country – in Russian the same word means both ‘spine’ and ‘mountain range’). The vitality and resilience of the state is equated with the strength and will of its citizenry-in-arms.

Moor’s Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier, published in 1921, is a small book of cartoons intended to teach soldiers literacy as such and ‘political literacy’ at the same time: each letter is illustrated by a picture emphasising the special mission and the triumphs of the Soviet forces. The letter ‘G’ is the initial letter of the Russian word goret’ (‘to burn’), and the inscription to this picture reads: ‘The Earth burns with a fire lit by the worker’s hand.’ Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders hoped to instil in the Red Army a sense of historic mission, and an understanding that it was not simply a conventional national army but the custodian of world revolution.

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Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa (‘Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier’), 1921 (shelfmark Cup.401.g.25)

In the image for the letter ‘IA’ (Я), which also means the pronoun ‘I’ in Russian, the artist emphasised the idea of the new world and the new man who from now on will dominate in space and time for the next century: “The new Man has come! Long live the century of the Commune!”:

Image 6 smaller cup_401_g_25_014v

And there are examples of Moor’s caricature style, where enemies of the Soviet state look miserable and laughable. However, in most of the cases Moor uses the narrative and graphical themes that were very common and reproduced in many variations, such as Lenin sweeping the counter-revolutionary elements out of the country or a collection of ‘typical’ enemies opposing the new way of life.

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In the 1920s Moor worked for the anti-religious satirical newspaper The Godless and its reincarnation as the satirical magazine The Godless at the Workbench. The secularization of society and promotion of atheism was a crucial element of the ‘cultural revolution’ desired by the Bolsheviks, as Orthodox Christianity had been a pillar of support for the Tsarist state. Under Stalin anti-religious propaganda soon became quite aggressive. In 1925 the League of Militant Atheists, a volunteer organisation that promoted anti-religious views, was formed. In this image the peasant is sneezing out his religious beliefs under the supervision of the worker.

Godless P.P.8000.rs
Bezbozhnik u stanka (‘The Godless at the Workbench’; Moscow, 1923) P.P.8000.rs
.

Many art critics compared the aesthetics of Moor’s posters with the aesthetics and compositions of Sergei Eisenstein’s films and this is this is very true, as Moor was always thinking about perception of his works. For example, he wrote that a poster artist should not only be a complete craftsman in graphics, but also analyse the situation in which his art would be seen. He suggested that a poster artist should know the speed with which passers-by walk, the width of the streets in his town, the position of lights in the evening and many other things. It is not surprising then that his piece of agitation art invites you – or commands you – to come to our exhibition.

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. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

 

15 May 2017

Not Lenin and Trotsky - a Mystery Solved?

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Last year we published a blog post asking for information on two photographs by the American photographer Donald C. Thompson, widely published as images of Lenin and Trotsky in the English-speaking world but, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly not pictures of the two revolutionary leaders. We knew for certain who they were not, but struggled to find out who they were and what they were doing.

After some digging, Katya Rogatchevskaia (Lead Curator of East European Collections and of the exhibition, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths) managed to find the photographs reproduced in Russian and French publications. The elusive revolutionaries were found in a Russian ‘album of current events’ for the years 1914 to 1917 Voina i Revolutsiia (‘War and Revolution’).

LeninTrotsky War and Revolution

Donald Thompson’s photographs as published in Voina i Revolutsiia ([Petrograd, 1918?]) British Library X.802/4756.

The top-left photograph identifies the speaker as ‘German agent’ Robert Grimm, leaving the other man unidentified. The bottom photograph identifies the figures as ‘internationalists’, including Christian Rakovsky, Grimm, and Angelica Balabanova. They are shown laying wreaths at the Field of Mars in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), where victims of the February Revolution were buried on 23 May 1917. This fits perfectly with Thompson’s story about when and where he took the photographs of ‘Lenin and Trotsky’, even if the figures are not right.

Robert Grimm (1881-1958) was a Swiss socialist, and a chief organiser of the anti-war Zimmerwald movement during the First World War. He was allowed into Russia after the fall of the first Provisional Government, led by Lvov, in May 1917, and became active in the anti-war movement. Grimm was embroiled in scandal while trying to gauge the German response to the Soviet desire for peace, which was interpreted as trying to get Russia to pull out of the war unilaterally and seen as a betrayal of the Allied cause – hence, Voina i Revolutsiia describes him as a ‘German agent’. This was by no means the end of his political career, however. Grimm led the Swiss General Strike of November 1918, and in 1946 became President of the Swiss National Council.

LeninTrotsky Grimm

Robert Grimm (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

Angelica Balabanova (1878-1965) was another Zimmerwald activist of mixed Russian, Jewish, and Italian heritage. She joined the Bolsheviks and in 1919 became the secretary of the Communist International (Comintern), but grew critical of the authoritarian Bolshevik style of socialism and returned to Italy.

At first I was uncertain about the identification of Christian Rakovsky (1873-1941), even though he was a known friend and collaborator of Grimm and Balabanova – I had only ever seen pictures of him clean-shaven and looking much younger than the figure in the photograph. However, it would make sense for him to be present alongside his Zimmerwald comrades. Rakovsky was a Bulgarian revolutionary who was also involved in the Zimmerwald movement, who had been freed from imprisonment in May 1917 – explaining, possibly, his haggard appearance in the photographs later in that month.

LeninTrotsky Rakovsky
Christian Rakovsky in military uniform after the Bolshevik revolution (image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Other photographs and images do show him sporting a beard, like this piece of anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic propaganda, with leading revolutionaries (including Alexander Kerensky alongside the Bolsheviks as part of a putative Jewish conspiracy against the Russian state) engaged in a ritual murder, evoking the history of the ‘blood libel’ myth

LeninTrotsky International

 White movement propaganda poster showing Rakovsky with a beard, kneeling in the centre beneath Lenin, from Wikimedia Commons.

Rakovsky joined the Bolsheviks at the end of 1917 and took a number of leading roles, including as the leader of a failed Communist revolution in the Kingdom of Rumania and then the first head of government for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His fate was less happy than Grimm’s – Rakovsky aligned with Trotsky and developed a critique of Stalinist ‘bureaucratic centralism’ in the Soviet Union. He became a high-profile victim of the Moscow Trials in 1938, confessing to spurious charges of espionage on behalf of the British, German and Japanese imperialists during the show trials, and was executed in 1941.

So, the two pictures of ‘Lenin and Trotsky’ may actually be of three people – Grimm, Rakovsky, and another. One possible, though uncertain, identity of this ‘third man’ comes from the French source. The images also appear in the Histoire des Soviets series (Paris, 1922-3; 1854.g.15.).This album was edited by Jacques Makowsky (1894-1981), a Jewish master-printer to Tsar Nicholas II who fled Russia for France after the Revolution.

With the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 Makowsky was forced to flee once more to America, where his wife and he became famous for cross-breeding the Rock Cornish game hen – ‘a succulent bird with all-white meat, large enough for a single serving’. There is a compilation of this beautifully printed and illustrated series on YouTube here, with one of the photographs in question visible at 0:21.

LeninTrotsky Histoire

 One of the covers of the Histoire des Soviets series (Paris, 1922-3) 1854.g.15.

We get our third name from here: Mikhail Martinov  (1882-1919). Martinov was a Bolshevik revolutionary who had been elected chairman of the particularly left-wing Kronstadt Soviet. Not long after these photographs were taken Martinov was elected to the commission charged with planning the armed demonstration of workers, soldiers and sailors which developed into the violent July Days. Martinov himself met a violent end just two years later, killed in a counter-revolutionary uprising at Krasnaia Gorka during the advance of the White General Yudenich’s army towards Petrograd.

We can’t be certain that the Histoire is correct on this point, as although it correctly says that Grimm was in the photographs, it mistakenly identifies the wrong figure as him. As for Martinov, I know of no other photographs with which to compare, but it is perfectly feasible that he would have been present at this event. Much of the mystery has been solved, but this point still remains to be verified or supported with other evidence.

Mike Carey, CDA Student, British Library and University of Nottingham

Further Reading

Christo Boyadjieff, Racovski: The Vanquished Socialist (Rio de Janeiro, 1984) YA.1991.a.16859

Israel Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy (London, 1983) X.529/54596

R. Craig Nation, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism (London, 1989) YC.1992.b.4587

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. 

10 May 2017

A New Path, A New Dawn: Women’s Magazines in 1920s Soviet Uzbekistan

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The status of women in the Soviet Union and their role in the construction of the new Socialist society are issues that spur great enthusiasm and debate. Even for the less-studied regions of the USSR, such as Central Asia and the Steppe, a number of scholars are blazing new trails towards an understanding of gender and its impact on the Soviet experiment. Their research dissects the imbrication of gender, class, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation that went into constructing the identities of Soviet women during this period.

But what exactly did these identities look like? Given the myriad of experiences embodied by Central Asians during this period, we will never know for certain just what it was like to be a woman in Stalin’s Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. We do know, however, what the Communist Party wanted it to be like, thanks to a series of periodicals held at the British Library.

Yangi Yol - Cover of April 1927 Issue

 Cover of the April 1927 issue of Yangi Yo’l 14499.tt.16

Yangi Yo’l  (‘New Way’) was a monthly women’s and girls’ periodical published by the Uzbekistan Communist Party (Bolshevik) Central Committee for Women. The British Library holds only four issues, all from 1926-27: Volume 1, Nos 11-12 and 13-16; and Volume 2 Nos 4-7 and 9. The articles, supplemented heavily by photographs, sketches and diagrams, are all written in the old Perso-Arabic script. The new Latin alphabet  proposed for the Turkic languages in 1926 made only sporadic appearances, never in a form meant to teach readers how to use it.

While the magazine might not have been used to keep women and girls up to date with pedagogical innovations, it did seek to broaden their horizons far beyond the traditional domestic arena. An article on ‘Women-Girls’ Services in World Production’, which appeared in Nos 10 and 11-12, provides ample evidence of women’s participation in professions previously reserved for men. Photographs illustrate unveiled, smiling women operating machinery, lugging barrels, laying bricks and making horseshoes over a large anvil.

Yangi Yol - Women Workers of the World 2  Yangi Yol - Women Workers of the World

These pictures all show white women at work, rather than “emancipated” Uzbek or Central Asian women. They form part of a complicated and checkered history in which cultural imperialism and feminism intersected in a concerted effort to change the status of non-Western women. The images raise the question of how exactly the readers of these periodicals would have identified the new modern Soviet woman. Was she healthy, happy and productive on her own, participating in the construction of a Socialist paradise; or were light skin and large eyes a necessary component of that portrait too?

Indeed, Uzbek women workers strike a stark contrast with their Russian counterparts when we consider their representation in other articles. A photograph in No. 15 shows Uzbek silk makers at work: a group of middle-aged women, all but one with her hair covered, and none using machinery. Similar to this is the picture of a group of Samarqandi female artisans, also deprived of modern labour-saving devices.

Yangi Yol - Samarqandi Female Artisans

This is a far cry from the smiling, independent woman of the earlier piece, but it is likely a truer depiction of Uzbek women in the 1920s. Compare these with the images of veiled women attending a new school or the Turkmen village women watching children at a communal crèche.

Yangi Yol - Veiled Female Students at a New School in Uzbekistan

Yangi Yol - Peasant Women and a Cr+¿che in Turkmenistan

The reality of Central Asian women was evidently less rosy and progressive than the image promoted by Moscow and local Communist Party cadres. That utopia, apparently, belonged to the generations yet to come, as in the scene of new graduates observing a science experiment. These girls are dressed as their Russian counterparts in Moscow or Leningrad would have been, and they demonstrate the manner in which the construction of a new Soviet society would involve the importation of social and cultural norms from the centres of Soviet power, rather than a liberalization of local contexts and restraints.

Yangi Yol - This Years New Graduates observe an Experiment at the Uzbek Peoples Science Village

 Yangi Yol :  This Years New Graduates observe an Experiment at the Uzbek Peoples Science Village

Foreign Asian women were also featured in articles about liberation, albeit in a different context. The piece from No. 11-12 that follows the exposition of women’s participation in the workforce looks at ‘The Family Question in Tibet (Mongolia)’ . The work contains information that surely would have shocked many conservative women in Central Asia, including socially sanctioned pre-marital sexual relations and fornication, and female as well as male polygamy. It also recounts in detail marriage customs, education patterns and inheritance laws among the peoples of Tibet, as if to acquaint the girls and women of Central Asia with their sisters abroad. Similar articles about the women of China and Java and the girls of India would lead us to believe that Yangi Yo’l replicated a common Soviet strategy: building class-based solidarity among the dominated peoples of the world with Moscow, or at least the USSR, as the lynchpin of resistance.

Yangi Yol - The Women and Girls of China along with sketch of bound foot

The Women and Girls of China along with sketch of bound foot

Yangi Yol - The Women and Girls of Java

 The Women and Girls of Java.

In general, there is not much in Yangi Yo’l that we would identify as typical of a contemporary women’s magazine. There are articles about women’s social status, the education of girls, the eradication of child marriage, domestic issues and hygiene, but these are not the core of the publication. Much of the content is taken up with standard class warfare writing tinged with gender issues: the working woman fighting the faceless bourgeoisie and beys; elegiac poetry about Lenin and his importance for proletarian and peasant women; and the meaning of land reform for women workers. They fight for space with articles that might be classified more as general knowledge than women’s issues. These include pieces on the indigenous peoples of the Indian Ocean and an explanation of solar eclipses; an account of the Paris Commune; an exposé on climate and its science; and the wonders of Tutankhamen’s tomb. As much as the periodical was intended to educate and elevate women, it was also a means of broadening their horizons, introducing them to a common (largely Western) culture, and to entertain them with stories of the fabulous and awe-inspiring.

The Library’s collections of Yangi Yo’l do not extend past 1927. Indeed, it is unclear if the periodical continued to be published past this date. This dearth of information deprives us of knowing how the presentation of women and their role within the new Soviet society changed once Joseph Stalin cemented his grip on the reins of the Communist Party. What we do have, however, is a window onto the tail-end of a grand – and perhaps naïve – experiment that sought to remodel Central Asian women according to the prototype of the ideal revolutionary proletariat.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator

Contemporary Soviet Turkic Periodicals of Interest:

Yer Yuzu (Uzbekistan) 
Bezneng Yol (Tatarstan) 
Maorif va O’qutg’uchu (Uzbekistan) 
Maarif ve Medeniyet (Azerbaijan) 

 

10 February 2017

Mutilated history: Russian Revolution and Beyond

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Propaganda was considered an important instrument in legitimising the Bolshevik power from the very start. In spring 1918, when the Bolsheviks were struggling to maintain their power, Lenin already started an ambitious project of ‘Monumental Propaganda’. He suggested employing visual art, such as revolutionary slogans and monumental sculpture, as an important means for propagating revolutionary and communist ideas. Even porcelain was recognised as a medium of conveying communist messages.

But of course, printed material, such as posters, magazines and books that could be produced in relatively large numbers, could reach a wider audience and had a better impact. In 1920, two souvenir books prepared by the Propaganda Bureau of the Communist International  were printed in Soviet Russia: Deialeli Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala (The Leaders of the Communist International) and Oktiabr’: Foto-ocherk po istorii Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi Revoliutsii, 1917-1920 (October: Photo-essay on the history of the Great October Revolution, 1917-1920). Frontispieces of both books were designed in a very distinct style by Sergei Chekhonin.

Image 1-Deiateli Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala-LF.31.b.1026

The Leaders of the Communist International (LF.31.b.1026) above and October (LF.31.b.1027) below.

Image 2 -October-LF.31.b.1027

The Leaders of the Communist International contained 48 plates – portraits of members of the International and reproductions of paintings and drawings of the events related to its activities. All the artworks were created by prominent contemporary artists, such as Mstislav Dobuzhinzkii, Issak Brodskii, Boris Kustodiev, Georgii Vereiskii, and Konstantin Veshchilov. October contains collages of photographs documenting the Revolution and the first years of the Soviet state. The books were intended as presents for the delegates of the Second Congress of the Third International that took place in Petrograd from 19 July–7 August 1920.

During the Stalin purges that followed soon, many of those had been presented with these books were executed or exiled. And, those who had proudly appeared in the portraits and photographs were called ‘enemies of the people’. The Soviet practice was that such ‘enemies’ would disappear not only from life but from all records – books, photographs, paintings, films, etc. This fully applies to these two books . Many copies were destroyed or mutilated by their owners. Complete and pristine copies are extremely rare.

The copies held at the British Library were purchased in the early 2000s. The title page of The Leaders of the Communist International is cut in half, leaving a tiny curve in blue ink, the remains of a lost dedication. The book clearly belonged to someone whose name we had to forget. Our copy of October is signed: ‘Eigentum Frey’ (property of Frey). It is very likely that it belonged to Josef Frey (1882-1957), the founder of the Austrian Communist Party who was expelled from it for it in 1927 for being a Trotskyist.

I could not trace the fate of this copy of the book any further, but it definitely suffered a lot. On one of the first pages there is a cut just in the middle.


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According to the list of illustrations, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev stood next to the scaffolding from which Lenin was giving his speech.

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If we compare the British Library copy with a copy recently digitised by the Russian State Historical Public Library we can notice that pages 8, 12, 13, 16-18, 20, 23 and 26 with photos of the prominent leaders of the world socialist movement that had become ‘enemies of the people’ have been removed.

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 Page 26, missing in the British Library copy of October, from the copy in the Russian State Historical Public Library

Interestingly, the British Library copy contains p.25 (see below) which looks like a half of a folding plate where the right half is missing. It is not included in the digitised copy, so we cannot say whose photograph became a reason for cutting it out.

Image 6

The collage on p.38 tells a story of the of ‘Monumental Propaganda’ plan. On the photograph in the bottom corner Grigorii Zinoviev  is shown giving a speech at the opening of one of the first Soviet monuments – a monument to the revolutionary V.Volodarskii, who had been assassinated on June 20, 1918.

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 The British Library's copy of October with a  photograph cut out (above) and  The Russian State Historical Public Library's copy with the photograph retained (below)

Image 7a

We can fairly easily find information on Trotsky, Zinoviev or Volodarskii, but what happened to the woman in a hat in the right corner or to the boy with a holster on the car step next to Zinoviev? Unfortunately, they also were cut out of the history together with those who made it.

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.

05 August 2016

80 Years Ago: the Berlin Olympics in Words and Pictures

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Tonight, and for the next two weeks, the eyes of the world will be turned on Rio de Janeiro for the ceremonies and contests of the 31st modern Olympic Games. 80 years ago, the focus was on Berlin, where perhaps the most notorious of modern Olympiads was well under way. The 1936 Olympics had been awarded to Germany before the Nazis came to power, but the new regime, despite initial suspicions about the internationalist spirit of the Olympic movement, quickly adopted the Games as a showcase and propaganda vehicle for the ‘new Germany’.

Olympia 1936 Posters
German posters for the 1936 winter and summer Olympics, reproduced in Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 in Berlin und Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Hamburg-Bahrenfeld, 1936)  British Library Cup. 408.l.28

Much has been written about the 1936 Games and the surrounding controversies. The British Library, of course, holds a wealth of material, both British and German, on the topic, but we also have a number of German books published at the time to celebrate the Games. 

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Vignette from Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im nationalsozialistischen Staat (Berlin, 1934)  X.625/172.

Despite its title, the large-scale Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im nationalsozialistischen Staat was published ahead of the Games and so has little to say about the actual event. Most of its 687 glossy pages are devoted to the history and current state of Olympic sports in Germany. The authors claim to identify Germanic folk traditions at the root of many popular sports, and emphasise the importance of sport in building a healthy nation. Chapters have titles such as ‘Handball – an ancient German sport’ or ‘Physical education as a national-political task’, and most end with fiercely patriotic exhortations and celebration of the ‘German fighting spirit’.

Olympia-Hefte and box
The 26 Olympia-Hefte with their cardboard slipcase. RF.2016.a.30.

Serving a similar purpose, but aimed at a more modest audience, is the series of 26 small Olympia-Hefte, pamphlets issued in the run-up to the games by the ‘Propaganda Committee for the Olympic Games’ and available for 10 Pfennigs each from party offices, workplaces and sports clubs. A brief historical introduction to the Olympics (Heft 1) is followed by 23 pamphlets focusing on individual sporting disciplines in the past and present, ending with a plug for the ‘Strength through Joy’ organisation (Heft 25) and a glossary of sporting terms (Heft 26). The idea was to encourage the general public to take up sports themselves, something today’s Olympic host countries still seek to achieve among their citizens.

Von Athen nach Berlin cover
Cover of
Von Athen nach Berlin: Führer zu den Olympischen Spielen Berlin 1936 (Duisburg, 1936) YA.1996.a.20027

Another modest-looking production is the guidebook Von Athen nach Berlin. Its title and striking cover refer to the torch relay, an invention of the 1936 Games which endures to this day. Although in many respects a practical guide, complete with blank tables where the names of medallists in each event can be filled in, the publication also sets a strong propaganda tone: an essay on the ancient Olympics describes their Greek founders as ‘an Aryan people’, and later the author exhorts his readers to show foreign visitors that ‘we are once more a united people … knowing only one goal: Germany.’

P1090172Title-page of Olympia 1936 die XI. Olympischen Spiele, Berlin, und die IV. Olympischen Winterspiele, Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Berlin, 1937) 7915.w.24., with the much-reproduced image of Hitler and Olympic officials entering the main staduim in Berlin

The books in our collections which were issued after the Games tend to be somewhat less overtly propagandist in tone. For example, souvenir albums Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 and the two entitled Olympia 1936, record events and results with little comment as to the nationality or race of the medallists, and none can ignore the fact that Jesse Owens was the outstanding athlete of the Games. Some, however, acknowledge this through gritted teeth: So kämpfte und siegte der Jugend der Welt (Munich, 1936; 7915.w.16) pointedly emphasises the race of Owens and other black runners almost every time they are mentioned, and adds details of the best white and European performers in the events won by black and American athletes. And casual ideological asides can appear in unexpected places: one of the Olympia 1936 publications explains how much work had to be done to cleanse Berlin of run-down and ugly bulidings, ‘the remnants of the Marxist regime.’

Olympia 1936 Owens & Long
Jesse Owens and the German long-jumper Luz Long, from Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 in Berlin und Garmisch-Partenkirchen 

All these books are also well illustrated. Indeed, in the case of Die Olympischen Spiele 1936, published by the Reemstma tobacco company,  the whole point was to fill in the album with pictures bought  with vouchers given away in cigarette packets. But perhaps the finest illustrated book, although smaller and less lavish in format, is Was ich bei den Olympischen Spielen sah, by the Games’ official photographer, Paul Wolff. Here the focus is as much on the experience and challenges of photographing the games as on the actual events, and Wolff includes an appendix listing the technical details of each picture. The photographs included are a mixture of action pictures of the sporting events, artistic images of the stadium and ceremonies, and informal shots of athletes, spectators and technicians. Wolff’s interest in the technology of recording the Games reflects another theme common to most of the books: a pride in the technical achievments which enabled the Berlin Games to be broadcast around the world and individual events and performances to be judged with greater precision than ever before.

Technische Geräte Olympia 1936
A starting pistol and a camera for filming photo-finishes: the latest technology as shown in  Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 ...

Many of the features of these books – pride in a nation’s achievement in hosting the games and in the successes of the home team – are common to every host country's recording of their Games. But the abuse of Olympic ideals by a repressive fascist regime give these books a particularly sinister spin, and remind us why the 1936 Olympics will remain particularly notorious in the history of the Games. 

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

More information about some of the items mentioned here, and a bibliography of modern and contemporary books on the 1936 Olympics can be found on our archived Sport and Society webpages.

 

Olympic Bell 7915.w.24.
The Olympic Bell, one of the major symbols of the 1936 Games, with its motto ‘Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt’ [‘I summon the youth of the world’]. Image from Olympia 1936...

11 February 2016

Don Quixote as Napoleon: propaganda in Spain’s war of independence, II: the print.

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The Mexico edition of Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con el Sancho Panza de antaño, was published in 1809, after the Córdoba edition of the same year. It includes a the coloured fold-out cartoon apparently not present in the Spanish editions, which focuses on the situation in Spain in 1808 sometime after the ‘Dos de Mayo’ uprising in Madrid against the French.

Meseguer4Fold-out caricature from Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con el Sancho Panza de antaño (Mexico, 1809) British Library 9180.e.6.(30)

The main caption reads: ‘El Quijote de n[ues]tros t[iem]pos (Napoleon) caballero sobre su rocin (Godoy) y puestos los ojos en la encantada Dulcinea (America) Consuela á su buen escudero Sancho (Murat) de la perdida del Gobierno de la Insula Barataria (España)’ (‘The Quixote of our times (Napoleon) astride his nag (Godoy) and with his gaze fixed on the enchanted Dulcinea (America) consoles his good squire Sancho (Murat) for the loss of the Isle of Barataria (Spain)’.

During the confused period in Franco-Spanish relations, 1807-08, Spanish Prime Minister Godoy had in effect collaborated with Napoleon who, according to the historian Raymond Carr, despised him. Godoy, cast as Rocinante, the figure to the right on all fours, admits ‘Esto y mucho mas merezco‘ (‘All this and more I deserve’). In March 1808 Godoy’s ever increasing unpopularity in Spain prompted his dismissal by Carlos IV, who himself abdicated in favour of his son Fernando.

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Manuel Godoy, portrait by Goya (image from Wikimedia Commons

The ambitions of General Murat (as Sancho, in centre), Napoleon’s lieutenant in Spain, were frustrated after the brutal suppression of the Madrid uprising: ‘Todo se lo llevó el Diablo. Ya no soy gov[ernad]or’ (‘The Devil has taken everything. I am no longer governor’), he laments. ‘Insula Barataria’, depicted as a castle to the left of Murat, refers to the make-believe island of which Sancho Panza was made governor in one of the practical jokes devised by the Duke and Duchess in Part II of Don Quixote.

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General Murat, ca. 1808, portrait by François Gérard (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

The consolation offered to Murat by Napoleon/Quixote is a possible role in the Spanish colonies: ‘q[u]e si logro desencantar a Dulcinea te hare Arzob[is]po u Adelantado’ (‘if I succeed in disenchanting Dulcinea, I shall make you Archbishop or Governor’). This is a further allusion to Part II of Cervantes’ novel in which Sancho Panza convinces his master that Dulcinea’s appearance as a peasant girl is the work of enchanters.

Don Quixote Napoleon detail 2

America is represented as Dulcinea (top, centre; detail above) but in the guise of a woman wearing a native American headdress. The text reads ‘La América será una Dulcinea encantada q[u]e jamas has de pose[e]r’ (‘America shall be an enchanted Dulcinea that you will never possess’). The focus on the colonies in the cartoon is consonant with the reprinting of the work in Mexico. Following the French invasion of Spain and the imposition of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, Mexicans either affirmed their allegiance to Fernando VII or sought independence.


Don Quixote Napoleon detail 1

Bonaparte, represented as the ‘Quixote of our times’ (above), is depicted much as Don Quixote had been in the many editions of the novel hitherto. He wears ancient body armour and on his head the so-called helmet of Mambrino, in reality a barber’s basin. The basin-helmet is labelled the crown of Spain, with the caption ‘No tiene encaje este yelmo, no le biene á tu cabeza’ (‘This helmet does not fit; it is not right on your head’). His shield however has the emblem of the Gallic rooster and the motto ‘El caballero de los gallos’ (‘The Knight of the Roosters’). Napoleon is somewhat thin, but not short of stature, as the Emperor was usually depicted and is indeed described in Meseguer’s text.

The windmill (far left) references the most famous episode of Don Quixote (Part 1, ch. 8). The caption reads ‘Con un molino basta para asorarte’ (‘A single windmill is sufficient to put the wind up you’). Don Quixote was brave – and rash – enough to charge one of the group of windmills. The fearsome sight of just one would have been too much for Napoleon, ‘The Quixote of our times’? The ambiguity, bravery-rashness, takes us back to the ambivalence of Meseguer’s text.

Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections

References/further reading

Raymond Carr, Spain 1808-1975. 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1982) 82/22993

Charles J. Esdaile. Spain in the Liberal Age. From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939. (Oxford, 2000) YC.2000.a.11398.

09 February 2016

Don Quixote as Napoleon: propaganda in Spain’s war of independence, I.

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Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605, 1615) has not only inspired later writers, artists and subsequently film-makers, but his characters have also been used for other purposes, notably in propaganda and advertising. The behaviour of Don Quixote himself, whether seen as  fool, madman or noble idealist, has made him a most suitable figure for use in propaganda.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries the novel was regarded primarily as a funny book, but this began to change with the publication of the London editions of 1738 (in Spanish) and 1742 (in English) commissioned by Lord Carteret.  The emphasis shifted from slapstick comedy to literary and social satire. The subsequent publication of the Spanish Real Academia’s edition in 1780 elevated the literary status of the novel within Spain itself.  However, the absence of a single predominant interpretation of the novel entailed different attitudes towards the protagonist himself.  This divergence can be seen in some of the Spanish propaganda following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 and the imposition of his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.

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Spanish generals surrender to Napoleon in December 1808, painting by Jean-Antoine Gros, Musée du Château, Versailles (image from Wikimedia Commons)

One work in particular demonstrates this double focus: Francisco Meseguer’s El Don Quixote de ahora con Sancho Panza el de antaño (‘Today’s Don Quixote and the Sancho Panza of Yesteryear’). It was published in Spain in 1809 (in Córdoba, Mallorca, Murcia and Tarragona) and then in Mexico the same year –  which was not uncommon for this type of publication.  The British Library has a copy of this last edition (shelfmark 9180.e.6.(30.)), which also contains a coloured print representing the Emperor as Don Quixote.

Meseguer3
Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con Sancho Panza el de antaño (Mexico, 1809)

Meseguer’s work recounts a dream in which the narrator overhears a conversation between a modern-day Quixote and the original Sancho Panza.  After a brief introduction, it takes the form of a dialogue between the two in the manner of the conversations between Cervantes’ original knight and squire.  The modern-day Quixote is immediately identified with Napoleon, but as the ‘Caballero de la mala figura’ (‘Knight of the Evil Countenance’), a variation on Quixote’s epithet ‘Caballero de la triste figura’ (‘Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance’).  However, Sancho remembers not just the unwise actions but also the aims and ideals of his original master.  Therein lies the ambivalence. 

Sancho recalls three adventures from Part I of the novel: the attack on the flock of sheep, the freeing of the galley slaves, and the Princess Micomicona episode, each an example of Quixote’s folly or delusion. At the same time he succeeds in either highlighting one of Don Quixote’s virtues or in turning the argument back against Napoleon.  Don Quixote showed great bravery as, in his delusion, he actually believed the sheep to be a large opposing army.  Sancho draws a parallel between the freeing of the galley slaves (who turned on Don Quixote when he bade them go and pay homage to Dulcinea) and Napoleon’s one-time support for Manuel Godoy, since both actions were futile given the bad character ascribed to both the slaves and the very unpopular Spanish Prime Minister.  
 
Don Quixote sheep & slaves (Cerv.336)Don Quixote attacking the flock of sheep (top) and freeing the galley slaves (bottom). From The History of the most renowned Don Quixote of La Mancha... (London, 1687). Cerv.336. 

According to Meseguer’s Sancho, the Micomicona episode gave his master the opportunity of usurping the throne of the pretend Princess, an opportunity he ignored in contrast to the actions of Napoleon in Spain, who placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne. Moreover, Quixote demonstrated great fidelity to his lady Dulcinea by declining to wed the Princess who is part of the Priest’s plan to get Don Quixote safely back home.  Finally Sancho, recognising reality, recalls how so many of his master’s rash adventures ended in disaster, but, he adds, this will also be the fate of Napoleon’s Spanish expedition.

The nub of Sancho’s case is that the original Don Quixote was a true knight errant who wished to right wrongs and to protect the weak.  Napoleon, on the other hand, is the very opposite: his soldiers ‘have ruined countless maidens, raped married women and widows, leaving in tears those who were living happily, abandoned those who were well protected, and orphaned those who had a father’.  He also opposed loyal Spaniards such as Fernando VII and his supporters, favouring instead the likes of Godoy in furtherance of his personal ambition.

There is also a divergence between the description of the ‘Today’s Don Quixote’ and the one of yesteryear.  Sancho says the latter was ‘tall as a pine tree, lean… and solid as a rock’, while Napoleon/Quixote was ‘short of stature’ and had a ‘face like a monkey’.  This brings us neatly to the cartoon in the Mexico edition, which will be the subject of a second blog post.

Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections

References/further reading

Caro López. ‘Don Quijote en la guerra del Francés’, Anales cervantinos, 41 (2009), 39-61.  Available on-line at: http://analescervantinos.revistas.csic.es/index.php/analescervantinos/article/view/52/52

A copy of the Córdoba edition can be consulted at: https://archive.org/details/eldonquixotedeah00mese

23 October 2015

Hungary 1956: revolution, refugees, reprisal

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On this day in 1956 a peaceful demonstration organised by students took place in the Hungarian capital, demanding reforms of the oppressive communist regime. Soon broad sections of the population joined the cause, and soon the rattle of gunfire and the clatter of tanks resounded in the streets of Budapest and other cities.

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A flag with a hole on the 1956 monument outside the building of Parliament in Budapest. Communist insignia were torn or cut from flags during the October 23 demonstrations, an iconic image from the days of the Revolution. (Image by Ian Pitchford. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 From Wikimedia Commons)

The Revolution only lasted for 13 days, until 4th November, yet it became a symbol of fearless defiance against dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. In a few days, Hungarians achieved what could only be dreamt of for many years beforehand. On the first evening Stalin’s six-tonne statue was toppled, with only his boots left on the pedestal.

Four days later a new, democratic government was formed by the reformist Imre Nagy, and without much delay negotiations started about the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The secret police was disbanded, political prisoners were freed, previously banned political parties were allowed to reorganise and preparations were started to hold free elections. The fact that Hungary was also determined to leave the Warsaw Pact and declare its neutrality hastened the tragic end of the Revolution. The Soviets responded with resolute ruthlessness, as it was not in their nature to stand by and watch one of their satellites leave orbit and create a gaping hole in the buffer zone towards the West.

Soviet tank in Budapest 1956
Soviet tank in Budapest, 1956. (Image by the CIA (PD). From Wikimedia Commons)

The British Library holds a substantial collection relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a wealth of resources for academic or personal research. Collecting started shortly after the first refugees arrived in Great Britain. Almost 200,000 had fled their homeland and were given asylum in 35 countries worldwide after the brutal crushing of the Revolution. The earliest items received were leaflets and manifestos:

  • [A collection of leaflets issued by the Forradalmi Bizottmány and other bodies during the Hungarian revolution of 1956] ([Budapest], 1956).  Cup.504.ee.3.
  • [A collection of pamphlets dealing with events in Hungary in the autumn of 1956]. Cup.401.i.10.

Some of these are quite rare as even the possession of such ‘incendiary’ items was prohibited for over three decades.

Two flyers from Cup.401.i.10
Left, a flyer demanding free elections and calling to arms and strikes to gain independence. Right, an open letter to Soviet troops, in Russian, saying they were deceived when given orders to fight fascists in Hungary and that they should not shoot at demonstrators but withdraw. Cup.401.i.10.

Other sources include post-1989 publications of secret police archives, minutes of Communist party leadership sessions in 1956-1957, and documents from the British Foreign Office. It is also interesting to explore the domestic and international press coverage of the revolt, both in contemporary newspapers and compilations published retrospectively. The latter come partly from radio broadcasts including those by the BBC and Radio Free Europe. The Revolution generated a broad spectrum of sympathetic reactions in world politics and foreign public opinion, from neighbouring Yugoslavia to India, and from the International Commission of Jurists in The Hague to the United Nations in New York. Inside Hungary, however, it was too little too late for those supporting views or reports to have any real effect. On 4th November Soviet tanks returned and power was restored to the Moscow-backed faction, who methodically rounded up participants still in the country and had them condemned to lengthy imprisonment or death. One of those executed was Prime Minister Imre Nagy.

PlaquePlaque in Budapest to commemorate Imre Nagy and his associates. With the exception of G. Losonczy, who died in prison earlier, they were hanged and buried in an unmarked grave in 1958. (Image by Andor Derzsi Elekes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. From Wikimedia Commons)

Key figures of the Revolution are the subject of many works, as are its lesser-known martyrs, and the victims of reprisals. Documents of secret trials and protracted systematic revenge have largely been brought to light by now.

In an attempt to recalibrate people’s minds and to discourage any notion of opposition, the propaganda machine was also put to work. Amongst its copious output were the so-called ‘white books’, in which the communist puppet government painted its own version of events, denouncing the uprising as counter-revolutionary and criminal. These unassuming-looking booklets were translated into several languages to ensure that the endorsed account was accessible to foreign audiences as well. In addition to the Hungarian original we also have the English and Russian editions in our collection.

The legacy of 1956 was kept alive by émigré circles in the West, who published tirelessly and had clandestine support links to the dissenter movements growing from the early 1970s back home. Beside theoretical and commemorative writings, the literary heritage of both groups testifies to the immense impact the Revolution made on people’s lives.

Numerous survivors have had their diaries or memoirs printed, imparting some truly poignant stories.

Korvinkoz-budapestMemorial to a young freedom fighter in Budapest’s Corvin köz, one of the hubs of armed resistance. Many teenagers were among the active participants in clashes against the Soviet Red Army. Image by Andreas Poeschek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. From Wikimedia Commons

Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections

 

03 August 2015

Arming for the Armada? A 16th-century German view of Drake

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In late July and early August 1588, English ships were skirmishing in the Channel against the Spanish Armada, the naval invasion force sent against England by Philip II of Spain. Probably the best known of the English captains then, and certainly the best remembered today, was Sir Francis Drake, whose Cadiz Raid the previous year had significantly set back plans for the Armada and whose circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80 had brought him wealth and royal favour.

Drake’s fame was not restricted to England, as a rare hand-coloured broadside acquired by the British Library in 2008 demonstrates. Printed in Germany (or possibly the Low Countries), it shows Drake preparing for a military expedition, and is accompanied by a set of verses in German, put into the mouth of Drake himself and calling upon ‘all Christians’ to join him in fighting the ‘Antichrist’. Drake calls himself ‘Drach’ – a Germanisation of his name which, like the Spanish ‘Draque’ or Latin ‘Draco’ can also mean dragon, but while in Spanish propaganda Drake was the dragon as marauding beast, here he is the dragon as bold protector.

 Drake broadside HS.83-39
British Library HS.85/39

The broadside is a curious production. On the right-hand side is a full-length portrait of Drake, dressed in armour and carrying a musket. While this is carefully and realistically done and appears to be based on reliable contemporary depictions, the rest of the image is clumsily executed: the ship on the left-hand side is a most unseaworthy vessel, long and impossibly narrow. At the stern is a small cabin-like structure in which are huddled five badly-drawn figures. They, and the ship as a whole, are out of scale with the other three sailors and the cargo which they are loading.

 Drake from Broadside  480px-Hondius_-_Francis_Drake_1577
Drake as depicted in the broadside and in an engraving of 1577 by Jodocus Hondius (from Wikimedia Commons)

The textual elements also appear ill-designed. The inscription has a redundant extra T at the end of the second line and the letters of ‘Circumducto’ are crammed close together. The box containing the verses is placed off-centre and gives the impression of being an afterthought rather than part of a whole design;  at first glance it can appear to have been pasted on to an existing picture, an illusion encouraged here by the thick border painted around it. And the verses are not exactly great poetry, but that is hardly unusual in this genre (and besides, Drake has inspired plenty of doggerel throughout the centuries).

The broadside is undated, but clearly post-dates Drake’s circumnavigation (referred to in the inscription), and its call to arms suggests a date in the mid- to late-1580s, around the time of the Cadiz Raid or the Armada. Although it has been suggested that the threat to Christendom referred to in the verses is the Ottoman Empire, the text includes enough familiar elements of Protestant anti-Catholic discourse to make it more likely that the Catholic Church (and Spain in particular) is the ‘enemy’ being described. 

While not a great work of art either visually or poetically, the broadside is a fascinating piece of 16th-century propaganda, and shows how the fame of one country’s hero could travel in the age of print.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

26 July 2015

Letter from Donbass miners

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“Dear Comrades,” the letter began, “On the 18th anniversary of the October revolution, we send you our greetings.” Dated 10 October 1935 and signed by Soviet Esperantists working in the Donbass region of the Soviet Union, the letter endeavored, via the formulaic ardour of Stalinist homage, to “tell how the miners used to live before the revolution, and how they live now freed from the capitalists, thanks to the Communist party and the genius of the revolutionary leader Lenin, and the wise leadership of our beloved comrade, friend and leader Stalin.”

Translated from Esperanto into English and entitled “From a Russian Miner” (although it was in fact sent not from Russia but from Postyshevo, now Krasnoarmiisk, in Ukraine), this hearty missive appeared in the pages of a 1936 issue of La Laborista Esperantisto (The Worker Esperantist; British Library P.P.3558.ibl.) – the periodical of the British Section of the global Esperantist organization known as Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (S.A.T.) [World Anational Association]. As the standard inside cover of La Laborista Esperantisto reliably explained, S.A.T.’s primary aim was “to utilize in practical ways the international language, ESPERANTO, for the class aims of the working class throughout the world.”  S.A.T. insisted that Esperanto allowed workers to share ideas and educate one another; to collaborate in pursuit of the revolutionary aims of the worldwide proletariat; and to foster “a strengthened feeling of human solidarity” among Esperantist workers otherwise separated not merely by spatial distance, but also by national borders, languages, and citizenship regimes.

LaboristaEsperantistoDSC_5840
For its own part, “From a Russian Miner” carried the imprimatur of a regional outpost of the Union of Soviet Esperantists. When in 1921 the Union of Soviet Esperantists was established in Petrograd, its founding members devoted themselves to the popularization and deployment of Esperanto as a means of fostering cultural exchange, revolutionary networks, and friendly relations between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. The global solidarity of proletarian Esperantists would thus advance the global solidarity of the proletariat as a whole.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet Esperantists sought to realize this broad internationalist goal largely through the increasingly regulated practice of what the Soviets called “workers’ correspondence.” Soviet Esperantists adapted this method of propaganda, committing themselves to flooding foreign news outlets and workers’ associations with carefully crafted missives like the one that appeared in La Laborista Esperantisto in 1936. The point was to extol Soviet achievements and squash anti-Soviet “rumours” propagated by deceitful capitalists – and to do so via the international auxiliary language of Esperanto. Esperantist leaders abroad could then, in the hoped-for scenario, translate and reprint the Soviet Esperantists’ letters in the foreign press, thereby transmitting official Soviet ideology to workers abroad.

EsperantpForWorrkers           An Esperanto class for workers, From Esperanto dlia rabochikh:  uchebnik dlia kruzhkov i samoobrazovaniia (Moscow, 1930), p. 56.

By the time “From a Russian Miner” appeared, the Union of Soviet Esperantists was in crisis. On the eve of the Stalinist terror that would devour many of the organization’s members, the problems that bedevilled it  ranged widely. While an analysis of these problems goes beyond the scope of this blog entry, “From a Russian Miner” highlights certain flaws in the Union’s  approach to fostering global proletarian solidarity under the conjoined red star of the Soviet Union and green star of Esperanto.

“From a Russian Miner” adopted the format of a letter, but reads like a singsong recitation of talking points issued from a bureaucratic office. As promised in its opening paragraph, it first enumerates the horrors and indignities of miners’ pre-revolutionary life in tsarist Russia, and then celebrates their  joyful new Soviet life. Living and working conditions prior to the revolution, the letter explains, were miserably inhumane as workers inescapably sacrificed themselves to “create riches for an army of parasites.” Production was not only punishing and humiliating, but also shamefully primitive “as nothing was known of machinery.” Clean drinking water was denied the sickened workers, as was even a rudimentary education.

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Soviet poster "Work conditions of miners and workers in the Don Basin" (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The narrative arc marches stalwartly onward in such fashion to the revolutionary climax: the dawning of the “bright and sunny day” that is the contemporary Soviet Union. The life of the Soviet miner, the letter explains, is one of fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. Electricity illuminates the workplace and modern machinery powers industrial production. First-aid stations, bathhouses, classrooms, and a Palace of Culture ensure good health and enlightenment. “In comparison with our past life, our present life is scarcely credible,” the letter explains.  “Every miner has his little house surrounded with greenery. He has a vegetable garden, pigs, birds, and perhaps a cow.” All of this is owed, the letter concludes, to the wise revolutionary leadership of Lenin and Stalin.

No doubt the so-called “workers’ correspondence” that Soviet Esperantists transmitted abroad in the 1920s and 1930s did energize and inspire foreign workers, igniting their imagination of everyday Soviet life as a model to be emulated globally. In this way, Esperanto did serve the Soviet Union in pursuit of its internationalist aims. Yet the formulaic missives authorized by the Union of Soviet Esperantists for foreign consumption also obstructed the organization’s stated effort to facilitate relationships between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. Taking “From a Russian Miner” as a representative example of permissible Soviet Esperantist correspondence in the Stalinist 1930s, it is impossible to overlook not only its unnuanced presentation of an entirely unblemished Soviet life, but also its unrelenting monologic approach. The letter’s gaze focuses resolutely inward while its tone is conspicuously incurious about life abroad. “From a Russian Miner” poses no questions to foreign Esperantists, nor does it invite questions from them. The letter’s portrait of Soviet working life is numbingly generic and depersonalized; the collective workers’ “we” is narratively flattened into the faceless beneficiary of the October Revolution. The letter thumps with triumphal celebration of Soviet achievements, but palpably lacks the human touch of the Soviet citizens who wrote it.

“From a Russian Miner” concludes with a plea for a reply from fellow Esperantists abroad – “a letter by which we can feel the brotherhood and solidarity of the world’s workers.” It asks, in other words, for something that “From a Russian Miner” itself failed to deliver.

Brigid O’Keeffe

Brigid O’Keeffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.  In June 2015, she joined The Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck College as a Visiting Fellow. During this time, she conducted research at the British Library, using its extensive collection of materials that document the global history of Esperanto and Esperantism.