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109 posts categorized "Russia"

29 August 2017

Hope, Tragedy, Myths - and Curation.

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As our exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  closes, the curatorial team involved share some memories, favourite items and ones that got away.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator

My research on the exhibition brought me to the State Russian Library in Moscow. I’m extremely grateful to all the  Russian colleagues who work there. They allowed me into their storage rooms and brought piles of folders with Soviet and Russian posters, postcards and other visual ephemera. I wanted to get on loan and show here, in London, everything: colourful candy wrappers with a picture of the brave Cossack Kozma Kriuchkov (eventually we decided to honour him in the exhibition with a poster from the British Library holdings), letter-templatess addressed to relatives from the front lines so that illiterate soldiers could send greetings home, photographs of the devastation in the Moscow Kremlin in November 1917, and many more.

Kriuchkov
Propaganda poster of Kozma Kriuchkov (Moscow, 1915) HS.74/273

But, of course, the one poster that would have been so appropriate was this one – Veriu, sotuiu vstretim godovshchinu! – I believe, we will celebrate the centenary!

Veriu - sotuiu vstretim godovshchinu
Image from http://www.sovposters.ru/view/347

The artist, who created this optimistic image in a pretty avant-garde style was Iurii Bondi (1889-1926). Curiously, his works for the Kostroma ROSTA (the Russian news agency) survived and today can be seen online, although he was best known among his contemporaries as a theatre artist and set designer, whose works often inspired the great Meyerhold, whom Bondi was working with. Bondi’s book illustrations were loved and praised by another big Russian celebrity of the early 20th century – poet Alexander Blok. We did not bring this poster to the British Library and did not ‘celebrate’ the centenary, but here is our one more chance to learn about people who lived through this extraordinary time.

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Susan Reed, Co-Curator

Working on the Russian Revolution exhibition has been a wonderful experience, but also a steep learning curve since I am – full disclosure time! – not a Russian specialist. I found myself learning lots of things I didn’t know about Russia and the Revolution of 1917, and discovering that some things I thought I knew were not as I had believed. I even discovered an unfamiliar bit of my own national history, the intervention of British troops in Northern Russia during the Russian Civil War.

In fact it was researching British involvement in Revolutionary Russia that led to one of my more exciting moments: finding a map in the National Archives drawn by Arthur Ransome for a report advocating intervention, which showed where food supplies were most plentiful. I almost jumped out of my seat! As a child I loved Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books with his hand-drawn maps on the end-papers, and here was a map with the same neat handwriting and detailed annotations, only this time in a deadly serious cause.

Simplicissimus 190218 Trojan Horse
Anti-revolutionary cartoon from  the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus, 19 Februiary 1918, LOU.F549

I was also able to advise on material from my actual area of expertise, Germany, where revolutions broke out in November 1918 and short-lived soviet-style governments were established in several cities. One of my favourite images in the exhibition is a cartoon from early 1918 showing a ‘Trojan Horse’ full of Bolsheviks being towed into Berlin, an example of how fears of revolution spread through Europe following events in Russia. Of course we had less space to deal with the revolutions outside Russia, but if there’s one exhibit I’d have liked to be able to show in this context, it’s Käthe Kollwitz’s picture of the murdered revolutionary Karl Liebknecht. Sadly we don’t have a copy ourselves, and decided not to borrow one, but like so much of Kollwitz’s work, it’s a powerful and moving image.

Kollwitz Liebknecht
Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht, 1919. (Image from WikiArt)

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Mike Carey, Collaborative Doctoral Student Nottingham University and BL

One thing we didn't get a chance to say much about was the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Chinese Revolution. A favourite item of mine which didn't make the final exhibit list is H.T. Tsiang's 'China Red' . The British Library has a copy signed by the author. He was a Communist, worked for Sun Yat-Sen's secretary up to 1925 during the first United Front, then emigrated to the USA when the KMT-Communist alliance split.

Tsiang - China Red

Cover (above) and author's signature (below) from H.S. Tsiang, China Red (New York, 1932) YD.2008.a.9385. 

Tsiang - Signature

It's a series of letters between an émigré Chinese revolutionary in the USA and his partner who stayed behind, chronicling the split in 1926-7. It opens with a poem about Lenin which is quite eccentric:

"Lenin!
Who is that guy?"

"He is not big
Neither is he high;
He has two hands,
And a pair of eyes;
Just as human
As you and I. ..."

H.T. Tsiang ended up working as an extra in Hollywood films – there’s a show-reel of him on Vimeo playing various caricatures and stereotypes. According to one account he became known in Hollywood for an ‘R-rated, one-man, one-hour adaptation of Hamlet’ which he performed every Friday night for ‘a dozen years’ (this Slate article has more about Tsiang).

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Katie McElvanney, Collaborative Doctoral Student QMUL and BL

Over the past two and a half years, my involvement in the exhibition has included selecting and translating materials, developing storylines and concepts, meeting with curators in Moscow to discus loans, writing object labels and articles on women and journalism for the British Library website, and producing  the timeline for both the website and the book published to accompanying the exhibition. Some of my favourite items on display include a beautiful hand-drawn wall newspaper issued by a local women’s collective in Yalta (complete with a sketch of the ultimate multi-tasking woman!) and an early Soviet propaganda poster promoting literacy.

Multi-tasking woman
The ultimate multi-tasking woman, detail from the wall newspaper The Yalta Female Delegate (1927) Add. MS 57556

One of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of working on an exhibition as part of a CDP is the chance to see how it takes shape over the three year period, from the early research and brainstorming stages through to the opening. As one of two CDP students working on the Russian Revolution exhibition project, I have benefited immensely from the knowledge, experience and support of a wider academic and exhibition team, as well as the wide range of British Library and CDP training and events on offer. While juggling the different aspects of a CDP is not without its challenges, I feel extremely fortunate and proud to have worked on the exhibition and to have gained such a range of experiences outside the immediate academic sphere of the PhD.

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We'd like to thank all the many colleagues within the BL who also put so much work into the exhibition, our external lenders and advisers, and the many people who have come to visit. We hope you have enjoyed seeing the exhibition as much as we enjoyed working on it!

RRCuratorstour290817-09
l-r. Susan, Katya, Katie, Mike.

21 August 2017

A Tale of Two Countries

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

Finland100 - Rodt eller Hvidt

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

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

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

Finland100 - Kalevala hero

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

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

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

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

Finland100 - Peeps at many Lands woman

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

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

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland

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

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland 2

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

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

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Studies

18 August 2017

Devil, Rascal, Love Machine? The Afterlives of Rasputin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

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

15 August 2017

Miracle on the Vistula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

06 August 2017

Belarus Celebrates 500 Years of Printing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skaryna C.51.b.5 f001r

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN5676

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

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

Skaryna Kristian Jensen

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

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

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f241v

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 August 2017

Triumph and Tragedy: Esperanto and the Russian Revolution

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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

17 July 2017

Victims and Pretenders: the Murder of the Romanovs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

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

12 July 2017

The Trans-Siberian Railway

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

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

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

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

European Russia Maps 35872.(16.))

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

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

Development of railways Maps 35797.(8.)

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

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

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

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

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. As part of the accompanying series of events, on 21 July Railway Historian Christian Wolmar will be giving a talk on the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Revolution. You can find more details, including how to book, here.

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.