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72 posts categorized "Slavonic"

23 March 2017

From Cubism to concentration camp: the life and death of Josef Čapek

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Many English speakers who claim that they do not know a word of Czech would be surprised to hear that at least one has found a firm place in their vocabulary: robot. Those who are aware of its origins might confidently state that it owed them to Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first performed in 1920. However, he declared that he had merely given it currency, and the term had actually been coined by his elder brother Josef Čapek (1887-1945).

CapekSelf-portrait Self-portrait from Co má člověk z umění a jiné úvahy (Prague, 1946) 07812.m.41.

The two brothers had been born in the Bohemian town of Hronov as the sons of a doctor, and enjoyed a happy childhood there with their older sister Helena, who later remembered them affectionately in her memoir Moji milí bratři (‘My dear brothers’: Prague, 1962; 11880.r.19). All three siblings showed talent as writers from an early age, but Josef also displayed a gift for painting and drawing, and it was as an artist that he found his true vocation, studying at the Uměleckoprůmyslová škola in Prague and the Académie Colarossi in Paris. In later life he often illustrated the writings of Karel and Helena, but the paintings which initially made his name were in a very different style with a strong Cubist element, even in portrayals of Czech peasant life which recall the angular and bizarrely-coloured figures who people Chagall’s Vitebsk.

CapekHnedakrajinaJosef Čapek, Hnědá krajina (1936) from Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63.)

Josef possessed considerable creative versatility, however, and developed not only a variety of idioms appropriate to the authors whose works he illustrated but a literary career of his own. He collaborated with Karel on the play Ze života hmyzu (‘The Insect Play’: Prague, 1921; Cup.408.z.53). Its satirical parallels between human society and that of various species of insects, from the bourgeois Crickets to the totalitarian world of the Ants, were universally applicable, and two years later it was translated by Paul Selver and ‘adapted for the English stage’ as The Life of the Insects (London, 1923; 11758.a.40.) Under his own name he published the utopian play Země mnoha jmen (‘The Land of Many Names’), which was also translated into English in 1923. However, one of his best-loved works was a charming collection of tales about a dog and cat who set up house together, Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (‘The Tale of Pup and Puss’), which is still a firm favourite with Czech children.

CAPEKPOVIDANINEWTitle-page from Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (Prague, 1929) X.992/1488)

He also had the capacity to provide humorous illustrations which matched the style of the comic authors such as Eduard Bass as well as Karel’s fairy tales and stories for young readers; though both brothers married, Josef had only one daughter, Alena, and Karel no children, but they were both adept at creating books for them whose wit and fantasy were in no way inferior to their works for adults.

However, as the 1930s progressed, political events provided sharper and bleaker matter for Josef to portray. He had had many years of experience as a journalist, initially as a critic and the editor of various art periodicals, including Umělecký měsíčník (Prague, 1911-14; ZA.9.b.1513), the journal of the Skupina výtvarných umělců (Group of Representational Artists), which he had co-founded in 1911. From 1918 to 1921 he acted as editor of Národní listy (MFM.MF641) which he left to spend 18 years as the editor and art critic of Lidové noviny (MFM.MF623). The caricatures which he provided for the newspaper became increasingly pointed and bitter in the period leading up to the annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938, and on 1 September 1939 he was seized and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Eight days later he was transferred to Dachau, and thence to Buchenwald, where he spent two and a half years. His artistic gifts led him to be assigned to a calligraphic workshop where, along with other artists including Emil Filla, he was given the task of painting the family trees of SS officers.

CapekDiktatorskieBotyA drawing from the cycle Diktátorské boty (‘The Boots of the Dictator’: 1937), reproduced in Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63).

His creative spirit remained undaunted even after his removal to Sachsenhausen on 26 June 1942, where he not only translated English, Spanish and Norwegian poetry but wrote and illustrated a long poem dedicated to his brother Karel and circulated further poems in manuscript. However, on 25 February 1945 he was moved yet again – this time to Bergen-Belsen, where typhus had broken out. In his weakened state after five years of incarceration Josef soon fell victim to the disease, and although some witnesses claimed that he was still alive in April, he died shortly before the camp was liberated, and as his body was never recovered he was officially declared in 1948 to have died on 30 April 1947. Karel had died at Christmas 1938, having contracted pneumonia after working in his beloved garden, and with his spirit crushed by the fate of his country; he is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, where a monument also commemorates the brother whose last resting-place remains unknown.

Perhaps less well known in the English-speaking world than his brother, Josef Čapek deserves to be remembered on the 130th anniversary of his birth for the original and many-sided vitality of an artistic spirit which remained unquenched even in the grim circumstances of his final months.

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

15 March 2017

Pskov, Pskov, 35.015: Railway and Revolution

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In Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago there is an episode when a young telephone operator Kolya is having a conversation the meaning of which is not initially quite clear to the reader:

Kolya was as usual conducting another conversation and, judging by the decimal fractions which embellished his speech, transmitting a message in code over a third instrument. ‘Pskov, Pskov, can you hear me? – What rebels? What help? What are you talking about, Mademoiselle? Ring off, please. – Pskov, Pskov, thirty-six point nought one five. – Oh, hell, they’ve cut me off. – Hullo, hullo, I can’t hear. – Is that you again, Mademoiselle? I’ve told you, I can’t, speak to the station-master. All lies, fable – Thirty six … Oh, he… Get off the line, Mademoiselle’ (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari).

Pskov Pskov railway station (postcard)

In fact the author made this character in his novel into a witness and a player in the big game which was to change Russian history for good. From the beginning of the unrest in Petrograd that started on 8 March (23 February) 1917, parliamentarians and politicians had been discussing various options of dealing with the disorder.

Yurii Lomonosov, a transport engineer and employee of the Ministry of Transport recorded in his diary on 14 (1) March 1917:

In the Duma, they debated for the whole day what had to be done. There were various suggestions: dethronement, abdication or persuasion, in other words – Tsarina’s arrest and appointment of a responsible ministry. They agreed on abdication. The Department of Exploitation clerk brought me an order to send the Tsar’s train to Pskov. I wish to believe that this was the last Imperial train.

Just before discontent started in the capital, Tsar Nicholas II had left his family residence in the suburbs of Petrograd, Tsarskoe Selo, for his army Headquarters in Mogilev.

Tsarskoe selo
Tsarskoe Selo railway station (postcard)

Mogilev-3
Mogilev railway station (postcard)

Yurii Lomonosov and Alexander Bublikov, also a railway engineer and member of the Duma, were tasked with preventing the Tsar’s train from re-entering Petrograd, so that he could not get support from any loyal troops or advisors, and negotiators could put pressure on  the monarch to abdicate. As General Spiridovich, Commander of the Imperial Guards, recalled in his memoirs:

The Tsar ordered to reply that he was waiting for Rodzianko [Head of the Duma] at the Dno station. The Tsar was walking along the platform for quite a while. All were surprised to learn that General Ivanov [commander of the Petrograd Military District with powers of martial law granted by the Tsar] had just arrived to the station with his train […]. We found out that while General Ivanov was at the station, several trains full of drunken soldiers arrived there. Many were rude and imprudent. Ivanov ordered to arrest several dozens of soldiers. Many of them were searched and a lot of officers’ belongings were found on them. They had probably been looted in Petrograd. In a manner of an old father figure Ivanov berated them, ordered to stay on their knees, beg pardon. He took the arrested in his train. All this, as told by witnesses was very strange and made an impression of something trivial, funny and sham.

On  15 (2) March 1917 Nicholas II signed an act of abdication under pressure from his ministers. Unwilling to place the burden of rulership on his frail 13-year-old son Alexei, he named his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as his successor. The following day, Michael announced that he would not take the throne unless a constituent assembly elected by ‘universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage’ voted to maintain the monarchy.  

Michael's authograph
Grans Duke Michael’s autograph refusal to accept the throne (From Wikimedia Commons)

As Yurii Lomonosov recorded in his diary, words changed their meaning overnight: mutineers became revolutionaries and loyal troop turned rebels:

‘What is the disposition?’
‘General  Ivanov  is in Semrin. He is on the phone with the gendarme officers who are going to meet him half way […]. The War Duma Committee ordered to stop all the [rail] traffic. We obeyed […] the order, but instead of destroying the tracks we took away parts of railroad switches, numbered them and took to Petrograd.’
‘Brilliant idea! Thank you very much. One of our telephones will be always connected with your telegraph. Let me know about all movements of General Ivanov.’
And it should be mentioned that the telegraph operators were excellent. They kept sending messages while General Ivanov was shooting their comrades behind the wall. We knew his every step.
As soon as I finished this telephone conversation, I was called again […]:
‘What is happening in Gatchina [an Imperial residence near St Petersburg]?’
‘Twenty thousand loyal troops are there’
‘What do you mean ‘loyal’?’
‘Not revolutionary…’
‘Do remember once and for all: these are rebels. Loyal – are those who are on the people’s side. So, Gatchina has been taken by the rebels. Go on…’   [From the conversation between Lomonosov and the Senior Railway Manager;  16 (3) March 1917]

HS.74-1870(5)

HS.74-1870(6)
 The Act of Abdication of Nicholas II and his brother Grand Duke Michael, published as a placard that would be distributed by hand or pasted to walls (shelfmark:  HS.74/1870)

Already on 12 March (27 February), the ‘Temporary Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the two competing branches of power – had been formed, and the following day, the Petrograd Soviet published the first issue of its newsletter, Izvestiia (News). On the day of the abdication Izvestiia issued a special edition in a form of a leaflet, informing their readers about the epoch-making event:

HS.74-1870(1)

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.

13 March 2017

Polish Noir on the Rise

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This year Poland is the guest of honour at the London Book Fair. Consequently there will be a series of cultural events featuring Polish writers at the Fair and other locations. Within its rich programme the British Library is hosting the Crime Writing from Poland event on Tuesday 14th March with two outstanding writers, Olga Tokarczuk and Zygmunt Miłoszewski.

Crime fiction is one of the most popular and widespread literary genres in Poland. It has recently followed in the footsteps of Nordic Noir and includes some excellent writers whose novels are well received both at home and abroad. They represent all forms of crime writing from period drama through thrillers to modern crime addressing contemporary social issues. In 2003, only four thrillers were published, while ten years later over a hundred crime novels made their way into bookshops.

What makes Polish crime writing distinctive? It is inevitably the excellent use of Poland’s diverse and tumultuous 20th century history as a background, exhaustive research and credible characters – all combine in the attractive form of a crime story. The first recognised crime fiction writer of that generation is Marek Krajewski. He made his name with a retro series of four novels featuring Inspector Eberhard Mock masterfully solving criminal mysteries in pre-war Breslau, a German town, which in 1945 became Wrocław in Poland. Krajewski, a fan of the city, superbly recreated the spirit of Breslau, making it the second character in his series. As early as 2005 Krajewski received a literary reward for his crime novel The End of the World in Breslau (London, 2009; NOV.2010/950). This was the turning point – crime fiction, previously regarded as lowbrow literature, was now accepted as a distinct literary genre.

Polish Noir Krajewski

Cover of Dżuma w Breslau by Marek Krajewski. (Warsaw, 2007). YF.2008.a.704

One of the best-selling authors is Zygmunt Miłoszewski, famous for his trilogy with the phlegmatic Teodor Szacki, State Prosecutor, as the main character. He successfully investigates a murder case in modern Warsaw, Uwikłanie (‘Entanglement’; Warsaw, 2007; YF.2007.a.16937), and he next moves to Sandomierz, a provincial town in south-east Poland, to face the sensitive issue of Polish anti-Semitism Ziarno prawdy (‘A grain of truth’).  Miłoszewski also tackles Polish-German relations in Gniew (‘Rage’; Warsaw, 2014; YF.2015.a.6087), the last in the series, setting the plot in the provincial town of Olsztyn in north-east Poland, formerly a German territory.

Polish Noir Miloszewski
Cover of Ziarno prawdy by Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Warsaw, 2011). YF.2012.a.26350.

A rising star in the genre of crime fiction is Katarzyna Bonda, named the ‘Queen of Crime’ by Miłoszewski. She has so far published four crime novels featuring the Silesian police psychologist Hubert Meyer and the female profiler Sasza Załuska as the main protagonists. Bonda touches upon various social issues in her novels such as alcoholism in women, the trauma caused by the loss of a child, or problems concerning ethnic minorities. Her meticulously- researched books make use of police criminal records and the expert knowledge of consultants. She also wrote a non-fiction book, Polskie morderczynie (‘Polish female murderers’; Warsaw, 2013; YF.2015.a.8534), portraying women sentenced for heinous crimes.

Crime fiction appeals not only to readers but also to writers. Olga Tokarczuk, the most popular Polish author of her generation whose literary output includes over a dozen highly acclaimed books, applied crime conventions in Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (‘Drive your plough over the bones of the dead’). As in her other novels she mixes mythology with reality to convey important messages about the condition of modern society.

Polish Noir Tokarczuk

Cover of  Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych by Olga Tokarczuk (Kraków, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348.

Crime writing, which explores all facets of human nature together with historical and social issues, is a very interesting and diverse form of Polish modern literature. So it is not surprising that some of the novels were made into films, e.g. Agnieszka Holland’s latest Pokot (Spoor), inspired by Tokarczuk’s book mentioned above. For the same reason a significant number of Polish crime novels have been translated into other languages, including English.

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

10 March 2017

The First Anthology of Belarusian Poetry in English: Sponsors and Censors

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For 57 years, from 1948 to 1985, UNESCO published its Collection of Representative Works, a series of books aiming to popularise major works of world literature written in lesser-known languages by translating them into more widely-used ones, particularly English and French. In 1971, the first anthology of Belarusian poetry in English appeared in this series. The book, Like Water, Like Fire: an Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day, was jointly sponsored by UNESCO and the National Commission for UNESCO of the Byelorussian SSR, and published by the London imprint George Allen & Unwin.

Vera Rich, who translated all 221 poems in the anthology, came across the Belarusian community in London in October 1953 and since then took an active part in the life of the Belarusian diaspora in Britain and translated Belarusian poets. She also made an immense contribution to making Ukrainian poetry known in the English-speaking world. By the time Like Water, Like Fire appeared, Rich had already established herself as a poet, publisher of the poetry magazine Manifold, author of several books about Ukrainian and Belarusian literature, and a successful journalist.

LikeWaterTitle-pageTitle-page of Like Water, Like Fire. (London, 1971). X.981/2398

Like Water, Like Fire begins with the only known poem by Paŭliuk Bahrym (1812-c1891), ‘Play Then, Play’, which was taught in the schools of Soviet Belarus as the earliest example of peasants’ liberation literature. Already in this choice of the opening poem the influence of the anthology’s sponsors can be detected; it is even more obvious in the later sections of the volume.

This influence wasn’t absolute: the book contains a modest selection of persecuted authors such as Jazep Pušča, Uladzimir Duboŭka and Larysa Hienijuš. But there are no poems by Alieś Harun, a talented author deeply despised by the Soviet authorities. Vera Rich addressed this omission in 1982 when she published a volume of selected works by Harun, Maksim Bahdanovič, and Zmitrok Biadulia, The Images Swarm Free.

IMagesSwarmFreeTitle-page of The Images Swarm Free. (London, 1982) X.950/22024.

Arnold McMillin, who later became the most important scholar of Belarusian literature in the English-speaking world, welcomed Like Water, Like Fire as “an outstanding piece of work which will serve many English readers as an introduction to an unjustly neglected corner of European literature”. He noted that the book was the product of nearly 20 years of work and “the translations adhere closely to the form and rhythm of the original poems, and in many cases Miss Rich achieves felicitous results” . He was critical, however, of a misrepresentative – to a certain degree – selection of works, particularly from the 19th century:

No representation is given to such 19th-century poets as Ravinski, Čačot and Dunin-Marcinkievič, or to the anonymous Taras on Parnassus […] It is a pity that both by her selection of poems and by her introductory survey of the development of the Byelorussian poetry […] she creates the impression of a cultural void between 1828 and 1891.

Anton Adamovich of the Belarusian Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York, also noted that “Soviet Belorussian poetry is represented most extensively […] and is translated most adequately […] But the poetry of the 1920s, the ‘years of plenty’ […] is very poorly represented with just a dozen poems.” Adamovich refers here to the translator’s comment that the “years of plenty” of the 1920s – the years of immense richness and vibrancy in Belarusian literature – were followed by the “years of dearth” under Stalin’s purges and repressions. About 90% of Belarusian writers published in the 1920s and-1930s were shot, died in NKVD prisons, were sent to the Gulag or were forced to leave the country.

It seems that Vera Rich’s work wasn’t entirely accepted by the Belarusian diaspora which had had great hopes for this publication and contributed to the translator’s efforts, as is evidenced by an extensive acknowledgements list. The book must have been seen by Belarusians in the west as a victim of Soviet ideological pressure. The Reverend Alexander Nadson, head of the Belarusian Catholic community in London, who knew Vera Rich for many years and assisted her with translations, recalled that the translator kept the exact content of Like Water, Like Fire secret. One day archival materials may shed light on the circumstances of appearance of this first – and so far only – anthology of Belarusian poetry in English.

Two curious stories relate to its publication. The first is narrated by the translator herself, who thanked “last and most definitely not least (and in view of the title, most appropriately) […] the Enfield Fire Service who salvaged the manuscript during a flood-cum-electrical-fire shortly before its completion”. Reading these words, those who knew Vera Rich would easily recall a chaotic but immensely amusing person who lived from one disaster to another and somehow even thrived on all those challenges.

The second story relates to the fact that the book appeared with two different dustjackets. One, with the former Belarusian coat of arms, the Pahonia evidently didn’t get approval from at least one of the sponsors: the Pahonia was banned in the Byelorussian SSR. The dustjacket had to be reprinted and the copies that went on sale carried a plain sky-blue jacket. A small number of copies with the original dustjacket have survived and occasionally appear in antiquarian bookshops in English-speaking countries.

Like_water_1    Like_water_2
The two dustjackets of Like Water, Like Fire.

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


References:

A. Adamovich, Review of ‘Like Water, Like Fire.An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day’ by Vera Rich. Slavic Review, 32 (1973), 4, pp. 863-864. Ac.2684.e.

Leanid Marakoŭ, Rėprėsavanyia litaratary, navukoŭtsy, rabotniki asvety, hramadskiia i kulʹturnyia dzeiachy Belarusi, 1794-1991: ėntsyklapedychny davednik u trokh tamakh.
Volume 1. (Minsk, 2002-2005). ZF.9.a.2546

A. McMillin. Review of ‘Like Water: Like Fire. An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day’ by Vera Rich. The Slavonic and East European Review, 50 (1972), pp. 118-120. Ac.2669.e

Rich, V. (2009) The most significant event in my life. Available from: https://belbritain.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/1-15/.

 

08 March 2017

Music of the Revolution: the Hymn of Free Russia

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There has been great agitation in Petrograd all day. Processions have been parading the main streets. At several points the mob shouted for ‘Bread and peace!’ At others it sang the Working Man’s Marseillaise. In the Nevsky Prospekt there have been slight disorders.

This is how the French Ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue recorded 8 March (23 February old style) 1917, the day when the Russian Revolution started.

  Image 1 _Paleologue
Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador's memoirs, translated by F. A. Holt. (London, 1923-25) 09455.ff.3.

Spontaneous demonstrations to mark International Women’s Day were joined by angry women in bread-lines. The next day meetings, riots and strikes in Petrograd were multiplying and mixing with acts of hooliganism and vandalism. Almost all industrial enterprises were shut down and people were matching along the central street in Petrograd, the Nevsky Prospekt, causing severe disruptions to public transport.

Demonstrators were met sympathetically by the middle class and even by some troops. Nicholas II, who had left for the Staff Head Quarters (Stavka) at Mogilev some 400 miles away from the capital just days before the unrest, received belated reports and underestimated (or wanted to underestimate?) the seriousness of the events. When he finally commanded the use of troops to restore order, riots had already spread to some of the regiments stationed in Petrograd. Attempts to restore order ended in clashes between the troops and the protestors which only incited further protests. At the same time, politicians at the Duma (parliament), statesmen at the State Council (the supreme state advisory body to the Tsar) and the cabinet ministers all saw themselves as Russia’s saviours. The overall crisis of the old political system and the regime was so deep that the Tsar’s abdication seemed to be the most straightforward and secure solution. The situation spiralled out of control and within a week Russian Tsarism was over, no-one having risen to defend it.

The news was greeted with great enthusiasm by most Russian intellectuals and liberals. Expectations were high and hopes that a truly free Russia was already a reality turned into a creative euphoria: lyrics, essays and graphics glorifying and celebrating the Revolution and the people who made it happen, appeared in print and were read at rallies and meetings.

On 24 (11) March, the newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti (‘Stock-Exchange News’; Mic.B.1089) published a memo ‘Glazunov and Gorky’, informing readers that the actors of the ex-Imperial – now State – Mariinski Theatre asked the Director of the Petrograd Conservatoire, composer Aleksandr Glazunov, to write a new hymn for the new Russia. This was required for the ceremonial re-opening of the Opera House, which had been closed for a month during the unrest in the capital. As the re-opening was scheduled for the 26 (13) March, Glazunov declined saying that it was an impossible task for him at such a short notice. According to the memo, he suggested to ‬sing a Russian folk song Ekh, ukhnem! aka the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ (you can her it performed here by Feodor Chaliapin in a recording from 1902:Download Эй,_ухнем!_-_Фёдор_Шаляпин). The popular writer Maxim Gorky was asked to make necessary amendments to the lyrics.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, another Romantic composer Aleksandr Grechaninov  also came up with the idea of a hymn, performed here in 1926 by David Medoff:  Download The_hymn_of_free_Russia_-_Гимн_свободной_России_(text_and_music_-_1917)

Images 2a GrechaninovPortrait of Grechaninov from the Russian edition of his memoirs (New York, 1952), 10796.bb.23; an English translation by Nicolas Slonimsky (W11/4835) appeared in the same year.

In his memoirs, written in 1934 when he was living abroad having fled Soviet Russia, Grechaninov recalled:

The news of the Revolution of February, 1917, was greeted in Moscow with enthusiasm. People poured into the streets wearing red flowers in their lapels. Strangers embraced each other with tears of joy in their eyes. […] An idea suddenly struck me: I must write a new national anthem! I hurried home, and in half an hour I had composed music of the anthem. But what about the words? The first two lines, "Long live Russia — The country of the free," I took from a poem by Fedor Sologub, but I did not like the rest of the poem. What was I to do? I telephoned Constants Balmont , the poet. He came to see me without delay, and in a few minutes wrote out the text. Manuscript in hand, I went to see Gutheil [a music publisher]. Without wasting any time he sent the music to the printer, and on the following afternoon the Gutheil store displayed copies of my Hymn of Free Russia. The proceeds from the sales were turned over to the liberated political prisoners. The Bolshoy Theater was closed for only a few days. As soon as it reopened, my new anthem was performed, along with the Marseillaise, by the chorus and orchestra of the Bolshoy Theater led by Emil Cooper. Thanks to the simple melody and fine text, my anthem soon became popular, not only in Russia but also abroad. My American friends, Kurt Schindler and his wife, translated it into English, and it was published by the G. Schirmer Company.

 Grechaninov, obviously, was not aware that the score had already been published in London in 1917, with ‘with harmonisation and poem by Clarence Lucas’, a Canadian composer, who wrote his own lyrics instead of translating Balmont’s.

Image 3 Score
A. Grechaninov, The Hymn of Free Russia, harmonisation and poem by Clarence Lucas. (London, 1917) F.1623.e.(9.)

Grechaninov claimed that “the Hymn of Free Russia was still sung even when there was no more freedom left in Russia”, and indeed the tune became a theme of Radio Liberty (RL), that was broadcast to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

01 March 2017

A Silver Watch

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One of the first Decrees of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of People’s Commissars was the Decree of 10 (23) November 1917 On Abolition of Estates and Ranks. On 16 (29) December 1917 Lenin also signed the Decree on the Equalization of Rights of All Serving in the Army, which if effect eliminated all rewards, orders and decorations. But building the Red Army brought back the question of ranks, distinctions and awards. In September 1918 the Order of the Red Banner for heroism, dedication, and courage demonstrated on the battlefield was introduced in the Soviet Russia and later in other Soviet republics.


Image 1-Orden_Krasnogo_Znameni_RSFSR_1918
First variant Russian Order of the Red Banner on red cloth backing 1918-1924 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

After the Soviet Union had been formed in 1922, the Order of the Red Banner received the status (in 1924) of an All-Union award. As of 1 September 1928, 14,678 people had received this award. For a long time it was the only award of the Soviet State, and therefore 285 people were awarded it twice, 31 three times and four people got four orders.

Of course, a problem soon became obvious – how should those who were not exceptionally heroic be encouraged? The Decree of 8 April 1920 stipulated that valuable gifts and cash prizes could be awarded to the military personnel in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the Revolutionary Military Councils of the fronts and armies.

Here is an award list certifying that one medical doctor Ivan Iosifovich Timofeev of the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 56th Infantry Division of the Western Front was rewarded with a silver watch for his dedicated work providing medical care to the sick and wounded during the Civil War. In 1918-19 the Red Army attempted a westward offensive into areas abandoned by defeated Germany. Following on this operation, in 1920 Soviet Russia fought a war against the newly-established republic of Poland, advancing as far as the outskirts of Warsaw before being driven back and signing the Peace of Riga in March 1921. However, the armies of the Western front were still stationed in Western Russia with the headquarters in Smolensk.

Image 2- 23-Award list-RF.2014.b.34

Award list, 1922. RF.2014.b.34

The certificate is dated June 1922 and signed by the Deputy Commander of the armies Nikolai Efimovich Varfolomeev (1890-1939) and the Member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Western Front Nikolai Frolovich Novikov (1891-1937). Professional officer Varfolomeev joined the Red Army voluntarily in March 1918 and immediately was included in the commission that worked out the new borders between Soviet Russia and Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the war between the two countries. Second in command of the Western Front after Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), in 1925 Varfolomeev was appointed his deputy as head of strategic training of all military academies of the Red Army. In the British Library, we have books written by Nikolai Varfolomeev on the year 1918 at the Western Front of the ‘Imperialist war’ (Moscow, 1933; Ac.4343.b/3) and the military operation near the town of Mozyr in 1920 (Moscow, 1930; YA.1996.a.23226).

After the civil war was mainly over Nikolai Frolovich Novikov made a career in the party ranks and lived in Moscow in the infamous House on the Embankment, where Tukhachevsky was his neighbour. Tukhachevsky, Varfolomeev and Novikov were executed during the Stalin purges. We do not know the fate of the medical doctor Ivan Timofeev or the secretary who also signed the certificate. But maybe a silver watch treasured in one family is still going.

 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.

16 February 2017

Short waves and new waves: Dobroslav Chrobák

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In a week which begins with World Radio Day (13 February),it is appropriate that we should also commemorate the 110th birthday on 16 February of an author and critic who was one of the leading figures of the early years of Czechoslovak broadcasting – Dobroslav Chrobák.

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Portrait of Chrobák from Jozef Bob, Moderný tradicionalista Dobroslav Chrobák (Bratislava, 1964) X.908/15392.

Born in Hybe, Slovakia, as the second of four children of a tailor, Chrobák was educated in Rožňava and Liptovský Mikuláš before proceeding to the higher technical school in Bratislava and the Czech Technical University in Prague, graduating in 1934. He was still a schoolboy when, in October 1918, the new independent republic of Czechoslovakia came into being. It was an exciting time not only in politics but in the arts, with the emergence in 1920 of the Devětsil movement with its fascination with the transformation of language into visual art and the possibilities of technology. In 1925, when the student Chrobák was writing his short story ‘Náraz priam centrický’ (‘Centric impact’), Jaroslav Seifert published his verse collection Na vlnách TSF (‘On the waves of the TSF’; British Library Cup.408.kk.11.), laid out by Karel Teige as typographic poems, celebrating the power of wireless telegraphy to transport the reader to Paris, Australia, New York and back again.

On graduating Chrobák returned to Bratislava to work for Československý rozhlas, the national radio company which had begun broadcasting in 1923, as editor of its publication Rádiožurnál. By 1945 he had risen to become the director of short-wave broadcasting throughout Slovakia, and two years later he was appointed as the principal director of the Slovak division of the organization.

However, Chrobák’s writings were not concerned with technical advances but reflected his interests in nature, folklore and the Naturalist movement in fiction. As a student he had collected proverbs and examples of folk wisdom, but also admired authors such as Hermann Hesse and Knut Hamsun whose example encouraged him to turn away from descriptive realism in favour of evocations of the primeval and mythical quality of the natural world. He was also a skilled translator, particularly from Russian (notably of Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry as Šľachtické hniezdo, 1934) and the editor, with Štefan Letz, of the Slovenský literárny almanach (Prague, 1931; X.981/1419), illustrated below.

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His 1932 history of Slovak literature, Rukoväť dejín slovenskej literatúry provided readers with a concise guide to writing in Slovak from the earliest sources through the Hussite era, the Reformation and the Enlightenment to Romanticism and Realism.

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Cover of Rukoväť dejín slovenskej literatúry (Prague, 1932) X.909/645.

The British Library also holds modern editions of Chrobák’s major prose works, including the collection of short stories, Kamarát Jasek (1937), which established him as a writer of fiction (Bratislava, 2000; YA.2003.a.10244), and his 1943 novel Drak sa vracia (‘The Dragon Returns’; Bratislava, 1971; X.989/12935), one of the most significant examples of Slovak naturalism. The ‘Dragon’ of the title, Martin Lepiš Madlušovie, is found in the forest as a small boy by the potter Lepiš who raises him to be his assistant. When old Lepiš dies, the villagers blame his foster-son for his death, beat him and drive him away as a Jonah-like figure associated with other misfortunes such as drought, sterility, and the death of a village woman in the fields. The novel begins with Simon, a farmer, reporting to his wife Eva that the Dragon has returned to the village, and suspecting that she may take the opportunity to visit him, as she had been in love with him before the villagers drove him out. Eva, although she still loves the Dragon, keeps away from him despite the lack of any genuine emotional bond with her husband, with whom she has little in common apart from their shared work on the farm. Further drought causes a fire to break out in the mountains where the villagers’ animals are wandering in search of food. The Dragon proposes a way of saving them, and the villagers join forces with him and Simon; the latter, however, suspects the Dragon of selling the cattle and sheep to the Poles and, running back to the village, sets his potter’s hut on fire. When the Dragon finally reappears with the herds and flocks, accompanied by his sweetheart Zoška, Simon acknowledges his mistake and begs the Dragon’s forgiveness,while the latter in turn admits that he had wronged Simon by abandoning Eva when she became pregnant. Seeing him with Zoška, Eva realizes that it is time finally to abandon her feelings for him and appreciate Simon and the life which they have built together, and the novel ends with an epilogue which reveals that the whole story was narrated by Eva to her little grandson: ‘...And then? And then – that was all. They loved each other and lived happily together until the end of their days... Sleep, little son!’

ChrobakWithSonPhotograph of Dobroslav Chrobák with his son Ondrej in the High Tatras from Jozef Bob, Moderný tradicionalista Dobroslav Chrobák (Bratislava, 1964) X.908/15392.

Chrobák was also a prolific contributor to the fields of art and literary criticism, and this, together with his professional duties, gave him less time than he might have wished to devote to fiction. His premature death at the age of 44 on 16 May 1951 followed an unsuccessful operation to remove a brain tumour, and his funeral took place three days later in his native Hybe. His achievements in connecting this remote area with the main currents of European culture – both literally and figuratively – remain considerable and deserve wider recognition.

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

 

14 February 2017

There, on the Other Shore of the Amur: Stories from Russian Life in China

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A historian of Sino-Western relations with a special interest in China’s relationship with Russia, I came to the British Library with a shopping list of titles I had found in the Library’s catalogue and which were unavailable anywhere else. One of them, a rarity and a witness to an era, is the subject of this post.

Measuring only 10 x 14 cm, the little book of stories by I. Georgievskii, Tam, na drugom beregu Amura (‘There, on the Other Shore of the Amur’), is kept in an envelope marked “fragile item, please handle with care”. I hope readers will enjoy a synopsis of the contents; some thoughts on the book will follow.

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Cover of I. Georgievskii, Tam, na drugom beregu Amura (Harbin, 1930) British Library 012590.a.24

The title story describes a young woman who, with her three-year-old son, makes a desperate attempt to escape Soviet Russia and join her lost husband. Other than the Amur, the river separating Russia and China, no place names – not even the word China – are mentioned. Smugglers take the two over the Amur at night in a small rowing boat. There is great suspense, but then a happy end: mother and child having somehow transferred to a steamboat, they dock on a bright June day at a friendly wharf. By chance, Lina’s husband happens to be there, awaiting a cargo delivery. The city, into which he then whisks them away in a chauffeur-driven Packard looks more like glamorous Shanghai than Harbin, the Russian-founded railway city in Manchuria and subsequently a haven for Russian refugees from the Revolution and Civil War, where the book was published.

The next story, ‘Shuran’ is about a Russian team transporting a herd of 100,000 sheep to Mongolia through a terrible snow storm, the shuran of the title. The men manage to revive the animals, which had been covered by the snow, but not their old Mongol guide, who had predicted the storm and been frozen to death on his horse.

The rest of the collection has more humour than drama. The hilarious ‘Oy Vey, Masha!’ is about a Jewish colourman, who had escaped the Revolution to China with his wife and two daughters; alas, the family’s new servant Masha, put up in the daughters’ bedroom, turns out to be a young male impostor, a former tsarist officer-in-training. ‘A Night of Horrors’ takes place in Siberia during the Civil War: the ‘horrors’ are merely the very human fears of a soldier guarding an isolated hay warehouse: at first, he is alarmed by an impoverished peasant, then by two dogs, and he displays compassion towards all three. In ‘Crud’, set in tsarist Russia, an elderly shop assistant gets bullied by the senior staff for his shabby appearance and sacked for no fault of his own. However, he soon makes a surprising return in gentleman’s clothes: he was in fact the shop’s owner, who had wanted to test his employees. Another variation on the impostor theme is ‘The Waltz “On Manchurian Hills”’: an inebriated middle-aged man is allowed a dance to a tune made popular after the Russo-Japanese War, but the tender lady who accepts his invitation is a circus strongwoman, and ends up whizzing her poor suitor away to a splashing fall on the dance floor.

There follow four ‘miniatures’. ‘The Sage Fa-Tsai’ is about an old Chinese, whose pearls of wisdom astound his simple-minded employers: thus he suggests to a farmer, who seeks advice about marriage, that he would be better off taking two 20-year-old wives than one 40-year-old. ‘Blood and Sand’ describes a native peddler, apparently a Mongolian, trying hard to sell off a long-suffering marmot in an unidentified small town in Manchuria: haggling over the creature’s price with a potential buyer is conducted in Russo-Chinese pidgin before the sudden appearance of a fierce dog ends the marmot’s life along with the peddler’s hopes for a profit. ‘St Nicholas – Our Saviour on the Waters’ mirrors a perception among Harbin Russians, that the Chinese in town venerated the icon of St Nicholas of Myra, a patron of seafarers in the Russian Orthodox faith which was prominently displayed at the Harbin Central Railway Station. Finally, ‘A Lady from Rouen’ is a sketch of an old Frenchwoman, who was once married in Russia. Speaking funnily in broken Russian, she says she would rather live on as a ‘Russian émigré’ in China than return to her native France, which by now seems alien to her.

Nothing is known about the author of these stories and even his initial cannot be deciphered. The 106 pages of text contain many typos, as well as occasional remnants of Russian pre-revolutionary orthography. The back matter of the book advertised two other forthcoming titles by I. Georgievskii, but apparently neither came out: bibliographies of Russian publishing in China do not list them.

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The back cover of Tam, na drugom beregu Amura, advertising further works by the author.

Georgievskii’s book is both a reminder of China as a place of escape from the suffering unleashed by the Russian Revolution a century ago and, in its own little way, is testimony to the new tribulations that awaited émigrés in their unexpected refuge. Russian life in Manchuria was to be severely tested by the Japanese occupation of the region that began in 1931. The Chinese Communist takeover in 1949 signalled the end of the Russian diaspora in China, when its members were dispersed between the Soviet Union and numerous other countries.

Mark Gamsa, Tel Aviv University

 

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.

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

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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.

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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)

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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.

23 January 2017

Scratching the Surface: the Runic Imaginary

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A picture is worth a thousand words but a word, too, might conjure up a thousand images. One-to-one correspondences between words and objects are exceedingly rare, if not non-existent. Beyond that, however, the power of alphabets, syllabaries and ideographs is well-documented; such was the motivation for orthographic reform during the 20th century from Norway to North Korea. The Latin alphabet can provide a sense of false familiarity, making it seem as if Somali is easier for an English learner to pick up than would be Persian, despite the fact that the latter shares far more structural similarities to English than the former. However, it is not just Latin characters that are imbued with a magical power to draw close and imbue a sense of solidarity. The systems colloquially referred to as runes, too, have often been instrumentalised with much the same goal in mind.

Technically, the word rune is applied exclusively to the writing systems of Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There are various different versions of Germanic runes. While there are various different types of runes, all are derived from the Old Italic scripts. They were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet after Christianisation in 700CE, but their usage persisted in highly specialised contexts until the 19th century. The study of runes, known as runology, began in Scandinavia as early as the 16th century, albeit more within the realm of theology, the occult and mysticism than what we would conceive of as linguistics. The study took a more scientific turn throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as a number of collection items at the British Library demonstrate. These include Johan Göransson’s Bautil (143.g.19) or his Is Atlinga (4408.g.6) which seek to locate runes within the history of writing systems, including the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.

As with so many other terms, runes have undergone a popular semantic widening. The word is also applied to other writing systems that bear a visual similarity to Germanic runes. One such system is Old Turkic writing, employed by communities in Siberia and eastern Eurasia in the first millennium CE. Also known as the Orkhon Script (after the Orkhon Valley  where Old Turkic stelae were found near the Yenisei River by Nikolai Yadrintsev in 1889), it has been claimed to be a descendent of Aramaic, Tamgas and Chinese ideographs. The oldest inscriptions in old Turkic script date from the 8th century CE. It was later used by Uighur scribes, prior to its replacement by the Old Uighur script (which is directly related to Sogdian and Aramaic).

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Runic Turkic alphabet from Hüseyin Namık Orkun, Eski Türk Yazıtları (Ankara, 1986) OIF 909.049

Old Turkic is unique for the manner in which some letters have various sounds, determined according to the rule of vowel harmony, a feature of Turkic, Mongolic and Finno-Ugric languages. In Turkey, the old Turkic alphabet found particular resonance with secularist nationalists interested in emphasizing the pre-Islamic culture of the Turks. Examples abound from the writer Hüseyin Namık Orkun, who wrote a number of nationalist-tinted histories of the Turks. His Eski Türk Yazıtları  provides extensive information on the origin and study of the inscriptions, as well as their transcription and contents. Not only does he call the alphabet in which these texts are written the Rünik Türk Alfabesi, the “Runic Turkish Alphabet”, but he also connected these to the “Pecheneg” inscriptions of Nagy Szent Miklos, establishing a pre-historic link between the Hungarians and the Turks.


OIF909049 Runic Kül Tegin Transcription

Runic Kül Tegin transcription from Eski Türk Yazıtları

Indeed, Hungarian studies of runes have proven to be the most durable and profitable. Commonly referred to as rovásírás in Hungarian, they are occasionally linked to the Szekler  communities in Transylvania, an ethnic sub-group of Hungarians. In recent years, rovásírás has experienced a resurgence, both popular and scholarly. On the one hand, academics have taken a new interest in the old Hungarian script, occasionally called runes as well. It is sometimes linked to the late Khazars, a Caucasian Turkic group of the 8th to 11th centuries, as explored in Gábor Hosszú’s Heritage of Scribes: The Relation of Rovas Scripts to Eurasian Writing Systems (Budapest, 2012; YD.2015.a.2560).

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A Hungarian New Testament printed in runic script (Szolnok, 2012) YF.2016.a.4452

The old Hungarian script has also captured the imagination of many Hungarian nationalists, and has given rise to new publishing and typography ventures, such as the New Testament pictured above or of Géza Gárdonyi’s Egri Csillágok (Szolnok, 2011; YF.2015.a.25655), pictured below, a fictional account of Hungarian resistance to Ottoman rule.

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The term rune has proven to be highly versatile in both popular and scholarly imaginations. From the study of northern Europe’s intellectual history, the term has been adopted and adapted to a myriad of other contexts and needs. Today, it fills a political as well as academic role, adding yet another building block to the construction of a Eurasian identity that refocuses the mythical origins of various modern nations in the heart of the Eurasian landmass.

Wreath

Above: A wreath at Szeged University in the colours of the Hungarian flag with a banner in rovásírás; below: A handmade sign above an entrance in Miskolc, Hungary, with an inscription against the Treaty of Trianon (1919) in Hungarian in both Latin characters and rovásírás (Photos by Michael Erdman). 

Runic sign

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections