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31 March 2020

The Royal Granny Catherine the Great as an author of the first books for children

It is difficult to believe now that the concept of childhood as a special time in human development emerged only during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Enlightenment began to shape thinking about politics, society and the world in general. It emerged through the educational theories of the philosopher John Locke. By the beginning of the 19th century books for and about children started to be published.

Portrait of Catherine the Great walking with a dog

Portrait of Catherine the Great by Vladimir Borovikovskii (1794, Tretyakov gallery). Wikimedia Commons.

Russia was no exception. The first books for children were written by Empress Catherine the Great. Having no trust in her son and heir Paul, she put a lot of effort into raising her elder grandsons, so that they could follow in her footsteps in governing the country. Having missed almost all the joys of motherhood (which was not an exceptional situation for noble women of that time, though Catherine’s case was complicated by her job as Empress), she compensated by trying to be a caring granny. Catherine chose the names of the first two grandsons. She called them Alexander and Konstantin – names that had not been in use within the Romanov lineage – explicitly alluding to Alexander the Great and Constantine the Great.

The royal granny also selected nurses and teachers, and liked spending time playing with the boys, especially Alexander, whom she considered a more suitable heir to the throne than her son Paul. However, most interestingly, she wrote books for her grandchildren, which we can now call the first books in Russian written specially for children.

Page from Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo

Page from Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo, 4th ed. (Saint Petersburg, 1745). 628.c.21.(2.). A digitised copy is also available. 

Babushkina azbuka (‘The Granny’s Primer’) is strictly speaking a collection of moral rules that continued Peter the Great’s initiative of prescribing good manners to young people – Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo (‘The Honourable Mirror for Youth’, 1717). However, if The Honourable Mirror for Youth is more of a courtesy book focusing on etiquette, The Granny’s Primer talks about ethical issues, promoting the values that had been advanced by the Enlightenment. For example, she stated that people had very little difference by their nature, but differed in their relation to knowledge. The British Library has a copy of a contemporary edition (2004; YF.2004.b.1620), but if you would like to see a couple of sample pages of the original manuscript held at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents, you can visit the site (in Russian) created for the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in Muscovy. 

Portrait of Alexander I of Russia as a child

Portrait of Alexander I, Catherine the Great's grandson, as a child. After Dmitrii Levitskii. Wikimedia Commons.

As much as she could, Catherine also tried to be entertaining and therefore wrote two tales about young princes – Khlor and Fevei – which were supposed to give children examples of good moral choices and behaviour. In one tale Tsarevitch Khlor, who is described as a child of exceptional beauty, is sent on a quest to find a rose without thorns that stings not. The beautiful child completes the task helped by his friend Reason, and using Honesty and Truth as their crutches.

Prince Fevei was also created by Catherine the Great as a role model for a child reader. The author removes all the traditional fairy-tale elements by setting the story in Siberia, suggesting that the reason for the tsarina’s recovery was medical care rather than miracle, and by testing the main character by giving him mundane tasks. The story of Fevei’s early childhood shows how by the end of the 18th century it became a subject of concern, value and appreciation. The baby’s nurse selected by his parents was a sensible widow, who “could distinguish whether a child cried out of need, illness, or self-will”. They didn’t swaddle him or wrap him up, didn’t cradle him or shake him, but fed him decently and on time. The child began to amuse himself with toys and selected those which gave him knowledge. While the baby was not yet able to speak, he was capable of explaining himself. Moreover, in her story, the Empress advocated for vaccination by mentioning that the prince was vaccinated with smallpox at the age of three.

Title page of 'Ivan Czarowitz; or, the Rose without prickles that stings not...'

Title page of the English translation of the tale of Prince Khlor. Ivan Czarowitz; or, the Rose without prickles that stings not. A tale ... (London, 1793). N.2048.(1.). 

Both tales were turned into operas and successfully performed in theatres (the British Library holds two librettos: shelfmarks 1343.h.12 and 1343.h.10), and the tale of prince Khlor was translated into English just a few years after its publication in Russia, in 1793, and is now freely available online.

And like the Royal Granny Catherine the Great, we will end our blog like this: “Here the story ends, and who knows better, let him tell another”.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections 

27 March 2020

Stanislaw Lem: mimicretins and other smart machines

Once upon a time, a genius robotic constructor built a machine that could create anything that starts with the letter n. The constructor decided to try it out and, following his orders, the machine produced needles, noses and nuclei. His friend wanted to put the machine to a test, and, after it successfully fulfilled his wishes, he asked it to do Nothing. The machine seemed inactive and the constructor’s friend decided that the experiment was a failure:

For Nothing, my dear and clever colleague, is not your run-of-the-mill nothing, the result of idleness and inactivity, but dynamic, aggressive Nothingness, that is to say, perfect, unique, ubiquitous, in other words Nonexistence, ultimate and supreme, in its very own nonperson!

Alien creature from Cyberiada

Illustration from Cyberiada (Kraków, 1965) X.908/6139

Unfortunately, he was wrong. The machine had a very good understanding of abstract philosophical concepts. And it set out to remove all the things from the world in order to create Nothing. The terrified constructor and his friend begged it to stop and restore everything that had disappeared. But the machine could recreate only the things that started with n. So it brought back nausea, narrow-mindedness, nonsense, necrophilia…

Illustration of an anthropomorphic robot from the Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

Illustration from Cyberiada (Kraków, 1965) [X.908/6139]

This summarises one of the stories that form part of the Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, a Polish writer of science fiction who died 14 years ago, on  27 March 2006. The Cyberiad’s protagonists are mainly anthropomorphic robots that live in a medieval-like world, robotic knights and dragons that exist in a highly technologically advanced civilization and that serve Lem to analyse the relationship between individual and society.

Cover of Cyberiada with an illustration of an eight-legged robotic horse walking up a flight of stairs. The word 'Cyberiada' is written in capitals on its back.

Cover of Cyberiada (Krakw, 1965) [X.908/6139]

Lem’s books have been sold in more than 30 million copies, translated into more than 40 languages, and the most famous of them, Solaris, was turned into a movie three times. However, his ambition was to do more than write bestsellers — he wanted to elevate science fiction from popular literature to a highbrow genre. In his books, he approached the subjects of man’s place in the universe, the unsuccessful search for happiness through technological progress, the impossibility of understanding extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Illustration from 'Bajki Robotów' featuring a single eye in the top left-hand corner and a figure covered in clock faces cowering in the bottom right-hand corner.

Illustration from Bajki Robotów [‘Fables for Robots’] (Kraków, 1964) [X.907/974]

Was the n-machine a truly intelligent machine? We can deduce the answer to this question from the words of The Futurological Congress’s protagonist:

A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. Whichever is easier. (…) A mimicretin is a computer that plays stupid in order, once and for all, to be left in peace. And I found out what dissimulators are: they simply pretend that they're not pretending to be defective.

Title page from 'Bajki Robotów'. A robotic figure wearing a headscarf rocks a robot baby in a cradle.

Title page of Bajki Robotów

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel; illustrated by Daniel Mróz (San Diego, 2002?) DRT ELD.DS.185639

Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel (London, 2017) DRT ELD.DS.208506

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris; The Chain of Chance; A Perfect Vacuum (Harmondsworth, 1981) X.958/6252

The English translation of the story 'How the World was Saved' from The Cyberiad 

24 March 2020

Against books that 'look like paper rags'

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a real boom of Cubist art in Prague. As the art historian Miroslav Lamač noted:

Prague became the city of Cubism with Cubist apartment blocks full of Cubist flats furnished with Cubist furniture. The inhabitants could drink coffee from Cubist cups, put flowers in Cubist vases, keep the time on Cubist clocks, light their rooms with Cubist lamps and read books in Cubist type.

Cover of 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below), designed by Slavoboj Tuzar, from Jan Neruda, Malostranský feuilleton (Prague, 1916) Cup.408.pp.25.

Endpaper from 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Following the spirit of the times, local designers turned away from the style of Art Nouveau towards modern art based on geometrical ornamentation, known as Czech Cubism or ‘angular style’. They believed that objects, including books, have their own inner energy, which can be released by introducing crystalline shapes and breaking the horizontal and vertical planes of the surface. This went against the traditional book design, which the Cubists found limiting and against “the needs of the human soul”. In their opinion, a book should be treated as a holistic entity – this was to be achieved by restricting the design to a very limited choice of repeatable geometric or floral shapes and grids which, on the one hand, create symmetry, and, on the other, introduce dynamics through broken lines.

Cover of 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below) from Otakar Theer, Vsemu navzdory (Prague, 1916) C.108.u.16.

Endpaper from 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

An end had to be put to mass produced books that “looked like paper rags” – that, in a nutshell, was the manifesto of Czech Cubist book designers. The ultimate idea behind the design was to change the mind-set of the Czech middle class which, according to the Cubists, was devoid of any aesthetic sense. In their opinion, not only the content of a book was important; just looking at a book should be a source of immediate visual pleasure. In order to elevate society, they believed that art should be an integral part of the human everyday existence.

Cover of 'Demaskovaní' with a floral, geometric design

Cover, designed by Pravoslav Kotík, from Jan Opolský, Demaskovaní (Prague, 1916) Cup.410.f.251

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References:

Jindřich Toman, Kniha v českém kubismu = Czech cubism and the book (Prague, 2004) LF.31.b.923