European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

15 September 2020

Mały konspirator

This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read about the 21 Gdánsk demands here and the poet Jadwiga Piątkowska here.

Seeing the British Library’s collection of independent Polish publications from the 1970s-1980s, one cannot fail to be impressed by the range and complexity of the material. Thousands of items – books, periodicals, posters, photographs, leaflets, stamps, etc. – form a very rich, dynamic collection. There is a sense of urgency about it. Almost all of this material was produced illegally and quickly, using various, sometimes unusual, duplicating methods, in response to the changing situation in the country. The aim was to inform and to educate.

Engaging in any anti-government activity involved taking huge risks: the threat of physical violence, loss of job, being expelled from university, imprisonment. It meant crossing a significant psychological threshold. But what do you do once you have made your decision? How do you conspire effectively, and, crucially, safely? With her history of partitions, uprisings and anti-Nazi movements during World War II, Poland had a long tradition of conspiring. Books like Bibuła by Józef Piłsudski offered some advice, but they reflected very different times. There was clearly a need for an updated manual, and it appeared in the form of Mały konspirator, issued by the Agencja Informacyjna Solidarności Walczącej (Information Agency of Fighting Solidarity). This unassuming little book with densely-printed pages went through 10 editions in 1983-1984. For me it is an embodiment of the spirit of the collection.

Cover of Mały konspirator drawn in cartoon style. One figure is painting the title on a wall while four others stand watch

Cover of Mały konspirator (Wrocław, 1983) Sol. 255s

A short introductory note explains that “Mały konspirator is a collection of texts written by people who were temporarily free. If you read the first chapter you may not have to follow the advice given in the next two chapters. Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the second chapter you will know the legal reason why you cannot be prosecuted for reading the third chapter. While reading the third chapter you will realise why it would be better not to mention that you have had this book in your hands”.

Mały konspirator is full of practical advice on plotting. It tells you how to run a cell within an illegal network (links with the centre as loose as possible to avoid detection, meetings in person infrequent for the same reason but frequent enough to sustain a sense of purpose and solidarity between its members. Distributors should be paid well, otherwise they will not do their job properly – don’t trust anyone who offers to do it for free, for ideological reasons – their enthusiasm will wane and you will be left with piles of undistributed material. One should only keep minimal notes, if any at all, e.g. no full addresses, just numbers of houses/ flats; everything should be encrypted, if possible. It tells you how to behave when you suspect that you are being followed, and how to dispose of incriminating material if you think you are just about to be arrested. Crucially, Mały konspirator tells you what your rights are. Let’s say you have received an official-looking letter asking you to come to the militia station / court. Do you turn up? Ignore it if there is no case number on it, the book advises. There is nothing to be gained from appearing so eager to face the authorities.

Page from Mały konspirator. The heading translates as "Interrogation game"

Page from Mały konspirator. The heading translates as "Interrogation game"

Mały konspirator invites you to play a game: imagine a situation when you are arrested and interrogated. The prize is information. What kind of questions will you be asked? What sort of pressure will you be put under? What are your reactions likely to be? Do you know what your weak points are? You’d better find out fast because they will be exposed and mercilessly exploited.

Mały konspirator is a document of its times. Is there anything one can learn from it in the age of WhatsApp, Telegram and Nexta? I think that the main message remains very clear: don’t take democracy for granted. And always know your rights.

Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections 

 

11 September 2020

Edward Spencer Dodgson, an English eccentric

The English are often portrayed as reluctant learners of foreign languages. However, there have been exceptions. One such was Edward Spencer Dodgson, who successfully mastered the Basque language. Spoken today by some 850,000 people on both sides of the western Pyrenees in Spain and France, euskera, as it is known to native speakers, presents great difficulties for the would-be learner. It is an isolate, unrelated to any living language, while its origins are lost in prehistory. Thus, apart from borrowings, its vocabulary consists of words totally without cognates, while its grammar is unlike those of the Romance and Germanic languages. Moreover, in Dodgson’s time the challenge was all the greater, for no standard form of the language existed until the creation of euskera batua by the Basque language academy in the 1970s.

The third of nine children, Edward Spencer Dodgson was born in Woodford, Essex, on 18 November 1857 to well-to-do parents. He went up to New College, Oxford, where he gained a third class BA in Classical Moderations in 1877, although there is no evidence that he completed his degree. It appears nonetheless that he continued his studies, probably supported by money received from his family. In 1886, the course of his life changed irrevocably during a visit to the Basque Country after which, in his own words, he became ‘a devout disciple’ of Basque. He started to learn the language, later attending the classes of the eminent Basque philologist, Resurrección María Azkue, just at a time when scholarly study of the language was increasing.

Portrait of Edward Spencer Dodgson sitting in a chair and holding a book

Portrait of Edward Spencer Dodgson (1857-1922). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dodgson later returned to Oxford where he was registered at Jesus College from 1901 to 1918. His choice was surely determined by the fact that Sir John Rhŷs, the first Professor of Celtic at the University, was a Fellow at Jesus. Dodgson also had an interest in Celtic languages and recommended the sound recording of Manx. Basque and Celtic languages had often been linked at Oxford, although there is no evidence that Dodgson sought to relate them. He concentrated on the Basque language itself rather than speculating on distant relationships with other languages.

Dodgson contributed to the renewal of Basque studies as a linguist and as the editor-publisher of key early texts in the language. He regarded as his major contribution to Basque philology his concordance of the forms of the verb in the Basque New Testament in the version of Joannes Leizarraga (1571). He published the concordance between 1890 and 1915 in a labyrinthine series of articles and more substantial volumes. The latter he largely financed himself with the assistance of friends and of his brothers. Favourable comments about one of the volumes surely contributed to his being awarded an Honorary MA by Oxford in 1907. However, his editions of early Basque texts were arguably the more significant, as they made these works accessible once again.

Dodgson’s enthusiasm for the Basque language went beyond his own work and publications. In 1892 and 1899, he published two supplements of additions and corrections to Julien Vinson’s fundamental bibliography of the language (1891, 1898). Indeed, his interest in bibliography took active form in the tireless acquisition of publications in and about the language. As he travelled around the Basque Country, he bought, or was given, many books. The majority were inexpensive, recent, small-format publications, but invaluable in documenting the bibliographic history of the language. After Dodgson’s death in 1922, his brother, Campbell, gave a collection of 218 Basque ‘items’ to the Library of the British Museum. However, for Dodgson, book collecting was a two-way process. From 1891 until 1911, he sent a stream of publications to the British Museum Library consisting mostly of books of poetry, catechisms and lives of saints. Almost all bear his handwritten dedication to the Museum and several also record his own comments and, on occasion, rude criticisms. Another habit was to attach additional material: newspaper articles, other texts and even his reader’s ticket.

Similar donations were received by other libraries: the National Library of Wales, the Bibliothèque de Bayonne and, most notably, a number of Oxford libraries. His motive for these donations was undoubtedly to make them available in libraries that might not otherwise have acquired them, or even have known of their existence.

Title page of Euskara o el baskuenze en 120 lecciones with Dodgson's British Museum Library reader's ticket

Euskara o el baskuenze en 120 lecciones, Bilbao, [1896] (British Library shelfmark 12978.c.38.(1.). Dodgson refers to the author’s ‘bad Basque and silly Castilian’. He has also attached his British Museum reader’s ticket.

Economic necessity limited Dodgson’s ability to donate copies of his own works to as many libraries as he would have wished. The British Museum acquired all his publications via Legal Deposit or by purchase, but rarely by donation, while continental libraries either purchased them or received them as donations. Here, however, his motive was self-promotion and Dodgson undoubtedly held his own abilities in high regard. He was especially determined that the volumes of concordances to Leizarraga’s New Testament reached the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. When in early 1916, he had not received an acknowledgment of the receipt of the last these, published in 1915, he wrote to the Librarian enquiring about this omission. He adds that he has already received the grateful thanks of the Conde de las Navas for the copy sent to the library of the Royal Palace. Dodgson’s enthusiasm for the Basque language was considerable. However, his obsessive concern for his own self-image unfortunately permeates much of his correspondence.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Further reading

Goio Bañales, Mikel Gorrotxategi. ‘Edward Spencer Dodgson (1857-1922). Recopilación de sus publicaciones en prensa diaria’, in Euskera. Euskaltzaindiaren lan eta agiriak = Trabajos y actas de la Real Academia de la Lengua Vasca, 49, no. 1 (2004), 265-349. P.981/93., and available online. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=1088003 

Julio de Urquijo, ‘Vascófilos ingleses. A propósito de “Un libro de los vascos” de Rodney Gallop’, Revista Internacional de Estudios Vascos, 25 (1934), 201-24, 605-21 (pp. 211-24, 605-15). PP.4331.aeb

Geoffrey West, ‘Edward Spencer Dodgson, The Basque Language, and the British Museum Library’, eBLJ (forthcoming)

 

08 September 2020

Chernobyl: two new acquisitions at the British Library

Like many, I was hooked by the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ when it was released last year. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, it sparked a surge of interest in the events surrounding the nuclear disaster of April 1986.

For those keen to delve deeper, the British Library holds a large amount of material relating to Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian), from scientific articles and theses to photography albums and poetry collections. Earlier this year, the Library also acquired two particularly important sources: a new digital archive and a copy of a rare Cold War-era newspaper.

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

The digital archive, The Chernobyl Files, is a collection of declassified documents prepared by Russian and Ukrainian government agencies, including the KGB, that ‘detail the most important developments in the wake of the disaster, as well as internal reports and investigations on its various causes’. Among the documents are internal reports, communiqués, and correspondences between local and regional KGB officials long before the tragedy. The archive is currently only available in the Library’s reading rooms (please see our website for information on how to book a slot) but I am happy to assist with enquiries via email if possible. 

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

The second new acquisition is an issue of Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News. This newspaper was published in 1986/7 by the Ukrainian Peace Committee (UPC), which, according to the publication’s statement of purpose, ‘was formed in response to the disaster at the atomic plant in Chornobyl’. Its aim was to address issues relating to nuclear disarmament, human rights, the environment and national liberties, which it believed were at the centre of ‘hostilities between the governments of Eastern Europe and Western countries’. Further research, however, led me to a series of declassified CIA documents, which in turn unveiled a more complex story behind the UPC and its newspaper…

In October 1986, an individual, referred to only as ‘RK’, filed a report on the creation and activities of the UPC. The document, which was declassified and released in 2007 on the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room website, detailed how the organisation had been set up that year by Prolog, a small group of Ukrainian émigrés working for the CIA since 1950, with the specific aim of intervening in the World Peace Congress (WPC). The WPC was in turn sponsored by the World Peace Council, a largely Soviet project established in 1949/1950 to promote peace programmes around the world and counter what it viewed as the ‘warmongering’ attitude of the US. The 1986 congress took place from 15-19 October in Copenhagen, the first time it had been held in a non-communist capital since the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The UPC, which was registered at an address in Hammersmith, London, comprised both Prolog and non-Prolog members, the latter of whom were allegedly unaware of the convert operation. In the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen WPC, members of the UPC worked to establish themselves as a credible group and gain access as delegates to the congress.

Despite several hiccups, the group’s activities in Copenhagen were deemed a success and RK recommended that the UPC should be allowed to continue and even expand its work. This included publishing ‘a 4 page tabloid size newspaper 4 times a year’ and travelling to ‘different conferences in Western Europe, Asia and Africa’ to ‘conduct interventions similar to the intervention in Copenhagen’.

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

We know for certain that the UPC went on to publish four issues of the newspaper, Ukrainian Peace Committee News, three of which are held by the British Library (no. 2, published in spring 1987, and the combined no. 3/4, published in winter 1987 and kindly donated to the British Library by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto). Although they display the same peace dove logo, the design and typeface used for issues no. 2 and 3/4 differ significantly.

All of the issues focus heavily on the Chernobyl disaster and include samizdat (literature secretly written, copied, and circulated in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union) and other articles. The Soviet war in Afghanistan and the issue of workers’ rights also feature in the paper. In addition, one article in issue no. 2 deals with the proposal to build a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) at the British nuclear power station Sizewell B. By including the latter article, the newspaper supported Prolog’s view that in order to ‘gain credibility within the Peace movement’ the UPC’s position ‘had to be a balanced one – not an anti-Soviet group only, but one critical of the West in some respects as well’.

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 with the headline 'Chornobyl in Samizdat'

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

The UPC appears to have ceased its activities at the end of 1987, at the time the last issue of its newspaper was published. Although the British Library unfortunately does not hold the first issue, Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News is an invaluable source for those researching topics including Cold War relations, the Chernobyl disaster and the peace movement.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections 

Further reading:

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices From Chernobyl (London, 1999). YC.2001.a.808

Kate Brown, Manual For Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (London, 2019). DRT ELD.DS.389500

Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl (London, 2019). YC.2019.a.8185

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.277839