European studies blog

14 posts from March 2015

30 March 2015

The Goddess of Air at The Stray Dog Café

On 28 March 1914 Tamara Karsavina, a legend of the Russian ballet, celebrated her birthday by dancing at The Stray Dog Café  at Number 5, Mikhailovskaia Square (today Ploshchad’ iskusstv,  ‘Square of the Arts’)  in St Petersburg. Also called an art-cellar, the café was in operation between  31 December  1911 and 3 March 1915. Its name was drawn from the romantic and at the same time ironic image of a poet or artist as a stray dog, created by one of the founders of the enterprise Mstislav  Dobuzhinzky.

Image 1-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi6
The logo of the Stray Dog Café, from the cover of a tribute volume to Tamara Karsavina

The idea of a cabaret-club came from the actor and theatre director Boris Pronin (1875-1946), one of the noteworthy figures of the Russian Silver Age in art and literature. The founders of the Stray Dog Café (including writer Alexey Tolstoy, artists Nikolay Sapunov (1880-1912) and Sergey Sudeikin (1882-1946), and  theatre director and dramatist Nikolai Evreinov) aimed to synthesise visual and performing arts with literature and create a playful  atmosphere for participants and the audience.

The programme of the Stray Dog Café included poetry readings by such famous Russian authors as  Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Mikhail Kuzmin and Vladimir Mayakovsky as well as foreign guests like Paul Fort. The founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gave a lecture there.  The audience was divided into two categories:  “artists” and “pharmacists” (those who didn’t belong to the bohemian world of creativity) and the price for an entrance ticket for the latter category was several times higher than for “artists-bohemians”.

The celebration of Tamara Karsavina’s birthday was documented in a number of memoirs. For example, Sergey Sudeikin recollected how this “goddess of air” moved around the stage in the middle of the hall between authentic  18th-century wooden sculptures of Eros placed on a wonderful blue carpet. Carefully selected musicians played old musical instruments. The intimacy of the performance was shared by fifty dance-lovers who paid 50 roubles per ticket.  At the end of evening, the heroine was presented with a memorable book made for her that included drawings, poems and dedications to the admired ballerina. Beautifully designed, this gentle book (held by the British Library at shelfmark Cup.410.f.519) is a unique artefact of the time, as the images below illustrate.

Image 2-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi2
The title page of the book

Image 3-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi4
Sargent’s portrait of Karsavina

Image 4-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi5
Poem by Mikhail Kuzmin

Image 5-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi3
Drawing by Sergey Sudeikin

Image 6-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi
A letter of congratulation from Nikolai Evreinov

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

27 March 2015

The Growth of the Beard

All the media assure us we are living in a new age of the beard.

A landmark in pogonology is the pioneer study A Barba em Portugal. Estudo de etnografia comparativa [The Beard in Portugal.  A Study in Comparative Ethnography] (Lisbon, 1925; British Library 10009.t.29) by  José Leite de Vasconcellos  (1858-1941).

Beards - Leite de Vasconcelos                                    José Leite de Vasconcellos (with beard). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Beards - Barba em Portugal tp                                                    Title-page of Leite’s A barba em Portugal.

Leite (1858-1941) was a distinguished professor of Latin and Medieval French at the University of Lisbon and editor of the journal Revista Lusitana, but the bulk of his publications are ethnographic studies of topics such as the “figa” gesture: in this respect his work prefigured much 20th and 21st-century research on the body.  The figa’s opposite number in British culture is the V-sign, now sadly depleted to the single finger.

Beards - Figa tp José Leite de Vasconcellos,  A Figa : estudo de etnografia comparativa, precedido de algumas palavras a respeito do ”sobrenatural” na medicina popular portuguesa. (Porto, 1925). Ac.3709.d.

Like many Portuguese men of letters (Júlio Dinis and Trindade Coelho  among them), Leite studied medicine although he practised for  only a year on account of his own ill health.

The chapters of A Barba em Portugal cover: The beard anthropologically, the making of the beard, beard forms and cuts, the beard through the centuries, the symbolism of the beard, and the beard in vocabulary and literature; in an appendix Leite edits the ordenances of the guild of barbers from the 16th century.

Beards - Effigies
A selection of historical Portuguese beards from A Barba em Portugal

A habit which 21st-century hipsters seem not to have adopted is swearing on the beard.  The Cid did it, and Leite was told by an old man of A Beira that he had heard in his youth that in olden times the oath was “Juro por estas minhas barbas” [I swear by these my beards], accompanied by the appropiate gesture.  

Perhaps its time has come again, by my beard!

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

Beards - Herod                                  Beards - Ancient
Ancient beard ideas for the hipsters of today? King Herod (left) and an Bronze Age figurine (right) from A barba em Portugal

25 March 2015

Collection of hopes and despair: 30 years ago Mikhail Gorbachev started Perestroika

In the late 1980s the famous Revolution Square in Moscow  turned into a huge market. But it was a ‘press market’ - only alternative publications were sold there in abundance, usually by elderly ladies. Most of them were quite politicised themselves and were selling only publications of a certain political standing, but some had a variety of publications on display representing a wide ideological spectrum. Our colleagues at the State Historical Public Library in Moscow started collecting documents relating to various political and public movements in 1989. They often went to Revolution Square themselves to buy materials, attended various meetings, and asked friends and relatives to bring ephemera to the Historical Library. Chris Thomas, at that time Head of the British Library’s Slavonic and East European collections, managed to secure an agreement with the Historical Library that they would also help us to create a similar collection. Through this source and via her wide network of friends in Russia who started sending materials to London, Chris managed to accumulate invaluable unique primary source materials on the era of Perestoika which started in spring 30 years ago.


Samizdat2                                                                         Samizdat publications

Now we can say that our collection of Russian ‘Underground periodicals’ or ‘Samizdat’, which should probably be called ‘Collection of alternative periodicals and ephemera’, comprises  over 2,500 titles produced in the Soviet Union during Perestroika and in the early 1990s. Apart from published, print and typewritten items, it also contains original photographs:



Although Perestroika officially finished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian political life in the early 1990s was lively, vibrant and chaotic. This is perfectly reflected in the collections of ephemera relating to the coup of August 1991, the two referendums (1991 and 1993) and the Duma and presidential and local election campaigns of the early 1990s.

In autumn 2012 Laura Todd, a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham, worked in the British Library for two months on the collections of Russian ephemera from the late 1980s and the 1990s. She documented this project in her blog. How proud we are to say that the collection has been now sorted, catalogued, properly preserved and housed (shelfmarks: HS.74/2113-HS.74/2117 and HS.74/2124) and is available for researchers. We would like once again to thank Laura and our colleagues in Collection Care  for completing this project. Now the collections look like this:






Although securely preserved in plastic sleeves and hidden in the vast climate-controlled basements of the British Library, these papers are waiting for their researchers to tell many stories of hope and despair from the first years of Russia’s post-communist era.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

23 March 2015

The Serbian Typhus Epidemic - 100 years on

The devastation caused by the influenza pandemic at the end of World War One is well known; what is less well known is that many parts of Europe were badly affected by diseases throughout the war. One of the first of these was an epidemic of typhus and relapsing fever which started in Serbia at the end of 1914 and killed upwards of 150,000 people in a population of around four and a half million.  Both diseases shared similar symptoms – a high temperature, rashes and constant itching - and were spread by the same means – lice. They were also highly infectious and often occurred together. While the exact start date of the epidemic was disputed, sources agreed that it ended in June 1915. Even in this short time the epidemic was still devastating in a small country where the diseases spread rapidly.

Rockefeller                                                   New York, 1915.  British Library 08248.h.19.

The documents listed below are the key contemporaneous accounts of this epidemic. The differences in emphasis are dramatic, ranging from the appeal for assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation to Minkine’s more clinical account of the epidemic, and from the self-promotion of the Hunter and Strong reports to the critical soul-searching analysis by Serbian doctors in 1925, edited by Stanojević.  

Minkine                                                      Paris, 1915. British Library F7/3088

In contrast to the first of these accounts to be published (that of the Rockefeller Foundation) where the Serbs were portrayed as helpless victims, by the time of the Stanojević analysis there was an active desire not just to understand the causes of the epidemic, but to prevent any future recurrences. The Hunter and Strong reports, published immediately after the war, emphasised the actions taken by their respective groups to relieve the epidemic, but without clear advice about what ‘weather-proofing’ was needed for Serbia to remain disease-free.

Hunter                                                    London, 1920. British Library Wf1/4919

The fact that the epidemic took place during a war, which made ascertaining the facts especially difficult, explained some of the differences between the accounts. These sources reveal why typhus was such a feared disease even after it was found to be preventable; in 1909 it was discovered that the disease was caused by body lice, although the cure was not known until after the war.  

Strong                                              Cambridge USA, 1920. British Library X8/2016

In a parallel with the recent Ebola crisis, the international community was scared that the disease would spread. They realised that an epidemic was not just the concern of one country, but had global implications. A number of countries, particularly in Europe, implemented new and stricter quarantine laws in 1915, specifically citing the risk posed by Serbia.

Stanojevic                                               Belgrade, 1925. British Library YF.2011.a.22007

Despite the dramatic and tragic losses, the typhus and relapsing fever epidemic taught some useful lessons. The epidemic was ended very quickly by the standards of the time. It was a good example of the international community coming together in a common cause, and it demonstrated a key principle in terms of epidemic management, namely that prevention was cheaper than relying on a cure that had not been invented.  

Tara Finn, the First World War Centenary Commemorations Team of Foreign and Commonwealth Office


William Hunter, The Serbian epidemics of typhus and relapsing fever in 1915 (London, 1920).  Wf1/4919 [available online from PubMed]

M. Jeanneret-Minkine, Le typhus exanthematique (Paris, 1915).  F7/3088    

The Rockefeller Foundation, The relief of suffering non-combatants in Europe: Destitution and disease in Serbia (New York, 1915).  08248.h.19.

Vladimir Stanojević, ed., Istorija srpskog vojnog saniteta (Beograd, 1925).  YF.2011.a.22007

Richard P. Strong, ed., Typhus fever with a particular reference to the Serbian epidemic (Cambridge, Mass., 1920). X8/2016 [available online (copy from Harvard University) at]

20 March 2015

Visions in the sky: a 17th-century eclipse

Today people in some parts of northern Europe will see a total solar eclipse. Others, including those here in London, will see the sun partially obscured.

Eclipses are a source of excitement in our age. Hotels in the regions where today’s eclipse is total were no doubt booked up months ago by keen eclipse-hunters, as happened in 1999 when a total eclipse was visible in many parts of Europe. But although the science behind eclipses has been understood since ancient times, in the pre-modern age knowledge could be tempered with superstition even among scholars. For the less learned, eclipses, like other celestial phenomena, were sources of amazement and terror, interpreted as portents or omens of disaster. Perhaps this is why early witnesses claimed to see in such phenomena exaggerated images of mythical, divine or demonic figures.

The seven Capuchin monks who set out walk from Ober-Laibach (modern-day Vrhnika in Slovenia) to Loitsch (Logatec) on 28 January 1664 would not have been uneducated men, but when they witnessed that day’s partial solar eclipse, they saw in it a series of bizarre visions. They left an account of these, which the British Library holds in two different broadside versions.

Broadside with two columns of text and a picture of a crescent moon moving over the sun
1) Aigentliche Beschreibung der erschröcklichen Wunderzeichen, so seyn gesehen worden ... über ... Laibach ... den 28. Januarij 1664. Jahrs. (s.l., [1664]) 1875.d.4.(26)

  Printed broadside with images of a group of travellers watching an eclipse and the visions they claim to have seen
2) Warhaffter und glaubwürdiger Bericht, eines erschrecklichen Wunderzeichen, so sich ... bey Ober-Laybach ... ist gesehen worden ... (Nuremberg, [1664]) 1875.d.4.(29)

On their journey the monks were alerted by a traveller coming towards them to the fact that the sun looked strange. Looking up, they saw on the sun’s face a tall, thin man followed by three smaller figures. Next a troop of infantry appeared, which gave way to two church towers. These were replaced by “two mighty black men on horseback” and a host of other riders, all shooting. At this the monks “began to sigh, pray and cry fervently to God for help” until the riders disappeared. Finally another rider appeared, this one “all white and light”, stronger and more terrifying than the first two, also leading a host of riders who almost covered the sun. These fought for a quarter of an hour, while the monks redoubled their prayers. After they vanished the sun “was blue in the centre and bloody all around the edges” and did not shine for some two hours.

Images of the visions apparently seen in the 1664 eclipse
Detail of 1875.c.4.(29) showing the sequence of visions described

After his dramatic description, we might expect the writer to offer some kind of interpretation of these fearsome visions, but he simply says “This was the moon which became lost in the sun” and ends his account. Clearly he understood the basic nature of the event the party had seen, yet he is no more interested in giving a scientific explanation than an allegorical one. The account thus seems caught between the worlds of belief in signs and wonders and of rational scientific knowledge.

But there is perhaps a rational explanation for the visions which the monks saw. Today we are always issued with firm instructions about how to view an eclipse safely, but our 17th-century travellers would have been looking directly at the sun, risking serious damage to their eyes, and certainly causing them to see spots which imagination could turn into visions.

  Picture of a group of travellers watching the 1664 eclipse
Don’t try this at home: the monks’ highly dangerous eclipse-viewing technique. Detail from 1875.d.4.(29)

So if you are watching today’s eclipse, watch safely, and enjoy the reality of one of the sky’s most fascinating sights without the terrifying and harmful visions.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


19 March 2015

The Cervantes Corpus

The jury is out about the question whether the remains exhumed in Madrid are those of Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote (pronounced ‘QUICK sot’ in English).

The BBC’s Will Gompertz (picture below from BBC i-Player) came to the British Library  on Tuesday 17 March  to supplement the news item with a view of some choice early Cervantina.

Will Gompertz Don Quixote

In the picture we can see:  the princeps (Madrid, 1605), the English translation of Philips (1687),
and an English version of Part 1 illustrated by Salvador Dalí (New York,1946).

I’m also reminded by this talk of the corporeality of Cervantes that there is no undisputed portrait of him.  The best document is what he himself says of himself in the prologue of the Novelas ejemplares Had there been a portrait in his book, he says:  

My friend might have written under it—‘This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted: this, I say, is the author of  Galatea, Don Quixote de la Mancha, The Journey to Parnassus, ... commonly called MIGUEL DE CERVANTES SAAVEDRA’.

                                            Don Quixote 12491.m.1, opposite 642

ServantesPortrait1120864628_740215_0000000000_noticia_normal                              Retrato de Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), de Juan de Jáuregui (1600).

When artists came to illustrate the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, they produced a portrait which to my eye resembles Cervantes’s pen self-portrait: author and creation combined.

But what can a man’s face or body tell us? What greater monument can any author leave but his works?


The Exemplary Novels of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Translated from the Spanish by Walter K Kelly. London, 1881. 2504.a.16

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies

18 March 2015

Bohemian Leeds: the Fulneck Moravian Settlement

When a friend recently commented that he thought it strange and amusing to see foreign house names in a traditional-looking Yorkshire village, he was assuming that such names were given in pretention, or in sentimental memory of a holiday abroad. It seems natural to think of cities attracting migrants and refugees, but not of villages as distinctly conservative, even insular, in their Olde Worlde Englishness.

In reality, of course, the picture is more complicated.  On the very outskirts of Leeds, not far from where I live, is one grey stone village whose origins are every bit as cosmopolitan as an inner-city area. Its name is Fulneck, and it shares its name with a settlement in the eastern part of the Czech Republic: Fulnek, Moravian Silesia. The Yorkshire village was established in 1743 by refugees from the Counter-Reformation in Bohemia and other Habsburg lands. They were members of the Moravian Church, one of the earliest Protestant Churches of all and the oldest Protestant denomination in the Czech lands, which had its roots in the Hussite movement   of the 15th century.

By 1600, a majority of the inhabitants of the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic) were under the influence of Hussite churches or schools, and might be said to have become Protestant. The churches established printing presses, and held services in Czech and German in preference to Latin. For a long time, the imperial court tolerated this, and was even sympathetic, but the arrival of the Jesuits and election of the vengefully Catholic Ferdinand II as King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor changed things. The events that followed are some of the most evocative in Czech history. The Second Defenestration of Prague, when representatives of the Protestant estates threw the Emperor’s envoys from the window of the Bohemian Chancellery, sparked the Thirty Years War. Its first battle was the disastrous White Mountain, which wiped out the Protestant nobility and would become a powerful symbol of the Habsburgs’ destruction of the nation and suppression of the Czech language. In creating a national mythos for the Czechoslovak state, Tomas Masaryk would constantly refer back to this period of history.

White Mountain detailThe Battle of White Mountain, November 1620, detail from an illustration by Matthäus Merian in Johann Philipp Abelin, Theatrum Europaeum (Frankfurt am Main, 1643) British Library 800.m.3-5.

The survivors of White Mountain went into hiding in caves and crevices around the borders. Some of these hiding places are marked today, often as detours from the innumerable well-marked hiking routes that criss-cross the country. The Moravian Brethren  – originally of Bohemian origin  – took their name from the fact that they continued to live in hiding in Moravia worshipping illegally for almost a century. Many other groups went abroad, firstly to other states in the Holy Roman Empire where the Counter-Reformation was less entrenched, and then later overseas, to Britain, France, the Netherlands or North America. In due course, the Moravians followed, moving first to Herrnhut in Saxony, where they were protected by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, and then to England. This is the origin of the Fulneck Moravian Settlement.

The Fulneck Settlement originally consisted of separate houses for men and women, both of which are still standing on either side of the Moravian Chapel, as well as some married accommodation. Possibly the most famous of the children born in eighteenth-century Fulneck was Henry Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the Capitol building in Washington DC. His father was a Moravian minister.

Fulneck Moravian Chapel
The old Moravian Chapel in Fulneck. (Photograph J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

Benjamin Latrobe was educated in Upper Lusatia, Saxony, from where his community had emigrated, but Fulneck itself has a school, established in 1753, which went on to become a mainstream independent school. Its pupils have included the future Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (born in Morley, which is now also part of Leeds) and Dame Diana Rigg. Asquith hated his time there and refused to come back as a famous old boy to give prizes, a fact not everyone with an interest in Fulneck is eager to advertise!

Fulneck school
Fulneck school, overlooking the valley (Photograph J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

Modern Fulneck still consists of just one street, built on a ridge above a green valley. Many of the people living there are Moravians still, and they run a small museum of  their history in England and Europe. The volunteer staff are very knowledgeable, and truly bring the eclectic little collection to life. Links to Herrnhut and other Moravian communities are also maintained.

Fulneck Museum
The Museum in Fulneck; the building is typical of those in the village. (Photograph J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

Among the British Library’s collections are various locally-produced histories of the Settlement, as well as a copy of The Brotherly Agreement and Declaration concerning the Rules and Orders of the Brethren's Congregation at Fulneck, published in 1777 (4661.b.4.), and a cantata composed by Edward Sewell to celebrate its centenary (Cantata, composed in commemoration of the Fulneck Centenary Jubilee, April 19th 1855. London, 1855; R.M.14.e.27.). Small but persistent, this little community of exiles used its own corner of a foreign field to maintain the Reformation ideals on which Masaryk would found the Czechoslovak state.

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


16 March 2015

Who loved Three Oranges?

In 1914 the Russian theatre director Vlesovod Meyerhold  set up a theatre magazine which he called Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (The Love for Three Oranges). At this time Meyerhold was interested in the traditions of the Commedia dell'arte, rethinking them for contemporary theatrical reality. His theoretical concepts of the “conditional theatre” were elaborated in his book O teatre (On Theatre; shelfmark 11795.p.12) in 1913. The new magazine was named after Carlo Gozzi’s  play Amore delle tre melarance (1761) which he created as a polemic against the then extremely popular Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. It started a tradition of Italian plays called fiabe – improvisations loosely based on a fairy-tale plot where the conflict between good and evil is shown by means of Commedia dell'arte. The publication Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam had the subtitle Zhurnal doktora Dapertutto (‘Dr Dapertutto’s magazine’).


Meyerhold – cartoon portrait by A.Liubimov from N.D.Volkov. Meierkhol’d. T.1. 1874-1908. (Leningrad, 1929). British Library 10797.a.13

Dr Dapertutto was Meyerhold’s pseudonym, suggested to him by the poet and composer Mikhail Kuzmin with whom Meyehold worked on one of the Komisarzhevskaia theatre productions in St Petersburg.  Cover designs were made by the theatre designers and artists Iurii Bondi (see more of his works here) and Aleksandr Golovin.

Cover design by Bondi for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1914)

Golovin cover
Cover design by Golovin for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1915)

Between 1914 and 1916 nine issues of the magazine were published. The print run was very small, between 300 and 500 copies and the first and prime subscribers were family members and friends. Aleksandr Blok, one of the most influential among Russian Symbolist poets, was responsible for the poetry section. In the articles published in the magazine, Meyerhold and his like-minded friends and colleagues discussed new approaches to the history and theory of theatre and promoted their new Theatre-Studio where Meyerhold taught his bio-mechanical system of acting. A full digital archive of this rare magazine is now freely available online.

In the first issue of the magazine Meyerhold published a theatre scenario Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (‘The Love for Three Oranges’) based on Carlo Gozzi’s fiabe. Meyerhold’s co-authors were the poet Konstantin Vogak (1887-1938), who was at some point in correspondence with Blok, knew Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev and later emigrated and died in Nice, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Solov’ev, one of the leading and most popular theatre directors in Leningrad in the 1920s, who died in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad.

When in April 1918 Sergey Prokofiev was commissioned to write an opera, he mentioned it to Meyerhold who immediately gave him the first issue of the magazine. In his diaries Prokofiev wrote: “Read The Love for Three Oranges. It is wonderful! Something could really be done with it, except that the plot would need to be completely rewritten. The music should be clear, lively, and as simple as it can be made” (Prokofiev, 2006. p. 273).

In the Prokofiev family archives there is a photograph taken in 1919 that shows Sergey Prokofiev, Boris Anisfeld who designed the sets for the first performance of the opera in Chicago, and Adolph Bolm, a Russian-born dancer and choreographer, a one-time member of  Diaghilev’s company, who was helping Prokofiev while he was on his first trip to America. The photograph is reproduced in the edition of Prokofiev’s diaries published in Paris in 2002 (YF.2012.a.11414; p. 27)

To see this image and many more rare and fascinating items from the British Library collections on Russian music theatre and art, join us on 19th March at a private view at the British Library organised in cooperation with the London Jewish Cultural Centre.


Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries / translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips. (London; Ithaca, N.Y., 2006- ). YC.2007.a.1259 (vol. 1); YC.2009.a.11249 (vol. 2); YC.2013.a.14822 (vol. 3).

Meyerhold on theatre. Translated and edited with a critical commentary by Edward Braun. (London, 1969) X.900/4423

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

13 March 2015

Writing for Equality: Early 20th-century Russian women’s journals

One of the “myths” of the 1917 October Revolution and Bolshevik takeover of power is that it was the turning point for women’s equality in Russia. In fact, women gained some rights, such as the right to vote and to run for public office, following the February 1917 Revolution. The February Revolution actually began on International Women’s Day, when masses of female workers and soldiers’ wives took to the streets in Petrograd.

The campaign for women’s suffrage and equality in Russia, and indeed across much of the world, was gathering momentum by the early 20th century. In Russia this fight is documented in the various women’s journals that emerged during this period, particularly after the 1905 Revolution, from the “bourgeois” to the working class.

Continuing with the European Studies blog’s women theme this week in honour of last Sunday’s International Women’s Day, this post highlights a few of the journals we hold here at the British Library and the various women’s groups and parties they were affiliated with.

Women demonstrating Feb revolution - best picture Photo of Russian women demonstrating in February 1917  (From Wikimedia Commons )

Inspired by her work with the poor, children and prostitutes, in 1904 Dr Mariia Pokrovskaia  founded a journal, Zhenskii vestnik (The Women’s Messenger), to highlight the problem of women’s inequality. Zhenskii vestnik was the first Russian journal dedicated exclusively to the woman question and it ran until 1917. True to her medical background, the journal even contained a health section. Although Zhenskii vestnik was still deemed bourgeois by Bolshevik activists such as Alexandra Kollontai, Pokrovskaia sought to bridge the gap between educated and working class women.

One of Zhenskii vestnik’s main rivals was the journal Soiuz zhenshchin (Union of Women). Established by the Russian Union for Women’s Equality, the largest and arguably most militant feminist group operating in 1905, Soiuz Zhenshchin ran from 1907 until 1909 and was under the editorship of feminist journalist Mariia Chekhova. The journal included a wide range of articles, stories and information, from news of women’s movements abroad to a translation of Oscar Wilde’s short story The Nightingale and the Rose. Among its contributors was the journalist and politician Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, introduced in my last blog post as the school friend of Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaia.

Soiuz zhenshchinTitle page of Soiuz zhenshchin; PP.3554.exg

After Soiuz Zhenshchin collapsed in 1909, Zhenskii vestnik once again became the only “feminist” journal. A number of journals with a feminist slant did however emerge in the years leading up to the 1917 revolutions, the most successful of these being Zhenskoe delo (The Women’s Cause). These journals tended to include the odd article addressing women’s issues but took the form of more traditional women’s magazines.

RabotnitsaTitle page of January 1923 issue of Rabotnitsa. (From Wikimedia Commons) BL copies at Mic.F.866 and Mic.A.20186

As briefly mentioned above, Bolshevik revolutionaries were critical of what they saw as the “bourgeois” women’s groups which were mainly run by women from privileged backgrounds. On Women’s Day 1914, Lenin and a group of Bolshevik women published the first Russian socialist women’s journal, Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker). However as historian Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild points out, although it was addressed to women the journal “took pains to deny any links to feminism” (An Improper Profession; p. 183).  Rabotnitsa was revived in 1917 and became one of the main Bolshevik publications.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student

References and Further Reading

Zhenskii vestnik. (St Petersburg, 1904-1917) 0057.710000  

Soiuz zhenshchin. (St Petersburg, 1907-1909) PP.3554.exg

Zhenskoe delo. (St Petersburg, 1910-1917) 0057.720000

Rabotnitsa (St Petersburg, 1914; Petrograd and Moscow, 1917-). Mic.F.866 and Mic.A.20186

Barbara T. Norton and Jehanne M. Gheith (eds.), An Improper Profession: Women, Gender, and Journalism in Late Imperial Russia (Durham, NC; 2001). YA.2002.a.8786

Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton, NJ; 1991). 94/07838

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: women’s rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 (Pittsburg, PA; 2010). YC.2010.a.11154 and m10/.21688


CDA PhD student


CDA PhD student


11 March 2015

Notes from an Old Profession

Attempts to regulate the sex trade are almost as old as the trade itself. Most cultures and societies, while openly deploring prostitution, have nonetheless tolerated it and, increasingly, tried to bring it under some form of governmental control. A recent British Library acquisition sheds light on one such attempt in 19th-century Hamburg: 

Title page of 'Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen'
Regulativ für die Bordell-Wirthe und eingezeichneten Mädchen in der Vorstadt St. Pauli
([Hamburg], 1853) RB.23.a.36389.

Like many port cities, Hamburg had a long history of prostitution and the city authorities had been issuing regulations for brothels and their employees since at least the 15th century. By the mid-19th century a set of regulations dating from 1834 were in force, but in 1847 some additional rules were issued by Dr A. Meier, ‘Patron’ of the suburb of St Pauli, then as now home to Hamburg’s main red light district.  Our recently-acquired copy of these rules was printed in 1853, and each ‘girl’ (as they are always referred to here) in a brothel was to be given a copy. A label on the front wrapper shows that ours belonged to one Johanna Maria Friederica Wendland who worked “bei Brackert” (presumably the name of the brothel-keeper).


Marbled paper cover of the 'Rgulativ' with two names in manuscriptThe wrapper of our copy of the Regulativ with the names of Johanna Wendland and  “Brackert”

The 22 short paragraphs set out various rights and responsibilities. Brothel-keepers must provide a heated communal room in the winter (§13) and “simple, good food” (§15; specifically there must be no stinting on the morning coffee!). The women must be allowed free time to go out at least once a week (§17) although they must not wear “conspicuous” clothing that draws attention to their profession on these outings. Importantly, paragraph 18 states that “No girl may be forced to sleep with a man who is not acceptable to her.”

Many of the regulations are concerned with finances. Brothel-keepers may not advance more than 150 marks in credit to the women (§1). They can take up to half of a woman’s earnings (§2), but if she earns more than 50 marks in a week she need only hand over 25 (§3). Brothel-keepers cannot lay claim to gifts given to the women by clients (§9), and must not accept or demand gifts from the women (§10). The women must pay a monthly fee for such luxuries as a sofa (§8) or individual heating (§14) in their own rooms. A central kitty is to be maintained to help with extra expenses, such as clothing and travel costs for women who leave the brothel to return home, marry or take up another job (§19-20). 

The seven pages of regulations are followed by 16 blank account-book pages. Paragraph 5 requires each woman’s copy to be filled in regularly by the brothel-keeper with a note of each month’s expenses. Paragraph 6 adds that a doctor must also sign each month’s page to certify that the woman is in good health.

An anonymous study of prostitution in Hamburg, first published in 1858 and reissued in a much enlarged edition in 1860, sheds light on some of the reasons behind these regulations. The author states that brothel-keepers regularly advance huge amounts of credit for clothing and other expenses (including gifts for themselves) to the women in their establishments, thus keeping the women effectively trapped in debt and unable to leave the brothel. Over a decade after the first publication of Dr Maier’s regulations, this commentator is clearly cynical about their effectiveness. He also doubts that many doctors have time for the regular health checks required.

However, a doctor did authorize our copy. Either Johanna Wendland herself or Brackert filled in two pages of accounts for September and October 1855, noting purchases including collars, a pair of boots and a velvet dress. The doctor signed it with the brief note “gesehen” on 6 October and 2 November.

Manuscript page of accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855The first page of Johanna Wendland's accounts and medical certification for September/October 1855

After this the entries cease and we can only speculate what happened. Did Johanna leave the brothel, and if so was it for another brothel, for the streets, or for a different employment or even marriage? Did she fall victim to disease, or to a violent client? Or did she or Brackert simply fall out of the habit of keeping the records while the authorities failed to enforce their well-meaning regulations, proving the cynic right? Whatever the case, Johanna’s brief accounts leave a slight but intriguing trace of a real woman working in the 19th-century sex trade.

References/further reading:

Die Hamburger Prostitution, oder die Gehemnisse des Dammthorwalles und der Schwiegerstrasse (Altona, 1858) 08282.f.20. (Zweite, vielfach ergänzte und durch Zusätze vermehrte Auflage (Altona, 1860) 12553.c.39.)

Jürgen Kahmann / Hubert Lanzerath, Weibliche Prostitution in Hamburg (Hamburg, 1981) X.529/61878

Ariane Barth, Die Reeperbahn: der Kampf um Hamburgs sündige Meile (Hamburg, 1999) YA.2001.a.41623

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies