European studies blog

13 posts categorized "Decolonising"

12 May 2023

Anthony Anaxagorou: An out-spoken poet, writer, publisher and educator

Anthony Anaxagorou

Anthony Anaxagorou. © Photo by Alessandro Furchino Capria

The European Writers’ Festival, taking place at the British Library on Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 May 2023, sees many of Europe’s greatest storytellers gather together for one remarkable weekend. In this blog post, we have the opportunity to speak with one of them: the 2023 RSL Ondaatje Prize winner, acclaimed poet, writer, publisher and educator Anthony Anaxagorou. The multifaceted creator talks to us about his poetic journey, the inspiration he finds in the uncertainties of his Cypriot identity and the exploration, through his work, of conflicting forces that define nations today.

What motivated you to start writing poetry and how would you describe your poetic journey so far?

I was very much drawn to language from an early age. Being bilingual, speaking both English and Cypriot Greek at home, meant that I developed a sense of how malleable language was; what words and phrases could mean if you shifted their context and how everything was aiming for some kind of communicable outlet, including the language of poetry. My gateway into writing was through music and stories. Hearing words being said before reading them was a big part of my education. I wasn’t a high achiever at school; my exam grades were low, but I always felt I was nurturing a private relationship with language through it all. My journey so far has been led by pushing what I believe poetry to be, both as a spiritual instrument and a technical one.

How influential is other poetry, old and new, on your own work? Do you have any favourite poets and/or poems?

I read poetry all year long. I don’t really follow any pattern or trend and find myself gravitating to where I feel language is being stretched and put under sufficient pressure. I get sent lots of books from UK publishers to read, which I love, but I think the real delight is in going to a second-hand bookstore to discover something rare – a first edition of a classic collection or one which has notes scribbled all down the margins. I get a kick from books which people have taken into their lives, ones which feel like they’ve been in conversation with their reader. Beaten up, dogeared, with a private message from the past to the present. Those are the real joys.

I read mainly for surprise, to get to the end of a poem and think ‘wow, how did they do that?’, and how I can apply those bits I notice to my own practice. Poems are very much asking for our attention to detail, poets are often obsessed with material, and I love considering how material objects relate to the spiritual realm. My mind is noisy and chaotic, I want poems to slow down my thoughts, I want them to invoke a sense of uncertainty through strangeness and mystery. Poems which lean into puzzle and riddle, or the cinematic, the absurd and the philosophical. I keep close to me poems I think about for their ingenuity, poems for their heart and spirt, poems for their unusualness and poems for their poetry. Everything we read influences our work, even the stuff we might not like, or think is necessary for us. It’s all logged somewhere for the taking.

How catalytic was your Cypriot background and identity in your poetry?

I often try to write about things I don’t understand. I spend the majority of my days teaching and working with students on their poetry, so I find myself speaking in certainties and absolutes a lot. When it comes to my own work I like the idea of not knowing and for me the Cypriot identity is fecund ground for exploring uncertainty. The questions surrounding what it means to be Cypriot coupled with the diasporic experience have always fascinated me, as well as pained me. My work over the last 6 years at least has been invested in tackling some of those discomforts and confusions.

Anthony receiving the 2023 Ondaatje Prize

Anthony receiving the 2023 Ondaatje Prize for his latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics. Source: Twitter 

How does it feel to be the most recent winner of the prestigious RSL Ondaatje Prize for your latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics?

It’s an incredible feeling to feel a book has been seen and recognised in this way. Especially a book that straddles both Cyprus and life in the UK. Cyprus, despite its proximity to Britain and British tourism is still very much overlooked when it comes to postcolonial discourse, and how the corollary of empire still impacts so many of the ways Cypriots see themselves. I hope that maybe through winning a prize like the Ondaatje, the book and the conversations it’s engaged with will find a way into more people’s lives.

Cover of Heritage Aesthetics

Heritage Aesthetics published with Granta Poetry in 2022, won the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2023 and was shortlisted for the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award. It was listed as one of New Statesman’s top books of 2022. Awaiting shelfmark.

Heritage Aesthetics communicates a self-aware and intensely honest British Cypriot self, while interrogating patriarchy, xenophobia and national divides. Guide us through this complex work.

There are lots of overlapping elements to the way we think about each other and ourselves in relation to our countries of origin and our birth nations. The main argument I’m putting forward in the book is how two things which aren’t supposed to coexist can, albeit tumultuously and with discord. The book orbits the idea of a family (a nation is a family as is an immediate family) and from within that nucleus we inherit certain modes of behaviour, traumas, anxieties etc that the book wants to somehow engage with. I don’t believe the job of the poem is to offer resolve anymore than a painting or piece of music should or even can. I’m into creating atmospheres – something perhaps more amorphous and open for readers to inhabit. These subjects, when approach morally, have little scope because we know them to signify right and wrong. Readers know white supremacy has been the cause of millions of deaths around the world and still today, we see whiteness permeating institutions at a structural level, which impacts so many people of colour in white countries. If we know all this -my assumption is the reader and I are politically aligned- then where else can I take these dilemmas? How can these nuggets of text serve to spur thinking on? That really is what I’m doing with Heritage Aesthetics.

Cover of After the Formalities

After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins in 2019, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize along with the 2021 Ledbury Munthe Poetry Prize for Second Collections. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year. YKL.2021.a.974

How does Heritage Aesthetics compare to your breakthrough collection After the Formalities?

I think After the Formalities casts its net more broadly in terms of subjects, the lens felt broader and perhaps less focused on past, present and future, whereas Heritage Aesthetics is drilling down into the specifics of place, family, trauma, violence and the psychological bearings of those elements. After the Formalities was also more autobiographical and less concerned with intertextual motifs between past and present. Heritage Aesthetics feels more engaged with theory and riffs off and around 20th century theorists – Fanon, Barthes, Said, CLR James etc, while taking on colonial writing in both fiction and reportage from the 19th and 20th century too. The idea was I wanted to draw parallels between two islands, to show how the Cypriots were once considered by their oppressors, which isn’t the same history as Greece or Turkey. I wanted a book which felt like it was pivoting between two dangerous worlds. Britain and Cyprus, two divided states, be that existentially or physically.

Anthony performing on stage

Anthony performing on stage. © Photo by Joe Hart

Not only an out-spoken writer, but also the Out-Spoken Press publisher, the Out-Spoken artistic director and a poetry educator for over a decade. Talk to us about these projects.

Most of the things I’ve set up over the years have emerged out of frustration. The projects you’ve listed came out of noticing what seemed to me to be lacking. Poets from certain backgrounds weren’t being shown or given the same opportunities as their white and middle-class counterparts. Things have shifted significantly since then and the landscape seems far more interested in accommodating as many different voices as possible, which is great. For me it’s very much about continuing the conversation and I think art is an incredibly democratic way of complicating what is often reduced and minimalised in cultural discussions.

What are you currently working on and what initiatives do you have in mind for the future?

At the moment I’m not really working on anything I’m consciously aware of, which is to say I’m probably working on whatever the next thing is. I try not to plan things too far in advance. I always like the idea of meeting myself where I’m at in my life and working from there. The future is a big place and I’m the kind of person who can quickly feel overwhelmed if I try to outline too much. I manage my life through bitesize, digestible chunks.

What can we expect from you at the British Library’s European Writers’ Festival?

I’m looking forward to reading from my new book, to discussing what being European or non-European means, as I think Cyprus is both. I’m also keen to hear what other writers have to say on the subject of Europe, its vast array of cultures, traditions, foods and politics.

Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections

European Writers' Festival logo

28 April 2023

EOKA pamphlets at the British Library

1 April 2023 marked 68 years since the beginning of the E[thniki] O[rganosis] K[yprion] A[goniston] (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) struggle to end British colonial rule in Cyprus with the ultimate goal of achieving Enosis (union) of Cyprus with Greece.

Britain’s concession of the Ionian Islands to the newly formed Greek state in 1864, filled the Greek Orthodox Cypriots with optimism that the great power, protector of Greece, would reconfirm its support with the concession of Cyprus, as they took over the administration of the island from the Ottomans in 1878. Greek Cypriots would soon become increasingly disillusioned by the new government, realising that initial declarations in favour of Cyprus’s right to self-determination would remain empty promises.

Various internal forces disagreed as to the form the anti-colonial struggle should take, with the nationalist right opting for military action and the communist left advocating social unrest through workers’ strikes and civil demonstrations. Despite the different voices, on the night of 31 March-1 April 1955, EOKA began its first bombing attacks on various government, police and military facilities in the island’s major cities.

The EOKA struggle was officially launched with its leader Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation that circulated widely throughout the island on 1 April. Drawing from the examples of the ancient Greeks, as well as those of the 1821 Greek Revolution and the 1940 resistance to the Axis, Grivas called upon the Cypriot people to join the fight for liberation to the final victory or death.

Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation declaring the start of the EOKA liberation struggle.

Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation declaring the start of the EOKA liberation struggle. J/8030.d.4

The British Library holds an important collection of leaflets and pamphlets from the years 1955-1959, used by EOKA to propagate its views among its members as well as potential new recruits among the Cypriot people. This material provides valuable insight into the organisation’s operations, regularly reporting on its successes and paying tribute to those who lost their lives for the cause. On the other hand, it documents the organisation’s stance on contemporary political and socio-economic affairs both in the internal of Cyprus, as well as on the international scene.

A leaflet reporting on operations between 1-10 October 1958.

A leaflet reporting on operations between 1-10 October 1958. J/8030.d4

A leaflet paying tribute to Kyriakos Matsis, who fell in Dikomo on 19 November 1958.

A leaflet paying tribute to Kyriakos Matsis, who fell in Dikomo on 19 November 1958. J. 8030.d4

EOKA rejecting the “abomination” plan of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the last colonial Governor of Cyprus Hugh Foot for a solution to the Cyprus issue.

EOKA rejecting the “abomination” plan of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the last colonial Governor of Cyprus Hugh Foot for a solution to the Cyprus issue. J/8030.d6

Through its leaflets EOKA often called for discretion, warning that even the most insignificant information could reach the British through their lurking agents and traitors, causing serious blows to the struggle.

A leaflet found in Kalo Chorio on 26 October 1958 recommending people to avoid chatter and gossip.

A leaflet found in Kalo Chorio on 26 October 1958 recommending people to avoid chatter and gossip. J/8030.d4

A drawing of a killed fighter with the caption “A chatty person killed him! by saying that he was a member of EOKA”

A drawing of a killed fighter with the caption “A chatty person killed him! by saying that he was a member of EOKA”. J/8030.d.4

The leaflets also reveal a more extremist side to EOKA, issuing threats against dissidents and proceeding to punishments such as beating or execution of those considered as traitors.

EOKA‘s last warning against five Cypriots to discontinue their “anti-national and provocative behaviour”

EOKA‘s last warning against five Cypriots to discontinue their “anti-national and provocative behaviour”. J/8030.d.4

EOKA justifying the executions of Andreas Sakkas, Savvas Menoikou and Georgios Yiasoumis, who were “used as a pretext for communist P[agkypria] E[rgatiki] O[mospondia] (Pancyprian Labour Federation) to develop its anti-national activity, incited and protected by the British”

EOKA justifying the executions of Andreas Sakkas, Savvas Menoikou and Georgios Yiasoumis, who were “used as a pretext for communist P[agkypria] E[rgatiki] O[mospondia] (Pancyprian Labour Federation) to develop its anti-national activity, incited and protected by the British”. J/8030.d.4

Responsible for co-ordinating the military and political efforts was P[olitiki] E[pitropi] K[ypriakou] A[gonos] (Political Committee of the Cypriot Struggle), formed in July 1956. PEKA demanded the release of Archbishop Makarios from exile (March 1956 - April 1957) as the designated representative of the Cypriot people and the sole person authorised to negotiate the Cyprus issue.

A PEKA leaflet rejecting the Radcliffe constitutional proposals and demanding Makarios’s return to resume negotiations on the basis of self-determination.

A PEKA leaflet rejecting the Radcliffe constitutional proposals and demanding Makarios’s return to resume negotiations on the basis of self-determination. J/8030.d.2

PEKA called for passive resistance in the form of boycotting British goods, such as chocolates, alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco, soap, washing powder, fabrics, shoes and agricultural tools. Anything that could be a source of income for the British, such as the government lottery or football bets, were to be eradicated, while transactions with Greek banks, advertisements in Cypriot newspapers and exclusive use of the Greek language on signs, posters and products were strongly encouraged.

EOKA, represented here by Hercules, cuts off the multiple heads of the capitalistic British Hydra to offer prosperity to the Cypriot people, represented by Iolaus.

EOKA, represented here by Hercules, cuts off the multiple heads of the capitalistic British Hydra to offer prosperity to the Cypriot people, represented by Iolaus. J/8030.d.2

PEKA campaigned systematically against the attendance of British technical schools by Cypriot students, criticising the creation of technical schools in Cyprus as an attack against the institution of Greek school and a mere trick to create janissaries and servants for the British. Parents who chose to send their children to the British technical schools were characterised as ‘unworthy to be called Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots who taught there were shamed as ‘mercenaries’.

PEKA declares that “We will not sell the fate of our children to the British”

PEKA declares that “We will not sell the fate of our children to the British”. J/8030.d.2

From mid-1957, the youth of EOKA was organised in A[lkimos] N[eolaia] E[OKA] (Strong Youth of EOKA) who distributed the organisation’s leaflets, demanded Enosis through slogans on walls and student demonstrations, informed EOKA on the movements of the British forces, intercepted military equipment etc. ANE published its own monthly pamphlet Egertirion Salpisma (Reveille).

The cover of the fourth issue of ANE’s Egertirion Salpisma that circulated in March 1958.

The cover of the fourth issue of ANE’s Egertirion Salpisma that circulated in March 1958. J/8030.d.2

Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections

27 April 2023

PhD Studentship opportunity – The Belarus Collection at the British Library

Queen Mary University of London and the British Library are pleased to announce the availability of a fully funded Collaborative Doctoral Studentship from 1 October 2023 under the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.

This doctoral project seeks to advance postcolonial discourse in East European studies by focusing on the British Library’s unique Belarusian collection, the history of its development during the Cold War, and the collection’s evolution in response to Belarus’ ‘decolonising moment’ as it broke out of the Soviet fold in 1991.

The project will be jointly supervised by Dr Natalya Chernyshova (School of History) and Prof Jeremy Hicks (Department of Modern Languages and Cultures) at Queen Mary University of London and by Dr Katie McElvanney, Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia, and Dr Olga Topol at the British Library. The student will spend time with both QMUL and the British Library and will become part of the wider cohort of AHRC CDP funded PhD students across the UK.

Title page of Vybranyia tvory with a portrait of Ales Dudar

The first edition of Belarusian poet Ales Dudar's work published after his posthumous rehabilitation. Vybranyia tvory (Minsk, 1959). X.989/16874.

Slavonic and Eastern European collections at the British Library are one of its strengths. However, despite the diversity of the collections, the British Library co-supervisors have identified postcolonial research and its application to curatorial practices as a priority approach to these collections, likely to reveal many meaningful gaps and contested interpretations.

The project will explore the British Library's Belarusian resources, i.e., resources relating to Belarus and its diasporas, as a case study through which to develop an analytical framework that could be subsequently applied by future scholars and information professionals to the entire Slavonic and East European collection. The project will investigate how the establishment of independent Belarus in 1991 affected the British Library’s policy and approach towards collecting, describing, and interpreting its Belarusian material. The challenges here are many, from navigating the politically charged waters of choosing the right spelling for transcription in the resources’ metadata to finding ways of bringing into dialogue two parallel depositories of Belarusian culture: Soviet-based and diaspora-based, the latter represented by the considerable collection of material at the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library in London. The research will seek to identify what further work needs to be undertaken to lead the decolonisation of discourse on Belarus and will develop recommendations on how such work can be carried out.

Cover of Shchasʹlivy Prynts, translated by L. Khvalʹko (Watenstadt, 1947)

Belarusian translation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published in Germany as part of Displaced Persons (DP) camp publishing activities. Shchasʹlivy Prynts, translated by L. Khvalʹko (Watenstadt, 1947) 12256.dd.8.

Belarusian studies are sorely in need of de-marginalizing. Belarus is often a footnote, an afterthought or even a blind spot in the Western gaze towards Europe's 'incomplete self' (a concept developed in postcolonial studies of the Balkans by Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 1997). The understanding of its modern history and identity is still patchy or misinformed, and thus it represents a minority voice within regional studies. Partly, this is an outcome of its political entanglement with Russia post-1991, which culminated in Belarus becoming a de-facto colony in 2022. But it is also a result of lingering Cold War preconceptions and Western colonial bias that need a corrective.

The Belarusian case study has a much wider significance and acute relevance for the present. It is a gateway into decolonising our thinking about the entire post-Soviet region of Eurasia where the decolonisation process itself is still incomplete and bitterly contested, as Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine demonstrates. Yet, the proclaimed model for current Russian colonialism – the Soviet Union – does not fit easily into the traditional frameworks for understanding the empire and colonial domination. While highly authoritarian, the USSR was also an ‘affirmative action empire’ (Terry Martin, 2001) that simultaneously encouraged and kept in check its republics’ national development. This limits the utility of existing postcolonial theories as a framework for informing decolonising practices in post-Soviet studies. Therefore, the findings of this project will have relevance and applicability for the entire Slavonic studies collection and will yield an analytical framework for review and policy that is more suitable to the region’s collections than postcolonial theories focusing on other geographical locations and other types of empires.

Photo from Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov showing protesters

Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus (‘The Revolution has a Female Face. The Case of Belarus’)

Items from the British Library collection of materials documenting the 2020 protests in Belarus

The British Library is an ideal home institution for a project on advancing postcolonial discourse and developing theoretical frameworks suitable for the East European region. As a major cultural institution with international clout, it plays an enormous role in education of the public, policymakers and scholars and wields agenda-setting power. Its Belarus collection is extensive, diverse, and growing. Its team of curators is knowledgeable and attuned to regional complexities, as well as the need for decolonisation work, which is reflected in the recently launched collection of materials documenting the 2020 protests in Belarus. The project would build on these considerable strengths to help the British Library advance the decolonising of its collections and bring its world-leading Slavonic and East European collection in line with the best postcolonial heritage practice.

To apply for this studentship, you must submit an online application and supporting materials via the School of History Research Degrees webpage by 5.00 pm on 8 May 2023. Applications received after this date cannot be considered.

For more information, including details of the award and eligibility, please see the studentship advert.

19 April 2023

Siberian Ethnographic Museums: Indigenous Lives Exhibited

In his autobiographical novel The Chukchi Bible, Yuri Rytkheu tells the story of how his grandfather, Mletkin, a Chukchi shaman from the village of Uelen, in the Russian Far East, was put on display for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as Chicago World’s Fair), “tasked with presenting to the public” the “world’s yet uncivilized tribes in a setting as realistic as possible” (Rytkheu, p. 255). During the exposition, Mletkin, dressed in a shaman robe and equipped with a tambourine, was asked to perform a shamanic ritual – kamlanie – in front of a yaranga (a Chukchi hut). Rytkheu describes how his grandfather was struck by the arrogance of the ‘white’ organisers of the exhibition and its visitors who “held themselves apart from the rest of humanity, or at least from the part that was inhabiting the village, emphasizing their superiority to the Chukchi, the Eskimos, the Indians, Malaysians, Africans, Aleutians, and all those who tomorrow would be the subject of wonder, curiosity, or perhaps disdain, on the part of the fair’s visitors” (Rytkheu, p. 260).

At the turn of the 20th century, the performance of shamanic rituals for a white audience, similar to the one described by Rytkheu, was a common entertainment not only in North America, but also in the Russian Empire. A collection of glass plate negatives, digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Project (EAP016) includes evidence of similar colonial practices. For instance, in April 1910, the city theatre of Krasnoyarsk organised an ethnographic evening performance of a shamanic ritual, executed by the Khakass shaman Petr Sarlin. An ethnographic exhibition, including a Khakass yaranga, was installed in the theatre hall, and local photographer, Ludvig Vonago, took photographs of Sarlin dressed in shamanic gear (pictures 1 and 2).

The ethnographic evening at the Krasnoyarsk city theatre. Shaman

Picture 1 The ethnographic evening at the Krasnoyarsk city theatre. Shaman. April 2, 1910. Photographer: Vonago. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)

Shaman

Picture 2 Shaman.

In his novel, Rytkheu describes how during the exposition Mletkin was impregnated with feelings of humiliation and alienation as he stood “firmly beyond that invisible rope that separated the living exhibits of the World’s Fair from the rest of their fellow humanity” (Rytkheu, p. 263). Even though we do not have any written account of Sarlin’s experience of performing in front of the Krasnoyarsk audience, the likeness of his and Mletkin’s stories suggest that he might have also been aware of ‘the invisible rope’ separating him, a Khakass shaman on display, and the Russian spectators. In this blogpost, I suggest further exploring Rytkheu’s ‘rope’ metaphor through the BL’s collections of digitised photographs taken by Vonago and other photographers during the first 30 years of the 20th century.

Many images in EAP016 demonstrate that Siberian indigenous peoples were often depicted as museum exhibits rather than real people. The photographers focused on the ethnographic peculiarities and anthropological features of their models rather than on their psychological portraits. In pictures 3–7, we see the images of the cultural ‘others’ photographed from the side-, front-, and back-views.

A Khakass woman, Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva, 48 years old, in her winter coat.

Picture 3 A Khakass woman, Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva, 48 years old, in her winter coat. A full body picture, front-view. Seskin ulus, Askizskii region.

Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva

Picture 4 Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva.

A Kachinets Shaman, Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin, 60 years old, photographed in his shaman clothes holding a drum and thumper

Picture 5 A Kachinets Shaman, Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin, 60 years old, photographed in his shaman clothes holding a drum and thumper. Samrin ulus.

Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin

Picture 6 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.

Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin

Picture 7 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.

In Russian pre-revolutionary museums, such photographs were often used for ethnographic exhibitions alongside the various material objects of the indigenous cultures. For example, pictures 8 and 9, taken in the ethnographic museum of Krasnoyarsk, demonstrate how the exotic ‘curiosities’ – such as the traditional hunting and fishing tools, the cooking utensils and crockery, the wooden cradle, the religious objects as well as the mannequins dressed in the traditional clothes – were aimed at enlightening Siberia’s Russian population about ‘other’ dwellers of the region.

The Ethnographic Exhibition.

Picture 8 The Ethnographic Exhibition. The little exhibits are in the cupboards; the drum sets are at the top; the mannequins are along the walls. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.

The Glass Cabinet with the Ostyak Objects

Picture 9 The Glass Cabinet with the Ostyak Objects. 1906-07. Photographer: A.Tugarinov. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.

The photographs of Siberian ethnographic museums after the installation of the new Soviet regime, on the other hand, offer a new perspective on the indigenous population. The State sought to integrate indigenous people into the political system by means of sedentarisation, collectivisation, and education. Even though the new regime proclaimed that all Soviet nations were equal, the invisible rope between ‘backward’ and ‘civilized’ nations did not disappear (Gavrilova, p. 151). Moreover, the photographers continued to take pictures (see 10, 11) that exoticized anthropological and cultural features of the indigenous population.

Photographs of Nganasan Savalov Abaku

Picture 10 Photographer: Man'yafov. Taim. Nganasan Savalov Abaku. 1938.

Photographs of Detty Turdagin

Picture 11 Photographer: A.V. Kharchevnikov. Taim. Detty Turdagin. 1938.

The post-revolutionary ethnographic exhibitions never ceased to exoticize the indigenous peoples, but the collections became additionally politicised with the state’s propaganda. A geographer researcher, Sofia Gavrilova writes that the Soviet ethnographic museums received specific protocols that required them to ‘build exhibitions with the encompassing theme that the new socialistic face of a krai [region] was a result of “the politics of the Communist Party and the Soviet state, the result of Lenin-Stalinist theory, and the program of solving the national question” (Gavrilova, p. 152). The new ethnographic exhibitions were supposed to show the process of Sovietization of the indigenous peoples of the USSR. The historian Francine Hirsch describes the new agenda of the ethnographic museum as follows:

The museumgoer did not simply travel through the museum and visit its peoples, either randomly or according to their level of cultural development […] Instead, he or she embarked on an “evolutionary” adventure through the stages on the Marxist historical timeline. Along the way, the museumgoer learned about the differences among feudal, capitalist-colonial, and Soviet social structures, economic practices, and cultures (Hirsch, p. 220).

Among the EAP016 images, we find evidence of the described transformation in the museum narratives through many new signs that interpretated the exhibits. In pictures 12 and 13, for example, we find the scene from the history of religions – that were banned in the USSR. The wax figure of a shaman is set next to the Orthodox priest’s vestment and Buddhist sculptures which simultaneously demonstrate the relics of the past and the enemies of the Soviet ideology. Hirsch notes that after becoming acquainted with “kulaks, mullahs, and other class enemies in the museum, the museumgoer would then be able to identify them through their clothing, culture, and practices—and participate in the campaign to eradicate them—outside of the museum’s walls” (Hirsch, p. 220). There was no place for a shaman, a priest, or Buddhist monk in the new Soviet world.

The Ethnographic Exposition in the Museum

Picture 12 Photographer: N. V. Fedorov

The Ethnographic Exposition in the Museum

Picture 13 The Ethnographic Exposition in the Museum. 1939. Photographer: Ivan Baluev.

The ethnographic museums created new narratives about the evolution of the indigenous peoples. Picture 14 shows the mobile hut, known as a balok, that was used for nomadic schools in the northern parts of Siberia. The museums also told the stories of the new Soviet heroes who came from indigenous backgrounds and became loyal citizens of the USSSR. In picture 15, for example, we find portraits of the Siberian Communists (next to the portrait of Stalin) who contributed to the ultimate goal of building communism. The material objects of the northern indigenous cultures in this exhibition seemingly indicated their rapid transformation from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘civilized’ way of life. Additionally, the exhibitions provided detailed information about the economic achievements of Soviet Siberia. Pictures 16 and 17, for instance, inform us of the significant developments in the hunting and fishing industries.

Siberia 14

Picture 14 The Exposition ‘Balok’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.

Photo from the 1938 exposition with portraits of the Siberian Communists

Picture 15 The Exposition. 1938. Photographer: Baluev.

The Museum Exposition

Picture 16 The Museum Exposition. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.

The Exposition ‘Our Old North’: Fish Industry

Picture 17 The Exposition ‘Our Old North’: Fish Industry. 1936. Photographer: S. Malob.

The process of industrial evolution in Siberia is evident from picture 18: the yaranga with the sign ‘The Old North’. Thanks to the help of the ‘developed’ Russian nation, the northern population were moved out from their ‘primitive’ huts into the new Soviet types of accommodation.

I’d like to finish this post with another reference to Rytkheu’s novel where he describes his family yaranga in the centre of Uelen:

This yaranga survived to my own childhood. In the beginning of the 1950s, when my tribesmen were being moved into new wooden housing, it was pulled down, along with the other ancient shacks not fit to shelter a Soviet citizen of those enlightened times. The last time I saw my family yaranga, or rather its likeness, was in the municipal museum of Nome, Alaska, during my first visit to the United States in 1978. The photographer had shot a panoramic view of Uelen, with our family home at the forefront of the composition. I made a copy of the photograph and it is now stored in my archives (Rytkheu, p. 129).

It is striking that Rytkheu’s experience suggests that the ethnographic museum – stager of exotic curiosities and propaganda ¬– became the last place he could see artefacts of his heritage. Whilst these images are specific products of colonial attitudes towards indigenous peoples, they remain available records of their material culture. One can hope that the BL’s digitised collection of photographs, being open access, can help Siberians and us to explore and reflect upon this history.

The Exposition ‘The Old North’. 1939

Picture 18 The Exposition ‘The Old North’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.

Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’

References and further reading:

Yuri Rytkheu, Poslednii shaman (St Petersburg, 2004) YF.2004.a.26238 (English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, The Chukchi Bible (New York, 2011)

V. M. Iaroshevskoĭ, I. V. Kuklinskiĭ, L. Iu. Vonago — fotograf na vyezd: Krasnoiarsk i ego okrestnosti v fotografiiakh Liudviga Vonago, ed. by A. B. Ippolitova (Krasnoiarsk, 2020).

Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, N.Y, 2005) YC.2005.a.7999

Roland Cvetkovski, ‘Empire Complex: Arrangements in the Russian Ethnographic Museum, 1910’, in An Empire of Others: Creating Ethnographic Knowledge in Imperial Russia and
the USSR, ed. by Roland Cvetkovski and Alexis Alexis (Budapest, 2014), pp. 211–251 YD.2014.a.1342.

Sofia Gavrilova, Russia’s Regional Museums Representing and Misrepresenting Knowledge About Nature History, and Society (Abingdon, 2022) ELD.DS.709608;

Sofia Gavrilova, ‘Producing the “Others”: The Development of Kraevedenie in Chukotka’, Études Inuit Studies, 45: 1/2 (2021) 147–170.

21 March 2023

The Colonisation of Novaya Zemlya through the Photographs and Short Stories of Konstantin Nosilov

Content warning: This blog reproduces an image of a dead animal; the vocabulary drawn from the original texts is now considered racist.

Thanks to the typo of British cartographers, Stephen and William Borough – who in the 16th century created several maps of Russia – a northern archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, Novaya Zemlya, became in the Western imagination a remote and romanticised land, Nova Zembla.

Nova Zembla is mentioned in Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books as the residence of ‘a malignant deity called Criticism,’ who ‘dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla’. We find a reference to Nova Zembla in Tristram Shandy, where ‘North Lapland’ is described as ‘those cold and dreary tracks of the globe […] where the whole province of a man’s concernments lies for near nine months together within the narrow compass of his cave […]— there the least quantity of judgment imaginable does the business — and of wit — there is a total and an absolute saving — for as not one spark is wanted — so not one spark is given’. The ‘[d]istant northern land’ of Zembla becomes the abandoned kingdom of the deposed King Charles (Kinbote), the character of Nabokov’s metafictional novel, Pale Fire.

William Borough's Map of Coasts of Norway and Russia, 1557

William Borough's Map of Coasts of Norway and Russia, 1557. Nova Zembla is in the top right corner. Royal MS. 18. D.III f.124

Although inspired by the long history of Nova Zembla’s presence in world literature, this post explores the image of Novaya Zemlya, rather than of its literary double. It focuses on an episode from the history of its colonisation: the legacy of a Russian ethnographer, photographer, and writer, Konstantin Nosilov (1858¬–1923). The British Library holds a substantial collection of digitized glass plate negatives from Nosilov’s collection (EAP016/1 and EAP016/3) including his photographs of Novaya Zemlya as well as other parts of Northern and Southern Siberia, his family life, and European travels.

Nosilov besides a fireplace

Nosilov besides a fireplace (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)

Nosilov’s father

Nosilov’s father

Photograph of two women walking in Paris with umbrellas

Paris

The BL also holds several collections of Nosilov’s short stories in which he shared reminiscences of his ethnographic expeditions, and which are illustrated with his photographs.

Edition of Nosilov's short stories with reindeer on the cover

Edition of Nosilov's short stories

Edition of Nosilov's short stories

Various editions of Nosilov's short stories available at the BL

Nosilov was born to the family of a priest who lived near Shadrinsk in the Urals region. Nosilov did not finish his own theological studies and instead from 1879 he started to work as a geologist exploring the basins of the rivers Sosʹva, Lialia, and Lozʹva – prospecting them for gold. Having become a member of Imperial Russian Geographical Society, Nosilov undertook numerous ethnographic expeditions to Siberia, exploring the traditions and lifestyles of the Mansi (also known as Voguls), Khanty (Ostyaks), and Nenets (Samoyed). The collection includes numerous photographs taken by Nosilov during these expeditions.

The Mansi’s summer camp

The Mansi’s summer camp

The Nenets’ place of sacrifice

The Nenets’ place of sacrifice

Novaya Zemlya occupies a very special place in Nosilov’s life and work. Being on the outskirts of the vast Russian Empire, the archipelago had been hardly explored by Russian ethnographers. Norwegian hunters and fishermen, on the other hand, frequently visited the waters around Novaya Zemlya and its shores. To reinforce the Russian Empire’s control of its territorial possession, it was regarded as crucial to establish permanent settlements on the island – Novaya Zemlya had been uninhabited due to its severe environment. Nosilov volunteered to organise a permanent settlement on the archipelago.

In 1887 a lifeboat station, Malye Karmakuly, was founded on the island of Iuzhnyi, and several Nenets families were relocated to the area. An ambitious colonialist, Nosilov was the first Russian explorer who, together with the Nenets, spent three winters on Novaya Zemlya 1887–1889 and 1890–1891. By his own example, Nosilov wanted to prove that the archipelago was suitable for year-round living.

Nosilov's house on Novaya Zemlya

Nosilov's house on Novaya Zemlya

Novaya Zemlya, Malye Karmakuly

Novaya Zemlya, Malye Karmakuly

Novaya Zemlya: view from the sea

Novaya Zemlya: view from the sea

Novaya Zemlya: cliffs and the sea

Novaya Zemlya: cliffs and the sea

On Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov installed a meteorological station, that was essential to help the inhabitants prepare for severe weather conditions and regular storms, one of which is described in Nosilov’s story ‘Poliarnaia buria’ (‘Polar Storm’). Together with the Orthodox priest Father Iona, Nosilov revived an abandoned Orthodox chapel on the island, and they also started a school for the Nenets, – described in his story ‘Samoedskaia shkola’ (‘The Samoyed School’). Nosilov was especially proud of this, the most northern school in the world. In the story, he describes how both children and adults were keen on learning not only language but basic maths and other general subjects. Full of gentle humour, the story also tells how Father Iona was terrified by the ‘school inspectors’ – polar bears – who frequently visited.

Describing the Nenets settlement on Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov used many tropes that are now considered as typical for colonialist literature depicting colonisers’ interactions with indigenous peoples. The narrator in Nosilov’s stories shows a patronizing attitude toward the Siberians, who are treated like children, or, as he constantly calls them, ‘the children of nature’. Although Nosilov also frequently refers to the indigenous peoples in a way that now would be considered as racist, calling them ‘barbarians’ (‘dikari’), his attitude towards them is not derogatory, but rather sympathetic, especially when it comes to their studies of the Russian language and religion.

Some indigenous traditions which Nosilov witnessed, nevertheless terrified him. For instance, in one of his stories about the Mansi, ‘Iz zhizni vogulov’ (‘From the Life of the Voguls’), Nosilov describes the ceremonial slaughter and eating of a reindeer as bloodthirsty and barbaric: ‘looking at their passionate faces lit by the light of the fire, I saw the real barbarians, whom I had not yet suspected under the always modest and quiet figures of the Voguls’. However, most of his stories, especially those dedicated to the life of his colony on Novaya Zemlya, are full of admiration for the indigenous peoples, their skills and instincts.

In his story ‘Tainstvennoe iz zhizni samoedov’ (‘Mysterious in the Life of the Samoyeds’), for example, Nosilov describes an elderly Nenets woman with a gift of clairvoyance who not only predicted the fortune of hunters, but also once foretold the arrival of a Norwegian ship from Tromsø. Despite being a devout Christian – fulfilling, among other things, the duty of missionary work – Nosilov was keenly interested in indigenous spirituality and the native peoples’ special skills of forefeeling.

Novaya Zemlya, Matochkin Shar

Novaya Zemlya, Matochkin Shar

Many of Nosilov’s stories are addressed to younger readers in central Russia. Nosilov tried to enlighten them about the life in the remote parts of the Russian Empire. Among such stories is the story of a Nenets girl, Tania Logai. The plot might be interesting for a Gender Studies analysis: Nosilov describes various episodes from Tania’s life showing how, instead of learning female domestic duties, she was much more interested in hunting. Tania even becomes a local celebrity for killing a polar bear that attacked her family hut whilst all the male hunters were away. Even when she reaches womanhood, Tania refuses to change. She does not want to get married and chooses to stay with her family and help her father hunt.

Novaya Zemlya. The female bear killed by Nosilov

Novaya Zemlya. The female bear killed by Nosilov

Alongside being entertaining and enlightening, Nosilov’s stories also featured the acute social and economic problems experienced by the indigenous population of the north. These problems were primarily provoked by the invasion of European Russians who disturbed the traditional ways of living. Discussing the State’s response to the problems of the indigenous peoples, Yuri Slezkine notes:

[…] more and more travelers and more and more readers assumed that the administrators – local or otherwise – were generally incapable of enlightening anyone and that helping savages advance was the special mission of special people who were the sole legitimate representatives of the highest stage of intellectual development (the “intelligentsia”) (Slezkine, 1994, p. 112)

This sense of personal mission is notable in Nosilov’s stories. The final story in his collection Na Novoi Zemle, titled ‘Nashi liudoedy’ (‘Our Cannibals’) discusses the problems of the Nenets population living on the Taz Estuary. The story tells how the indigenous people, facing terrible poverty despite living in one of the richest fishing areas of Russia, hungered so badly that they had to resort to cannibalism. Nosilov regards this as the fault of the European Russians and urged measures to help indigenous populations. Nosilov also published numerous articles describing the problems of the North, including the increasing alcoholism among native peoples after vodka was introduced by Russians.

Nosilov’s texts sometimes reveal his personal doubt as to whether intrusion into the worlds of indigenous peoples was a truly good thing. This instance of the coloniser’s self-reflexivity is an interesting topic to consider: Nosilov’s rich cultural heritage requires a new critical reading framed with post-colonial theory. The story of Nosilov’s final years brings an additional dramatic element to it. Due to his deteriorating relationship with the State after the installation of Bolshevik rule in 1917, his family had to leave their estate, Nakhodka near Shadrinks (EAP016 includes numerous pictures of the estate) and moved to Georgia where Nosilov died in 1923.

Nosilov's estate 'Nakhodka'

Nosilov's estate 'Nakhodka'

Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’

References and further reading:

K. D. Nosilov, Tania Logaĭ: razskaz i zhizni sievernykh inorodtsev (Moscow, 1907). RB.23.a.32078.

K. D. Nosilov, U vogulov: ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1904). 10292.k.21

K. D. Nosilov, Na Novoi Zemle: Ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1903) (10292.k.20),

Konstantin Nosilov, Severnye rasskazy (Sverdlovsk, 1938). X.808/9359.

Johanna Nichols, ‘Stereotyping Interethnic Communication: The Siberian Native in Soviet Literature’ in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, ed. by Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine (New York, 1993), pp. 185–214. YC.1993.a.3771

Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, 1994). YC.1994.b.5452

A. K. Omelʹchuk, K. Nosilov (Sverdlovsk, 1989).

N. B. Gramatchikova, ‘Tvorcheskii putʹ K. D. Nosilova: zhiznennyi putʹ i publitsistika’ in Deviatye Chupinskie kraevedcheskie chteniia: materialy konferentsii, ed. by E. N. Efremova (Ekaterinburg, 2018)

05 January 2023

The Photographic Collection of Indigenous Childhood

The digitised photographic archive of Siberian indigenous peoples (available online from the British Library’s website) is a rich source of information about late Russian and early Soviet colonisation of Siberia. The collection of over 4000 images is the result of five years of exploratory work led by David Anderson (University of Aberdeen,) and Craig Campbell (University of Alberta) in Central Siberia. The research group digitised glass plate negatives in five Siberian archives: Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Ekaterinburg, and Krasnoiarsk. Although many photographs lack any original descriptions, and thus it is not always easy to identify where and when they were taken, the visual archive nevertheless provides great insight into the lives of Siberian indigenous peoples, in particular, Mansi, Nenets, Evenki, Buryat, Karagas, Soyot, Nganasan, Dolgan, Khakas, Khanti, and Kety.

In their articles based on the results of their research, Anderson and Campbell suggested several common tropes to interpret the photographs of indigenous peoples. They explored the themes of ‘travel photography’, ‘ethnographic photography’, ‘expedition photography’, and ‘community-driven portrait photography’, and provided examples. This, however, is by no means an exhaustive list of possible tropes to explore the vast visual collection. Drawing on Anderson and Craig’s observations, I would like to suggest exploring the subject which arrested my attention and the attention of several colleagues at the BL: the visual representation of indigenous childhood and its transformation during the time of intense Soviet collectivisation in the 1920s and 1930s.

The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak

Taimyr. The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)

Children during their class at school

Children during their class at school

The British Library’s digital photographic collections contain many photographs representing children, taken by various photographers – whose names are not always identifiable – during their expeditions. Although the goals of each expedition require some separate research, it is often possible to deduce from the photographs whether the photographers took pictures for ethnographic purposes or for political propaganda.

The ethnographic expeditions to Siberia usually sought to collect information about the ‘sparse’ native peoples of Siberia, and the children in such photographs are usually portrayed as immersed in their families’ social and professional lives, or engaged in traditional games. They are dressed in the national costumes which represent the ‘exotic’ features of Siberian peoples. It was a common colonial practice to collect various artefacts representing indigenous cultures, such as traditional clothing, musical instruments, tools, and housewares which would form vast museum collections. 

Family

Family

A woman with her child

A woman with her child

A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap

Taim. A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag

Taim. The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag. 1938. Photo by Tyurin

Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads

Taim. Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads. She is considered a skilled worker. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A woman with two children

A woman with two children. 1927. Photo by Tyurin

Studies of indigenous childhood had been one of the prominent areas of study in the Russian Empire’s ethnography, and it became even more significant in the 1920s and 30s, when the Soviet State rushed to construct a new society by culturally assimilating Siberian peoples. Indigenous children became the chief target of Soviet policies concerned with the creation of new generations of Soviet people. The photographs of children were not ideologically neutral: they were designed to show the transformation of the old into the new.

Pictures of children taken during the Soviet expeditions often represented them as integrated into Soviet culture rather than as representatives of their national cultures. Soviet photographs of children were often intended to demonstrate the result of Soviet reforms and the transformation of ‘savages’ into educated Young Pioneers. In the photographs we see the children dressed in uniform Soviet clothing.

A group of pioneer-children

A group of pioneer-children. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)

A group photograph of Evenki

A group photograph of Evenki. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)

They are playing Soviet games.

Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom

Taim, Volochanka. Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom

Children making a pyramid

The Nizhne-tunguskaia expedition. Children making a pyramid. 1925

We also find pictures of children visiting a picture gallery, something that can be interpreted as their symbolic initiation into the world of Soviet ‘civilised’ culture.

Buryat children visiting a picture gallery

Buryat children visiting a picture gallery. 24.07.1923

Many such photographs were taken during the census expeditions of 1926, which were conducted in cooperation with geographers and ethnographers. The census was a worldwide colonial statistical practice, and the Soviets employed and developed new approaches to classifying the peoples of their vast empire. The indigenous peoples were surveyed within their households and individually to collect demographic data describing their diet, economy, trade data, beliefs, folklore, and so on. If the statistical information collected during the census was intended to provide an objective summary of life in the remote parts of the Soviet Union, then the photographs often offered a somewhat idealised picture of the social inclusion of indigenous peoples within Soviet life. The photographs of children were especially important as they depicted the social and cultural production of the new generation of loyal Soviet citizens.

Numerous aspects of Soviet modernisation were introduced in indigenous settlements, such as medical care, veterinary services, and housing. Often photographers chose to take pictures of children in these new Soviet settings.

An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test

Tura. An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital

A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital. December 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The most common setting for the pictures were school classrooms: the photographers were specifically advised to document ‘the dawn of cultural and primary school education’ among Siberian peoples, and the work of teachers liquidating illiteracy (Anderson, Batashev, Campbell, 2015, p. 501). To the modern eye, these pictures might look somewhat dystopian: students sit under a poster showing Stalin surrounded by children, located next to another with a wolf trying to kill two little pigs; children eat their meal under a poster instructing ‘eat only from your plate’; or a photograph taken during a sport class where all children synchronically perform the same exercise with a huge portrait of Stalin in the background.

Children playing a game at the district health department

Tura. Children playing a game at the district health department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A group of students during the May Day demonstration

Tura, the Evenk national republic. A group of students during the May Day demonstration. May 1, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

Children at the Turinsk District Health Department

Tura, the Evenk national republic. Children at the Turinsk District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department

Tura, the Evenk national republic. Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The most touching pictures are probably those where we see groups of children sitting in densely bedded dormitories. Taken away from their families – often involuntarily – children stayed in the residential schools during the academic year and were returned to their parents only for the summer holidays.

The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin

Tajm, Letov'e. The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin

Girls’ bedroom

The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. Girls’ bedroom. 1925

Away from their families, children were expected to develop a sense of belonging to the larger Soviet society with its new system of values. The residential schools were also instrumental in the process of reorganising the indigenous populations of Siberia into cooperative settlements and demolishing their original tribal structures. During the first years of the Soviet Union the State tried to accommodate the educational needs of reindeer herders by initiating an experimental project of nomadic schools, which moved together with the clan, but by the end of the 1930s this practice was terminated. The number of residential schools in various parts of Siberia, on the other hand, reached 20 by 1935. Often reindeer herders chose to stay close to their children instead of continuing the traditional nomadic lifestyle. As a result, the introduction of residential schools greatly decreased the nomadic way of living, and saw indigenous Siberians become more settled.

A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’

The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’. 1925

The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’

The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

In the 1990s, several cultural initiatives tried to revive the idea of nomadic schools as a means of restoring traditional lifestyles and culture. Several nomadic schools were successfully organised, for instance, in the Republic of Sakha.

The residential schools continue to run in different part of Siberia, and a basic internet search shows many negative feelings associated with them. The experiences of indigenous peoples in the residential schools are actively explored by contemporary scholars. For example, in the 1990s, Alexia Bloch, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, collected accounts of elderly Evenki women, who studied at residential schools. Relying on these records, Bloch conclusively demonstrated a blend of positive feeling about the schools contrasted with ambivalence about the termination of the Soviet colonial project in general. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Evenki women recalled their time at the residential schools with a sense of nostalgia for the socialist era.

For many indigenous children, residential schools became a source of radical social mobility within Soviet society. After graduation, young people received an opportunity to continue their studies at university and move to big cities in central Russia, or secure more prestigious jobs back home. We do not know which paths were taken by the children in the photographs in the British Library’s digital collection, and this might be one of the questions which scholars could explore using the BL’s vast visual archive.

Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’

References and further reading:

David G. Anderson, ‘The Turukhansk Polar Census Expedition of 1926–1927 at the Crossroads of Two Scientific Traditions’, Sibirica, 5: 1 (2006), pp. 24–61.

David G. Anderson and Craig Campbell, ‘Picturing Central Siberia: The Digitization and Analysis of Early Twentieth-Century Central Siberian Photographic Collections’, Sibirica, 8: 2 (2009), pp. 1–42)

David G. Anderson, Mikhail S. Batashev and Craig Campbell, ‘The photographs of Baluev: capturing the “socialist transformation” of the Krasnoyarsk northern frontier, 1938-1939’ in From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, ed. by Maja Kominko (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 487–530. ELD.DS.46613

Georgii Vinogradov, Etnografiia detstva i russkaia narodnaia kulʹtura v Sibiri (Moscow, 2009) YF.2011.a.853

«Provintsialʹnaia» nauka: etnografiia v Irkutske v 1920-e gody, ed. by A. Sirina (Irkutsk, 2013).

Olga Laguta and Melissa Shih-hui Lin, ‘Language and Cultural Planning in Siberia: Boarding School System Represented in the Texts of the Siberian Indigenous Writers’, Taiwan Journal of Indigenous Studies, 12: 1 (2019), pp. 1–37.

Sargylana Zhirkova, ‘School on the Move: A Case Study: Nomadic Schooling of the Indigenous Evenk children in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia (Russian Far East)’ (unpublished master’s dissertation, University of Tromsø, 2006)

Alexia Bloch, Red Ties and Residential Schools: Indigenous Siberians in a Post-Soviet State (Philadelphia, 2004). m04/19814

Alexia Bloch, ‘Ideal Proletarians and Children of Nature: Evenki Reimagining Schooling in a Post-Soviet Era’, in Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Traditional Knowledge, ed. by Erich Kasten (Münster, 1998), pp. 139–157. m03/16772

Alexia Bloch, ‘Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia’, Cultural Anthropology, 20: 4 (2005), pp. 534–569. 3491.661000

Natalia P. Koptseva, Ksenia V. Reznikova, Natalia N. Pimenova and Anastasia V. Kistova, ‘Cultural and Anthropological Studies of Indigenous Peoples of Krasnoyarsk Krai Childhood (based on the field studies of Siberian Federal University in 2010-2013)’, Journal of Siberian Federal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 8 (2014), pp. 1312–1326.

30 December 2022

An A to Z of the European Studies Blog 2022

A is for Alexander the Great, subject of the Library’s current exhibition

B is for Birds and Bull fighting.

C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.

D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.

E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger  Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg  1533) C.142.cc.12.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.

G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive! 

H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.

I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.

J is for Jubilees.

Cover of Abetka, a Ukrainian alphabet book for children

Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.

K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.

L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.

M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.

N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.

O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.

Pages from Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico showing letters M and N

Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.

P is for our wonderful PhD researchers, current and future.

Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan. 

R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.

S is for Samizdat and the Library’s Polish Solidarity collection.

T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.

Page from Alphabet Anglois

Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

U is for Ukrainian collections and our work with Ukrainian partners.

V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar. 

W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.

X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)

Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!

Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.

Church Slavonic alphabet from Azbuka, considered the first dated book printed in Ukraine.

Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

03 November 2022

Call for PhD project partners: ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’

The British Library is pleased to invite applications from HEI partners to co-supervise the AHRC PhD project ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’.

Slavonic and Eastern European collections at the British Library are one of its strengths. Developed since the mid‐19th century, the collections are broad and diverse, including a wide range of materials in Slavonic languages and originating in countries referred to as Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, despite the diversity of the collections, marginalised voices and the complexities of relations between the cultures are not easily visible through the collections’ structures and descriptions. The British Library co‐supervisors have identified postcolonial research and its application to curatorial practices as a priority approach to these collections, likely to reveal many meaningful gaps and contested interpretations. The team of curators are looking to engage with an HEI partner on a project that can be beneficial for the entire collection area and therefore offer an opportunity for wide interpretation of this CDP.

The purpose of this CDP project is first to advance postcolonial and decolonisation work in the above area studies and then to apply this to the British Library’s collections in the form of policy, review and/or recommendations. Focusing on the Belarusian, Polish, Russian and/or Ukrainian collections, the study will therefore provide the foundation for a new understanding of decolonising practices in the context of Eastern Europe, as well as the Library’s policy on collecting, curating and interpreting the collections.

Cover of Taras Shevchenko, Dumky ta pisni Kobzaria (Kyiv, 1905)

Cover of Taras Shevchenko, Dumky ta pisni Kobzaria (Kyiv, 1905). The book, part of a series, was issued by Kievskaia starina, a monthly magazine for Ukrainian studies. Originally published in Russian, the magazine was renamed Ukraïna in 1907 and appeared in Ukrainian. Here, the title of the book is written in Ukrainian in Russian orthography. 

The collections under investigations can be taken holistically using an Area Studies approach; on a country or regional level; thematically (e.g., as a comparative study of colonial and imperial approaches and practices within Eastern Europe); or focus on ethnic, national or transnational groups (e.g., material produced in minority and minoritised languages and communities). The approaches can also vary from concentrating on theoretical issues and building a theoretical framework, creating comparative analysis or conducting case studies. The potential focus and research questions will be refined and developed with the HEI partner and (once recruited) the student.

Research questions can include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • What are the major theoretical problems with the application and adaptation of postcolonial theory to East European postcolonial studies and decolonisation practices? What are common or specific features of postcolonial discourse in East European Studies and how should they be taken into account in interpretation, description and development of collections?
  • How can book and print history, and/or the history of collecting be analysed within the postcolonial discourse?
  • Is there a need, necessity and/or obligation for the Library to engage with Diasporas, national or transnational communities in the UK and in the countries of origin? What methodological approaches should be applied?

By examining the collections through a critical, historical lens and identifying points of contestation in interpretation, potential outcomes of the project could include:

  • highlighting the ‘hidden’ collections and gaps in materials printed in minority languages, by oppressed groups and nationalist movements, as well as materials that represent the complex identities of authors and producers across the present political borders between the countries;
  • suggesting the most appropriate language and vocabulary for the purpose of collection discovery and interpretation;
  • contributing to decolonising metadata for the British Library’s records;
  • suggesting means of communicating and promoting the outcomes of the review.

The placement provides an opportunity to work on a project that will deliver a practical output by improving discovery and accessibility of one of the largest heritage collections in the world, including for the communities who create and are represented in the collections. It also offers an opportunity to develop cultural diplomacy skills by liaising with organisations with varied governance practices and cultural backgrounds, for example: the Ukrainian Institute London, various Polish cultural organisations (e.g. the Pilsudski Institute), COSEELIS, Pushkin House etc.

Based within the Library's European, Americas and Oceania Collections team, the student will have access to advice and support from across this team, and work closely with a smaller team of East European curators. Depending on the student’s interests and project needs there will be opportunities to learn about other roles and activities within the Library (e.g., metadata, cataloguing teams, events, etc). The student will also have access to the Library’s extensive training programmes.

The deadline for applications is Friday 25 November 2022, 5pm. For more information on the project and how to apply, see the Library website.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, Olga Topol and Katie McElvanney, Curators East European Collections

09 February 2022

PhD Placement Opportunity - Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples

Applications are now open for an exciting new PhD placement working with the Slavonic and East European collections at the British Library. Under the title ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’, current PhD students are invited to spend three months (or part-time equivalent) researching and promoting collections and resources related to Indigenous peoples of Siberia at the Library.

Photograph of a group of people

A group of people. Selection of Ethnographic Images from the Krasnoiarsk Regional Local History Museum.

The placement will focus on exploring the collection of photographs created as part of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) project ‘Digitising the photographic archive of southern Siberian indigenous peoples’. This project successfully digitised, archived and distributed 3,672 glass plate negatives collected over a period of time during ethnographical expeditions in South Siberia in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Work was conducted in four regional archives (Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Yekaterinburg State Archive and Yekaterinburg Writer's Archive). These photographs are now accessible via our online catalogue.

Photograph of a Nenets Shaman

Nenets Shaman. Selection of Ethnographic Images from the Krasnoiarsk Regional Local History Museum.

It will focus on research into this digitised collection and other resources in the British Library related to Indigenous peoples of Siberia, in order to contextualise the photographic archive. The placement will also consider some of the issues connected with Russian language metadata supplied with the collection.

Pages from Bukvar. (Букварь на кетском языке). [Russian primer for Ket-speakers]

Bukvar. (Букварь на кетском языке). [Primer for Ket-speakers]. (Moscow; Leningrad, 1934) 012924.l.1. 

The placement will provide a hands-on introduction to the activities of a major research library and cultural organisation, with a particular focus on cataloguing, collection management, and public engagement. In undertaking the placement project, the student will have the opportunity to consult and work with colleagues across a range of collection areas and roles.

Supervised by Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections, the placement will sit within the European, Americas and Oceania Department. Alongside regular meetings, pastoral support, and training opportunities, the student will benefit from being part of a welcoming and supportive wider team, which includes a number of PhD researchers.

The placement is open to UK-based PhD students from all disciplines and academic backgrounds; however, a good knowledge of the Russian language and interest in and ability to quickly acquire a degree of basic knowledge of Siberia and its peoples is essential.

Further information on eligibility, funding and how to apply is available on the British Library website. The deadline for applications is Friday 25 February 2022 (5 pm UK time).

For informal enquiries, please contact [email protected]

 

11 November 2021

Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic

Literary awards are given to authors for their work. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as in the case of this year’s winning author of the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) Astrid Roemer. The prize is awarded every three years to a Dutch or Flemish or, since 2005, Surinamese author, and Roemer is the first black and Surinamese author to win it. She is known for being outspoken and an independent mind. The jury praised her work for being ‘unconventional, poetic and authentic’. These traits are bound to lead to controversy at some point. This is not the place to comment on the furore around the award and its winner. I have included some links to articles that discuss this in more detail at the end of the blog post.

Cover of Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw

Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw (Haarlem, 1982) X.958/16031.

I must admit that until recently I had never read any of Roemer’s work, but through research for this blog post I got the impression of a warm-hearted, compassionate woman, who has very nuanced views. ‘Identity’ plays a huge part in her work. Identity as an individual, or as a group, as a man or woman, as a black man or black woman, as a child or a parent, as a citizen in Suriname, or in the Netherlands, etc. She tells her stories usually through women who struggle to take their rightful place in society; who are keeping families together, no matter how fragmented these are.

It is as if she sees a parallel between individuals and families and Suriname itself. A young country still fighting for its place in the world, whilst at the same time different ethnic groups search for their place in the big Surinamese family within Suriname. And a country that struggles to find a relationship with its former ‘parent’, the colonial power that was the Netherlands and where many Surinamese people moved to study and work. Maybe that is why she is so good at presenting ‘big’ events and ‘big’ themes on a human scale.

The problems Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands face in adapting to Dutch life whilst trying to stay faithful to their Surinamese identity is very well described in Neem mij terug, Suriname, Roemer’s first novel. First published in 1974, it was reprinted in 1975 and 2005. In 1983 it was published as Nergens ergens (Nowhere Somewhere) and in 2015 a jubilee-edition appeared, in celebration of its 40 year anniversary and for being awarded the P.C. Hooftprijs for her whole prose oeuvre.

Covers of Neem mij terug, Suriname and Nergens ergens by Astrid Roemer

Astrid Roemer, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Schoorl, 2015) YF.2017.a.33 and Astrid Roemer, Nergens ergens (Amsterdam, 1983) YA.1990.a.18843.

When she says: ‘I am married to Suriname, the Netherlands is my lover, I am in a gay relationship with Africa and I am inclined to have one-night stands with every other country’, she conveys the complexity of ‘identity’, as well as a sense of being a ‘world citizen’, but she doesn’t want to be labelled as such. She has lived in many different countries, but feels most at home in Paramaribo, the place of her birth.

When her mother died in 2019 she moved there, partly as a way to process her loss. She finds comfort and solace there as well as space to write in her day-to-day routine. And write she does.

What is called her ‘Suriname trilogy’ Gewaagd Leven (Risky Life) from 1996, Lijken op Liefde (Resembling Love) from 1997, and Was Getekend (Was Signed) from 1998 will be re-issued as Onmogelijk moederland (Impossible Motherland) early next year. About this trilogy Roemers said: ‘On the rubbish heap of slavery, colonialism and the present I searched for irreducible remains to experience my identity as Suriname-Dutch woman anew.’

Covers of the books in Astrid Roemer's ‘Suriname trilogy’

Astrid Roemer, Gewaagd Leven (Amsterdam, 1996) YA.1996.a.19238, Lijken op Liefde (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.10270 and Was Getekend (Amsterdam, 1998) YA.2000.a.36919.

She will publish a new novel in 2022: Dealers Daughter, set in Paramaribo about a young woman whose father gets involved in a murder. Roemer has also worked on a selection of poems by Maya Angelou for a Dutch audience: En Toch Heradem Ik : Haar 25 mooiste gedichten (Amsterdam, 2022). Her English-language debut, Off-White, translated by Jan Steyn, is due to be published next year.

I cannot wait to discover more of Roemer’s work.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Other works by Astrid Roemer held by the British Library:

Levenslang Gedicht (Haarlem, 1987) YA.1990.a.23555

Waarom zou je huilen mijn lieve, lieve... (Schoorl, 1987) YA.1990.a.21044

De achtentwintigste dag (Breda, 1988) YA.1990.a.15920

Het Spoor van de Jakhals (Schoorl, 1988) YA.1990.a.8974

Niets wat pijn doet (Amsterdam, 1993) YA.1993.a.24646

Suriname : een gids voor vrienden (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.9861

‘Miauw’ (Breda, 2001) YA.2002.a.35999

Liefde in Tijden van Gebrek (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2016.a.26486

Olga en haar driekwartsmaten (Amsterdam, 2017) YF.2017.a.3034

Gebroken Wit (Amsterdam, 2019) YF.2019.a.17264

Further reading:

Hugo Pos, ‘Inleiding tot de Surinaamse literatuur’. In: Tirade 17 (1973), p. 396-409

Hilde Neus, ‘Roemer in redeloos redeneren’, Neerlandistiek, 15 August 2021 

Tessa Leuwsha, ‘Astrid H. Roemer: ‘Dutch Will Slowly but Surely Disappear From Suriname’’ (interview with Astrid Roemer, translated by Anna Asbury)

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