THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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15 posts categorized "Modern history"

15 September 2020

Mały konspirator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections 

 

04 September 2020

Jadwiga Piątkowska, the forgotten poet of Solidarity

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This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read the first here

Cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska with her photograph

A cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska published by her daughter. Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków: 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Jadwiga Piątkowska (1949-1990), also known as Jagoda, was a member of the opposition movement and a poet writing about Solidarity and events related to the political struggle in Poland in the 1980s. A single mother, Jagoda was on holiday in Czechoslovakia when she heard about the onset of the strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk on 14 August 1980. She immediately returned to Poland and convinced Lech Wałęsa, the future leader of Solidarity, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first democratically elected president of Poland, that she might be of help to the protesters. She began working as a typist and, after Solidarity was established on 31 August, as an editor and journalist for its periodical Rozwaga i Solidarność (‘Prudence and Solidarity’; Gdańsk, 1982-1989; Sol.90), in which she published many of her poems. The shipyard workers' journal was established in April 1981. During the duration of the martial law in Poland (13 December 1981 - 22 July 1983), it became an underground publication of the movement, which circulated documents related to Solidarity and described repressions suffered by the political opposition.

Photograph of Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia

Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia as a reporter for Rozwaga i Solidarność. Photograph taken from Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków, 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Piątkowska’s work describes the struggle of the opposition against the Polish communist government. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Ewie-mojej 12 letniej córce’ (‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’), Piątkowska tries to comfort her child, who hasn’t seen her in a long time, but who gave her the energy to persist in the strike along with other protesters. The poem was written on August 29, 1980, at 23.45 — two days before the Solidarity movement was officially established.

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’, from a Collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications. Sol.764

Hold out a while longer, my little daughter.
Our destiny is at stake.
Never mind that so many days
I’ve been away from you.
Never mind the sleepless nights,
the tired eyes and hands.
Faith heals people,
and people are with us (…).

(Translation from the album Solidarity! — Postulat 22: Songs from the New Polish Labour Movement (Nowe Polskie Piesni Robotnicze) (Folkways Records, 1981). You can listen to this poem set to music from the album here).

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk, an actor, singer and voice of the Solidarity movement. Sol.764

After martial law had been declared in Poland, Piątkowska stayed with other members of Solidarity until the Lenin Shipyard was pacified by the militia. She witnessed a female colleague being crushed to death by a tank and got arrested. Once released from prison, she returned to her work in the opposition, this time underground. After a few months, she was re-arrested, subjected to torture and threatened with deprivation of parental rights. Her poem ‘Behind the walls’ reflects the despair many political prisoners felt at that time:

(…) I znowu nic.
Pustka. Oczekiwanie.
Zgrzyt klucza
W grubych drzwiach.
Moje serce otoczyły
Chwasty.
Wiem, że nie przyjdziesz
Chryste.

(…) And again nothing.
Void. Anticipation.
A creak of a key
In the thick door.
My heart is surrounded
By weeds.
I know you will not come,
Christ.

As a result of her imprisonment, Piątkowska suffered damage to her health, which resulted in her premature death at the age of 41.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References and further reading:

http://jagodapiatkowska.blogspot.com/ 

‘Rozwaga i Solidarność’ in: Encyklopedia Solidarności (2010-), available at: http://www.encysol.pl/wiki/Strona_g%C5%82%C3%B3wna  

09 November 2019

The Revolutionary Year of 1989

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Thirty years ago today the crossing-points between two German states opened, marking the end of the Berlin Wall, demolished in the following months. The concrete barrier, separating East and West Berlin from 1961 until 1989, has been a symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe. It was also a stage of dramatic escapes and a topic frequently explored by artists and writers. 

The demolition of the Berlin Wall generated high hopes about the new order emerging in 1989, after the collapse of authoritarian regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union. Timothy Garton Ash gave one of the most compelling accounts of these events and the spirit of the period. He went to Berlin to study the archival sources on the German resistance to Hitler, but found himself in the middle of a political upheaval in the region and embarked upon writing what he himself described as “history of the present”. He witnessed, among others, the first partly free election in Poland, the celebratory reburial of Imre Nagy (the executed prime minister of the revolutionary government in 1956) in Hungary, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Blog on 1989 - Timothy Garton Ash - We The People
Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, We the People: the Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge, 1990), YK.1991.a.7367

Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern

Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: the Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London, 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (a revised and updated fourth edition of We the People)

As a major turning point in European history, the events of 1989 have been repeatedly revisited by historians and social scientists. What exactly happened? Did the transition to democracy and free-market economy bring the expected results? Did the end of communism live up to the expectations of the people? Answers to these pertinent questions can be found in two volumes (co-)edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian-American political scientist, who invited leading scholars in the field to rethink the meaning and impact of what is often called an annus mirabilis, a miraculous year.

The issue of bringing to justice people involved in authoritarian regimes has been hotly debated long after the transition to democracy. These debates are particularly vivid around the anniversaries of the revolution. In a large comparative study, edited by Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik, the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the changes are analysed in 17 post-communist countries. The authors looked into how the memory of the historical events was shaped by various parties in order to serve their political agenda and concluded that the fractured memory of 1989 undermines democracy in the region.

Front cover of Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism

Front cover of Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893

The most recent attempt to rethink the changes of 1989 is a freshly-published book, The light that failed: a reckoning by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. They critically assess the belief prevalent after 1989 that the liberal democracy was destined to expand worldwide. The book begins with the sarcastic assertion that “the future was better yesterday”.

Andrzej Sadecki, British Library PhD placement student working on the topic ‘Politicisation of commemorative practices in Eastern Europe’ 

References

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The light that failed: a reckoning (London 2019), DRT ELD.DS.455162 (EPUB)

Timothy Garton Ash, We the People. The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge 1990), YK.1991.a.7367

Timothy Garton Ash, The magic lantern: the revolution of '89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (EPUB)

Vladimir Tismaneanu (ed.), The Revolutions of 1989 (London 1999), YC.1999.b.2118

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Sorin Antohi (eds.), Between past and future: the revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath (Budapest, New York 2012), YC.2002.a.8579

Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893

 

29 June 2018

Gӧrz, Gorizia, Gorica: digital scholarship brings a city’s history to life again

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How to turn 47,000 pages of old newspapers into meaningful information?

For a research group at the University of Bristol, the answer is: big computers and historical context.

Led by Nello Cristianini,  Professor of Artificial Intelligence, the group digitised 47,000 pages of two Italian-speaking local newspapers from the city of Gorizia, using the facilities of FindMyPast, based at British Library in Boston Spa. Then they used optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract digital text, and finally compared it with the digital text of three Slovenian newspapers from the same place and time, to provide context.

Gorizia Corriere Corriere de Gorizia, an Italian newspaper from the city.

Gorizia lies at the crossroads of the Latin, Germanic and Slavic-speaking worlds, and its population reflects this. Until 1918, it was known as Görz, and was part of the Habsburg Empire, though latterly coveted by the young Kingdom of Italy. These last years before World War One were particularly notable, as the political and ethnic tensions within the empire and over its borders played out in the city itself. The two main linguistic communities, Italian and Slovenian, published their own newspapers, and the latter have been digitised by the Slovenian Digital Library. But until the Bristol University group started work, the Italian ones were preserved on microform alone in the Biblioteca Statale Isontina,  which first collected the paper versions.

Gorizia postcard YF.2007.a.13615The Corso Giuseppe Verdi in Gorizia, early 20th-century postcard, reproduced in Srečko Gombač, Brata Edvard in Josip Rusjan iz Gorice: začetki motornega letenja med Slovenci (Ljubljana, 2004) YF.2007.a.13615

The team, including computer scientists and a historian, carried out statistical analysis on the newspapers, looking at the frequency of different words or phrases. This process revealed the individual stories of thousands of people, but also the collective trends of a population in the years leading up to the War and the final days of Empire. As the city lies in a quiet corner of central Europe, now divided between Italy and Slovenia, many of these stories and trends had been forgotten until now.

Gorizia Cathedral (JA) Gorizia cathedral today (Photograph: Janet Ashton)

Professor Cristianini says: “In the space of a few decades, the town embraced new ways to communicate, such as the cinema and the telephone, along with new modes of transportation, like the car, the airplane, the bicycle and the train. Far from being a backwater in a decaying empire, this was a city with an eye on the future and an interest in new ideas – including political ones. It was, however, also a time in which new tensions emerged along ethnic lines and a time of rapid change, with problems and anxieties that sound very familiar to the modern ear. It is incredibly fortunate that the collection of newspapers in the Biblioteca Isontina library survived so many threats. We get a glimpse of the last years of a world heading towards a new chapter in its history during a period that transformed it beyond recognition. We see new technologies, new ideas, new economic opportunities, new cultural challenges and problems.”

Among the patterns the team extracted are timelines that pinpoint such significant events as the arrival of Halley’s Comet, the visits of the Emperor Franz Joseph, or the devastating 1895 earthquake in Ljubljana (then Laibach, capital of the Habsburg county of Carniola). Fascinatingly, they found that the earthquake was more noted in the Slovenian-speaking community than the Italian, since Ljubljana was already predominantly Slovenian-speaking itself and had less significance to the Empire’s Italians as a regional centre.

Gorizia bridge The Solkan Bridge, carrying the railway over the Soča river at Gorizia – revolutionary in its day as the largest stone arch ever used for a railway bridge (Photograph: Janet Ashton)

Other ground-breaking events in the city at the time included the construction of the new Transalpina/Bohinj railway, which carried tourists from Vienna to Lake Bled and further, but was also to be used for more prosaic reasons. Then, most glamorous of all, two local brothers named Edvard and Josip Rusjan  were among the first aviators in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

  Gorizia Rusjans
Edvard and Josip Rusjan adjusting the propeller on their aeroplane. Reproduced in Srečko Gombač, Brata Edvard in Josip Rusjan iz Gorice.

The team’s findings also highlight how the war transformed the city and its surrounding county into something entirely different. During the war the front lines crossed through Gorizia itself and the urban population was largely relocated. In 1918, Italy annexed it, and twenty years of fascism and then another war followed. After 1947, the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran right through the former county, partly separating the city centre from some of its neighbourhoods. Until Slovenia joined Schengen in 2007, this border had real impact, leading to the growth of a “replacement” city, Nova Gorica, on the Yugoslav/Slovenian side, while historic Gorizia became something of a backwater, isolated from its hinterland and feeling neglected by Rome.

Gorizia 1917 9084.aaa.10

Above: View of the Castle in Gorizia in 1917, showing First World War bomb damage, from Enrico Galante, Gorizia e i campi di battaglia dell'Isonzo et del Carso (Gorizia, [1929]) 9084.aaa.10. Below: Gorizia Castle today (Photograph Janet Ashton)

Gorizia Castle (JA)

The project, from scanning and indexing to in-depth analysis, combined methodologies from both library science and historical research, as well as employing mathematical expertise, and illustrates how digital humanities is bridging the traditional boundaries between disciplines. A full study of the project’s methods and its findings, “Large scale content analysis of historical newspapers in the town of Gorizia, 1873-1914”, by N. Cristianini et al., has recently been published in the journal Historical Methods.

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

08 November 2017

Heroes and victims of the Revolution

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 In November 1918, the first anniversary of the Bolshevik military insurrection (as the October Revolution was then known) was ‘celebrated in style’ in Soviet Russia. Around 3,500 metres of red fabric was allocated for decorating the Kremlin in Moscow. Over 400 metres of ropes were supposed to hold posters and panels during the celebration. On 7 November 1918 Lenin, who had made a remarkably prompt recovery after being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt some two months earlier, managed to give several speeches in different parts of Moscow. A large memorial plaque in commemoration of those who lost their lives “in the struggle for peace and the brotherhood of nations” was unveiled on Red Square and a temporary monument to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was also erected in the centre of the capital. A mass show “The Pantomime of the Great Revolution” was staged in the streets. Such mass festivals and reenactments of “revolutionary events” would soon become a usual feature of each commemoration and celebration in the early years of Soviet Russia. You can see photographs of those first anniversary celebrations here.

Those Russian artists who embraced the Bolshevik Revolution were happy to glorify it in arts. Vladimir Mayakovski was quite active in promoting the celebrations. For the first anniversary he wrote a ‘comic opera’ – Misteriia-buff (Mystery-Bouffe) – which was accepted to be part of the festivities. Staged by the famous theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold with designs by Kazimir Malevich the play was premiered on 7 November 1918 and then shown two more times. The author also appeared on stage as a ‘common man’, but then had to play a couple more roles as some actors did not turn up.

Image 1 - Misteriia Buff-Mayakovski-Ac.4635.ca.6

Above: Designs by Kazimir Malevich, from Istoriia sovetskogo teatra ed ited by V.E.Rafalobich, Vol.1 (Leningrad, 1933). Ac.4635.ca.6; Below: Vladimir Mayakovski, poster for Misteriia-buff, 1918. From The Soviet theatrical poster (Leningrad, 1977). HS.74/2256

Image 2 - Misteriia-Buff poster

Seven pairs of ‘clean’ (‘bloodsuckers’) and seven pairs of ‘unclean’ (‘workers’), as well as The Hysterical Lady, The Common Man (The Man of the Future), Devils, Saints (including Leo Tolstoy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) performed a ‘satirical drama’ in The Entire universe, The Ark, Hell, Paradise, Land of Chaos and finally – in The Promised Land. By the end of the year the play was published as a separate edition.

Image 3 - 1st edition

Cover by Mayakovski for the 1st edition of Misteriia-buff. (Petrograd, 1918). C.135.g.23

The Revolution affected everyone in the country, but it was also important for avant-garde artists and the Bolsheviks as well to stress the final divide between the past and the present, the rich and poor, the victors and losers, the heroes and victims and leave no space in between so that each and every one should clearly take sides. This irreversible split was also presented in another work by Mayakovski created for the anniversary – the album of drawings and short verses Geroi i zhertvy revoliutsii (Heroes and Victims of the Revolution’; Cup.410.c.81). Heroes (Worker, Red Army Soldier, Farm Labourer, Sailor, Seamstress, Laundress, Motorist, Telegraph Operator and Railway Worker) and Victims (Factory Owner, Banker, Landlord, Kulak, Lady, Priest, Bureaucrat, General and Merchant) are presented by four artists: Kseniia Boguslavskaia , Vladimir Kozlinskii, Sergei Makletsov and Ivan Puny.

Below are four of the album’s Heroes’: the Red Army soldier, Laundress,  Motorist and Railway worker:

Image 4 (3)


  Image 4 (7)

Image 4 (8)


Image 4 (10)

And here are some of the Victims’: Merchant, Kulak, Lady and Priest

  Image 4 (1)

Image 4 (14)

    Image 4 (15)

Image 4 (16)

It was proven before and happened this time again – Revolution devours its children. In 1919, Boguslavskaia and Puny left Russia for good; in 1930 Mayakovski committed suicide; in 1935, Malevich died of cancer having been banned from exhibiting ‘bourgeois’ abstract art; and in 1940, Meyerhold was shot dead in Stalin’s purges as an ‘enemy of the people’.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

12 October 2017

Righteous Gentile and honorary Irishman: Zdeněk Urbánek

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When Václav Havel, playwright and future president of the Czech Republic, was imprisoned in the 1970s, he came across a novel entitled The Road to Don Quixote (Cestou za Quijote; 1949), freely based on Cervantes’s experiences in an Algerian prison. As he read it, admiring the prophetically modern quality of the book and the author’s imaginative grasp of what it felt like to be a prisoner, he realised that he had actually met the author. At that time, when he was a young man in his early twenties attempting to break into the world of Czech literature and drama, the older man – a writer of short stories and essays, and a translator of Shakespeare and Joyce – inspired his respect, but little more. It was not until later, as they worked together as friends and co-signatories of Charter 77, that Havel came to appreciate the true qualities of Zdeněk Urbánek.

F_urbanek_zdenek_1917_0001

 Portrait of Zdeněk Urbánek (Image from The Archive of Fine Arts, Creative Commons non-commercial use-Share-Alike 3.0)

Urbánek was born on 12 October 1917 in Prague. After graduating he became an editor, first at the publishing house Evropský literární klub and in 1945 of the periodical Svobodné slovo, before working in the Ministry of Information and the Czechoslovak state film company as a script reviewer. In 1957, however, he contracted tuberculosis and left full-time employment to devote himself to translation. He had a special affinity with Irish literature, describing himself as an ‘honorary Irishman’; his translation of James Joyce’s Dubliners (Dubliňané; Prague, 1959; 011313.kk.22) testifies to this.

Among the many British and American authors whom he translated were T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, but his crowning achievement was his translation of seven of Shakespeare’s plays; the British Library holds a three-volume edition of these containing Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and all three parts of Henry IV (Brno, 1992-95; YA.2002.a.740). Of these, Hamlet retained a place in the repertoire of the National Theatre in Prague from 1959 to 1965.

Urbanek Romeo and Juliet

Frontispiece and tittle-page from Romeo a Julie (Prague, 1964; 11760.a.6),translated by Urbánek, illustrated by Ota Janeček.

The British Library is also privileged to own a copy of Urbánek’s earliest published work, a collection of short stories entitled Jitřenka smutku (‘Mourning star’), which bears a dedication in the author’s own hand.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku inscription

 Manuscript dedication on the flyleaf of Jitřenka smutku (Prague, 1939; X.909/81940).

At the same time as he was embarking on his literary career and establishing himself in publishing, Urbánek was also becoming active in a very different sphere. Since the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year he had been living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the growing persecution of the Jews was brought home to him in a particularly forceful way when his friend Jiří Ohrenstein, a Jewish poet who wrote under the name of Jiří Orten, was knocked down by a German ambulance in 1941 and died after being denied hospital treatment on racial grounds. Urbánek could not save him, but he could at least preserve his work and his literary reputation, and wrote an introductory essay for a collection of his writings, Eta, Eta, žlutí ptáci (‘Eta, Eta, yellow birds’ ; Liberec, 1966; X.909/8664). On a more practical level, Urbánek and his wife Věra provided temporary shelter in their two-room apartment for several Jewish fugitives on their way to safer refuges, and also offered a collection-point for food parcels being sent to others who had already been dispatched to Terezín. In recognition of his efforts, Urbánek was subsequently designated as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ by the State of Israel.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku cover

  Cover of Jitřenka smutku.

Urbánek never hesitated to put his personal safety at risk in the service of both humanitarian and literary causes. He was frequently subjected to police questioning, and even his work as a translator exposed him to danger through his choices of authors and the ideas which they expressed, leading him to publish them anonymously or under borrowed names. From 1972 onwards he contributed to various samizdat and exile literary publications, as after 1968 he had been placed on the list of banned writers.

In one of his short stories, ‘The Visit’, translated by William Harkins in On the Sky’s Clayey Bottom: Sketches and Happenings from the Years of Silence (New York, 1992; YA.1993.a.20757), he describes a visit from a State Security representative hoping to recruit Urbánek’s wife to spy on a guest coming to stay with their neighbours. When it turns out to be a mistake (the man was looking for a Party member with a similar name living two floors down), the unwelcome caller departs, grumbling; ‘We’re already loaded down with work and they send me another two floors up. Goodbye then. And keep quiet or you’ll get it.’ In just three short pages Urbánek pithily and trenchantly captures the atmosphere of claustrophobia and distrust which prevailed immediately before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia (the story was first published in May 1992, only months before the ‘Velvet Divorce’ which divided the Czech Republic from Slovakia). He himself had made a significant contribution to the downfall of the old regime through his work with the human rights declaration Charter 77, signed by many leading cultural figures who were punished by imprisonment or dismissal from their posts; Urbánek was forbidden to leave Czechoslovakia after returning in 1969 from a six-month stay at All Souls College, Oxford, and did not do so again until October 1989, when he was finally able to visit the USA as a guest of the Charter 77 Foundation.

Despite the fact that Urbánek was 90 when he died in 2008, Havel declared that he had died before his time. ‘Without him,’ he stated, ‘I can hardly form an adequate conception of what Czech fiction, Czech essay writing, or Czech translation today have to tell us’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

01 March 2017

A Silver Watch

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.

14 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Gamsa, Tel Aviv University

 

10 February 2017

Mutilated history: Russian Revolution and Beyond

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Propaganda was considered an important instrument in legitimising the Bolshevik power from the very start. In spring 1918, when the Bolsheviks were struggling to maintain their power, Lenin already started an ambitious project of ‘Monumental Propaganda’. He suggested employing visual art, such as revolutionary slogans and monumental sculpture, as an important means for propagating revolutionary and communist ideas. Even porcelain was recognised as a medium of conveying communist messages.

But of course, printed material, such as posters, magazines and books that could be produced in relatively large numbers, could reach a wider audience and had a better impact. In 1920, two souvenir books prepared by the Propaganda Bureau of the Communist International  were printed in Soviet Russia: Deialeli Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala (The Leaders of the Communist International) and Oktiabr’: Foto-ocherk po istorii Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi Revoliutsii, 1917-1920 (October: Photo-essay on the history of the Great October Revolution, 1917-1920). Frontispieces of both books were designed in a very distinct style by Sergei Chekhonin.

Image 1-Deiateli Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala-LF.31.b.1026

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

Image 2 -October-LF.31.b.1027

The Leaders of the Communist International contained 48 plates – portraits of members of the International and reproductions of paintings and drawings of the events related to its activities. All the artworks were created by prominent contemporary artists, such as Mstislav Dobuzhinzkii, Issak Brodskii, Boris Kustodiev, Georgii Vereiskii, and Konstantin Veshchilov. October contains collages of photographs documenting the Revolution and the first years of the Soviet state. The books were intended as presents for the delegates of the Second Congress of the Third International that took place in Petrograd from 19 July–7 August 1920.

During the Stalin purges that followed soon, many of those had been presented with these books were executed or exiled. And, those who had proudly appeared in the portraits and photographs were called ‘enemies of the people’. The Soviet practice was that such ‘enemies’ would disappear not only from life but from all records – books, photographs, paintings, films, etc. This fully applies to these two books . Many copies were destroyed or mutilated by their owners. Complete and pristine copies are extremely rare.

The copies held at the British Library were purchased in the early 2000s. The title page of The Leaders of the Communist International is cut in half, leaving a tiny curve in blue ink, the remains of a lost dedication. The book clearly belonged to someone whose name we had to forget. Our copy of October is signed: ‘Eigentum Frey’ (property of Frey). It is very likely that it belonged to Josef Frey (1882-1957), the founder of the Austrian Communist Party who was expelled from it for it in 1927 for being a Trotskyist.

I could not trace the fate of this copy of the book any further, but it definitely suffered a lot. On one of the first pages there is a cut just in the middle.


Image 3

According to the list of illustrations, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev stood next to the scaffolding from which Lenin was giving his speech.

Image 4

If we compare the British Library copy with a copy recently digitised by the Russian State Historical Public Library we can notice that pages 8, 12, 13, 16-18, 20, 23 and 26 with photos of the prominent leaders of the world socialist movement that had become ‘enemies of the people’ have been removed.

Image 5 p 26

 Page 26, missing in the British Library copy of October, from the copy in the Russian State Historical Public Library

Interestingly, the British Library copy contains p.25 (see below) which looks like a half of a folding plate where the right half is missing. It is not included in the digitised copy, so we cannot say whose photograph became a reason for cutting it out.

Image 6

The collage on p.38 tells a story of the of ‘Monumental Propaganda’ plan. On the photograph in the bottom corner Grigorii Zinoviev  is shown giving a speech at the opening of one of the first Soviet monuments – a monument to the revolutionary V.Volodarskii, who had been assassinated on June 20, 1918.

Image 7

 The British Library's copy of October with a  photograph cut out (above) and  The Russian State Historical Public Library's copy with the photograph retained (below)

Image 7a

We can fairly easily find information on Trotsky, Zinoviev or Volodarskii, but what happened to the woman in a hat in the right corner or to the boy with a holster on the car step next to Zinoviev? Unfortunately, they also were cut out of the history together with those who made it.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.

31 January 2017

PhD placement opportunity on ‘Karl Marx and the British Library’

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Marx Slip

Index slip recording the issue of a reader ticket to Marx, British Library Add. MS 54579, f. 1

2018 will mark the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth, an event that will be commemorated with public events and exhibitions across the world. The relationship between the British Library and Karl Marx is significant. Marx lived in London for most of his adult life and spent much time studying in the reading room of the British Museum, one of the main predecessors of the British Library.

RoundReadingRoom

The Round Reading Room of the British Museum

 The British Library’s collections hold unique material relating to Marx’s life and work, including a first edition of Das Kapital that Marx himself donated to the Library. The Library is also home to millions of items relating to the context and legacy of Marx’s work, including the various and conflicting versions of ‘Marxism’ that have proliferated in the centuries after his death.

Given this intimate connection to Marx’s life and work, the Library is interested in developing ideas for events or other activities and outputs that will engage the public and research communities with the importance of Karl Marx’s life and his wider legacy. Ideas currently under discussion include an exhibition in the Library’s Treasures Gallery, a series of public events, learning activities or the production of new interactive online resources. The PhD placement student will assist with this project by researching creative ways in which the Library can mark Karl Marx’s 200th birthday.

The main requirement for this placement is a good understanding of, as well as genuine interest in, Karl Marx’s work and both its historical and contemporary significance. The placement student should also be enthusiastic about public engagement. View a detailed placement profile here

Application guidelines
For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placements offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk 

A note to interested applicants
This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current (or very recent) PhD researchers only. To apply, you need to have the approval of your PhD supervisor and your department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager).
Our PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Anyone applying for a placement at the Library is expected to consult their university or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to universities that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.