10 May 2017
The status of women in the Soviet Union and their role in the construction of the new Socialist society are issues that spur great enthusiasm and debate. Even for the less-studied regions of the USSR, such as Central Asia and the Steppe, a number of scholars are blazing new trails towards an understanding of gender and its impact on the Soviet experiment. Their research dissects the imbrication of gender, class, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation that went into constructing the identities of Soviet women during this period.
But what exactly did these identities look like? Given the myriad of experiences embodied by Central Asians during this period, we will never know for certain just what it was like to be a woman in Stalin’s Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. We do know, however, what the Communist Party wanted it to be like, thanks to a series of periodicals held at the British Library.
Cover of the April 1927 issue of Yangi Yo’l 14499.tt.16
Yangi Yo’l (‘New Way’) was a monthly women’s and girls’ periodical published by the Uzbekistan Communist Party (Bolshevik) Central Committee for Women. The British Library holds only four issues, all from 1926-27: Volume 1, Nos 11-12 and 13-16; and Volume 2 Nos 4-7 and 9. The articles, supplemented heavily by photographs, sketches and diagrams, are all written in the old Perso-Arabic script. The new Latin alphabet proposed for the Turkic languages in 1926 made only sporadic appearances, never in a form meant to teach readers how to use it.
While the magazine might not have been used to keep women and girls up to date with pedagogical innovations, it did seek to broaden their horizons far beyond the traditional domestic arena. An article on ‘Women-Girls’ Services in World Production’, which appeared in Nos 10 and 11-12, provides ample evidence of women’s participation in professions previously reserved for men. Photographs illustrate unveiled, smiling women operating machinery, lugging barrels, laying bricks and making horseshoes over a large anvil.
These pictures all show white women at work, rather than “emancipated” Uzbek or Central Asian women. They form part of a complicated and checkered history in which cultural imperialism and feminism intersected in a concerted effort to change the status of non-Western women. The images raise the question of how exactly the readers of these periodicals would have identified the new modern Soviet woman. Was she healthy, happy and productive on her own, participating in the construction of a Socialist paradise; or were light skin and large eyes a necessary component of that portrait too?
Indeed, Uzbek women workers strike a stark contrast with their Russian counterparts when we consider their representation in other articles. A photograph in No. 15 shows Uzbek silk makers at work: a group of middle-aged women, all but one with her hair covered, and none using machinery. Similar to this is the picture of a group of Samarqandi female artisans, also deprived of modern labour-saving devices.
This is a far cry from the smiling, independent woman of the earlier piece, but it is likely a truer depiction of Uzbek women in the 1920s. Compare these with the images of veiled women attending a new school or the Turkmen village women watching children at a communal crèche.
The reality of Central Asian women was evidently less rosy and progressive than the image promoted by Moscow and local Communist Party cadres. That utopia, apparently, belonged to the generations yet to come, as in the scene of new graduates observing a science experiment. These girls are dressed as their Russian counterparts in Moscow or Leningrad would have been, and they demonstrate the manner in which the construction of a new Soviet society would involve the importation of social and cultural norms from the centres of Soviet power, rather than a liberalization of local contexts and restraints.
Yangi Yol : This Years New Graduates observe an Experiment at the Uzbek Peoples Science Village
Foreign Asian women were also featured in articles about liberation, albeit in a different context. The piece from No. 11-12 that follows the exposition of women’s participation in the workforce looks at ‘The Family Question in Tibet (Mongolia)’ . The work contains information that surely would have shocked many conservative women in Central Asia, including socially sanctioned pre-marital sexual relations and fornication, and female as well as male polygamy. It also recounts in detail marriage customs, education patterns and inheritance laws among the peoples of Tibet, as if to acquaint the girls and women of Central Asia with their sisters abroad. Similar articles about the women of China and Java and the girls of India would lead us to believe that Yangi Yo’l replicated a common Soviet strategy: building class-based solidarity among the dominated peoples of the world with Moscow, or at least the USSR, as the lynchpin of resistance.
The Women and Girls of China along with sketch of bound foot
The Women and Girls of Java.
In general, there is not much in Yangi Yo’l that we would identify as typical of a contemporary women’s magazine. There are articles about women’s social status, the education of girls, the eradication of child marriage, domestic issues and hygiene, but these are not the core of the publication. Much of the content is taken up with standard class warfare writing tinged with gender issues: the working woman fighting the faceless bourgeoisie and beys; elegiac poetry about Lenin and his importance for proletarian and peasant women; and the meaning of land reform for women workers. They fight for space with articles that might be classified more as general knowledge than women’s issues. These include pieces on the indigenous peoples of the Indian Ocean and an explanation of solar eclipses; an account of the Paris Commune; an exposé on climate and its science; and the wonders of Tutankhamen’s tomb. As much as the periodical was intended to educate and elevate women, it was also a means of broadening their horizons, introducing them to a common (largely Western) culture, and to entertain them with stories of the fabulous and awe-inspiring.
The Library’s collections of Yangi Yo’l do not extend past 1927. Indeed, it is unclear if the periodical continued to be published past this date. This dearth of information deprives us of knowing how the presentation of women and their role within the new Soviet society changed once Joseph Stalin cemented his grip on the reins of the Communist Party. What we do have, however, is a window onto the tail-end of a grand – and perhaps naïve – experiment that sought to remodel Central Asian women according to the prototype of the ideal revolutionary proletariat.
Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
Contemporary Soviet Turkic Periodicals of Interest:
10 February 2017
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.
The Leaders of the Communist International (LF.31.b.1026) above and October (LF.31.b.1027) below.
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.
According to the list of illustrations, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev stood next to the scaffolding from which Lenin was giving his speech.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
05 August 2016
Tonight, and for the next two weeks, the eyes of the world will be turned on Rio de Janeiro for the ceremonies and contests of the 31st modern Olympic Games. 80 years ago, the focus was on Berlin, where perhaps the most notorious of modern Olympiads was well under way. The 1936 Olympics had been awarded to Germany before the Nazis came to power, but the new regime, despite initial suspicions about the internationalist spirit of the Olympic movement, quickly adopted the Games as a showcase and propaganda vehicle for their ‘new Germany’.
Much has been written about the 1936 Games and the surrounding controversies. The British Library, of course, holds a wealth of material, both British and German, on the topic, but we also have a number of German books published at the time to celebrate the Games.
Despite its title, the large-scale Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im nationalsozialistischen Staat was published ahead of the Games and so has little to say about the actual event. Most of its 687 glossy pages are devoted to the history and current state of Olympic sports in Germany. The authors claim to identify Germanic folk traditions at the root of many popular sports, and emphasise the importance of sport in building a healthy nation. Chapters have titles such as ‘Handball – an ancient German sport’ or ‘Physical education as a national-political task’, and most end with fiercely patriotic exhortations and celebration of the ‘German fighting spirit’.
Serving a similar purpose, but aimed at a more modest audience, is the series of 26 small Olympia-Hefte, pamphlets issued in the run-up to the games by the ‘Propaganda Committee for the Olympic Games’ and available for 10 Pfennigs each from party offices, workplaces and sports clubs. A brief historical introduction to the Olympics (Heft 1) is followed by 23 pamphlets focusing on individual sporting disciplines in the past and present, ending with a plug for the ‘Strength through Joy’ organisation (Heft 25) and a glossary of sporting terms (Heft 26). The idea was to encourage the general public to take up sports themselves, something today’s Olympic host countries still seek to achieve among their citizens.
Another modest-looking production is the guidebook Von Athen nach Berlin. Its title and striking cover refer to the torch relay, an invention of the 1936 Games which endures to this day. Although in many respects a practical guide, complete with blank tables where the names of medallists in each event can be filled in, the publication also sets a strong propaganda tone: an essay on the ancient Olympics describes their Greek founders as ‘an Aryan people’, and later the author exhorts his readers to show foreign visitors that ‘we are once more a united people … knowing only one goal: Germany.’
Title-page of Olympia 1936 die XI. Olympischen Spiele, Berlin, und die IV. Olympischen Winterspiele, Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Berlin, 1937) 7915.w.24., with the much-reproduced image of Hitler and Olympic officials entering the main stadium in Berlin
The books in our collections which were issued after the Games tend to be somewhat less overtly propagandist in tone. For example, souvenir albums Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 and the two entitled Olympia 1936, record events and results with little comment as to the nationality or race of the medallists, and none can ignore the fact that Jesse Owens was the outstanding athlete of the Games. Some, however, acknowledge this through gritted teeth: So kämpfte und siegte der Jugend der Welt (Munich, 1936; 7915.w.16) pointedly emphasises the race of Owens and other black runners almost every time they are mentioned, and adds details of the best white and European performers in the events won by black and American athletes. And casual ideological asides can appear in unexpected places: one of the Olympia 1936 publications explains how much work had to be done to cleanse Berlin of run-down and ugly bulidings, ‘the remnants of the Marxist regime.’
All these books are also well illustrated. Indeed, in the case of Die Olympischen Spiele 1936, published by the Reemstma tobacco company, the whole point was to fill in the album with pictures bought using vouchers given away in cigarette packets. But perhaps the finest illustrated book, although smaller and less lavish in format, is Was ich bei den Olympischen Spielen sah, by the Games’ official photographer, Paul Wolff. Here the focus is as much on the experience and challenges of photographing the games as on the actual events, and Wolff includes an appendix listing the technical details of each picture. The photographs included are a mixture of action pictures of the sporting events, artistic images of the stadium and ceremonies, and informal shots of athletes, spectators and technicians. Wolff’s interest in the technology of recording the Games reflects another theme common to most of the books: a pride in the technical achievements that enabled the Berlin Games to be broadcast around the world and individual events and performances to be judged with greater precision than ever before.
Many of the features of these books – pride in a nation’s achievement in hosting the games and in the successes of the home team – are common to every host country’s recording of their Games. But the abuse of Olympic ideals by a repressive fascist regime give these books a particularly sinister spin, and remind us why the 1936 Olympics will remain particularly notorious in the history of the Games.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
More information about some of the items mentioned here, and a bibliography of modern and contemporary books on the 1936 Olympics can be found on our archived Sport and Society webpages.
11 February 2016
The Mexico edition of Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con el Sancho Panza de antaño, was published in 1809, after the Córdoba edition of the same year. It includes a the coloured fold-out cartoon apparently not present in the Spanish editions, which focuses on the situation in Spain in 1808 sometime after the ‘Dos de Mayo’ uprising in Madrid against the French.
The main caption reads: ‘El Quijote de n[ues]tros t[iem]pos (Napoleon) caballero sobre su rocin (Godoy) y puestos los ojos en la encantada Dulcinea (America) Consuela á su buen escudero Sancho (Murat) de la perdida del Gobierno de la Insula Barataria (España)’ (‘The Quixote of our times (Napoleon) astride his nag (Godoy) and with his gaze fixed on the enchanted Dulcinea (America) consoles his good squire Sancho (Murat) for the loss of the Isle of Barataria (Spain)’.
During the confused period in Franco-Spanish relations, 1807-08, Spanish Prime Minister Godoy had in effect collaborated with Napoleon who, according to the historian Raymond Carr, despised him. Godoy, cast as Rocinante, the figure to the right on all fours, admits ‘Esto y mucho mas merezco‘ (‘All this and more I deserve’). In March 1808 Godoy’s ever increasing unpopularity in Spain prompted his dismissal by Carlos IV, who himself abdicated in favour of his son Fernando.
Manuel Godoy, portrait by Goya (image from Wikimedia Commons)
The ambitions of General Murat (as Sancho, in centre), Napoleon’s lieutenant in Spain, were frustrated after the brutal suppression of the Madrid uprising: ‘Todo se lo llevó el Diablo. Ya no soy gov[ernad]or’ (‘The Devil has taken everything. I am no longer governor’), he laments. ‘Insula Barataria’, depicted as a castle to the left of Murat, refers to the make-believe island of which Sancho Panza was made governor in one of the practical jokes devised by the Duke and Duchess in Part II of Don Quixote.
General Murat, ca. 1808, portrait by François Gérard (Image from Wikimedia Commons).
The consolation offered to Murat by Napoleon/Quixote is a possible role in the Spanish colonies: ‘q[u]e si logro desencantar a Dulcinea te hare Arzob[is]po u Adelantado’ (‘if I succeed in disenchanting Dulcinea, I shall make you Archbishop or Governor’). This is a further allusion to Part II of Cervantes’ novel in which Sancho Panza convinces his master that Dulcinea’s appearance as a peasant girl is the work of enchanters.
America is represented as Dulcinea (top, centre; detail above) but in the guise of a woman wearing a native American headdress. The text reads ‘La América será una Dulcinea encantada q[u]e jamas has de pose[e]r’ (‘America shall be an enchanted Dulcinea that you will never possess’). The focus on the colonies in the cartoon is consonant with the reprinting of the work in Mexico. Following the French invasion of Spain and the imposition of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, Mexicans either affirmed their allegiance to Fernando VII or sought independence.
Bonaparte, represented as the ‘Quixote of our times’ (above), is depicted much as Don Quixote had been in the many editions of the novel hitherto. He wears ancient body armour and on his head the so-called helmet of Mambrino, in reality a barber’s basin. The basin-helmet is labelled the crown of Spain, with the caption ‘No tiene encaje este yelmo, no le biene á tu cabeza’ (‘This helmet does not fit; it is not right on your head’). His shield however has the emblem of the Gallic rooster and the motto ‘El caballero de los gallos’ (‘The Knight of the Roosters’). Napoleon is somewhat thin, but not short of stature, as the Emperor was usually depicted and is indeed described in Meseguer’s text.
The windmill (far left) references the most famous episode of Don Quixote (Part 1, ch. 8). The caption reads ‘Con un molino basta para asorarte’ (‘A single windmill is sufficient to put the wind up you’). Don Quixote was brave – and rash – enough to charge one of the group of windmills. The fearsome sight of just one would have been too much for Napoleon, ‘The Quixote of our times’? The ambiguity, bravery-rashness, takes us back to the ambivalence of Meseguer’s text.
Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections
Raymond Carr, Spain 1808-1975. 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1982) 82/22993
Charles J. Esdaile, Spain in the Liberal Age. From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939. (Oxford, 2000) YC.2000.a.11398.
09 February 2016
Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605, 1615) has not only inspired later writers, artists and subsequently film-makers, but his characters have also been used for other purposes, notably in propaganda and advertising. The behaviour of Don Quixote himself, whether seen as fool, madman or noble idealist, has made him a most suitable figure for use in propaganda.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries the novel was regarded primarily as a funny book, but this began to change with the publication of the London editions of 1738 (in Spanish) and 1742 (in English) commissioned by Lord Carteret. The emphasis shifted from slapstick comedy to literary and social satire. The subsequent publication of the Spanish Real Academia’s edition in 1780 elevated the literary status of the novel within Spain itself. However, the absence of a single predominant interpretation of the novel entailed different attitudes towards the protagonist himself. This divergence can be seen in some of the Spanish propaganda following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 and the imposition of his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.
Spanish generals surrender to Napoleon in December 1808, painting by Jean-Antoine Gros, Musée du Château, Versailles (image from Wikimedia Commons)
One work in particular demonstrates this double focus: Francisco Meseguer’s El Don Quixote de ahora con Sancho Panza el de antaño (‘Today’s Don Quixote and the Sancho Panza of Yesteryear’). It was published in Spain in 1809 (in Córdoba, Mallorca, Murcia and Tarragona) and then in Mexico the same year – which was not uncommon for this type of publication. The British Library has a copy of this last edition (shelfmark 9180.e.6.(30.)), which also contains a coloured print representing the Emperor as Don Quixote.
Meseguer’s work recounts a dream in which the narrator overhears a conversation between a modern-day Quixote and the original Sancho Panza. After a brief introduction, it takes the form of a dialogue between the two in the manner of the conversations between Cervantes’ original knight and squire. The modern-day Quixote is immediately identified with Napoleon, but as the ‘Caballero de la mala figura’ (‘Knight of the Evil Countenance’), a variation on Quixote’s epithet ‘Caballero de la triste figura’ (‘Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance’). However, Sancho remembers not just the unwise actions but also the aims and ideals of his original master. Therein lies the ambivalence.
Sancho recalls three adventures from Part I of the novel: the attack on the flock of sheep, the freeing of the galley slaves, and the Princess Micomicona episode, each an example of Quixote’s folly or delusion. At the same time he succeeds in either highlighting one of Don Quixote’s virtues or in turning the argument back against Napoleon. Don Quixote showed great bravery as, in his delusion, he actually believed the sheep to be a large opposing army. Sancho draws a parallel between the freeing of the galley slaves (who turned on Don Quixote when he bade them go and pay homage to Dulcinea) and Napoleon’s one-time support for Manuel Godoy, since both actions were futile given the bad character ascribed to both the slaves and the very unpopular Spanish Prime Minister.
Don Quixote attacking the flock of sheep (top) and freeing the galley slaves (bottom). From The History of the most renowned Don Quixote of La Mancha... (London, 1687). Cerv.336.
According to Meseguer’s Sancho, the Micomicona episode gave his master the opportunity of usurping the throne of the pretend Princess, an opportunity he ignored in contrast to the actions of Napoleon in Spain, who placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne. Moreover, Quixote demonstrated great fidelity to his lady Dulcinea by declining to wed the Princess who is part of the Priest’s plan to get Don Quixote safely back home. Finally Sancho, recognising reality, recalls how so many of his master’s rash adventures ended in disaster, but, he adds, this will also be the fate of Napoleon’s Spanish expedition.
The nub of Sancho’s case is that the original Don Quixote was a true knight errant who wished to right wrongs and to protect the weak. Napoleon, on the other hand, is the very opposite: his soldiers ‘have ruined countless maidens, raped married women and widows, leaving in tears those who were living happily, abandoned those who were well protected, and orphaned those who had a father’. He also opposed loyal Spaniards such as Fernando VII and his supporters, favouring instead the likes of Godoy in furtherance of his personal ambition.
There is also a divergence between the description of the ‘Today’s Don Quixote’ and the one of yesteryear. Sancho says the latter was ‘tall as a pine tree, lean… and solid as a rock’, while Napoleon/Quixote was ‘short of stature’ and had a ‘face like a monkey’. This brings us neatly to the cartoon in the Mexico edition, which will be the subject of a second blog post.
Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections
Caro López. ‘Don Quijote en la guerra del Francés’, Anales cervantinos, 41 (2009), 39-61. Available on-line at: http://analescervantinos.revistas.csic.es/index.php/analescervantinos/article/view/52/52
A copy of the Córdoba edition can be consulted at: https://archive.org/details/eldonquixotedeah00mese
23 October 2015
On this day in 1956 a peaceful demonstration organised by students took place in the Hungarian capital, demanding reforms of the oppressive communist regime. Soon broad sections of the population joined the cause, and soon the rattle of gunfire and the clatter of tanks resounded in the streets of Budapest and other cities.
A flag with a hole on the 1956 monument outside the building of Parliament in Budapest. Communist insignia were torn or cut from flags during the October 23 demonstrations, an iconic image from the days of the Revolution. (Image by Ian Pitchford. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 From Wikimedia Commons)
The Revolution only lasted for 13 days, until 4th November, yet it became a symbol of fearless defiance against dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. In a few days, Hungarians achieved what could only be dreamt of for many years beforehand. On the first evening Stalin’s six-tonne statue was toppled, with only his boots left on the pedestal.
Four days later a new, democratic government was formed by the reformist Imre Nagy, and without much delay negotiations started about the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The secret police was disbanded, political prisoners were freed, previously banned political parties were allowed to reorganise and preparations were started to hold free elections. The fact that Hungary was also determined to leave the Warsaw Pact and declare its neutrality hastened the tragic end of the Revolution. The Soviets responded with resolute ruthlessness, as it was not in their nature to stand by and watch one of their satellites leave orbit and create a gaping hole in the buffer zone towards the West.
Soviet tank in Budapest, 1956. (Image by the CIA (PD). From Wikimedia Commons)
The British Library holds a substantial collection relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a wealth of resources for academic or personal research. Collecting started shortly after the first refugees arrived in Great Britain. Almost 200,000 had fled their homeland and were given asylum in 35 countries worldwide after the brutal crushing of the Revolution. The earliest items received were leaflets and manifestos:
- [A collection of leaflets issued by the Forradalmi Bizottmány and other bodies during the Hungarian revolution of 1956] ([Budapest], 1956). Cup.504.ee.3.
- [A collection of pamphlets dealing with events in Hungary in the autumn of 1956]. Cup.401.i.10.
Some of these are quite rare as even the possession of such ‘incendiary’ items was prohibited for over three decades.
Left, a flyer demanding free elections and calling to arms and strikes to gain independence. Right, an open letter to Soviet troops, in Russian, saying they were deceived when given orders to fight fascists in Hungary and that they should not shoot at demonstrators but withdraw. Cup.401.i.10.
Other sources include post-1989 publications of secret police archives, minutes of Communist party leadership sessions in 1956-1957, and documents from the British Foreign Office. It is also interesting to explore the domestic and international press coverage of the revolt, both in contemporary newspapers and compilations published retrospectively. The latter come partly from radio broadcasts including those by the BBC and Radio Free Europe. The Revolution generated a broad spectrum of sympathetic reactions in world politics and foreign public opinion, from neighbouring Yugoslavia to India, and from the International Commission of Jurists in The Hague to the United Nations in New York. Inside Hungary, however, it was too little too late for those supporting views or reports to have any real effect. On 4th November Soviet tanks returned and power was restored to the Moscow-backed faction, who methodically rounded up participants still in the country and had them condemned to lengthy imprisonment or death. One of those executed was Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
Plaque in Budapest to commemorate Imre Nagy and his associates. With the exception of G. Losonczy, who died in prison earlier, they were hanged and buried in an unmarked grave in 1958. (Image by Andor Derzsi Elekes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. From Wikimedia Commons)
Key figures of the Revolution are the subject of many works, as are its lesser-known martyrs, and the victims of reprisals. Documents of secret trials and protracted systematic revenge have largely been brought to light by now.
In an attempt to recalibrate people’s minds and to discourage any notion of opposition, the propaganda machine was also put to work. Amongst its copious output were the so-called ‘white books’, in which the communist puppet government painted its own version of events, denouncing the uprising as counter-revolutionary and criminal. These unassuming-looking booklets were translated into several languages to ensure that the endorsed account was accessible to foreign audiences as well. In addition to the Hungarian original we also have the English and Russian editions in our collection.
The legacy of 1956 was kept alive by émigré circles in the West, who published tirelessly and had clandestine support links to the dissenter movements growing from the early 1970s back home. Beside theoretical and commemorative writings, the literary heritage of both groups testifies to the immense impact the Revolution made on people’s lives.
Numerous survivors have had their diaries or memoirs printed, imparting some truly poignant stories.
Memorial to a young freedom fighter in Budapest’s Corvin köz, one of the hubs of armed resistance. Many teenagers were among the active participants in clashes against the Soviet Red Army. Image by Andreas Poeschek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. From Wikimedia Commons
Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections
03 August 2015
In late July and early August 1588, English ships were skirmishing in the Channel against the Spanish Armada, the naval invasion force sent against England by Philip II of Spain. Probably the best known of the English captains then, and certainly the best remembered today, was Sir Francis Drake, whose Cadiz Raid the previous year had significantly set back plans for the Armada and whose circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80 had brought him wealth and royal favour.
Drake’s fame was not restricted to England, as a rare hand-coloured broadside acquired by the British Library in 2008 demonstrates. Printed in Germany (or possibly the Low Countries), it shows Drake preparing for a military expedition, and is accompanied by a set of verses in German, put into the mouth of Drake himself and calling upon ‘all Christians’ to join him in fighting the ‘Antichrist’. Drake calls himself ‘Drach’ – a Germanisation of his name which, like the Spanish ‘Draque’ or Latin ‘Draco’ can also mean dragon, but while in Spanish propaganda Drake was the dragon as marauding beast, here he is the dragon as bold protector.
The broadside is a curious production. On the right-hand side is a full-length portrait of Drake, dressed in armour and carrying a musket. While this is carefully and realistically done and appears to be based on reliable contemporary depictions, the rest of the image is clumsily executed: the ship on the left-hand side is a most unseaworthy vessel, long and impossibly narrow. At the stern is a small cabin-like structure in which are huddled five badly-drawn figures. They, and the ship as a whole, are out of scale with the other three sailors and the cargo which they are loading.
The textual elements also appear ill-designed. The inscription has a redundant extra T at the end of the second line and the letters of ‘Circumducto’ are crammed close together. The box containing the verses is placed off-centre and gives the impression of being an afterthought rather than part of a whole design; at first glance it can appear to have been pasted on to an existing picture, an illusion encouraged here by the thick border painted around it. And the verses are not exactly great poetry, but that is hardly unusual in this genre (and besides, Drake has inspired plenty of doggerel throughout the centuries).
The broadside is undated, but clearly post-dates Drake’s circumnavigation (referred to in the inscription), and its call to arms suggests a date in the mid- to late-1580s, around the time of the Cadiz Raid or the Armada. Although it has been suggested that the threat to Christendom referred to in the verses is the Ottoman Empire, the text includes enough familiar elements of Protestant anti-Catholic discourse to make it more likely that the Catholic Church (and Spain in particular) is the ‘enemy’ being described.
While not a great work of art either visually or poetically, the broadside is a fascinating piece of 16th-century propaganda, and shows how the fame of one country’s hero could travel in the age of print.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
26 July 2015
“Dear Comrades,” the letter began, “On the 18th anniversary of the October revolution, we send you our greetings.” Dated 10 October 1935 and signed by Soviet Esperantists working in the Donbass region of the Soviet Union, the letter endeavored, via the formulaic ardour of Stalinist homage, to “tell how the miners used to live before the revolution, and how they live now freed from the capitalists, thanks to the Communist party and the genius of the revolutionary leader Lenin, and the wise leadership of our beloved comrade, friend and leader Stalin.”
Translated from Esperanto into English and entitled “From a Russian Miner” (although it was in fact sent not from Russia but from Postyshevo, now Krasnoarmiisk, in Ukraine), this hearty missive appeared in the pages of a 1936 issue of La Laborista Esperantisto (The Worker Esperantist; British Library P.P.3558.ibl.) – the periodical of the British Section of the global Esperantist organization known as Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (S.A.T.) [World Anational Association]. As the standard inside cover of La Laborista Esperantisto reliably explained, S.A.T.’s primary aim was “to utilize in practical ways the international language, ESPERANTO, for the class aims of the working class throughout the world.” S.A.T. insisted that Esperanto allowed workers to share ideas and educate one another; to collaborate in pursuit of the revolutionary aims of the worldwide proletariat; and to foster “a strengthened feeling of human solidarity” among Esperantist workers otherwise separated not merely by spatial distance, but also by national borders, languages, and citizenship regimes.
For its own part, “From a Russian Miner” carried the imprimatur of a regional outpost of the Union of Soviet Esperantists. When in 1921 the Union of Soviet Esperantists was established in Petrograd, its founding members devoted themselves to the popularization and deployment of Esperanto as a means of fostering cultural exchange, revolutionary networks, and friendly relations between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. The global solidarity of proletarian Esperantists would thus advance the global solidarity of the proletariat as a whole.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet Esperantists sought to realize this broad internationalist goal largely through the increasingly regulated practice of what the Soviets called “workers’ correspondence.” Soviet Esperantists adapted this method of propaganda, committing themselves to flooding foreign news outlets and workers’ associations with carefully crafted missives like the one that appeared in La Laborista Esperantisto in 1936. The point was to extol Soviet achievements and squash anti-Soviet “rumours” propagated by deceitful capitalists – and to do so via the international auxiliary language of Esperanto. Esperantist leaders abroad could then, in the hoped-for scenario, translate and reprint the Soviet Esperantists’ letters in the foreign press, thereby transmitting official Soviet ideology to workers abroad.
By the time “From a Russian Miner” appeared, the Union of Soviet Esperantists was in crisis. On the eve of the Stalinist terror that would devour many of the organization’s members, the problems that bedevilled it ranged widely. While an analysis of these problems goes beyond the scope of this blog entry, “From a Russian Miner” highlights certain flaws in the Union’s approach to fostering global proletarian solidarity under the conjoined red star of the Soviet Union and green star of Esperanto.
“From a Russian Miner” adopted the format of a letter, but reads like a singsong recitation of talking points issued from a bureaucratic office. As promised in its opening paragraph, it first enumerates the horrors and indignities of miners’ pre-revolutionary life in tsarist Russia, and then celebrates their joyful new Soviet life. Living and working conditions prior to the revolution, the letter explains, were miserably inhumane as workers inescapably sacrificed themselves to “create riches for an army of parasites.” Production was not only punishing and humiliating, but also shamefully primitive “as nothing was known of machinery.” Clean drinking water was denied the sickened workers, as was even a rudimentary education.
Soviet poster "Work conditions of miners and workers in the Don Basin" (image from Wikimedia Commons)
The narrative arc marches stalwartly onward in such fashion to the revolutionary climax: the dawning of the “bright and sunny day” that is the contemporary Soviet Union. The life of the Soviet miner, the letter explains, is one of fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. Electricity illuminates the workplace and modern machinery powers industrial production. First-aid stations, bathhouses, classrooms, and a Palace of Culture ensure good health and enlightenment. “In comparison with our past life, our present life is scarcely credible,” the letter explains. “Every miner has his little house surrounded with greenery. He has a vegetable garden, pigs, birds, and perhaps a cow.” All of this is owed, the letter concludes, to the wise revolutionary leadership of Lenin and Stalin.
No doubt the so-called “workers’ correspondence” that Soviet Esperantists transmitted abroad in the 1920s and 1930s did energize and inspire foreign workers, igniting their imagination of everyday Soviet life as a model to be emulated globally. In this way, Esperanto did serve the Soviet Union in pursuit of its internationalist aims. Yet the formulaic missives authorized by the Union of Soviet Esperantists for foreign consumption also obstructed the organization’s stated effort to facilitate relationships between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. Taking “From a Russian Miner” as a representative example of permissible Soviet Esperantist correspondence in the Stalinist 1930s, it is impossible to overlook not only its unnuanced presentation of an entirely unblemished Soviet life, but also its unrelenting monologic approach. The letter’s gaze focuses resolutely inward while its tone is conspicuously incurious about life abroad. “From a Russian Miner” poses no questions to foreign Esperantists, nor does it invite questions from them. The letter’s portrait of Soviet working life is numbingly generic and depersonalized; the collective workers’ “we” is narratively flattened into the faceless beneficiary of the October Revolution. The letter thumps with triumphal celebration of Soviet achievements, but palpably lacks the human touch of the Soviet citizens who wrote it.
“From a Russian Miner” concludes with a plea for a reply from fellow Esperantists abroad – “a letter by which we can feel the brotherhood and solidarity of the world’s workers.” It asks, in other words, for something that “From a Russian Miner” itself failed to deliver.
Brigid O’Keeffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. In June 2015, she joined The Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck College as a Visiting Fellow. During this time, she conducted research at the British Library, using its extensive collection of materials that document the global history of Esperanto and Esperantism.
25 March 2015
In the late 1980s the famous Revolution Square in Moscow turned into a huge market. But it was a ‘press market’ - only alternative publications were sold there in abundance, usually by elderly ladies. Most of them were quite politicised themselves and were selling only publications of a certain political standing, but some had a variety of publications on display representing a wide ideological spectrum. Our colleagues at the State Historical Public Library in Moscow started collecting documents relating to various political and public movements in 1989. They often went to Revolution Square themselves to buy materials, attended various meetings, and asked friends and relatives to bring ephemera to the Historical Library. Chris Thomas, at that time Head of the British Library’s Slavonic and East European collections, managed to secure an agreement with the Historical Library that they would also help us to create a similar collection. Through this source and via her wide network of friends in Russia who started sending materials to London, Chris managed to accumulate invaluable unique primary source materials on the era of Perestoika which started in spring 30 years ago.
Now we can say that our collection of Russian ‘Underground periodicals’ or ‘Samizdat’, which should probably be called ‘Collection of alternative periodicals and ephemera’, comprises over 2,500 titles produced in the Soviet Union during Perestroika and in the early 1990s. Apart from published, print and typewritten items, it also contains original photographs:
Although Perestroika officially finished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian political life in the early 1990s was lively, vibrant and chaotic. This is perfectly reflected in the collections of ephemera relating to the coup of August 1991, the two referendums (1991 and 1993) and the Duma and presidential and local election campaigns of the early 1990s.
In autumn 2012 Laura Todd, a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham, worked in the British Library for two months on the collections of Russian ephemera from the late 1980s and the 1990s. She documented this project in her blog. How proud we are to say that the collection has been now sorted, catalogued, properly preserved and housed (shelfmarks: HS.74/2113-HS.74/2117 and HS.74/2124) and is available for researchers. We would like once again to thank Laura and our colleagues in Collection Care for completing this project. Now the collections look like this:
Although securely preserved in plastic sleeves and hidden in the vast climate-controlled basements of the British Library, these papers are waiting for their researchers to tell many stories of hope and despair from the first years of Russia’s post-communist era.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)
04 March 2015
‘To the men and women of the British Empire … a Russian voice is speaking to you’: Once I Had a Home by ‘Nadejda’, an eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution?
The 1926 book Once I Had a Home purports to be the memoir of émigrée Russian aristocrat ‘Nadejda’, including diary extracts and remembrances. ‘Nadejda’ recounts her childhood in Tsarist Russia, and her early adulthood through the First World War, the February Revolution, the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War and her eventual escape aboard HMS Marlborough in 1920, alongside the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Apparently, in order to protect the identities of those suffering persecution under the continued Bolshevik rule, most names have been changed. The narrative is explicitly addressed ‘to the men and women of the British Empire’, a warning to take the dangers of socialist agitation seriously from one who had suffered it first-hand.
Or had she? The British Library catalogue lists Once I Had a Home under the authorship not of ‘Nadejda’, but of Phyllis M. Gotch, the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Cooper Gotch. She was the model for some of his most successful paintings, most importantly The Child Enthroned, and had a number of books published. These ranged from illustrated ‘Boo-Bird’ children’s books in the 1900s under her own name (British Library 012803.a.49) to the novel Golden Hair in 1938, now in the guise of ‘Felise, Marquise de Verdieres’ (NN.28863), a title conferred from an ex-husband. In this work, 12 years later, Once I Had a Home is listed as the only other book ‘by the same Author’.
The Child Enthroned, Thomas Cooper Gotch’s portrait of his daughter (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Once I Had a Home was published in the wake of a number of successful memoirs of the revolution by White Russian émigrés, such as The Real Tsaritsa, Lili Dehn’s defense of the Empress, and Anna Vyrubova’s Memories of the Russian Court. Material about Russia had high market value in the years after the revolution, and as Ben Yagoda writes of the memoir form, ‘in any society where a particular currency has high value and is fairly easily fashioned, counterfeiters will quickly and inevitably emerge’ (p. 243). There is little evidence whether the audience would have related to the bookas fact or fiction, despite its advertisements clearly labelling it as fact. The book itself is consistent in its claim that ‘a Russian voice is speaking to you’, and nothing in its publishing information betrays its secret.
So why would she write about the Russian revolution? As Phyllis Gotch related in a letter to a family member in 1960:
My Mother told me that perhaps their most outstanding visit was to Russia. They had many letters of introduction and were received by the Tsar’s Court. There were two court balls while they were there. My Mother went to them with the Embassy party, but her father could not make the effort. A special entertainment of gypsy songs and dances was given to both of them however, and the Tsar presented my Mother with a set of beautiful Russian dessert mats, all hand made and worked in gold, silver and fine silk. I have them carefully packed away at home. My Mother met many distinguished Russian authors and musicians while they were in St. Petersburg and she was actually given a manuscript copy of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chanson Triste’. (Christopher Gotch, 2011. p. 196)
Possibly, her inspiration for ‘Nadejda’ came from her mother’s stories about the Tsarist court and its ‘mad, gipsy music’ (p.70). Equally, this could be an invented story used to bolster Gotch’s claims to aristocratic status – after her divorce she claimed to have inherited the Verdieres title. I have so far been unable to find any references to this trip elsewhere.
Judging from the book’s warnings against revolution, there may be another reason why it was written. Published in 1926, the first advertisement for Once I Had a Home in The Times came on the 22nd of October, some five months after the end of the General Strike in Britain and a month before many of the miners ceased their action. In its propaganda around the General Strike the government consistently played on fears of a British revolution, and the middle and upper classes responded to the call in force, volunteering in various ways to combat the strike. Writing such an anti-socialist book as Once I Had a Home may have been one of these ways.
Phyllis M. Gotch, Once I Had a Home: The Diary and Narrative of Nadejda, Lady of Honour to Their Imperial Majesties the late Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia. (London, 1926). Copies at 010795.ee.49, W30/1037 and 947.08 *2905*
Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History. (New York, 2009). m10/.10045
Christopher Gotch, The Gotch Family of Kettering 1755-1964 (2000), updated by Adam Robin Gotch. ([Kettering, 2011). YK.2012.b.12504
Keith Laybourn, The General Strike Day by Day (Gloucestershire, 1996) YC.1996.b.9218
Rachelle H. Saltzman, ‘Folklore as Politics in Great Britain: Working-Class Critiques of Upper-Class Strike Breakers in the 1926 General Strike’, Anthropological Quarterly 67, 3 (July, 1994) Ac.2692.y/37.
Lili Dehn, The Real Tsaritsa (London, 1922) 010795.c.23
Anna Vyrubova, Memories of the Russian Court. (London, 1923) 010795.aaa.30
Michael Carey, CDA PhD student
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