27 July 2023
The Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-61) is considered the founder of modern Ukrainian literature. His poetry shaped the development of Ukrainian national consciousness and, more widely, is symbolic of the universal fight for freedom from oppression.
Shevchenko is the focus of a new display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. Open until autumn 2023, the display brings together different editions of his works published between 1860 and 2012, as well as examples of how his image and poetry have been reimagined today. Through these items, it demonstrates the strength and resilience of Ukrainian culture and language, which flourished despite centuries of Russian colonial oppression.
Shevchenko was born into serfdom (a form of peasant servitude) in Ukraine – then under the Russian Empire. In 1847, he was arrested, imprisoned and exiled for his political views and anti-tsarist satirical poems. Tsar Nicholas I personally banned him from writing or painting while in exile, but he managed to continue doing so in secret. Many of Shevchenko’s works were censored during his lifetime. His poetry, which ranges from romantic ballads to heroic poems, has since been published and translated into more than 100 languages. Shevchenko has inspired generations of writers, and continues to serve as a rallying figure for Ukrainians today.
In this blog post, we bring you a digital version of the display.
Photograph of the display in the British Library Treasures Gallery
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (St Petersburg, 1860). 11585.d.43. Digitised.
In 1840, the Russian censor in St Petersburg granted permission for the publication of a small volume of poetry by an unknown Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. Consisting of eight works (with some censored passages), this small book had a momentous impact on the history of Ukrainian literature. Its title, Kobzar, refers to a Ukrainian bard who played a stringed instrument called the kobza. The book was so important that Shevchenko himself became known as ‘Kobzar’. This more complete edition of 17 works was published in 1860, the year before Shevchenko’s death, and contains a portrait of the author.
Forbidden in the Russian Empire
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar. (Volume one), (Geneva, 1881). 1451.a.42.
Measuring just 7 x 11 cm, this pocket-sized edition of Kobzar was published outside of Ukraine. At the time, printing and importing Ukrainian-language publications was forbidden within the Russian Empire. Its small format would have made it easier to smuggle into Ukraine – similar editions were disguised as packets of cigarette papers. Published by the Ukrainian scholar and political thinker Mykhailo Drahomanov, it is one of only two known copies to have survived.
Kobzar for displaced persons
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar. ([Munich?], 1947-48). 11588.a.94.
At the end of the Second World War, there were over two million Ukrainian displaced persons (DPs) in Western Europe. While most returned to the Soviet Union (many against their will), around 200,000 remained in Allied-occupied Germany. Ukrainian DPs set up schools, places of worship, theatres, hospitals, and published newspapers and books. This edition of Kobzar was produced in Germany in 1947. It includes the stamp of the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, a London-based relief agency established after the end of the war to assist Ukrainian DPs.
Modern children’s edition of Kobzar
Taras Shevchenko, Dytiachyi Kobzar. Illustrated by Maryna Mykhailoshina (L’viv, 2012). YF.2013.b.1660
This modern edition of Kobzar has been specially adapted for children. Its vibrant illustrations by Maryna Mykhailoshina capture the beauty of Ukraine’s landscape. Born into serfdom, Shevchenko was orphaned when he was 12. He displayed artistic talent from a young age and was apprenticed by his master to a painter in St Petersburg. It was through his painting and artistic connections that he was eventually able to buy his freedom in 1838.
Shevchenko as a superhero by Andriy Yermolenko. Part of the series ‘Shevchenkiniana’, 2013-2014. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
Patch featuring Shevchenko in Ukrainian military clothing, 2022. Private Loan.
Shevchenko’s image and work continue to inspire and resonate today. During the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, protestors recited his poetry and artists reimagined him in various forms, including as a superhero and Elvis Presley. Some of the most widely quoted lines, ‘Fight – and you’ll be victorious, God is helping you!’, are from Shevchenko’s 1845 poem ‘Kavkaz’ (‘The Caucasus’), a revolutionary work addressing Russian imperialism and colonialism. They have taken on increased significance following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and feature on a range of items, such as this 2022 patch featuring Shevchenko in Ukrainian military clothing.
Olga Kerziouk, 'The First Kobzar', European Studies Blog, 12 February 2014.
Olga Kerziouk, 'Shevchenko: a voice for unsung heroines', European Studies Blog, 9 March 2015.
Nadiia Strishenets, 'Rare editions of Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar in the British Library', European Studies Blog, 10 March 2022.
Nadiia Strishenets, 'Digital Shevchenkiana – a Joint English-Ukrainian Project', European Studies Blog, 10 March 2023.
19 July 2023
In March 1914 in St Petersburg, on the cusp of the First World War, the poet Velimir Khlebnikov and the artist Pavel Filonov issued Iz knigi ‘dereviannye idoly’ (From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’). Engaging in experimental collaborations in the book arts was part of a spectrum of activities undertaken by artists and writers in the Russian Empire known as the Futurists. This problematic label covers various individuals and groups operating over many years, who did not refer to themselves as Futurists. Others embraced the label or some variation of it. Over time, there has been a tendency to collapse these individuals and groups under the single label of ‘Russian Futurist’ due to the region’s entangled histories, but also due to an overriding imperial Russian narrative.
Fig. 1. Photograph of Velimir Khlebnikov in 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2 Photograph of M. Matiushin, A. Kruchenykh, P. Filonov, I. Shkolnik and K. Malevich in 1913 (left to right). Image: Wikimedia Commons
Often referred to as ‘books’, Futurist books have also been called pamphlets, publications, booklets, collections, occasionally artists’ books or even, helpfully, anti-books, a term which points to their revolutionary nature and their participation in the international book experiment. Across Europe, avant-garde writers and artists engaged in the book experiment, as seen for example in the 2007 British Library exhibition: Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937. Notably, the anti-books contain an inherent performativity: Wooden is a publication within a publication entitled Izbornik stikhov s posliesloviem riechiaria: 1907-1914 (Selected Poems with an Afterward by a Wordsmith, 1907-1914). Embedded within Selected Poems, Wooden is a lithographed supplement that stands in stark contrast to its host publication and serves as a vehicle for performance through an interplay of sound, text, image, and materiality.
Fig. 3. Cover of the British Library exhibition catalogue Breaking the Rules: the Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (London, 2007). YC.2008.b.251.
Fig. 4. Cover of V. Khlebnikov, Izbornik stikhov s posliesloviem riechiaria: 1907-1914 gg ([St Petersburg, 1915]). C.114.mm.39.
Fig. 5. Cover of Iz knigi ‘dereviannye idoly’ (From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’) and first page of ‘To Perun’.
The anti-book collaborations took place over many years in different activity centres in the Russian Empire, instigated by the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh and joined by Khlebnikov and, initially, the painter Mikhail Larionov, along with a select group of secondary collaborators, such as Natalia Goncharova, Ilya Zdanevich (‘Iliazd’), Olga Rozanova, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. During the second half of the 19th century, the printing industry in the Russian Empire developed swiftly ‘from a small artisanal craft closely tied to the state into a relatively large-scale, diversified, and technologically developed industry run by capitalist entrepreneurs and professional managers.’(Steinberg, p. 7) This development led to the publication of luxurious, limited book editions and cultural journals, and technical journals focusing on book arts. The early 20th century also witnessed a flood of collecting centred around these publications, which collectors eagerly sought to obtain (Bowlt, pp. 187-189).
Amidst these developments, Khlebnikov and Filonov released Wooden. With its Slavic folklore themes, related illustrations and pictograms, and archaic-sounding language, Wooden speaks to the period’s pervading artistic focus on the cultures of the East. Two texts were included in Wooden: ‘To Perun’, a poem, and ‘Night in Galicia’, a play in verse. Likely at Kruchenykh’s request, Filonov made 11 illustrations to accompany the texts (Parnis, p. 644). His illustrations impressed Kruchenykh. When Khlebnikov received a copy, he wrote to Kruchenykh: ‘Hats off to Filonov. Thank you for the great drawings.’ (Kruchenykh, ‘O Pavele Filonove’, p. 532) Khlebnikov opens Wooden with a poem addressed to the ancient god of thunder and lightning ‘To Perun’. One way Khlebnikov explores sound is through the creation of new words, e.g., ‘Peru-nepr’ (Perun + Dniper) (fig. 6) (Khlebnikov, Tvorenie, p. 85, footnote 8). The poem includes two illustrations by Filonov. His toy-like idols feature in the headpiece on the front page and the letters in the title ‘To Perun’ consist of a series of illustrations of wooden arrows (fig. 5). In ‘Night in Galicia’, which has nine illustrations, Khlebnikov presents mermaids, witches, and a knight (fig. 7). Filonov’s imagery works in tandem by emitting a sense of ancient art, including wooden sculptures and mythical folk tale characters. As in ‘Perun’, he introduces some letters in pictorial form, e.g., the word ‘mermaid’ (rusalka) begins with a mermaid’s image in place of the ‘r’ (fig. 8).
Fig. 6. Khlebnikov’s new word ‘Peru-nepr’ (Perun + Dniper) in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p.3.
Fig. 7. First page of ‘Night in Galicia’ in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p. 12.
Fig. 8. The word ‘mermaid’ (rusalka) begins with a mermaid’s image in place of the ‘r’ in From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’, p. 12
Throughout Wooden, Filonov emphasises its materiality by employing a hand-drawn font. The font also serves as a demarcation between Selected Poems and Wooden. Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh believed handwriting varied according to the writer’s mood and that the mood would be apparent to the viewer separately from the text. Additionally, they felt that an artist arguably would be better placed to be the text writer, as opposed to the author, noting that: ‘[i]t’s strange that [none of our contemporaries] has ever thought of giving his offspring to an artist instead of a typesetter.’ (Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, p. 257) Following this principle, Filonov adeptly weaves together his inner vision of the texts with that of Khlebnikov’s. Khlebnikov and Filonov, who seemed to have enjoyed friendly relations at the time, were engaging in a folkloric performativity for viewers by combining these seemingly ethnographic, yet ultimately fanciful elements together, replete with archaic figures and an ancient-looking, hand drawn, lithographed font.
This post was adapted from a conference paper given by the author on 3 December 2021 at the 2021 ASEEES Virtual Convention and is being developed as part of her AHRC-TECHNE funded PhD project, ‘Sound Art and Visual Culture: The Anti-Book Experiment in the Romanov Empire and the USSR, 1881-1932’ at Kingston School of Art, Kingston University.
References and further reading:
K. Bezmenova, ‘Filonov and His Only Lithograph Book’, in Filonov. 125th Anniversary of the Artist’s Birth (1883-1935). Compilation of Articles from the Academic Conference (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 2007) (St Petersburg, 2008), pp. 61-73.
J. Bowlt, Moscow & St. Petersburg, 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture (New York, 2008). m08/.35374
N. Gurianova, ‘'A Game in Hell, Hard Work in Heaven: Deconstructing the Canon in Russian Futurist Books', in The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910-1934, ed. by D. Wye and M. Rowell (New York, 2002), pp. 24-32. LC.31.a.179
V. Khlebnikov, Tvorenie, eds. V.P. Grivoreva and A. E. Parnis (Moscow, 1986)
V. Khlebnikov and A. Kruchenykh, ‘The Letter as Such (1913)’ in Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov. Volume I: Letters and Theoretical Writings, ed. by C. Douglas and trans. by P. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1987). YC.1988.b.4461
‘Klanyates’ Filonovu. Spasibo za khoroshie risunki.’ A. Kruchenykh, ‘O Pavele Filonove’ in Pavel Filonov: realnost i mify, ed. by L. Pravoverova (Moscow, 2008), pp. 161-167. YF.2009.a.26968
A. Parnis, ‘O metamorfozakh mavy, olenya i voina. K probleme dialoga Khlebnikova i Filonova’ in Mir Velimira Khlebnikova. Statii issledovaniia 1911-1998, ed. by V. Ivanov and others (Moscow, 2000), pp. 637-695. YA.2000.a.28541
Mark Steinberg, Moral Communities. The Culture of Class Relations in the Russian Printing Industry, 1867-1907 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford, 1992). YC.1993.b.2609
19 April 2023
In his autobiographical novel The Chukchi Bible, Yuri Rytkheu tells the story of how his grandfather, Mletkin, a Chukchi shaman from the village of Uelen, in the Russian Far East, was put on display for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as Chicago World’s Fair), “tasked with presenting to the public” the “world’s yet uncivilized tribes in a setting as realistic as possible” (Rytkheu, p. 255). During the exposition, Mletkin, dressed in a shaman robe and equipped with a tambourine, was asked to perform a shamanic ritual – kamlanie – in front of a yaranga (a Chukchi hut). Rytkheu describes how his grandfather was struck by the arrogance of the ‘white’ organisers of the exhibition and its visitors who “held themselves apart from the rest of humanity, or at least from the part that was inhabiting the village, emphasizing their superiority to the Chukchi, the Eskimos, the Indians, Malaysians, Africans, Aleutians, and all those who tomorrow would be the subject of wonder, curiosity, or perhaps disdain, on the part of the fair’s visitors” (Rytkheu, p. 260).
At the turn of the 20th century, the performance of shamanic rituals for a white audience, similar to the one described by Rytkheu, was a common entertainment not only in North America, but also in the Russian Empire. A collection of glass plate negatives, digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Project (EAP016) includes evidence of similar colonial practices. For instance, in April 1910, the city theatre of Krasnoyarsk organised an ethnographic evening performance of a shamanic ritual, executed by the Khakass shaman Petr Sarlin. An ethnographic exhibition, including a Khakass yaranga, was installed in the theatre hall, and local photographer, Ludvig Vonago, took photographs of Sarlin dressed in shamanic gear (pictures 1 and 2).
Picture 1 The ethnographic evening at the Krasnoyarsk city theatre. Shaman. April 2, 1910. Photographer: Vonago. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
Picture 2 Shaman.
In his novel, Rytkheu describes how during the exposition Mletkin was impregnated with feelings of humiliation and alienation as he stood “firmly beyond that invisible rope that separated the living exhibits of the World’s Fair from the rest of their fellow humanity” (Rytkheu, p. 263). Even though we do not have any written account of Sarlin’s experience of performing in front of the Krasnoyarsk audience, the likeness of his and Mletkin’s stories suggest that he might have also been aware of ‘the invisible rope’ separating him, a Khakass shaman on display, and the Russian spectators. In this blogpost, I suggest further exploring Rytkheu’s ‘rope’ metaphor through the BL’s collections of digitised photographs taken by Vonago and other photographers during the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Many images in EAP016 demonstrate that Siberian indigenous peoples were often depicted as museum exhibits rather than real people. The photographers focused on the ethnographic peculiarities and anthropological features of their models rather than on their psychological portraits. In pictures 3–7, we see the images of the cultural ‘others’ photographed from the side-, front-, and back-views.
Picture 3 A Khakass woman, Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva, 48 years old, in her winter coat. A full body picture, front-view. Seskin ulus, Askizskii region.
Picture 4 Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva.
Picture 5 A Kachinets Shaman, Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin, 60 years old, photographed in his shaman clothes holding a drum and thumper. Samrin ulus.
Picture 6 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.
Picture 7 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.
In Russian pre-revolutionary museums, such photographs were often used for ethnographic exhibitions alongside the various material objects of the indigenous cultures. For example, pictures 8 and 9, taken in the ethnographic museum of Krasnoyarsk, demonstrate how the exotic ‘curiosities’ – such as the traditional hunting and fishing tools, the cooking utensils and crockery, the wooden cradle, the religious objects as well as the mannequins dressed in the traditional clothes – were aimed at enlightening Siberia’s Russian population about ‘other’ dwellers of the region.
Picture 8 The Ethnographic Exhibition. The little exhibits are in the cupboards; the drum sets are at the top; the mannequins are along the walls. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.
Picture 9 The Glass Cabinet with the Ostyak Objects. 1906-07. Photographer: A.Tugarinov. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.
The photographs of Siberian ethnographic museums after the installation of the new Soviet regime, on the other hand, offer a new perspective on the indigenous population. The State sought to integrate indigenous people into the political system by means of sedentarisation, collectivisation, and education. Even though the new regime proclaimed that all Soviet nations were equal, the invisible rope between ‘backward’ and ‘civilized’ nations did not disappear (Gavrilova, p. 151). Moreover, the photographers continued to take pictures (see 10, 11) that exoticized anthropological and cultural features of the indigenous population.
Picture 10 Photographer: Man'yafov. Taim. Nganasan Savalov Abaku. 1938.
Picture 11 Photographer: A.V. Kharchevnikov. Taim. Detty Turdagin. 1938.
The post-revolutionary ethnographic exhibitions never ceased to exoticize the indigenous peoples, but the collections became additionally politicised with the state’s propaganda. A geographer researcher, Sofia Gavrilova writes that the Soviet ethnographic museums received specific protocols that required them to ‘build exhibitions with the encompassing theme that the new socialistic face of a krai [region] was a result of “the politics of the Communist Party and the Soviet state, the result of Lenin-Stalinist theory, and the program of solving the national question” (Gavrilova, p. 152). The new ethnographic exhibitions were supposed to show the process of Sovietization of the indigenous peoples of the USSR. The historian Francine Hirsch describes the new agenda of the ethnographic museum as follows:
The museumgoer did not simply travel through the museum and visit its peoples, either randomly or according to their level of cultural development […] Instead, he or she embarked on an “evolutionary” adventure through the stages on the Marxist historical timeline. Along the way, the museumgoer learned about the differences among feudal, capitalist-colonial, and Soviet social structures, economic practices, and cultures (Hirsch, p. 220).
Among the EAP016 images, we find evidence of the described transformation in the museum narratives through many new signs that interpretated the exhibits. In pictures 12 and 13, for example, we find the scene from the history of religions – that were banned in the USSR. The wax figure of a shaman is set next to the Orthodox priest’s vestment and Buddhist sculptures which simultaneously demonstrate the relics of the past and the enemies of the Soviet ideology. Hirsch notes that after becoming acquainted with “kulaks, mullahs, and other class enemies in the museum, the museumgoer would then be able to identify them through their clothing, culture, and practices—and participate in the campaign to eradicate them—outside of the museum’s walls” (Hirsch, p. 220). There was no place for a shaman, a priest, or Buddhist monk in the new Soviet world.
Picture 12 Photographer: N. V. Fedorov
Picture 13 The Ethnographic Exposition in the Museum. 1939. Photographer: Ivan Baluev.
The ethnographic museums created new narratives about the evolution of the indigenous peoples. Picture 14 shows the mobile hut, known as a balok, that was used for nomadic schools in the northern parts of Siberia. The museums also told the stories of the new Soviet heroes who came from indigenous backgrounds and became loyal citizens of the USSSR. In picture 15, for example, we find portraits of the Siberian Communists (next to the portrait of Stalin) who contributed to the ultimate goal of building communism. The material objects of the northern indigenous cultures in this exhibition seemingly indicated their rapid transformation from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘civilized’ way of life. Additionally, the exhibitions provided detailed information about the economic achievements of Soviet Siberia. Pictures 16 and 17, for instance, inform us of the significant developments in the hunting and fishing industries.
Picture 14 The Exposition ‘Balok’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 15 The Exposition. 1938. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 16 The Museum Exposition. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 17 The Exposition ‘Our Old North’: Fish Industry. 1936. Photographer: S. Malob.
The process of industrial evolution in Siberia is evident from picture 18: the yaranga with the sign ‘The Old North’. Thanks to the help of the ‘developed’ Russian nation, the northern population were moved out from their ‘primitive’ huts into the new Soviet types of accommodation.
I’d like to finish this post with another reference to Rytkheu’s novel where he describes his family yaranga in the centre of Uelen:
This yaranga survived to my own childhood. In the beginning of the 1950s, when my tribesmen were being moved into new wooden housing, it was pulled down, along with the other ancient shacks not fit to shelter a Soviet citizen of those enlightened times. The last time I saw my family yaranga, or rather its likeness, was in the municipal museum of Nome, Alaska, during my first visit to the United States in 1978. The photographer had shot a panoramic view of Uelen, with our family home at the forefront of the composition. I made a copy of the photograph and it is now stored in my archives (Rytkheu, p. 129).
It is striking that Rytkheu’s experience suggests that the ethnographic museum – stager of exotic curiosities and propaganda ¬– became the last place he could see artefacts of his heritage. Whilst these images are specific products of colonial attitudes towards indigenous peoples, they remain available records of their material culture. One can hope that the BL’s digitised collection of photographs, being open access, can help Siberians and us to explore and reflect upon this history.
Picture 18 The Exposition ‘The Old North’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
Yuri Rytkheu, Poslednii shaman (St Petersburg, 2004) YF.2004.a.26238 (English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, The Chukchi Bible (New York, 2011)
V. M. Iaroshevskoĭ, I. V. Kuklinskiĭ, L. Iu. Vonago — fotograf na vyezd: Krasnoiarsk i ego okrestnosti v fotografiiakh Liudviga Vonago, ed. by A. B. Ippolitova (Krasnoiarsk, 2020).
Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, N.Y, 2005) YC.2005.a.7999
Roland Cvetkovski, ‘Empire Complex: Arrangements in the Russian Ethnographic Museum, 1910’, in An Empire of Others: Creating Ethnographic Knowledge in Imperial Russia and
the USSR, ed. by Roland Cvetkovski and Alexis Alexis (Budapest, 2014), pp. 211–251 YD.2014.a.1342.
Sofia Gavrilova, Russia’s Regional Museums Representing and Misrepresenting Knowledge About Nature History, and Society (Abingdon, 2022) ELD.DS.709608;
Sofia Gavrilova, ‘Producing the “Others”: The Development of Kraevedenie in Chukotka’, Études Inuit Studies, 45: 1/2 (2021) 147–170.
21 March 2023
Content warning: This blog reproduces an image of a dead animal; the vocabulary drawn from the original texts is now considered racist.
Thanks to the typo of British cartographers, Stephen and William Borough – who in the 16th century created several maps of Russia – a northern archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, Novaya Zemlya, became in the Western imagination a remote and romanticised land, Nova Zembla.
Nova Zembla is mentioned in Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books as the residence of ‘a malignant deity called Criticism,’ who ‘dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla’. We find a reference to Nova Zembla in Tristram Shandy, where ‘North Lapland’ is described as ‘those cold and dreary tracks of the globe […] where the whole province of a man’s concernments lies for near nine months together within the narrow compass of his cave […]— there the least quantity of judgment imaginable does the business — and of wit — there is a total and an absolute saving — for as not one spark is wanted — so not one spark is given’. The ‘[d]istant northern land’ of Zembla becomes the abandoned kingdom of the deposed King Charles (Kinbote), the character of Nabokov’s metafictional novel, Pale Fire.
William Borough's Map of Coasts of Norway and Russia, 1557. Nova Zembla is in the top right corner. Royal MS. 18. D.III f.124
Although inspired by the long history of Nova Zembla’s presence in world literature, this post explores the image of Novaya Zemlya, rather than of its literary double. It focuses on an episode from the history of its colonisation: the legacy of a Russian ethnographer, photographer, and writer, Konstantin Nosilov (1858¬–1923). The British Library holds a substantial collection of digitized glass plate negatives from Nosilov’s collection (EAP016/1 and EAP016/3) including his photographs of Novaya Zemlya as well as other parts of Northern and Southern Siberia, his family life, and European travels.
Nosilov besides a fireplace (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
The BL also holds several collections of Nosilov’s short stories in which he shared reminiscences of his ethnographic expeditions, and which are illustrated with his photographs.
Various editions of Nosilov's short stories available at the BL
Nosilov was born to the family of a priest who lived near Shadrinsk in the Urals region. Nosilov did not finish his own theological studies and instead from 1879 he started to work as a geologist exploring the basins of the rivers Sosʹva, Lialia, and Lozʹva – prospecting them for gold. Having become a member of Imperial Russian Geographical Society, Nosilov undertook numerous ethnographic expeditions to Siberia, exploring the traditions and lifestyles of the Mansi (also known as Voguls), Khanty (Ostyaks), and Nenets (Samoyed). The collection includes numerous photographs taken by Nosilov during these expeditions.
The Mansi’s summer camp
The Nenets’ place of sacrifice
Novaya Zemlya occupies a very special place in Nosilov’s life and work. Being on the outskirts of the vast Russian Empire, the archipelago had been hardly explored by Russian ethnographers. Norwegian hunters and fishermen, on the other hand, frequently visited the waters around Novaya Zemlya and its shores. To reinforce the Russian Empire’s control of its territorial possession, it was regarded as crucial to establish permanent settlements on the island – Novaya Zemlya had been uninhabited due to its severe environment. Nosilov volunteered to organise a permanent settlement on the archipelago.
In 1887 a lifeboat station, Malye Karmakuly, was founded on the island of Iuzhnyi, and several Nenets families were relocated to the area. An ambitious colonialist, Nosilov was the first Russian explorer who, together with the Nenets, spent three winters on Novaya Zemlya 1887–1889 and 1890–1891. By his own example, Nosilov wanted to prove that the archipelago was suitable for year-round living.
Nosilov's house on Novaya Zemlya
Novaya Zemlya, Malye Karmakuly
Novaya Zemlya: view from the sea
Novaya Zemlya: cliffs and the sea
On Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov installed a meteorological station, that was essential to help the inhabitants prepare for severe weather conditions and regular storms, one of which is described in Nosilov’s story ‘Poliarnaia buria’ (‘Polar Storm’). Together with the Orthodox priest Father Iona, Nosilov revived an abandoned Orthodox chapel on the island, and they also started a school for the Nenets, – described in his story ‘Samoedskaia shkola’ (‘The Samoyed School’). Nosilov was especially proud of this, the most northern school in the world. In the story, he describes how both children and adults were keen on learning not only language but basic maths and other general subjects. Full of gentle humour, the story also tells how Father Iona was terrified by the ‘school inspectors’ – polar bears – who frequently visited.
Describing the Nenets settlement on Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov used many tropes that are now considered as typical for colonialist literature depicting colonisers’ interactions with indigenous peoples. The narrator in Nosilov’s stories shows a patronizing attitude toward the Siberians, who are treated like children, or, as he constantly calls them, ‘the children of nature’. Although Nosilov also frequently refers to the indigenous peoples in a way that now would be considered as racist, calling them ‘barbarians’ (‘dikari’), his attitude towards them is not derogatory, but rather sympathetic, especially when it comes to their studies of the Russian language and religion.
Some indigenous traditions which Nosilov witnessed, nevertheless terrified him. For instance, in one of his stories about the Mansi, ‘Iz zhizni vogulov’ (‘From the Life of the Voguls’), Nosilov describes the ceremonial slaughter and eating of a reindeer as bloodthirsty and barbaric: ‘looking at their passionate faces lit by the light of the fire, I saw the real barbarians, whom I had not yet suspected under the always modest and quiet figures of the Voguls’. However, most of his stories, especially those dedicated to the life of his colony on Novaya Zemlya, are full of admiration for the indigenous peoples, their skills and instincts.
In his story ‘Tainstvennoe iz zhizni samoedov’ (‘Mysterious in the Life of the Samoyeds’), for example, Nosilov describes an elderly Nenets woman with a gift of clairvoyance who not only predicted the fortune of hunters, but also once foretold the arrival of a Norwegian ship from Tromsø. Despite being a devout Christian – fulfilling, among other things, the duty of missionary work – Nosilov was keenly interested in indigenous spirituality and the native peoples’ special skills of forefeeling.
Novaya Zemlya, Matochkin Shar
Many of Nosilov’s stories are addressed to younger readers in central Russia. Nosilov tried to enlighten them about the life in the remote parts of the Russian Empire. Among such stories is the story of a Nenets girl, Tania Logai. The plot might be interesting for a Gender Studies analysis: Nosilov describes various episodes from Tania’s life showing how, instead of learning female domestic duties, she was much more interested in hunting. Tania even becomes a local celebrity for killing a polar bear that attacked her family hut whilst all the male hunters were away. Even when she reaches womanhood, Tania refuses to change. She does not want to get married and chooses to stay with her family and help her father hunt.
Novaya Zemlya. The female bear killed by Nosilov
Alongside being entertaining and enlightening, Nosilov’s stories also featured the acute social and economic problems experienced by the indigenous population of the north. These problems were primarily provoked by the invasion of European Russians who disturbed the traditional ways of living. Discussing the State’s response to the problems of the indigenous peoples, Yuri Slezkine notes:
[…] more and more travelers and more and more readers assumed that the administrators – local or otherwise – were generally incapable of enlightening anyone and that helping savages advance was the special mission of special people who were the sole legitimate representatives of the highest stage of intellectual development (the “intelligentsia”) (Slezkine, 1994, p. 112)
This sense of personal mission is notable in Nosilov’s stories. The final story in his collection Na Novoi Zemle, titled ‘Nashi liudoedy’ (‘Our Cannibals’) discusses the problems of the Nenets population living on the Taz Estuary. The story tells how the indigenous people, facing terrible poverty despite living in one of the richest fishing areas of Russia, hungered so badly that they had to resort to cannibalism. Nosilov regards this as the fault of the European Russians and urged measures to help indigenous populations. Nosilov also published numerous articles describing the problems of the North, including the increasing alcoholism among native peoples after vodka was introduced by Russians.
Nosilov’s texts sometimes reveal his personal doubt as to whether intrusion into the worlds of indigenous peoples was a truly good thing. This instance of the coloniser’s self-reflexivity is an interesting topic to consider: Nosilov’s rich cultural heritage requires a new critical reading framed with post-colonial theory. The story of Nosilov’s final years brings an additional dramatic element to it. Due to his deteriorating relationship with the State after the installation of Bolshevik rule in 1917, his family had to leave their estate, Nakhodka near Shadrinks (EAP016 includes numerous pictures of the estate) and moved to Georgia where Nosilov died in 1923.
Nosilov's estate 'Nakhodka'
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
K. D. Nosilov, Tania Logaĭ: razskaz i zhizni sievernykh inorodtsev (Moscow, 1907). RB.23.a.32078.
K. D. Nosilov, U vogulov: ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1904). 10292.k.21
K. D. Nosilov, Na Novoi Zemle: Ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1903) (10292.k.20),
Konstantin Nosilov, Severnye rasskazy (Sverdlovsk, 1938). X.808/9359.
Johanna Nichols, ‘Stereotyping Interethnic Communication: The Siberian Native in Soviet Literature’ in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, ed. by Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine (New York, 1993), pp. 185–214. YC.1993.a.3771
Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, 1994). YC.1994.b.5452
A. K. Omelʹchuk, K. Nosilov (Sverdlovsk, 1989).
N. B. Gramatchikova, ‘Tvorcheskii putʹ K. D. Nosilova: zhiznennyi putʹ i publitsistika’ in Deviatye Chupinskie kraevedcheskie chteniia: materialy konferentsii, ed. by E. N. Efremova (Ekaterinburg, 2018)
08 March 2023
‘… she was a foolish young woman who never realised the nature of her error,’ said Derek Freeman of Margaret Mead. Mead, an advocate of abortion rights and no-fault divorce, was one of many early women anthropologists who suffered from androcentric bias. While Ruth Benedict claimed that the purpose of anthropology is ‘to make the world safe for human difference,’ women faced various obstacles and discrimination and yet still played a crucial part in the formative years of cultural anthropology.
Even if some scholars such as Edward B. Tylor advocated for women to be included in the discipline, a woman, particularly professionally educated, was a rare breed in early ethnology and anthropology studies. We have heard of Mead or Benedict, both well-established figures in Western scientific circles. However, anthropologists and ethnologists from Eastern Europe whose work is important for humanities barely register in public consciousness.
Photograph of Julia Averkieva from Julia Averkieva and Mark A. Sherman’s Kwakiutl String Figures (Vancouver, 1992) YA.1993.b.7126.
Outside of specialist circles, it is unusual to hear about Julia Averkieva, a Soviet student of Franz Boas, or Branislava Sušnik, a Slovenian-Paraguayan anthropologist who has a street named after her in Asunción and a stamp issued by the Paraguayan Post with her portrait on it.
Photograph of Branislava Sušnik from Branislava Sušnik’s Artesanía indígena: ensayo analítico (Asunción, 1986) YA.1992.a.22026.
Equally, women ethnographers, such as the Czech Teréza Nováková, who had to publish her findings in a journal called Housewife (Czech: Domací hospodyně), are rarely celebrated. Nováková was not only a collector of patterns, embroidery, and ceramics, but also a passionate feminist fighting for women’s rights.
Illustration from Teréza Nováková’s, Kroj lidový národní vyšivání na Litomyšlsku (Olomouci, 1890) 7705.h.28.
One of the rare exceptions who managed to establish herself in the Western-oriented discipline was Maria Czaplicka. This Polish-born, British-educated anthropologist registered on the Western-centered academic radar and, to a lesser extent, in the British public awareness.
Portrait of Maria Czaplicka from her book My Siberian Year (London, 1916) 010076.ee.2.
Czaplicka passed her A-levels in partitioned Poland at a male school, as matura (A-levels) from a girls’ school would not allow her to continue to higher education. When, as the first woman in the history of the programme, she was awarded the Mianowski Scholarship, she could finally afford to study abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science and later at Oxford. After her very successful Yenisei expedition, described in detail in the diary My Siberian Year, she became the first female lecturer in anthropology at Oxford University. Unfortunately, she had to give up this position when an academic whom she was replacing came back from the First World War. Czaplicka actively supported suffrage and combated anti-Polish propaganda present in the British press. After assisting Franz Boas in the United States, she moved to a new position at Bristol University. However, her career in a male-dominated academic field started to decline, and in 1921, after failing to secure funding that would allow her to pay her debts, the anthropologist committed suicide.
Czaplicka was one of the trailblazing female academics. Unfortunately, as in the case of many of her female colleagues, her gender and marital status played a role in the way she and her work were perceived. She had to deal with issues her male colleagues in the same discipline never encountered – gender was a stumbling block to a successful future in the field of academia. Even the fact that Czaplicka travelled during her expedition in the company of a man was frowned upon. Women doing fieldwork were perceived with a certain suspicion. In My Siberian Year, Maria recalls: ‘This reminds me…of ingenious conjectures put forward by certain Sibiriaks to account for the appearance of three foreign women in the remote region of their country. One thought we were traders; another said "Spies!"; a third added fresh terrors to the disagreeable possibilities suggested by the first two explanations – we were suffragettes, banished to Siberia by the British Government, through a special arrangement with the Tsar.’
Czaplicka, who herself could proudly wear a ‘suffragette’ badge, is one of the heroines of an exhibition currently on show at The National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw. "Women Ethnographers, Anthropologists, and Professors" aims to change the focus from history to herstory. The curator's talk is available here.
Illustration from Maria Czaplicka’s My Siberian Year (London, 1916) 010076.ee.2. The original caption states ‘The author riding Dolgan fashion with a riding stick’. The presence of two, probably Dolgan, women who are in the picture is not mentioned. Except for her closest European travel companions and a ‘man-servant’, the subjects of Czaplicka’s photo remain nameless, identifiable only by their ethnicity. Such an approach, symptomatic of the early anthropology era, clearly demonstrates the imbalanced scientist-native power dynamic.
Despite facing many obstacles, in due course, women managed to put their stamp on ethnography, ethnology, cultural anthropology, and various fields in science. Czaplicka, Sušnik, Nováková, and their numerous counterparts in Western anthropology took a stand, firmly believing in their own abilities, and forwarded women’s cause. It is indisputable that we should re-evaluate their body of work, taking into consideration today's system of values. Pioneering women in anthropology were a part of the same system as their male colleagues, the system that enabled colonial attitudes that allowed empires to persist and thrive. However, this does not mean that we should not give credit where it is overdue. In the words of French anthropologist Françoise Héritier, ‘indeed, you must never take things as established; you must ask about their basis.’
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
03 February 2023
Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently holding an exhibition of the works of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the best known Lithuanian artist and composer. Over a hundred works are on loan from the M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas where most of the artist’s work is held. The exhibition venue itself has historical links with Poland and Lithuania. In 1790 Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, commissioned two art dealers to create a Royal Collection. By the time the task was completed, Poland had undergone three partitions and finally ceased to exist as a sovereign state. Stanisław August was forced to abdicate. As the British Museum’s trustees were considered to be “too arbitrary and aristocratic”, the collection was left to Dulwich College, on condition that it was made available to the public. What was supposed to be the Stanisław August Poniatowski’s Royal Collection became an important part of the collections of Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest public gallery in England.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 1905. Photograph by Stanisław Filibert Fleury. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was born in 1875 in the small Lithuanian town of Varėna, the eldest of nine children of a church organist. When he was three years old, the family moved to Druskininkai, a resort on the Nemunas river. Čiurlionis was a child prodigy, a pianist by the age of five and organist by the age of six. His talent came to the attention of Prince Michał Ogiński who became the boy’s patron. Čiurlionis moved to Plungė near Klaipėda where, between the ages of 13-16, he attended an orchestral school on the estate of Prince Ogiński. There he learnt to play several other instruments and also sang in the choir.
In later years Ogiński’s patronage enabled Čiurlionis to study piano and composition at the Institute of Music in Warsaw (1894-1899). Čiurlionis also studied harmony, the theory and history of music, natural sciences, astronomy, philosophy, numismatics and mineralogy. Later his studies took him to the Leipzig Conservatoire (1901-1902). He also attended lectures on aesthetics and other subjects at the University of Leipzig, until the death of his patron forced him to abandon his musical studies. Čiurlionis returned to Warsaw and devoted his life to art: he enrolled at the Warsaw School of Drawing and later the School of Fine Arts, supporting himself by giving private lessons. He never abandoned his music – he both painted and composed. During six very intense years (1903-1909) Čiurlionis created 400 musical pieces and 300 works of art. In 1911, diagnosed with severe exhaustion and struggling with his mental health, he was admitted to a sanatorium near Warsaw where he died of pneumonia at the age of 35.
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Family House in Druskininkai, 1905. Pencil on paper. Reproduced in Laima Marija Petruševičiūtė, Melancholy and Sun: Munch and Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2010) LF.31.b.8488
Čiurlionis is a hugely important figure in Lithuanian culture and national consciousness. Not only is his work steeped in Lithuanian mythology and folklore; the artist, who declared his intention to “dedicate to Lithuania” all of his “past and future work”, was actively involved in the Lithuanian national movement and cultural life. In 1906 he returned to Vilnius and helped to organise, and participated in, the first three exhibitions of Lithuanian art. He was also a co-founder and board member of the Lithuanian Artists Union.
The influential Russian art critic Alexandre Benois called Čiurlionis “a genius cursed by fate, one of those true geniuses, mythmakers, who create works of sublime, ineffable meaning”. The artist’s originality has earned him a unique place in the history of art. Even though his direct contact with Western European art was limited, he is linked to symbolism, art nouveau, neo-Romanticism and abstract art. To the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who knew Čiurlionis , he was the first surrealist artist. Čiurlionis was also an innovative composer who used polyphony, modern chords and musical arabesques, and created a series of compositions and open musical forms. Igor Stravinsky, who owned one of Čiurlionis’ paintings, described him as “possibly the most talented member of the Russian School at the beginning of this century”.
Čiurlionis’ art, rich in symbols, has an otherworldly, poetic quality. His art is strongly influenced by Lithuanian landscapes, mythology and folklore. His works are full of natural images like birds, the sun, trees, mountains, grass snakes. In the artist’s early, symbolic works, such natural forms often appear in the form of a human or animal. Most of Čiurlionis‘ paintings are based on dichotomies: light and darkness, morning and evening, life and death, vertical and horizontal.
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Mountain, 1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Sun, 1907. Pastel on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Lithuanian Graveyard, 1909. Tempera on cardboard. Image from Wikimedia Commons
The dreamlike landscapes reflect Čiurlionis’ interest in Eastern philosophy and theosophy. A recurring theme is the figure of Rex – a mythical, benevolent figure of a godlike monarch, omnipotent creator and protector, reflecting the idea of the unity of the Earth and Universe and signifying protection and care.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Rex, 1909. Tempera on canvas. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Fairy Tale (Fairy Tale of the Kings), 1909. Tempera on canvas. Image from Wikimedia Commons
The artist’s deep interest in the relationship between man and the universe is seen, among others, in his cycle of 13 paintings Creation of the World (1905/1906). Čiurlionis wrote that, “This is the Creation of the World, not of our world according to the Bible, but another, fantastical world.”
M.K. Čiurlionis, Creation of the World V, 1905/1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Creation of the World IX, 1905/1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Čiurlionis is considered by some art critics as a pioneer of abstract art. According to the Estonian art critic Aleksis Rannit “Čiurlionis is the first abstract painter and yet few knew it... Kandinsky... only painted his first abstract work in 1911. But already in 1904, Čiurlionis gave the world a body of work that we must class as abstract, of semi-abstract painting”. Rannit’s statement started a discussion among art critics as well as a row with Kandinsky’s widow, who claimed that her husband had never seen Čiurlionis’ paintings and therefore could not have been inspired by them.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sparks III, 1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Winter IV, 1907. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, My Road II, 1907. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
There is a close link between Čiurlionis’ music and his art. His synaesthesia enabled him to see sound in colours and images; he imagined “the whole world as a great symphony”. His paintings often have musical titles, like prelude, scherzo, andante, allegro, finale. Applying the principles of musical composition to painting, the artist created seven sonata cycles. Although other artists at the time also explored the idea of fusion of music and art, trying to “paint music”, Čiurlionis was more interested in the structure of the painting reflecting the structure of musical composition. He painted repetitions of motifs, his lines followed a melodic rhythm, creating harmonies with colours.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars), Allegro, 1908. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sonata No. 7 (Sonata of the Pyramids), Allegro, 1909. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Angel (Angel Prelude), 1909. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
As an artist, for many years Čiurlionis did not achieve the recognition he deserved. His work was ahead of his time yet he remained on the fringes of Western art, in part because he lived away from Europe’s main artistic centres, on the fringes of what was then the Russian Empire. There were several occasions, however, when he came close to gaining an important place in the history of art. In 1908, during his stay in St Petersburg, Čiurlionis developed close links with the members of the Mir isskustva (World of Art) movement, especially Alexandre Benois, but unfortunately soon afterwards the artist’s health deteriorated. Another missed opportunity was the invitation in 1910 to take part in an exhibition held by Neue Künstlervereinigung München. The invitation came too late: Čiurlionis was already seriously ill. At the beginning of the First World War most of Čiurlionis’ works were moved to Moscow. The upheaval caused by the War and later by the Russian Revolution meant that planned critical works on Čiurlionis did not appear. In 1919 Čiurlionis’ works were returned to Lithuania. After a brief period of independence, the Second World War II and annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union followed. Čiurlionis’ works were not exhibited until the 1950s.
The 1960s saw a renewed interest in Čiurlionis in the Soviet Union but the modernist aspects of his art were often ignored. Until the restoration of Lithuanian independence, Čiurlionis’ original artwork wasn’t easily accessible to foreign art historians which excluded him from foreign art histories. His works rarely left Lithuania, partly for ideological reasons and partly because they are fragile (most of his works are tempera or pastels on paper or card as the artist could not afford oil paints or canvasses). However, there has been an increase in international interest in Čiurlionis in the last 20 or so years. His works have been exhibited in cities such as Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, Milan, and Helsinki. It was high time they came to London too.
Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections
References and further reading:
Kathleen Soriano, M.K. Čiurlionis: between worlds (London, 2022)
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: album; preface by Rasutė Andriušytė- Žukienė (Kaunas, 2007) LD.31.b.1395
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911): jo laikas ir musų laikas = His time and our time (Vilnius, 2013) EMF.2015.a.81
Laima Marija Petruševičiūtė, Melancholy and Sun: Munch and Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2010) LF.31.b.8488
Rasa Andriušytė- Žukienė, M.K. Čiurlionis: tarp simbolizmo ir modernizmo (Vilnius, 2004) YF.2007.a.10706
Vytautas Landsbergis, Visas Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2008) YF.2009.a.8557
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: twórczość, osobowość, środowisko (Warsaw, 2001) YF.2004.b.618
Antanas Andrijauskas, ‘Musical paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Modernism’, Music in Art, Vol. 37, No. 1/ 2 (Spring –Fall 2012), pp. 249-264. 5990.227850
Genovaitė Kazokas, Musical paintings: life and work of M.K. Čiurlionis (1875-1911) (Vilnius, 2009) YD.2010.a.2999
05 January 2023
The digitised photographic archive of Siberian indigenous peoples (available online from the British Library’s website) is a rich source of information about late Russian and early Soviet colonisation of Siberia. The collection of over 4000 images is the result of five years of exploratory work led by David Anderson (University of Aberdeen,) and Craig Campbell (University of Alberta) in Central Siberia. The research group digitised glass plate negatives in five Siberian archives: Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Ekaterinburg, and Krasnoiarsk. Although many photographs lack any original descriptions, and thus it is not always easy to identify where and when they were taken, the visual archive nevertheless provides great insight into the lives of Siberian indigenous peoples, in particular, Mansi, Nenets, Evenki, Buryat, Karagas, Soyot, Nganasan, Dolgan, Khakas, Khanti, and Kety.
In their articles based on the results of their research, Anderson and Campbell suggested several common tropes to interpret the photographs of indigenous peoples. They explored the themes of ‘travel photography’, ‘ethnographic photography’, ‘expedition photography’, and ‘community-driven portrait photography’, and provided examples. This, however, is by no means an exhaustive list of possible tropes to explore the vast visual collection. Drawing on Anderson and Craig’s observations, I would like to suggest exploring the subject which arrested my attention and the attention of several colleagues at the BL: the visual representation of indigenous childhood and its transformation during the time of intense Soviet collectivisation in the 1920s and 1930s.
Taimyr. The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
Children during their class at school
The British Library’s digital photographic collections contain many photographs representing children, taken by various photographers – whose names are not always identifiable – during their expeditions. Although the goals of each expedition require some separate research, it is often possible to deduce from the photographs whether the photographers took pictures for ethnographic purposes or for political propaganda.
The ethnographic expeditions to Siberia usually sought to collect information about the ‘sparse’ native peoples of Siberia, and the children in such photographs are usually portrayed as immersed in their families’ social and professional lives, or engaged in traditional games. They are dressed in the national costumes which represent the ‘exotic’ features of Siberian peoples. It was a common colonial practice to collect various artefacts representing indigenous cultures, such as traditional clothing, musical instruments, tools, and housewares which would form vast museum collections.
A woman with her child
Taim. A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Taim. The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag. 1938. Photo by Tyurin
Taim. Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads. She is considered a skilled worker. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
A woman with two children. 1927. Photo by Tyurin
Studies of indigenous childhood had been one of the prominent areas of study in the Russian Empire’s ethnography, and it became even more significant in the 1920s and 30s, when the Soviet State rushed to construct a new society by culturally assimilating Siberian peoples. Indigenous children became the chief target of Soviet policies concerned with the creation of new generations of Soviet people. The photographs of children were not ideologically neutral: they were designed to show the transformation of the old into the new.
Pictures of children taken during the Soviet expeditions often represented them as integrated into Soviet culture rather than as representatives of their national cultures. Soviet photographs of children were often intended to demonstrate the result of Soviet reforms and the transformation of ‘savages’ into educated Young Pioneers. In the photographs we see the children dressed in uniform Soviet clothing.
A group of pioneer-children. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)
A group photograph of Evenki. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)
They are playing Soviet games.
Taim, Volochanka. Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom
The Nizhne-tunguskaia expedition. Children making a pyramid. 1925
We also find pictures of children visiting a picture gallery, something that can be interpreted as their symbolic initiation into the world of Soviet ‘civilised’ culture.
Buryat children visiting a picture gallery. 24.07.1923
Many such photographs were taken during the census expeditions of 1926, which were conducted in cooperation with geographers and ethnographers. The census was a worldwide colonial statistical practice, and the Soviets employed and developed new approaches to classifying the peoples of their vast empire. The indigenous peoples were surveyed within their households and individually to collect demographic data describing their diet, economy, trade data, beliefs, folklore, and so on. If the statistical information collected during the census was intended to provide an objective summary of life in the remote parts of the Soviet Union, then the photographs often offered a somewhat idealised picture of the social inclusion of indigenous peoples within Soviet life. The photographs of children were especially important as they depicted the social and cultural production of the new generation of loyal Soviet citizens.
Numerous aspects of Soviet modernisation were introduced in indigenous settlements, such as medical care, veterinary services, and housing. Often photographers chose to take pictures of children in these new Soviet settings.
Tura. An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital. December 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
The most common setting for the pictures were school classrooms: the photographers were specifically advised to document ‘the dawn of cultural and primary school education’ among Siberian peoples, and the work of teachers liquidating illiteracy (Anderson, Batashev, Campbell, 2015, p. 501). To the modern eye, these pictures might look somewhat dystopian: students sit under a poster showing Stalin surrounded by children, located next to another with a wolf trying to kill two little pigs; children eat their meal under a poster instructing ‘eat only from your plate’; or a photograph taken during a sport class where all children synchronically perform the same exercise with a huge portrait of Stalin in the background.
Tura. Children playing a game at the district health department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. A group of students during the May Day demonstration. May 1, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. Children at the Turinsk District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
The most touching pictures are probably those where we see groups of children sitting in densely bedded dormitories. Taken away from their families – often involuntarily – children stayed in the residential schools during the academic year and were returned to their parents only for the summer holidays.
Tajm, Letov'e. The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin
The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. Girls’ bedroom. 1925
Away from their families, children were expected to develop a sense of belonging to the larger Soviet society with its new system of values. The residential schools were also instrumental in the process of reorganising the indigenous populations of Siberia into cooperative settlements and demolishing their original tribal structures. During the first years of the Soviet Union the State tried to accommodate the educational needs of reindeer herders by initiating an experimental project of nomadic schools, which moved together with the clan, but by the end of the 1930s this practice was terminated. The number of residential schools in various parts of Siberia, on the other hand, reached 20 by 1935. Often reindeer herders chose to stay close to their children instead of continuing the traditional nomadic lifestyle. As a result, the introduction of residential schools greatly decreased the nomadic way of living, and saw indigenous Siberians become more settled.
The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’. 1925
The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
In the 1990s, several cultural initiatives tried to revive the idea of nomadic schools as a means of restoring traditional lifestyles and culture. Several nomadic schools were successfully organised, for instance, in the Republic of Sakha.
The residential schools continue to run in different part of Siberia, and a basic internet search shows many negative feelings associated with them. The experiences of indigenous peoples in the residential schools are actively explored by contemporary scholars. For example, in the 1990s, Alexia Bloch, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, collected accounts of elderly Evenki women, who studied at residential schools. Relying on these records, Bloch conclusively demonstrated a blend of positive feeling about the schools contrasted with ambivalence about the termination of the Soviet colonial project in general. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Evenki women recalled their time at the residential schools with a sense of nostalgia for the socialist era.
For many indigenous children, residential schools became a source of radical social mobility within Soviet society. After graduation, young people received an opportunity to continue their studies at university and move to big cities in central Russia, or secure more prestigious jobs back home. We do not know which paths were taken by the children in the photographs in the British Library’s digital collection, and this might be one of the questions which scholars could explore using the BL’s vast visual archive.
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
David G. Anderson, ‘The Turukhansk Polar Census Expedition of 1926–1927 at the Crossroads of Two Scientific Traditions’, Sibirica, 5: 1 (2006), pp. 24–61.
David G. Anderson and Craig Campbell, ‘Picturing Central Siberia: The Digitization and Analysis of Early Twentieth-Century Central Siberian Photographic Collections’, Sibirica, 8: 2 (2009), pp. 1–42)
David G. Anderson, Mikhail S. Batashev and Craig Campbell, ‘The photographs of Baluev: capturing the “socialist transformation” of the Krasnoyarsk northern frontier, 1938-1939’ in From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, ed. by Maja Kominko (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 487–530. ELD.DS.46613
Georgii Vinogradov, Etnografiia detstva i russkaia narodnaia kulʹtura v Sibiri (Moscow, 2009) YF.2011.a.853
«Provintsialʹnaia» nauka: etnografiia v Irkutske v 1920-e gody, ed. by A. Sirina (Irkutsk, 2013).
Olga Laguta and Melissa Shih-hui Lin, ‘Language and Cultural Planning in Siberia: Boarding School System Represented in the Texts of the Siberian Indigenous Writers’, Taiwan Journal of Indigenous Studies, 12: 1 (2019), pp. 1–37.
Sargylana Zhirkova, ‘School on the Move: A Case Study: Nomadic Schooling of the Indigenous Evenk children in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia (Russian Far East)’ (unpublished master’s dissertation, University of Tromsø, 2006)
Alexia Bloch, Red Ties and Residential Schools: Indigenous Siberians in a Post-Soviet State (Philadelphia, 2004). m04/19814
Alexia Bloch, ‘Ideal Proletarians and Children of Nature: Evenki Reimagining Schooling in a Post-Soviet Era’, in Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Traditional Knowledge, ed. by Erich Kasten (Münster, 1998), pp. 139–157. m03/16772
Alexia Bloch, ‘Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia’, Cultural Anthropology, 20: 4 (2005), pp. 534–569. 3491.661000
Natalia P. Koptseva, Ksenia V. Reznikova, Natalia N. Pimenova and Anastasia V. Kistova, ‘Cultural and Anthropological Studies of Indigenous Peoples of Krasnoyarsk Krai Childhood (based on the field studies of Siberian Federal University in 2010-2013)’, Journal of Siberian Federal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 8 (2014), pp. 1312–1326.
30 December 2022
C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.
D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.
E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.
F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.
G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive!
H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.
I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.
J is for Jubilees.
Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.
K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.
L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.
M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.
N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.
O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.
Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.
Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan.
R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.
T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.
Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar.
W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.
X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)
Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!
Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.
Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
22 November 2022
Good news! If you have a British Library Reader Pass, it is now possible to access most of the Library’s East View e-resources remotely on a personal device. From digital newspaper collections and election ephemera to de-classified archival documents, the resources include a wide range of material originating in the Baltic states, Belarus, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.
Available titles include the Chernobyl Newspapers Collection, 1979-1990; the Social Movements, Elections and Ephemera collection, including the Euromaidan Protests in Ukraine and the Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Leaflets, 1942-1944; Russian central and regional newspapers; the Pravda Ukrainy Digital Archive; the Izvestiia and Pravda digital archives; periodicals of Central Asia and the Caucasus; and The Moscow News (1930-2014) digital archive, as well as statistical and bibliographic databases.
In March 2021, we shared some newly acquired e-resources on our blog. Since then, we have added a further three collections to our offering: the Belarus Presidential Election 2020 Ephemera database; an extension to the existing Chernobyl newspaper and archival collections; and the Poliarnaia Kochegarka Digital Archive. By the beginning of 2023 we will add the Demokratychna Ukraina Digital Archive.
For more information on the Library’s East View collections available for remote access, and for detailed instructions on how to connect using a personal advice, please visit our website.
03 November 2022
Call for PhD project partners: ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’
The British Library is pleased to invite applications from HEI partners to co-supervise the AHRC PhD project ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’.
Slavonic and Eastern European collections at the British Library are one of its strengths. Developed since the mid‐19th century, the collections are broad and diverse, including a wide range of materials in Slavonic languages and originating in countries referred to as Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, despite the diversity of the collections, marginalised voices and the complexities of relations between the cultures are not easily visible through the collections’ structures and descriptions. The British Library co‐supervisors have identified postcolonial research and its application to curatorial practices as a priority approach to these collections, likely to reveal many meaningful gaps and contested interpretations. The team of curators are looking to engage with an HEI partner on a project that can be beneficial for the entire collection area and therefore offer an opportunity for wide interpretation of this CDP.
The purpose of this CDP project is first to advance postcolonial and decolonisation work in the above area studies and then to apply this to the British Library’s collections in the form of policy, review and/or recommendations. Focusing on the Belarusian, Polish, Russian and/or Ukrainian collections, the study will therefore provide the foundation for a new understanding of decolonising practices in the context of Eastern Europe, as well as the Library’s policy on collecting, curating and interpreting the collections.
Cover of Taras Shevchenko, Dumky ta pisni Kobzaria (Kyiv, 1905). The book, part of a series, was issued by Kievskaia starina, a monthly magazine for Ukrainian studies. Originally published in Russian, the magazine was renamed Ukraïna in 1907 and appeared in Ukrainian. Here, the title of the book is written in Ukrainian in Russian orthography.
The collections under investigations can be taken holistically using an Area Studies approach; on a country or regional level; thematically (e.g., as a comparative study of colonial and imperial approaches and practices within Eastern Europe); or focus on ethnic, national or transnational groups (e.g., material produced in minority and minoritised languages and communities). The approaches can also vary from concentrating on theoretical issues and building a theoretical framework, creating comparative analysis or conducting case studies. The potential focus and research questions will be refined and developed with the HEI partner and (once recruited) the student.
Research questions can include (but are not limited to) the following:
- What are the major theoretical problems with the application and adaptation of postcolonial theory to East European postcolonial studies and decolonisation practices? What are common or specific features of postcolonial discourse in East European Studies and how should they be taken into account in interpretation, description and development of collections?
- How can book and print history, and/or the history of collecting be analysed within the postcolonial discourse?
- Is there a need, necessity and/or obligation for the Library to engage with Diasporas, national or transnational communities in the UK and in the countries of origin? What methodological approaches should be applied?
By examining the collections through a critical, historical lens and identifying points of contestation in interpretation, potential outcomes of the project could include:
- highlighting the ‘hidden’ collections and gaps in materials printed in minority languages, by oppressed groups and nationalist movements, as well as materials that represent the complex identities of authors and producers across the present political borders between the countries;
- suggesting the most appropriate language and vocabulary for the purpose of collection discovery and interpretation;
- contributing to decolonising metadata for the British Library’s records;
- suggesting means of communicating and promoting the outcomes of the review.
The placement provides an opportunity to work on a project that will deliver a practical output by improving discovery and accessibility of one of the largest heritage collections in the world, including for the communities who create and are represented in the collections. It also offers an opportunity to develop cultural diplomacy skills by liaising with organisations with varied governance practices and cultural backgrounds, for example: the Ukrainian Institute London, various Polish cultural organisations (e.g. the Pilsudski Institute), COSEELIS, Pushkin House etc.
Based within the Library's European, Americas and Oceania Collections team, the student will have access to advice and support from across this team, and work closely with a smaller team of East European curators. Depending on the student’s interests and project needs there will be opportunities to learn about other roles and activities within the Library (e.g., metadata, cataloguing teams, events, etc). The student will also have access to the Library’s extensive training programmes.
The deadline for applications is Friday 25 November 2022, 5pm. For more information on the project and how to apply, see the Library website.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, Olga Topol and Katie McElvanney, Curators East European Collections
European studies blog recent posts
- Taras Shevchenko display at the British Library
- From the Book ‘Wooden Idols’: An Anti-Book
- Siberian Ethnographic Museums: Indigenous Lives Exhibited
- The Colonisation of Novaya Zemlya through the Photographs and Short Stories of Konstantin Nosilov
- Traders, spies, suffragettes? Women in cultural anthropology
- Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: a genius cursed by fate?
- The Photographic Collection of Indigenous Childhood
- An A to Z of the European Studies Blog 2022
- British Library East View e-resources now available remotely
- Call for PhD project partners: ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’