European studies blog

160 posts categorized "Russia"

04 August 2021

British Intellectuals and Russian Bears

To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections. 

In 1926, the Russian Bear first spoke English: twenty-one tales about bears were collected and translated into English by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees. In The Book of the Bear these two British women taught the Russian Bear to speak English. Ray Garnett (Rachel Marshall, wife of David Garnett and sister of the translator and diarist Frances Partridge) shared with the British public her vision of how it might look like. The Russian Bear in its English reincarnation appeared to be well connected to the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals and even to the British Museum Library (David’s great-grandfather and grandfather both worked there).

But why did it draw such attention?

Title page of The Book of the Bear with an illustration

Title page of The Book of the Bear 

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) received a classical education at Cambridge, which, however, did not prevent her from being truly interested in Russia. Harrison developed an interest in this distant and strange country as a child, when her father, who had business connections in the Baltic region, brought home "caviar, cranberries and deer tongues" as a gift from Russia. Later, by 1919, she completed the Russian language course at the University of Cambridge and was able to teach it, which she did for several years, using her original methodology. Despite the fact that later her interest in Russia took an academic form, Russia forever remained for Harrison a country where bears with a mysterious Russian soul live. The bear image was one of the key ones for Harrison, especially considering her passion for totemism. She once even address her friend Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky “Dear Bear Prince”.

Page from The Book of the Bear with an illustration

The opening of 'The Bear and the Crane and the Horse' in The Book of the Bear

In her preface to The Book of the Bear Harrison explained:

The bear is “in all respects like a man,” but there are many men – the stories here collected are with one exception all Russian, and in them the beast is seen as a true Russian, friendly, hospitable, cheery, the best of comrades, the worst of officials, tolerant of all social vices, pitiless only to the pretentious.

Pages from The Book of the Bear

'The Bear's Lullaby' in The Book of the Bear

Svyatopolk Mirsky saw serious philosophical foundations in Harrison's totemism:

Everyone who knew her knew about the serious emotional significance she attached to what she considered her totem — the bear. Her bear cult - an emotional consequence of her anthropological research - was, it seems to me, a symbol of her entire religious worldview. Since the bear, the most human-like of the beasts <...> symbolized for her the unity between the living nature and the identity of man and beast. I venture to suggest that one of the psychological reasons for her love for Russia was the figure of the Russian bear, which had long and firmly embedded in the tradition thanks to British cartoonists. In any case, the psychological identity Russia = Bear was undoubtedly real for her, and played a significant role in her attachment to Russia.

Pages from The Book of the Bear

Illustration and page from the story 'Hare Ivanich' in The Book of the Bear

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Jane Ellen Harrison, and Hope Mirrlees, The Book of the Bear: being twenty-one tales newly translated from the Russian. The pictures by Ray Garnett, etc. (London, 1926). 12403.aaaa.26.

More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:

Bears of Bern – Fictional and Real

‘Ill scratches the bear’, an endangered proverbial species

Paddington exhibition banner

02 July 2021

The mystery link between The Brass Bottle and Soviet football revealed

This is a general knowledge quiz question: “What is the link between a brass bottle and football”? Sorry, wrong question. The correct question should go like this: “What is the link between The Brass Bottle and Soviet football”? If you have ever read the comedy novel by F. Anstey (real name Thomas Anstey Guthrie), The Brass Bottle (London, 1900; 12632.i.26.), or seen one of the films based on this novel, you might remember that this is a story about an ordinary man who found a jinn. The novel influenced not only George Orwell, but also a young unknown Soviet writer Lazar Lagin, who read it as a boy in an early Russian translation.

Cover of the 1946 Penguin edition of The Brass Bottle by F. Anstey

Cover of the 1946 Penguin edition of The Brass Bottle by F. Anstey. Source: Wikipedia

In Lagin’s fantasy published in the most popular Soviet children’s magazines Pioner (Young Pioneer) in 1938, a Soviet boy, Vol’ka, fishes out a strange jug from the Moscow River. Old Jinn Khottabych was imprisoned there by an angry sultan and Vol’ka lets him out. Khottabych is happy to fulfil all Vol’ka’s wishes, but at first he finds the life and customs in the Soviet Union too strange and egalitarian for his liking.

Pages from Lagin's story Starik Khottabych published in Pioner in 1938 

Pages from Lagin's story Starik Khottabych published in Pioner in 1938 

On one occasion, they go to a football match between popular teams Chisel and Puck. Vol’ka and his friend Zhenia – both big Chisel fans – want to impress Khottabych by the beauty and energy of football, which has become one of the most important sports in the USSR. Lagin warns his readers that “During the days of football competitions, the entire population of Moscow is split into two camps who do not understand one another. In one camp, there are football enthusiasts. In the other camp, we find mysterious people, completely indifferent to this fascinating sport”.

At the very beginning, Khottabych belongs to the second camp. He struggles to understand (and sometimes I still do, too) why 22 strong, young men are chasing one ball: “Will these twenty-two nice young men have to run over such a vast field, lose strength, fall and push each other only to be able to touch a plain leather ball for a split moment? Is it because there was just one ball for all of them to play with?”

Once I quoted Khottabych to one of my football-fan friends, and he in full seriousness started explaining the rules of the game to me. Little did he know what Khottabych had done in Lagin’s book! Khottabych gives each player a ball to enjoy: “Something unheard of in the history of football has happened. It is impossible to explain from the point of view of the laws of nature either: twenty-two brightly coloured morocco balls fell from the sky and rolled across the football pitch”.

Illustration showing 22 balls falling from the sky onto the football pitch

Illustration from Starik Khottabych showing 22 balls falling from the sky onto the football pitch (Rotov, 1958)

The game is stopped, but not ruined. However, because of the episode with the 22 balls, the Puck team missed a good opportunity to score, and Khottabych, feeling increasingly guilty, starts to support it. Of course, Vol’ka and Khottabych end up on different sides of the barricade: Vol’ka supports Chisel and Khottabych – Puck!

Everyone knows that cheating is bad. But, maybe, just a little bit... Not being aware of Khottabych’s growing sympathy towards Puck, Vol’ka is carried away with the idea of exercising the magic power of the jinn. He asks Khottabych to “move Puck’s goalpost a little bit, when Chisel are kicking”. And Khottabych does the complete opposite:

The second goal in three minutes [to Chisel]! And both times through no fault of the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper fought like a lion, but what could he do? At the moment when a Puck player was kicking, the upper bar of the Chisel goal moved up by itself to let the ball fly past his fingertips. Who should he tell about it? Who would believe it? The goalkeeper felt sad and scared like a little boy who had gotten into a deep forest at night.

Illustration from Starik Khottabych showing Khottabych moving the goal post to help Puck to score

Illustration from Starik Khottabych showing Khottabych moving the goal post to help Puck to score (Val’k, 1953)

But only when the Puck goalpost moved inwards to prevent Chisel from scoring, does the penny drop and Vol’ka realises that Khottabych has become a football fan – he could no longer control himself and used all his magic power to help his team. By the end of the first half Puck was winning 24:0! Vol’ka became very angry: “- I demand, I finally order you to stop this mockery immediately! - he hissed at Khottabych. - I will unfriend you forever! Choose: me or Puck! - You’re a football lover yourself, so can’t you understand me? - the old man pleaded. But, this time he understood by looking at Vol’ka's face, that their friendship may really end”. After Khottabych pulls out a hair from his beard and mumbles some spells, all 11 Chisel players suddenly become unwell and are diagnosed with measles. The game is stopped and the score is declared invalid. The story goes that the next day the footballers woke up perfectly healthy. “This rare fact was described in detail in an article by the famous professor L.I. Pertussis. His article was published in the scientific medical journal ‘Measles and Illness’. The article is called ‘Here You Go!’ and is so successful that it is completely impossible to get the issue of the journal with this article in public libraries. So you, dear readers, better not even try. You won't find it anyway, and will just waste your time”.

Cover of The Old Genie Hottabych with an illustration of the genie and two footballs

Lazar' Lagin, The Old Genie Hottabych. Translated by Fainna Solasko. Illustrated by B. Markevich (Moscow, [1961]). 011388.p.27.

I should probably confirm at this point that even the British Library does not hold this article, but instead holds several editions of The Brass Bottle and quite a few books by Lagin, including several editions of the story about Khottabych and even an English translation of it. Therefore, you won’t waste your time if you come to the Library some time between the Euro 2020 matches, as you may explore the links between bottles, jinni, football and Soviet pioneers for yourself.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

 

12 March 2021

New Slavonic e-resources at the British Library

With the tentative but hopeful news that the British Library Reading Rooms will be able to re-open after 12 April, we wanted to highlight some new Slavonic e-resources. Like the Library's other subscribed resources, the following Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian-language digital collections and archives will be available to access onsite in the St Pancras and Boston Spa Reading Rooms. To view the full list of databases and to access them in the Reading Rooms, please use this link.

We are working on making these resources available remotely to all registered readers, but – bear with us – it is a mammoth job. In the meantime, you can find a number of (mostly) free digital resources via our blog and collection guide.

Cover of 30 Dnei from 1925 with an illustration of a steam train in a station

Cover of 30 Dnei from September 1925. Credit: East View

30 Dnei Digital Archive

Founded in 1925 in Moscow 30 Dnei (30 Days) was an illustrated Soviet literary journal famous for the serialised publications of works such as Il’f and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf. It was also known for its visually striking covers designed by famous Soviet artists and photojournalists, including Aleksandr Rodchenko. After falling foul of the central government in later years, the journal ceased publication soon after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.

30 Dnei originally appeared as a literary supplement to Gudok (The Whistle), the daily newspaper of Soviet railway workers. In the 1920s, Gudok became known for its satirical sketches, to which Il’f and Petrov were regular contributors. The Library holds imperfect runs of Gudok from 1921 and 1922 on microfilm (MFM.MF1284V).

 

Belarus anti-fascist resistance leaflet, 1942 

Belarusian anti-fascist resistance leaflet, 1942. Credit: East View

Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Leaflets and Press

These two collections consist of 97 World War II leaflets produced during the period of German occupation of Belarus in 1941–1944, as well as 30 newspaper titles published between 1942 and 1945. Most of the leaflets were published clandestinely by the multiple Soviet guerilla (partisan) detachments, as well as by the scores of underground resistance groups which operated in German-occupied cities and villages. The majority of the newspapers were printed by underground resistance groups in secret printing press facilities operating in small Belarusian towns in the territories occupied by the Germans, while others were distributed by Belarusian partisan detachments operating from remote areas of Belarus. The materials are in Belarusian and Russian.

 

Front page of Prapor peremohy from 1 January 1987

Front page of Prapor peremohy from 1 January 1987. Credit: East View

Chernobyl Newspapers Collection

Following the Library’s recent purchase of the digital archive, The Chernobyl Files, we have acquired an additional electronic collection of newspapers published in towns in the exclusion zone and its immediate vicinity. They include three previously unavailable local newspapers, Prapor peremohy, Tribuna energetika, and Tribuna pratsi, and cover the period 1979–1990.

 

Cover of Nedelia with a photograph of people sledging

Cover of Nedelia, 28 December 1963 - 4 January 1964. Credit: East View

Nedelia Digital Archive

Founded in 1960, Nedelia (Week) was a popular illustrated Soviet weekly newspaper that began as a Sunday supplement to Izvestiia under the editorship of Aleksey Adzhubey, the son-in-law of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It was one of the very few Soviet periodicals that kept the official Communist Party propaganda to a minimum, covering instead cultural, social, and political happenings with a certain degree of light-heartedness, which perhaps was the main reason behind its popularity.

 

Ogonek title page from 1903 with an Art Nouveau illustration of a woman reading

Ogonek, no. 1, 1903. Credit: East View

Ogonek (St. Petersburg) Digital Archive

Established in 1899 and in continuous print until 1918, Ogonek started as a weekly illustrated supplement to the influential St. Petersburg-based newspaper Birzhevye Vedomosti (British Library: Mic.B.1089). Ogonek later became a separate entity, attracting some of the most notable journalists, photographers and critics of the period.

Russia in Transition

This digital collection contains primary source materials, ranging from samizdat newspapers to flyers to posters to booklets and brochures from 1989 to 1993, encompassing a period of unprecedented social and political activism in Russia. In addition to this new collection, the British Library also has access to a large number of digitised election related materials from the countries of the former Soviet Union (see Social Movements, Elections, Ephemera).

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

Materials republished from products originally made available by East View Information Services

12 February 2021

Multi-tasking women from the 1920s to the 2020s

One of our key roles as curators is to explore the contemporary resonance of the Library’s collections in national and international contexts. I was acutely reminded of this two weeks ago when showing an item at an event connected to the exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. Together with colleagues from the European, Americas and Oceania collections, we each selected and discussed an item that we felt spoke to the themes of the exhibition and went beyond its UK focus, before joining the audience for an informal Q&A session.

Beginning with women's suffrage cartoons from a 19th-century newspaper published in Aotearoa New Zealand, the session also introduced our online audience to the cartonera book Afro Latina by the Afro-Brazilian lesbian author Formiga, as well as a work by the 19th-century French writer, feminist and anarchist Victoire Léodile Béra, known as André Léo.

The event was originally scheduled to take place in June 2020 at the British Library but was postponed – along with the exhibition – due to the pandemic and eventually re-conceived as an online session. Like many of the Library’s brilliant online events over the past year, the format allowed us to reach a much larger audience, with close to 100 people tuning in.

Ialtinskaia Delegatka

Ialtinskaia Delegatka. Yalta, 1927. Add MS 57556.

The item I presented was an enormous 2-metre long, hand-drawn Soviet wall newspaper, Ialtinskaia Delegatka (The Yalta Woman Delegate). Created by a local women’s committee in Yalta, Crimea, in the late 1920s, it contains reports on their achievements, as well as amateur poetry, drawings and stories intended to inspire and promote communist values.

In the bottom right hand corner is a drawing of a woman carrying out an epic feat of multitasking. She is simultaneously writing (possibly carrying out committee work for the newspaper), cooking, cleaning and watching a child. I find it particularly fascinating as it encapsulates the different – often conflicting and gendered - responsibilities that the new Soviet woman was supposed to balance: those of a Communist citizen, worker, mother and, increasingly by the late 1920s, wife.

Close up of a drawing from the newspaper of a woman simultaneously writing, cooking, cleaning and caring for a child

Close up of a drawing from the newspaper of a woman simultaneously writing, cooking, cleaning and caring for a child

The newspaper is important as it gives us an idea of how the 1917 Russian Revolution and the first years of Bolshevik rule affected the lives of many women – as seen from the perspective of women themselves.

The Bolshevik revolution established the legal equality of women and men. In October 1918, legislation known as The Family Code granted illegitimate children the same legal rights as legitimate ones, secularised marriage, and allowed a couple to take either the husband or wife’s name once married. Divorce became easily obtainable, abortion was legalised in 1920, and communal facilities for childcare and domestic tasks were introduced with the aim of relieving women of household chores and dismantling the traditional, nuclear family. In 1919, a Women’s Bureau (Zhenotdel) was established. Its purpose was to disseminate propaganda among working class women and attempt to engage them in public life and the revolutionary process.

Cover of the women's journal Rabotnitsa featuring a woman worker with a banner

Cover of the women's journal Rabotnitsa, No. 1, 1923. BL copies at Mic.F.866 and Mic.A.20186. Image from Wikimedia Commons

By the mid- to late-1920s, both public and party attitudes towards family policy had become more conservative. This was partly in response to the social impact of some of the reforms of 1918, particularly de facto marriages, which were seen to in fact create inequality for women.

High unemployment among women in the 1920s and rising numbers of homeless children played a significant role in the return to the more traditional family unit. In 1926 a new marriage law granted registered and unregistered marriages equal rights and placed more emphasis on the obligations that came with marriage. Plans to free women from childcare and housework by creating communal facilities had also failed to fully materialise – as is perhaps clear from the drawing of the multi-tasking woman.

In the 1930s, Stalin further reversed many of the rights granted to women and families in the 1918 Family Code. Abortion was banned, divorce became extremely difficult to obtain, and the law on the rights of illegitimate children was revoked.

Stalin also closed the Zhenotdel in 1930 on the basis that women’s emancipation had been achieved in the Soviet Union and the department was therefore no longer needed. Despite this, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, women constituted (on average) only 3–4% of the party’s Central Committee.

Thus, the early Communist vision of women’s equality and liberation was never fully realised. As emphasis shifted back towards the traditional family unit in the 1930s, women were faced with the double burden of combining domestic duties with full-time work.

Although the newspaper had been at the back of my mind before the pandemic, it took on an additional significance in the context of the past year’s events. On seeing the drawing of the multi-tasking woman, one colleague remarked that it gave her goosebumps. Across the world, women are doing more unpaid domestic chores and family care as a result of the pandemic, often in addition to other work responsibilities. According to global data from UN Women, it could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality.

Stay home advert showing a woman carrying out domestic chores and home-schooling children while the only man depicted is seen relaxing on the sofa

Official social media advert from January 2021 urging people to ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’

The use of gender stereotypes in the media only serves to reinforce this inequality. Just the day before the event, it transpired that the UK government had withdrawn a ‘Stay Home’ advert after it was criticised for its sexist portrayal of women. The advert showed a woman carrying out domestic chores and home-schooling children while the only man depicted is seen relaxing on the sofa. 

The backlash to the advert, along with the countless inspiring stories of activism featured in the Unfinished Business exhibition, demonstrate that the fight for gender equality is far from over.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.

Further reading and references:

Barbara Alpern Engel, Women in Russia, 1700–2000 (Cambridge; New York, 2004)

Catherine Baker, ed., Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (London; New York, 2017)

Elizabeth A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1997)

Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 (London, 1999)

Marianna Muravyeva and Natalia Novikova, eds., Women's History in Russia: (Re)Establishing the Field (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014).

Melanie Ilic, ed., The Palgrave Handbook of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Russia and the Soviet Union (London, 2017).

Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930 (Princeton, NJ; Oxford, 1991)

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905–1917 (Pittsburg, Pa., 2010)

Rosalind Marsh, ed., Women in Russia and Ukraine (Cambridge, 1996)

Wilma Rule and Norma C. Noonan, eds., Russian Women in Politics and Society (Westport, Conn.; London, 1996)

26 November 2020

Celebrating the centenary of Sovremennye zapiski

This year marks the centenary of Sovremennye zapiski (‘Contemporary Notes’), the most successful Russian-language thick journal published by émigrés during the interwar period.

Appearing in Paris in November 1920, the first issue of Sovremennye zapiski was published by a group of five Russian émigrés in Paris. This ‘thick’ journal was an important literary and socio-political publication for the roughly 50,000 Russian immigrants in Paris during the interwar period. It would continue to appear irregularly until April 1940.

Cover of the first issue of Sovremennye zapiski

The first issue of Sovremennye zapiski, November 1920, P.P.4853.ak.

The post-October 1917 Russian emigration was composed of a diverse, fractured and confused population, drawn from every level of pre-revolutionary Russian society. There was a sense of outrage and helplessness among the émigré population as they attempted to establish new lives in indifferent foreign countries, receiving delayed and unverifiable news of events in Russia filtered through a chaotic telegraph system and the foreign press. From its first issue, Sovremennye zapiski both addressed the condition of exile for many Russian writers and offered analyses of events within the RSFSR.

Sovremennye zapiski provided Russian émigré writers with an important publishing forum, offering a livelihood as well as the prestige of contributing to a continuation of the illustrious Russian thick journal tradition. A ‘thick’ journal could publish work that writers would find difficult to place elsewhere, as émigré newspapers offered too little space and book contracts were hard to come by. While Sovremennye zapiski is known for publishing the early prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the journal would also publish the prose of other well-known Russian writers such as Nobel prize-winner, Ivan Bunin, the popular prose of Teffi (pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya), and the complex work of celebrated Silver Age poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. Sovremennye zapiski also offered their émigré audience the work of the new Russian writers who were developing their own voices beyond their homeland, such as Gaito Gazdanov. Divided into the traditional categories of Russian thick journals, Sovremennye zapiski offered an illustrious belles-lettres section, informed and thoughtful political and social commentary, literary criticism and poetry, as well as reviews of cultural trends and recent Russian-language works.

The shadow of revolution and the flight of émigrés from civil war looms large over this first issue of Sovremennye zapiski, five years on from the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. This first issue of the journal included the first instalment of Count Aleksei Tolstoy’s trilogy, The Road to Calvary, in which he traces the fate of the Russian intelligentsia on the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Another notable contribution is In the Homeland by one of the journal’s editors, Mark Vishniak, a feature that would become a regular column commenting on Russian affairs and offering émigrés information and insight into their homeland.

The programmatic statement with which the first issue of Sovremennye zapiski opens, states that the new journal is uniquely placed to preserve a Russian culture for which there is no longer a place within Russia; ‘Sovremennye zapiski is devoted, first and foremost, to Russian culture. Our journal has been published at a particularly difficult moment for Russian culture.’ This editorial statement proclaims that only Sovremennye zapiski itself, can be considered the legitimate heir to this tradition, as it will publish the best work produced by Russian émigré writers, regardless of their political affiliation:

Sovremennye zapiski is dedicated, above all, to the interests of Russian culture. Our journal is fated to appear in particularly difficult conditions for Russian society; there is no place for free and independent speech in Russia itself, but here, abroad, such great cultural strength is concentrated, violently torn from its nation, and from true service to it. (‘Ot Redaktsii’, Sovremennye zapiski, 1920, Vol. 1, p3)

The networks of periodicals published by émigré communities around the world attest to the continued vitality of a society of émigrés abroad, despite their difficult circumstances, committed to serving the nation even beyond its national borders. These journals and newspapers also provide evidence of the formation and development of an émigré community in a foreign cultural sphere through political and literary activities.

Photographs of the five editors of Sovremennye zapiski

Caricatures of the journal's editors

Photographs of the five editors of Sovremennye zapiski (above) and caricatures of these editors by Navi (below), in Sovremennye zapiski (1920-1940): Iz arkhiva redaktsii, volume 1, ZF.9.a.9100, British Library.

The significance of Sovremennye zapiski is evident in the memoirs of its contributors. In The Italics are Mine, the writer Nina Berberova, a keen observer of émigré life, notes that Sovremennye zapiski was ‘a literary monument’ in which ‘in the course of almost a quarter of a century significant things, the old and the new, could appear’. The popularity of the journal gave rise to a mythology surrounding its editors, each of whom had held important political posts in the Constituent Assembly following the Revolution of March 1917. The legends surrounding the editors of Sovremennye zapiski contributed to the authority of the journal, making it the most prestigious interwar émigré journal in which to be included. All 70 issues of this important periodical are held by the British Library, including the collected correspondence between its editors and contributors.

Hannah Connell, Collaborative Doctoral Student, King’s College London and the British Library

References/further reading

Charlotte Alston, ‘British Journalism and the Campaign for Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1920’, Revolutionary Russia, Vol 20, No 1, June 2007, pp35-49.

Aleksei Tolstoy, ‘Khozdenie po mukam’, Sovremennye zapiski, No.1, November 1920, pp1-33

Nina Berberova, The Italics are Mine, translated by Philippe Radley (London, 1991), m01/33290.

08 September 2020

Chernobyl: two new acquisitions at the British Library

Like many, I was hooked by the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ when it was released last year. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, it sparked a surge of interest in the events surrounding the nuclear disaster of April 1986.

For those keen to delve deeper, the British Library holds a large amount of material relating to Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian), from scientific articles and theses to photography albums and poetry collections. Earlier this year, the Library also acquired two particularly important sources: a new digital archive and a copy of a rare Cold War-era newspaper.

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

The digital archive, The Chernobyl Files, is a collection of declassified documents prepared by Russian and Ukrainian government agencies, including the KGB, that ‘detail the most important developments in the wake of the disaster, as well as internal reports and investigations on its various causes’. Among the documents are internal reports, communiqués, and correspondences between local and regional KGB officials long before the tragedy. The archive is currently only available in the Library’s reading rooms (please see our website for information on how to book a slot) but I am happy to assist with enquiries via email if possible. 

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

The second new acquisition is an issue of Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News. This newspaper was published in 1986/7 by the Ukrainian Peace Committee (UPC), which, according to the publication’s statement of purpose, ‘was formed in response to the disaster at the atomic plant in Chornobyl’. Its aim was to address issues relating to nuclear disarmament, human rights, the environment and national liberties, which it believed were at the centre of ‘hostilities between the governments of Eastern Europe and Western countries’. Further research, however, led me to a series of declassified CIA documents, which in turn unveiled a more complex story behind the UPC and its newspaper…

In October 1986, an individual, referred to only as ‘RK’, filed a report on the creation and activities of the UPC. The document, which was declassified and released in 2007 on the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room website, detailed how the organisation had been set up that year by Prolog, a small group of Ukrainian émigrés working for the CIA since 1950, with the specific aim of intervening in the World Peace Congress (WPC). The WPC was in turn sponsored by the World Peace Council, a largely Soviet project established in 1949/1950 to promote peace programmes around the world and counter what it viewed as the ‘warmongering’ attitude of the US. The 1986 congress took place from 15-19 October in Copenhagen, the first time it had been held in a non-communist capital since the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The UPC, which was registered at an address in Hammersmith, London, comprised both Prolog and non-Prolog members, the latter of whom were allegedly unaware of the convert operation. In the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen WPC, members of the UPC worked to establish themselves as a credible group and gain access as delegates to the congress.

Despite several hiccups, the group’s activities in Copenhagen were deemed a success and RK recommended that the UPC should be allowed to continue and even expand its work. This included publishing ‘a 4 page tabloid size newspaper 4 times a year’ and travelling to ‘different conferences in Western Europe, Asia and Africa’ to ‘conduct interventions similar to the intervention in Copenhagen’.

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

We know for certain that the UPC went on to publish four issues of the newspaper, Ukrainian Peace Committee News, three of which are held by the British Library (no. 2, published in spring 1987, and the combined no. 3/4, published in winter 1987 and kindly donated to the British Library by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto). Although they display the same peace dove logo, the design and typeface used for issues no. 2 and 3/4 differ significantly.

All of the issues focus heavily on the Chernobyl disaster and include samizdat (literature secretly written, copied, and circulated in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union) and other articles. The Soviet war in Afghanistan and the issue of workers’ rights also feature in the paper. In addition, one article in issue no. 2 deals with the proposal to build a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) at the British nuclear power station Sizewell B. By including the latter article, the newspaper supported Prolog’s view that in order to ‘gain credibility within the Peace movement’ the UPC’s position ‘had to be a balanced one – not an anti-Soviet group only, but one critical of the West in some respects as well’.

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 with the headline 'Chornobyl in Samizdat'

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

The UPC appears to have ceased its activities at the end of 1987, at the time the last issue of its newspaper was published. Although the British Library unfortunately does not hold the first issue, Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News is an invaluable source for those researching topics including Cold War relations, the Chernobyl disaster and the peace movement.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections 

Further reading:

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices From Chernobyl (London, 1999). YC.2001.a.808

Kate Brown, Manual For Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (London, 2019). DRT ELD.DS.389500

Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl (London, 2019). YC.2019.a.8185

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.277839

06 August 2020

Gianni Rodari, the logic of fantasy (part 1)

Photograph of Gianni Rodari

Gianni Rodari. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the first blog post in a two-part series to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Italian children’s writer Gianni Rodari (1920-1980). You can read part 2 here

Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) is regarded as the father of modern Italian children’s literature and we celebrate his fantastic contribution to literature and education in the year of his triple anniversary. 100 years since his birth, 40 years since his death, and 50 years since his “Little Nobel”, namely the Hans Christian Andersen Writing Award, his books are still inspiring all sorts of cultural events in Italy. Last March, for instance, his iconic Favole al telefono triggered “Pronto, chi favola?”, a free storytelling service on demand set up spontaneously by actors to uplift children at home during the COVID-19 lockdown: every day from 4 to 8 pm, an actor rings a child to read over the phone one of the 70 fables included in the book.

Cover of Favole al telefono

Cover of Telephone Tales with an illustration of a child sitting on an arm chair while on the telephone

Front covers of Favole al telefono illustrated by Bruno Munari (Turin, 1962) F2/0682, and its English translation Telephone Tales (London, 1965) X.990/103

In Italy Gianni Rodari needs no introduction, but English translations of his books are few and readers in the UK are not familiar with his delicious children’s stories. Although the British Library’s acquisition policy for purchasing foreign material generally excludes children’s literature, the library fortunately holds 40 works by and about Rodari. This presence underlines the international recognition gained by the author and helps to track his legacy through translations, adaptations and critical writings. Half of our holdings, consisting of criticism on Rodari’s intellectual contribution, might serve teachers and educators as an inspiring toolkit. An interesting surprise is the existence of four musical scores inspired by Rodari’s texts, one in Italian and three in Russian. This illustrates his huge popularity in the Soviet Union, a country where his books met with massive success thanks to several translations and adaptations for schools, and that Rodari visited often between 1952 and 1979. He commented on the Soviet educational system in Giochi nell’URSS. Appunti di viaggio (Turin, 1984; YA.1990.a.3048). On the other hand, a report of his journey to China in the 1970s is available in Turista in Cina (Rome, 1974; X.709/25245).

In regard to Rodari’s fiction, the British Library holds some Italian and English first editions of nursery rhymes, fables and short stories. The most recent publication is a bilingual collection (Italian/English) Tales to change the world (Lincoln, 2008; YK.2010.a.169). Among the first editions there is also a Russian one, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954; 12843.p.54), including two poems translated by children’s writer Samuil Y. Marshak

Cover of Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla?

Gianni Rodari, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954) 12843.p.54 

Before introducing three of Rodari’s cult stories, a brief remark on his style and preference for extremely short literary genres (aphorisms, limericks, nursery rhymes, poems, fables, etc). A supreme love of words (in sound, script and meaning), a musical ear and a witty irony are key elements in his writing, always aiming to select the exact word. His surrealist approach to linguistic invention has been compared to those of Raymond Queneau, J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. Rodari’s graceful pen mastered nonsense, parody and puns to perfection. He also believed that the best literary form to educate children with courage and intelligence was the fable.

Front cover of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale

Front cover of C’era due volte il barone Lamberto

Cover of Mr Cat in Business

Front cover of Tales told by a machine

Front covers of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale (Turin, 1962; F2/0681), C’era due volte il barone Lamberto (Turin, 1978; X.908/85349, illustrated by Bruno Munari), Mr Cat in Business (London, 1975; X.990/7133), and Tales told by a Machine (London, 1976; X.990/8338)

Cipollino

Italian and Russian children share a common literary hero in their childhood memories, Cipollino (‘Little Onion’), the vegetable protagonist fighting for social justice in Il romanzo di Cipollino (1951, retitled Le avventure di Cipollino in 1957) and its sequel Le avventure di Cipollino 2 – Cipollino e le bolle di sapone (1952). The book was an immediate success in the Soviet Union thanks to the Russian translation and various adaptations including a ballet (Chipollino; Moscow, 1977; g.1548.v), and a cartoon. Being published by communist publishing houses, it was no wonder that the book had difficulty circulating in 1950s Catholic Italy. The British Library holds one of the late anthologies Le storie (Rome, 1992; YA.1994.a.15779), where Cipollino’s story is in good company with five others (Piccoli vagabondi, La Freccia azzurra, Gelsomino nel paese dei bugiardi, Atalanta, Il giudice a dondolo).

La Freccia azzurra

Cover of The Befana's Toyshop

Front cover of the English translation The Befana’s toyshop (London, 1970) X.990/2455.

Freccia azzurra is a toy, a blue train, that little Francesco wishes to have as a gift from the Befana. In Italian folklore the Befana is an old woman who rides a broomstick and delivers sweets or presents to good children and a lump of coal to bad ones, entering through the chimneys on the eve of Epiphany. This tradition is much loved by children and is the second most longed-for holiday after Christmas. The tale first appeared as a serial in the children’s magazine Il Pioniere, then was published as Il viaggio della Freccia azzurra (Florence, 1954) and later retitled La Freccia azzurra (Rome, 1964). In Rodari’s story, the toys come alive and escape from their toyshop in order to reach poor children’s houses. The book inspired an animated film carefully crafted by director Enzo d’Alò in 1996, with stellar contributors such as actor Lella Costa and the Nobel Laureate Dario Fo providing the voices, and Paolo Conte and Miriam Makeba the soundtrack.

A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky (London, 1970; X.990/2913) 

The phrase “pie in the sky”, meaning “an unrealistic enterprise or prospect of prosperity”, is borrowed by Rodari in a surrealistic and hilarious way: the image of the metaphor is transformed into an actual gigantic pie flying above Rome. That is why Rodari’s tale La torta in cielo (Turin, 1966) sounds better in its English translation. In one of the interviews in the documentary Gianni Rodari, il profeta della fantasia, teacher Maria Luisa Bigiaretti explained how Rodari worked with her pupils at a primary school in Rome in order to co-create this story starting from the title-metaphor. The chimeric pie, which suddenly appears in the sky, is actually an atomic bomb that only brave children will be able to deactivate. Written in the Sixties during the nuclear war fever years, this pacifist tale aimed to present a difficult problem to children in order to open up a debate in the classroom and prompt their alternative solution to war.

Rodari believed that every children’s author has a duty to be as close as possible to his little readers so as to write stories with which they can connect and have an enjoyable learning experience. Reading must be a personal enriching pleasure above all, as Rodari stated: “La lettura, o è un momento di vita, momento libero, pieno, disinteressato, o non è nulla” [Reading is either a moment of life, a free, full and disinterested moment, or it is nothing (my translation)].

In Omegna, Rodari’s birthplace, the town council is keeping alive his legacy with a literary festival and a theme park, the Parco della fantasia Gianni Rodari, where children and their families are able to meet Rodari’s tales and heroes at any age, getting involved in one of the most exciting adventures that is literature.

To be continued

Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team

Further reading:

Pino Boerio, Una storia, tante storie: guida all’opera di Gianni Rodari (Turin, 1992) YA.1995.a.529

Francesca Califano, ‘Political, social and cultural divisions in the work of Gianni Rodari’ in Mary Shine Thompson and Valerie Coghlan (eds.), Divided worlds: studies in children’s literature, pp. 149-158 (Dublin, 2007,) YC.2008.a.8892 and m07/.33327

Bernard Friot, ‘Quel che io devo a Rodari’ in Andersen 365 (Genoa, 2019) https://www.andersen.it/quel-che-io-devo-a-rodari/

Ann Lawson Lucas, ‘Blue train, red flag, rainbow world: Gianni Rodari’s Befana’s toyshop’ in Beyond Babar: the European tradition in children’s literature edited by Sandra L. Beckett, Maria Nikolajeva (Lanham and Oxford, 2006) m06/.36134

Donatella Lombello (Padua University) on Gianni Rodari in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx1eo9rAUXQ

Pietro Macchione, [et al.], Storia del giovane Rodari (Varese, 2013) YF.2013.a.19948

Giulia Massini, La poetica di Rodari: utopia del folklore e nonsense (Rome, 2011) YF.2012.a.26928

Il mio teatro: dal teatro del “Pioniere” a La storia di tutte le storie, [testi teatrali di] Gianni Rodari, a cura di Andrea Mancini e Mario Piatti (Pisa, 2006) YF.2006.a.37288

Gianni Rodari, Telephone Tales (translated by Anthony Shugaar), to be published in September 2020

M. L. Salvadori, ‘Apologizing to the Ancient Fable: Gianni Rodari and His Influence on Italian Children's Literature’ in The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 26, part 2, 2002, pp. 169-202; 5221.742000

Patrizia Zagni, Gianni Rodari (Florence, 1975) X.0907/36.(100)

21 July 2020

Inheritance Books: Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series with the Americas blog, where colleagues choose an 'inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to 'pass on' to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they're important to us. This week, we hear from Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of East European Collections. 

What my predecessor Dr Christine Thomas left for me was unprecedented: in a small Slavonic book, offered to the British Library by a rare books dealer, she recognised a copy of the first dated Slavonic Primer (Azbuka C.104.dd.11(1)) printed in Lviv in 1574. It was not just another copy – it turned out to be the second surviving copy of this book. The second in the world, and nobody had known about its very existence! Before the British Library acquired this book in 1982 on Chris’s recommendation, only one surviving copy had been recorded at Harvard University Library. A facsimile edition of the Primer had been published just several years earlier, and therefore Chris could match the items and could not believe her luck.

Of course, to be completely honest, this wonderful curatorial success story has been a constant source of melancholy envy for me. On the other hand, it was a real present from Chris, as it provided me with a wide variety of creative opportunities. I can proudly report that I followed in my predecessor’s footsteps by writing an article and a couple of blogs promoting and interpreting this collection item and co-organising a conference Revisiting Ivan Fedorov’s Legacy (UCL SSEES-British Library, 2014). In the digital environment it was only natural that, as part of the conference outcomes, the Primer was fully digitised and is now available via the BL catalogue. During the lockdown, when I suddenly had more time on my hands, my colleagues suggested a tool that can cope with OCR, and I decided to give it a try. This is a new and exciting skill to acquire and I am really enjoying the project. I hope the text will be available alongside the images very soon.

Screenshot showing work on the Primer in Transkribus

Working on transcribing the Primer using Transkibus

One of my memorable acquisitions is linked to one of the strengths of our collections – Russian futurist and constructivist books. There was no mystery or drama associated with this acquisition, although the story is quite sad, like many stories that originate from the period of early Soviet history.

The Soviet propaganda journal USSR in Construction (P.P.7500) is probably quite well known, not only among those who have a special interest in Soviet history. The style of the journal was visual and cinematographic, and became iconic among designers. Not only were photographs ‘constructed’ using photomontage as a major tool, but some of the issues were really ‘assembled’ containing, for example, pieces of fabric, aluminium foil or vinyl disks.

I acquired a set of the magazine that was a ‘little brother’ of the famous USSR in Construction project. This Soviet art-illustrated monthly magazine has a long and peculiar title Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov (‘At the Construction of Machine Tractor Stations and State Farms’; HS.74/2243). It did not have international editions in various languages and was quite short-lived: 1934-1937. However, despite this, full sets are extremely rare in library collections.

Eight front covers of Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov

Front covers of Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov.

The magazine covered just one sector – Soviet agriculture. It specialized in promoting the achievements of state farms and collective farms and stood out as a separate edition of the magazine USSR in Construction. Magazine photo essays advocated ‘the best examples of honest work on the farm, the best examples of organizational activity in the MTS and state farms, and the best achievements in raising agriculture, culture and life of the collective and state farms’. Seven issues were designed by El Lissitzky.

The bold and powerful covers by talented artists and designers, and the essays written by gifted journalists and writers tell lies about life in the Soviet Union. The lives of these artists and writers tell a more truthful story about this time:

Semen Borisovich Uritskii (chief editor) – arrested in 1938 and executed in 1940;
Petr Petrovich Kriuchkov (author) – executed in 1938;
Artemii Bagratovich Khalatov (author) - executed in 1938;
Boris Fedorovich Malkin (member of the editorial board) – executed in 1938.

Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov has been already researched and cited, but certainly lends itself to further enquiries.

Further reading:

Christine Thomas. 'Two East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow, 1637'. eBLJ, 1984. https://www.bl.uk/eblj/1984articles/article2.html

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2014/05/ivan-the-terrible-primers-ballet-and-the-joys-of-curatorship-.html

Classroom curiosities https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2013/11/classroom-curiosities-.html

E. Rogatchevskaia. ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”:
An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library.’ Canadian-American Slavic Studies (2017, 51:2-3) https://brill.com/view/journals/css/51/2-3/article-p376_10.xml?language=en

Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley, 1997) YC.1998.b.1122 (Limited preview available)

Margarita Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, El Lissitzky, Ulrich Pohlmann. El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration (New Haven, 1999) LB.31.b.17233 (Limited preview available)

Victoria Bonnell. “Peasant women in Political posters of the 1930s” In: Public Sociology at Berkeley, 2nd edition (1997) https://publicsociology.berkeley.edu/publications/producing/bonnell.pdf

Erika Wolf, ‘When Photographs Speak, To Whom Do They Talk? The Origins and Audience of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction)’ Left History, Vol 6 No 2 (1999) ZA.9.a.9420 https://lh.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/lh/article/view/5382/4577

07 July 2020

Inheritance Books: Janet Ashton, West European Languages Cataloguing Team Manager

This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series, where colleagues choose an 'inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to 'pass on' to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they're important to us. This week, Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager, explains her two choices. 

My job as team manager to the West European cataloguers focuses on the languages I’ve studied the longest and spoken most often, but my personal interests extend much further across the collections. In common, I suspect, with my colleagues, I had a real struggle to come up with just two items for this blog, and the “inherited” one proved especially difficult.

Cover of Two under the Indian Sun

Cover of Jon and Rumer Godden, Two under the Indian Sun (London, 1966) X.809/2495 

I could have chosen any one of a number of children’s books that inspired a love of reading or a curiosity about certain themes. I could have picked an obscure primary source I have used in my own research, and of which the Library holds the only copy. In the end, however, I opted for a commercially published, Legal Deposit item that made a mark on me very early in life, although it’s not a children’s book: Two under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden.

This book is the sister novelists’ memoir of their childhood in India during the First World War. Growing up as an expatriate child in Sudan in the 1970s and 80s, I recognised many elements of their experience, from the annoyance of prickly heat behind the knees, through the whir of electric fans, to the surreptitious pleasure of a cold bottle of a fizzy soft drink, stolen from parents’ supplies while they took their rest in the heat of the afternoon and the wakeful children sneaked around engaging in forbidden pleasures. The sights and smells of the market, the curious nostalgia for a UK that could never live up to expectation when one returned, and the colonial grandeur of the “Club” whose library furnished so much of the available reading material – all were familiar to me. It was Khartoum’s Sudan Club (actually the British Club) which provided me with the first copy I knew of this book, along with much more mildly old-fashioned reading matter – and of course the BL has one too. From a world in which new and needed books were quite hard to come by, I moved eventually to a job that allowed me easy access to the whole of the world’s knowledge. What remained was an enduring pleasure in travel literature and rich description of hot places and times past.

Cover of A life for the Tsar featuring a painting of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II

Cover of Janet Ashton and Greg King, A life for the Tsar (East Richmond Heights, 2016) YD.2016.b.891.

The item I’m pleased to pass on is one that draws hugely on the BL’s resources, and for that reason I make no apology for mentioning my own book, co-written with my friend Greg King: A life for the Tsar. This is a US publication, not eligible for legal deposit, so I donated a copy – another one of the most usual routes by which items arrive at the BL. It’s the story of the disastrous coronation of Russia’s last Emperor, at which several thousand peasants were killed or seriously injured while queuing for coronation mugs, permanently damaging the image of both Tsar and regime. The tragic event seemed an inversion of Glinka’s classic coronation opera, in which a peasant willingly dies to save his future Tsar, leading to a reign of glory, and for that reason and others we chose re-use Glinka’s title. We based the book on innumerable British Library resources, from the official coronation albums (works of extraordinary detail and sumptuousness that were presented to all official guests) through well-known studies of the reign and contemporary newspaper accounts to obscure self-published memoirs written by those who attended. And then of course we supplemented these with manuscript and other material from other archives too. Our publisher supplied some remarkable photographs to complement our own personal collections, and worked them into a format that sought to echo that of the original album, with page decorations and inset images. The resulting book has all of our favourite things: it’s very pretty as an object, and it is full of accounts of wonderful architecture and costume, cultural history (especially of travel and of the press), real farce and in-fighting among the great and good, with a deeply serious dose of high politics as well. We are proud to have a copy in the Library for perpetuity and hope that readers enjoy it as much as they find it useful.

23 April 2020

Poems from the Edge of Extinction II

This blog continues our theme of poetry in languages on the edge of extinction. It is part of a collaborative mini series with our Americas and Oceania collections colleagues. 

Cover of Swallows and Floating Horses

Cover of Swallows and Floating Horses (details below)

Frisian

Frisian is the language closest related to English. As the old saying goes: ‘Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese’. In Frisian this reads as ‘Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, etc.’

Otherwise Frisian and English are each other’s opposites. For a long time, Frisian was scarcely written down. Over the centuries it has stubbornly refused to die out, but it has changed with the times and is as strong now as ever. It is now the second official language of the Netherlands.

The above image is from Swallows and Floating Horses: An Anthology of Frisian Literature (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark), published last year by Francis Boutle as part of their series ‘Lesser Used Languages of Europe’. It covers 1,000 years of Frisian poetry and prose, in English and Frisian. In February 2019 at UCL it was presented to the British public, with Frisian poet Tsead Bruinja, currently Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, performing some of his poems. You can read and listen to his poem, ‘Gers dat Alfêst Laket’ (Grass that’s Started Laughing) from Swallows and Floating Horses here

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections 

Cover of Sovremennaia literatura narodov Rossii. Poeziia. Antologiia

Cover of Sovremennaia literatura narodov Rossii. Poeziia. Antologiia (Moscow, 2017). YF.2019.b.1108

Russia

In 2017, the well-known Moscow publishing house OGI (The United Humanitarian Publishing House) published a really unique book – an anthology of poetry in 57 minority languages spoken in the Russian Federation in original languages and Russian translations (BL YF.2019.b.1108). The editor of the volume was Maksim Amelin, himself a poet, translator, publisher and literary critic. In the foreword to the book, it is compared to an encyclopaedia of living national languages, cultures and worldviews. Here you can see several pages of this book and read poems (alongside their translations into Russian) by:

  • Anisa Kettunen, who writes in Finnish. Although 5.4 million people in the world are native speakers of Finnish, it is a minority language in the Russian Federation, where we see permanent decrease in the use of the Finnish as a native language.
  • Pimagomed Aslanov and Giulbika Omarova, whose poetry represents 129,000 speakers of the Tabasaran language from the Lezghin group of the Nakh-Dagestan language family. Apparently, this is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
  • Georgii Tsvetkov and Radmira Bogdanova – two poets who use for their creative expression the North Russian dialect of the Romani language. 128,000 people speak the Romani language in Russia.
  • Brontoi Bediurov, who in his native Altai language created a ritual verse on the spring worship to the Holy mountain Babyrgan.Altai, 

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections 

 

Cover of People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg

Cover of People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg (details below)

Livonian

Livonian (līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ), currently spoken by around 20 people (three of them poets!), is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages. For centuries it was spoken in fishing villages along the Livonian Coast of Latvia. Unlike Latvian, which is a Baltic language, Livonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family and is related to Estonian, Finnish and Karelian. Even though the last native speaker of Livonian is thought to have died in 2013, there is a sustained interest in Livonian language and culture. In 2018 the University of Latvia Livonian Institute, the first research institution solely focused on the history, culture and language of Livonia, was established. In May 2019 the Institute’s director Valts Ernštreits, who is also a poet writing in Latvian and Livonian, took part in the European Literature Night: Poetry and Performance event held at the British Library. The poem below comes from Ernštreits’ first bilingual (Livonian and English) collection of Livonian poetry People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg, translated by Ryan Van Winkle and Ernštreits (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark).

Siz ku kievād virgõbõd
tallõ vied allõ maggõnd līndõd,
nänt tūrgõd āt vel kažžizt,
nänt ēļ um vel kardõ,
nänt kēļ um vel ȭnõz ja vȭrõz.
Ku kivīd virgõbõd, paļļõd ja ōgizt,
ne nūzõbõd ilzõ jõugõst ja viedstõ, ja mūldast,
lougõ ja sitkõ,
addõŗi murdõs ja
kējid jālgad sil akkõs.
Nänt kēļ neku nänt eņtš sidām
vel um vizā, lǟlam ja tijā;
amād sõnād āt ūd,
set set sindõn,
set pimdõmst ulzõ tunnõd;
abbõrz sieldõm kūoŗ nēḑi katāb.
Kievād, ku lūomõd ja liestād,
pūošõd ja neitsõd
āt īdlimist jagdõd
pids randõ,
līndõd ja kivīd rõkāndõbõd
ūds kīels,
missõn jūŗi äb ūo
äbka īrgandõkst,
äb ka tutkāmt.

–––––

In spring, birds wake
from their underwater slumber,
their feathers damp,
voices cracked and croaking
in an empty, foreign language.
Stones, naked and grey, rise up
from the sand, soil, sea – stubborn
and heavy – breaking ploughs,
getting under your feet.
Their rocky tongues,
just like their hearts, are cold
heavy and hollow. Their words;
new born
fresh out
of darkness, swaddled
in a thin, eggshell light.
In spring, when beasts and fish
and all the young men
and all the young women
get dispersed fairly and evenly
throughout the coast,
the birds and stones
speak their rootless language,
a tongue
with no beginning, no end.

Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

 

Photograph of José María Iparraguirre playing guitar

José María Iparraguirre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Basque

Basque, or Euskara, is a pre-Indo-European language spoken today in four provinces of Spain and three in France on both sides of the Western Pyrenees. It is an ‘isolate’, i.e. it is unrelated to any language group. Attempts have been made to find connections between Basque and an extraordinary variety of languages, living and dead. However, only the surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language of S.W. Gaul, have revealed any meaningful coincidences.

Greater centralization after the Revolution weakened regional identity in France and minority languages suffered in consequence. In northern Spain, the fueros (local laws) were abolished in 1876. Paradoxically, Basque culture and language underwent a renaissance that lasted until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Use of the Basque language was forbidden under Franco, but it continued to be studied, initially clandestinely. Today, speakers of Basque number about 850,000. Its future is brightest in the Autonomous Community of Euskadi in Spain where it has co-official status. It is much less so in Navarra, where its status is more complex. The language is at greatest risk in the French Basque Country.

Poetry has always been a vital strand of literature in Basque. Indeed, the first book printed in the language was a collection of poems, Linguae vasconum primitiae (Bordeaux, 1545), by a parish priest, Bernart Etxepare. A feature of Basque verse, today and in the past, has been oral poetry. One of the most famous poems in the language, Jose Maria Iparragirre’s Gernikako arbola (c. 1853), is composed to a popular dance rhythm. Dedicated to the tree of Gernika, the ancient oak that symbolized the rights of the people of Bizkaia, it has become a de facto anthem of the Basque people and their aspirations. Iparragirre (1820-81) had himself been a defender of the fueros and he forms an indirect link to the cultural movement that grew up after their suppression.

The poem has 12 stanzas. We quote here the first in its original dialect spelling, as the whole poem can readily be found online:

Guernicaco arbola
Da bedeincatuba
Euscaldunen artean
Guztiz maitatuba
Eman ta zabaltzazu
Munduban frutuba,
Adoratzen zaitugu
Arbola santuba.

–––––

The Tree of Guernica
is blessed
among the Basques;
absolutely loved.
Give and deliver
the fruit unto the world.
We adore you,
holy tree.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Collections 

Further reading:

Luis de Castresana, Vida y obra de Iparraguirre. Seguida de la obra completa, original euskera y versión castellana, del autor del Gernikako Arbola (Bilbao, 1971). X.981/3103.

Nick Gardner, Basque in education, In the Basque Autonomous Community (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2000) YA.2002.a.39245.

Luis Villasante, Historia de la literatura vasca, 2nd ed. rev. ([Oñate], 1979). BL HLR 899.92

 

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