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53 posts categorized "Russian Revolution"

15 August 2017

Miracle on the Vistula

The present British Library exhibition on the Russian Revolution also touches upon the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The war started over the disputed territory of Ukraine between Soviet Russia and the newly -created independent Polish state (1918), following the Polish-Ukrainian combats. Poland’s independence was threatened by the advance of the Red Army into Europe, the aim of which was to spread the Bolshevik revolution in the West. The military conflict escalated when Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s Chief of State, formed an alliance against Soviet Russia with the Ukrainian leader Symon Petlyura in April 1920. Following the initial successful offensive in Ukraine by their combined forces the Polish troops were pushed back by the Red Army towards Warsaw, the Polish capital. The turning-point of the war was the Battle of Warsaw, which took place on the outskirts of the capital between 12 and 25 August 1920.

Polish-Soviet War poster LF.37.b.277

Polish poster from Soviet-Polish war, reproduced in Rok 1920 : plakaty ze zbiorów Centralnej Biblioteki Wojskowej im. Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego. (Warsaw, [ca. 2011]), LF.37.b.277

The Soviets planned to take Warsaw by enveloping the city from the north and south, and attacking it from the northwest. The Polish plan assumed the concentration of the Polish troops on the North and South Fronts to counterattack an anticipated Soviet advance. The forces of the third Central Front were to attack Soviet’s weakest positions. The Soviet intelligence discovered the Polish plan but because of its simplicity they considered it a trick to mislead the Red Army.

However, essential to the success of the Battle of Warsaw was the monitoring of Soviet communications which started as early as September 1919. The Polish Army Cipher Bureau (Biuro Szyfrów) was set up in May 1919 and its first head was Jan Kowalewski, a polyglot and cryptologist. With the help of a group of university mathematicians – Stanisław Leśniewski, Stefan Mazurkiewicz and Wacław Sierpiński – Polish cryptologists broke practically all the Red Army ciphers and codes. During the course of the war they deciphered a few thousand Soviet military messages. This significantly contributed to the victory of the Polish Army as the Poles became aware of gaps in the Soviet lines and the manoeuvres of the Red Army.

Zanim zlamano ZF.9.a.3584
Cover of Grzegorz Nowik, Zanim złamano “Enigmę” -: polski radiowywiad podczas wojny z bolszewicką Rosją 1918-1920 (Warsaw, 2004-2010).  ZF.9.a.3584

In the critical days of the Battle of Warsaw Polish radio-telegraphers blocked Soviet commander Mikhail Tuchachevsky’s orders to his troops by reading Bible excerpts on the same frequency as that used by the Soviet radio station. As a result the commander lost contact with his headquarters and the troops marched north instead of following the order to turn south. The decisive moment of the Battle was the recapture of Radzymin, a small town 23 km from the capital, by the Polish forces on 15 August. It halted the Soviet advance on Warsaw, also boosting Polish morale. After the war the Battle of Warsaw was known as the “Miracle on the Vistula”. As we know now it was no miracle; it was down to the Polish military intelligence.

Miracle on the Vistula painting by Jerzy Kossak
Miracle on the Vistula. Painting by Jerzy Kossak (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Feast of the Polish Armed Forces is celebrated in Poland annually on 15 August to commemorate the anniversary of the 1920 victory over Soviet Russia at the Battle of Warsaw.

The Battle of Warsaw has been regarded as one of the most decisive battles in world history, since it saved Europe from the spread of communism at the time.

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

Edgar Vincent, The Eighteenth decisive battle of the world. Warsaw, 1920, (London, 1931).  9100.aaa.20

Adam Zamoyski, Warsaw 1920. Lenin’s failed conquest of Europe. (London, 2008).  YC.2008.a.8810

Grzegorz Nowik, Wojna swiatów 1920: Bitwa Warszawska, (Poznań, 2011).  ZF.2013.a.26243

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

08 August 2017

‘A Czechoslovakian epic’: the Czechoslovak Legion in the Russian Revolution

Throughout the 19th century, a growing sense of Czech national identity was a constant source of alarm to the rulers of the Habsburg Empire. Friction between Czech and German speakers increased, and the first Slavic Congress, held in Prague in 1848, consolidated pan-Slavic sympathies. Although the Congress ended without formal agreement, one important result was the proclamation of a Manifestation to the Nations of Europe, calling for an end to the oppression of Slav peoples and ‘extending a brotherly hand to all neighbouring nations who are prepared to recognize and effectively champion with us the full equality of all nations, irrespective of their political power or size’.

On the outbreak of the First World War, many of the empire’s 8,000,000 Czechs and 3,000,000 Slovaks found themselves fighting under the Austrian flag. Wherever possible, their battalions were dispatched to the Italian front to reduce the likelihood of desertion to join their Russian and Serbian fellow-Slavs. Yet as the need for troops on the Eastern Front grew ever more urgent, this principle could no longer be maintained, and by 1915 many of these men found themselves deployed in Russian Poland.

On 5 August 1914 a battalion of Czechs and Slovaks known as the Česká družina (‘Czech Companions’) was organized within the Russian army to fight against the Austrians and their allies. More regiments were added as the war continued. In July 1917, the battalion, now known as the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda), distinguished itself at the Battle of Zborov when its troops overran Austrian trenches. After this success, the Russians authorised the mobilisation of Czech and Slovak volunteers from Russian prisoner-of-war camps. The brigade was renamed again as the First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia (Československý sbor na Rusi) or the Czechoslovak Legion (Československá legie). By 1918 it contained some 40,000 troops.

Czech Legion Dufka 2 YA.2003.a.16242

An infantryman of the Third Archduke Karl regiment, stationed in Kroměříž. Illustration from Josef Dufka’s memoir Přál jsem si míti křídla (Prague, 2002) YA.2003.a.16242.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council, Tomáš Masaryk, began planning to transfer the Legion to France to continue fighting against the Central Powers. The Bolsheviks granted permission for the Legion to travel from Ukraine to Vladivostok to embark on transport vessels as many of Russia’s chief ports were blockaded, but this was hindered when, in January 1918, the German Army launched Operation Faustschlag on the Eastern Front to force the Soviet government to accept its peace terms. In early March, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had taken Russia out of the war, the Czechoslovak Legion successfully fought off German attempts to prevent their evacuation in the Battle of Bakhmach.

Czech Legion Becvar 9087.aa.29 Czech legionaries on the Siberian border, from Gustav Becvar, The Lost Legion (London, 1939) 9087.aa.29

On 25 March, an agreement was signed ordering the Legion to surrender most of its weapons in exchange for safe passage to Vladivostok. The evacuation was delayed by the dilapidated state of the railways, the shortage of trains and the constant need to negotiate passage with local soviets. There was also mutual mistrust between the Legion and the Bolsheviks. When, on 14 May, a dispute broke out at the Chelyabinsk station between legionaries heading east and Hungarian prisoners of war heading west to be repatriated, Leon Trotsky ordered that the Legion be disarmed and arrested.

This triggered what became known as the Revolt of the Legions. By the end of June, the Czechoslovak Legion had seized Vladivostok and overthrown the local Bolshevik administration. On 6 July they declared the city an Allied protectorate. By early September they had swept Bolshevik forces from the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway and taken all the major cities of Siberia, but their seizure of Ekaterinburg came less than a week too late to save Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Czech legion Vykrik

 Výkřik (‘The Scream’), a magazine printed by the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Civil War. RB.31.c.832.

As the Red Army gained strength and retook several cities the Legion’s enthusiasm waned, and when the independent state of Czechoslovakia  was proclaimed on 28 October 1918, its members had every reason to wish to return home. On 18 November a coup overthrew the leadership of the Whites’ Provisional Government in Siberia, with which the Legion had made common cause, and Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was appointed ‘Supreme Leader’. The Legion was left to defend Kolchak’s sole supply route and the gold bullion which he had captured from Kazan for much of 1919, but most legionaries were uneasy with Kolchak’s rule. On 7 February 1920, the Legion signed an armistice with the Fifth Red Army granting safe passage to Vladivostok on condition that they did not try to rescue Kolchak and left the remaining gold with the authorities in Irkutsk.

Czech Legion Dufka YA.2003.a.16242

Illustration from Přál jsem si míti křídla: ‘One day we were delighted by the news in the papers that Austria was no longer fighting and the Czech Republic had been established.’

It was not until 1 March 1920 that the final Czechoslovak train left Irkutsk, and only in September that the last legionaries sailed from Vladivostok. Many of those who returned brought their skills and experience to the newly-established Czechoslovak Army; others, including Jaroslav Hašek, author of the satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk, joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Still others lived to write their memoirs, including Gustav Becvar, whose account appeared in English as The Lost Legion. It concludes, ‘On 20 June 1920 we crossed the frontier of our newly freed homeland, the Czechoslovak Republic. […] Here, after six and a half years of weary exile, I saw my mother again.’

Susan Halstead (Content Specialist, Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Services

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

03 August 2017

Triumph and Tragedy: Esperanto and the Russian Revolution

After some initial doubts by the Tzarist censors, the first decade of the 20th century was a period of good relations between Esperanto speakers and the Russian authorities. There were courses and clubs throughout the country. Every year until 1914 an official government representative took part in national Esperanto congresses with the support of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.

When the Russian Revolution broke out, many Esperantists gave it their enthusiastic support. At the same time, they continued promoting the language. Chief among these was an energetic and ambitious young man, Ernest Drezen, who managed to convince the new regime that Esperanto would be an essential tool to enable the world’s proletariat to communicate during the expected proletarian revolution. The Esperanto movement received support from the Soviet authorities at the highest level, which enabled it to develop in a most satisfactory manner.

EsperantoRusiaRevolucioCoverCover of Rusia revolucio de 1917 (Moscow, 1989) YF.2015.a.8476, a  graphic novel about the Revolution in Esperanto

It is important not to underestimate the idealism of the early years, which bore fruit in the fields of language and culture among others. Internally there was a policy of encouraging the use of all the languages of the national minorities, while an important foreign policy aim was the creation of a global proletarian culture. Esperanto fitted naturally into this aspiration for greater internationalism.

Early in 1919 the Bolshevik government made a major contribution to the work of the Esperanto movement. The periodical Esperanto Triumfonta (‘Esperanto will triumph’) reported on this the following year (1920, issue 6):

Moscow: According to the official Communist newspaper ‘Izvestija’ of 16th and 17th January 1919, the Communist government has made a large house available to the Moscow Esperantists.... It will be home to the Moscow Esperanto Society and the Organizing Committee of the Russian Esperanto Federation.... There will also be a bookshop and a large library, a reading room and a meeting room for the club. There are two publications: ‘Oficiala Bulteno’ and ‘Juna Mondo’ (Official Bulletin and Young World).

Drezen knew that any Esperanto association would have to conform to the Bolshevik party line. After various attempts, in 1921 he founded the Sovetrespublikara Esperantista Unio (SEU: Soviet Republics’ Esperantist Union), whose constitution followed the organizing principles of the Bolshevik Party.

EsperantoRevolucioLaKvinjaro

Cover of: L. Sosnovski, Kvinjaro de Sovetlandoj (Moscow, 1923) Above. Below: Portrait of Leon Trotsky from the same book with title-page as Jarkvino de la Oktobra Revolucio. F13/1021

EsperantoRevolucioLaKvinjaroTrocki

Numerous young Esperantists joined the new association, among them many talented people: organizers, journalists, writers, poets. SEU quickly became a strong, healthy and active Esperantist collective with a large membership. To continue receiving state support however it had to publicly cease all relations with the World Esperanto Association (UEA), seen as ‘a “neutral” petit-bourgeois organization in solidarity with the League of Nations’ and therefore not permitted to have members or representatives in the Soviet Republic. This was one of the points approved during SEU’s first congress. Instead, SEU chose to work with the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (SAT: World Non-national Association), which was founded as a non-neutral proletarian Esperantist organization during the same period. SEU recommended that all its members should also join SAT.

EsperantoRevolucioMihalskiCover of : Eugeno Mihalski,  Prologo, (Leipzig, 1929). YF.2012.a.27401

Cooperation between SEU and SAT was initially active and fruitful, but in 1923 there were the first signs of disagreement about the aims and direction of Esperanto activities, when SAT’s executive did not approve some of the decisions made during SEU’s congress. Even so relations remained good, culminating in SAT’s 6th Congress in Leningrad in 1926.

ESperantoRevolucioStamp_Soviet_Union_1926_243

 Soviet stamp for congress of SAT in Leningrad (From Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime the political climate in the Soviet Union was changing. The idea of a world proletarian revolution had fallen out of favour. Stalin, the new leader, believed it was possible to build a Socialist society in a single country. Anyone who disagreed was labelled ‘an enemy of the people’ and punished in accordance with the new criminal code, which came into force in 1926. One Esperanto speaker, Aleksandr Postnikov, had already been executed by firing squad the previous year. He was an army officer, and one of the most active Esperantists in the early 1900s. He was arrested several times, condemned for spying, and only rehabilitated in 1993.

Many groups came under suspicion. In 1936 it was the turn of the Esperantists. There were mass arrests in Ukraine. Torture was widely used to force confessions from innocent people about ‘counter-revolutionary activity’, and the leaders of the Soviet Esperanto movement were made to sign confessions about their participation in the ‘Trotskyite’ organizations SEU and SAT, as well as spying, and even plotting to liquidate the Soviet leadership. The Ministry of the Interior began to arrest Esperantists across the country, because almost all of them were members of SEU and SAT.

Trials against Esperanto speakers continued until 1938. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the two associations were given long sentences of exile, while the leaders of the movement, including Ernest Drezen and the major poet and writer Eugene Michalski were shot. Vladimir Varankin, a novelist and professor of history and foreign languages, was accused of spying and plotting to murder Stalin, and was killed.

EsperantoRevolucioVarankinCover of Stepanov Nikolao. La vivo kaj morto de Vladimir Varankin (1902-1938) (Budapest,1990). YF.2009.a.37695

SEU had never been officially prohibited. Now it ceased to exist, and the national Esperanto movement was extinguished for almost 20 years.

Were Esperanto speakers really so dangerous for the state? Hardly. But their contacts with foreign Esperantists, which allowed them to send and receive ‘undesirable’ information, were deemed dangerous. They receive an ironic mention in the second chapter of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work The Gulag Archipelago: ‘Among those great waves, certain modest little wavelets were also swept away, including [...] the Esperantists (a harmful group which Stalin undertook to smoke out during the years when Hitler was doing the same thing).’

So Esperanto had its triumph during the first idealistic years of the Russian Revolution and its tragedy in the years before the Second World War. But after Stalin’s death it revived, and played a remarkable role during the Cold War, when it was one of the channels for communicating with the West.

EsperantoRevolucioNewMonographs Recent monographs about Esperanto movement in the Russian empire and USSR published in Russia.


Moisej Bronshtejn, Russian writer and journalist.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

17 July 2017

Victims and Pretenders: the Murder of the Romanovs

After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest. Initially they were held at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside Petrograd, later being moved to the Governor’s Residence at Tobolsk in the Urals.

Although the Romanovs were essentially prisoners, it has been suggested that the Tsar was in some respects relatively content during this period. Relieved of the cares of state and in the company of his beloved wife and children, he could be a private family man, the role he enjoyed most. The family continued to live in reasonable comfort, with the hope of eventual asylum in another country – perhaps Britain or France – being held out by both Russian and foreign governments.

The Bolshevik seizure of power saw both comfort and hope gradually destroyed. The conditions of imprisonment became harsher and official promises of foreign asylum were replaced by vague rumours of secret rescue plots. In April 1918 there was a further move, to Ekaterinburg. Here the Romanovs were placed in a requisitioned villa, known as the Ipatiev House after its owner, but renamed by the Bolsheviks the ‘House of Special Purpose.’

Ipatiev house
A Soviet postcard from the 1920s showing the Ipatiev House, with the high fence built  in 1918 to prevent the Romanovs seeing or being seen by the outside world during their imprisonment. The text describes the house as ‘The last palace of the last Tsar’

In the early hours of Wednesday 17 July 1918, the family and their remaining servants – a doctor, maid, cook and valet – were woken and told to gather in the basement of the house prior to being evacuated to a new location. Once they were assembled, the commandant Yakov Yurovsky announced that the Tsar was to be executed by order of the Ural Regional Soviet. Yurovsky and a group of guards then opened fire on the whole party, each killer supposed to aim at a specific victim.

Accounts of what happened next vary slightly. However, all agree that it was not the swift and efficient execution planned by Yurovsky, but a chaotic and brutal bloodbath. None of the prisoners died instantly, and the Tsarina and her children had jewels sewn into their clothes for safekeeping, which prevented bullets from penetrating their bodies. Eventually they had to be bayoneted, bludgeoned or shot in the head at close range.

Ipatiev house Basement
The basement room in the Ipatiev House where the Romanovs and their remaining servants were killed. Reproduced in Histoire des Soviets (Paris, 1922-23) 1854.g.15.

The first official reports of the murders stated that only Nicholas had been killed and his wife and children had been ‘removed to a safe place.’ This delay in telling the full story, together with the fact that the bodies had been disposed of in secret and attempts made to destroy them, helped to fuel rumours that one or more of the royal children had survived.

The first pretenders emerged in the early 1920s, and one came forward as late as 1995. In the early days, such claimants offered some hope to royalist exiles. Even if individual pretenders were proved false, their carefully-woven survival stories still represented the possibility that a true survivor might come forward.

Although each of Nicholas and Alexandra’s five children were represented by pretenders, the most common identities were those of the Tsarevich Alexei and the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The appeal of believing that the male heir to the throne had survived was obvious, but as the Tsarevich’s haemophilia became more common knowledge, would-be Alexeis had to concoct ever more fanciful medical histories for themselves to explain their survival.

The appeal of Anastasia as a potential Romanov survivor may have been that she was the Tsar’s youngest daughter and said to have been an exceptionally charming and vivacious child. But the number of Anastasia claimants probably also owes something to the most famous Romanov pretender, Anna Anderson. From the 1920s until her death in 1984, Anderson stubbornly maintained her claim to be Anastasia, discovered alive among the bodies in the basement and saved by a kindly Red soldier. She gained some prominent supporters, including people who had known the real Anastasia.

Anastasia and Anna
Pictures of Grand Duchess Anastasia (left-hand page) and Anna Anderson (right-hand page), from Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann. Anastasia: ein Frauenschicksal als Spiegel der Weltkatastrophe (Leipzig, 1928) 010795.aaa.71. The author, a strong supporter of Anderson’s claim, presents all the pictures as images of the real Anastasia.

Anderson’s fame and longevity helped create a romantic myth of Anastasia’s survival, encouraging other claimants and spawning an industry of books, plays and films. But DNA testing after her death finally confirmed that she was unrelated to the Romanovs, and the discovery and identification of the Romanovs’ bodies in 1991 and 2007 finally proved that there had been no survivors of the execution.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

12 July 2017

The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Russian Empire stretched continuously across one-sixth of the world’s landmass, from Poland to the Pacific and from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of Central Asia. According to the data of the General Staff of the Russian Imperial Armed Forces and the Statistical Committee of the Ministry of the Interior, at the beginning of the 20th century Russia’s territory stretched from north to south for nearly 3,000 miles and from east to west for over 6,600 miles. Russian tsars ruled over the second largest territory in the world after the British Empire.

Pictorial Russia 2
Title-page of  Zhivopisnaia Rossia (St Petersburg, 1881-1901) Cup.22.k.1. This multi-volume work described different regions and peoples of the Empire for a general audience and the decorative title-page attempts to depict the range and diversity of Russia’s vast territories in a single image

The Russian Empire was home to some 150 million people divided into around 170 ethno-cultural groups, whose ways of life ranged from nomadic steppe herdsmen and tribute-paying fur trappers to communal agriculturalists, industrial workers and wealthy nobles. Full maps of the Empire were usually published in two sections: European and Asian. The Asian part of Russia beyond the Ural mountains was significantly larger than the European part and occupied nearly two thirds of the entire Russian territory. Most of these territories were industrially and agriculturally underdeveloped compared with the European areas. In some areas of Siberia the population density hardly reached 10 people per square mile, while in the country’s western parts, including Poland and Finland, it was over 100 people per square mile. At the beginning of the 20th century the Asian territories that belonged to the Russian Empire were described as Siberia (including the Far East), nine regions in Central Asia with its population of nearly eight million people, and the so-called Caucasian region or Transcaucasia. The kaleidoscopic diversity of geography, agriculture, industry, culture, ethnicity, religion, history and social structures sustained enduring notions of a land of paradox and unknowable mystery.

It is not surprising that economic modernisation of Russia hugely depended on the transportation system. The vastness of Russia and slowly developing infrastructure could partly explain extreme diversities and difficulties in managing the country.

European Russia Maps 35872.(16.))

A fragment of the Map of railways, rivers and road communications in European Russia, 1914.
Maps 35872.(16.)

As demonstrated in the Map of the Development of the Russian Railway Network, 1838-1918, which shows the railway construction in ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ Russia, the railways remained concentrated in Russia’s most industrial western core.

Development of railways Maps 35797.(8.)

Map of the development of the Russian Railway network, 1838-1918. Maps 35797.(8.)

At the end of the 19th century a journey from Moscow to Sakhalin took about three months. It depended on crossing rivers and was season-bound. In March 1897, on his way to exile Vladimir Ul’ianov, the future leader of the Revolution known as Lenin, wrote in a letter to his mother:

The halt here is a long one and there is nothing to do, and I have decided to write yet another letter en route, my third. I still have two more days’ journey ahead of me. I drove across the Ob [river] in a horse-sleigh and bought tickets to Krasnoyarsk. … The way the trains run here is beyond all bounds. To do that 700 versts [464 miles] we shall crawl for forty-eight hours. Beyond Krasnoyarsk, the railway goes only as far as Kansk, i.e., for 220 versts [145 miles] —and altogether to Irkutsk it is about 1,000 versts [663 miles]. And so I shall have to go on by road—if I have to go at all. Another 24 hours is taken up by those 220 versts on the railway; the further you go, the slower the trains crawl along.
You have to use a horse-sleigh to cross the Ob because the bridge is not ready, although its skeleton has been built. … The country covered by the West-Siberian Railway … is astonishingly monotonous—bare, bleak steppe. No sign of life, no towns, very rarely a village or a patch of forest—and for the rest, all steppe. Snow and sky—and nothing else for the whole three days. They say that further on there will be taiga, and after that, beginning at Achinsk, mountains. The air in the steppe, however, is wonderful; breathing is so easy. There is a hard frost, more than twenty degrees below, but it is easier to bear here than in Russia. It does not seem to me that it is twenty below. The Siberians say it is because the air is ‘soft’, and that makes the frost easier to bear. Quite probably it is so.

Russia’s vast territory lacked infrastructure that could support industrialisation. The building of the Trans-Siberian Railway started in 1891. As minister of transport and later minister of finance, Sergei Witte saw the project as one of the vehicles for economic reforms. 7,000 km was built between 1891 and 1916. However, in 1904 the Trans-Siberian Railway proved slow in carrying troops and supplies over the vast distance which had devastating results on the outcomes of the Russo-Japanese War. After the October Revolution in 1917, the railway became a strategic point, as the Czechoslovak Legion  took control over large areas near the railway.

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. As part of the accompanying series of events, on 21 July Railway Historian Christian Wolmar will be giving a talk on the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Revolution. You can find more details, including how to book, here.

07 July 2017

To the Finland Station in a not-so-sealed Train

In the weeks following Russia’s February Revolution in 1917, an increasingly frustrated Lenin was stuck in Zurich, forced to follow events from afar. Like other Russian political exiles, he had found neutral Switzerland a convenient haven when war broke out in 1914, but now it was more like a cage. Not only could he play no active part in events back in Russia, but he had no chance to influence or control them as he desired, and meanwhile the new Provisional Government was taking a course that seemed too moderate to Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks

The problem for the Russian revolutionaries in Switzerland was of course the ongoing war. The logical route home led through enemy German territory. Another option would be to travel via Russia’s allies France and Britain, but the two countries’ governments would hardly offer safe passage to people they considered dangerous agitators. In her memoirs, Lenin’s wife recalls him ‘building the most improbable plans’ – flying back to Russia by plane, or using the passports of foreigners from a neutral country.

In the end, the German route offered the most realistic hope. The German government had already flirted with the idea of funding Russian revolutionaries in the hope of destabilising Russia and bringing about her withdrawal from the war. It was possible that they might now be brought to see Lenin’s return as a means to this end. 

Platten
Fritz Platten, reproduced in Willi Gautschi, Lenin als Emingrant in der Schweiz (Cologne, 1973). X.809/19902. 

Swiss socialist Robert Grimm approached the German Ambassador to Switzerland to open negotiations, but it was Grimm’s compatriot Fritz Platten, who brokered the final agreement to allow Lenin and others exiles to travel by train through Germany to neutral Sweden. Platten was also given official responsibility for the party and helped to draw up a document to be signed by all the travellers, declaring among other things that they accepted the risk of imprisonment for treason on their return to Russia.

Reise Lenins facsim
Facsimile of the document signed by Lenin and his companions, reproduced in Fritz Platten, Die Reise Lenins durch Deutschland im plombierten Wagen (Berlin, 1924) 9456.i.18. 

At last, on 9 April 1917, Lenin and 31 other exiles embarked on a train at Zurich station. This has gone down in history as the ‘sealed train’, and and its journey became part of the mythology of the Russian Revolution, helped not least by Platten’s own account, published in 1924.

Reise Lenins 9456i18
Front cover of Platten's Die Reise Lenins...

In fact the ‘seal’ was more symbolic and legal than physical: one of Lenin’s conditions had been that the train should have extra-territorial status, so that it could not be boarded by anyone hoping to arrest the travellers. The Russians were forbidden from leaving the train, and a chalk line on the floor marked a boundary, which only Platten was allowed to cross, between them and their German guards. But the doors and windows could be opened. Various members of the party later recalled Germans coming to speak to them and to offer food or beer through the windows, and at another point in the journey a group of German socialists even came on board hoping to speak to their Russian counterparts.

To a certain extent, however, Lenin sealed himself off, settling in a separate compartment and working on what became known as the ‘April Theses’. He was impatient to reach Russia and irritated by the high spirits of his fellow travellers who could be heard chatting, joking and singing next door. Even when the party had reached neutral Sweden and were travelling more conventionally and able to communicate with the outside world, Lenin devoted most of his time to working, networking and planning his next moves.

A final challenge came on the Finnish border, where the travellers were interrogated and searched at a British military checkpoint, before eventually being allowed to continue. At last, on 16 April, they arrived (on an ordinary train) at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, where Lenin proclaimed to a welcoming crowd the ‘worldwide Socialist revolution’ which he believed was just beginning.

481px-Locomotive_293
Finnish Locomotive 293, which undertook the last leg of Lenin’s journey. It was presented to Russia by Finland and is now preserved at the Finland Station in St Petersburg. (Photo © by James G. Howes, 1998, from  Wikimedia Commons)

Platten, who had been so vital to the journey, was no longer with the group, having been turned back at the Finnish border. He did later enter Russia, eventually settling permanently there, and in 1918 he provided another and even greater service to Lenin. They were travelling in a car together when a would-be assassin opened fire. Platten pushed Lenin down, sustaining a minor injury himself and probably saving the Bolshevik leader’s life. Despite his services to the Revolution, he later fell victim to Stalin’s purges, and was shot on 22 April 1942 – ironically, the anniversary of Lenin’s birth.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin. Translated by Bernard Isaacs (Moscow, 1959) 010600.c.43. (Also available online at: http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/krupskaya/works/rol/index.htm)

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (London, 2016) Awaiting pressmark

Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (London, 2009) YC.2010.a.13366

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. As part of the accompanying programme of events, on the evening of 25 July Historian Catherine Merridale and writer Viv Groskop will be in conversation about Lenin’s journey back to Russia. Details can be found here.

03 July 2017

Joseph Bovshover: Yiddish Poetry, British Anarchism, and the Russian Revolution

I come like a comet ablaze, like the sun when the dawn is awaking;
I come like tumultuous tempest, when thunder and lightning are breaking;
I come like the lava that rushes from mighty volcanoes in motion;
I come like the storm from the north that arouses and angers the ocean.

I led the downtrodden and tyrannised peoples of past generations;
I helped them to throw off enslavement, and gain their complete liberations;
I marched with the spirit of progress, and aided its every endeavour;
And I shall march on with the peoples, until I shall free them for ever.

You money-bag saints, you crowned cut-throats, anointed with strife and contentions;
I come to destroy you, your laws, and your lies and your foolish conventions;
Your hearts that are thirsting for blood, I shall pierce till the life in them ceases;
Your crowns and your sceptres, your little gold toys I shall break into pieces.

So hang me or shoot me, your efforts are futile – a waste of endeavour,
I fear neither prisons nor tortures, nor scaffolds, nor aught whatsoever.
Anew I shall rise from the earth, and its surface with weapons shall cover,
Until you sink down in your graves, till your power for evil is over.

This revengeful snarl of poetry is extracted from Joseph Bovshover’s ‘Revolution’, written before the Russian Revolution but translated and published in February 1919 from its original Yiddish by Joseph Leftwich, for the British anarchist-communist journal The Spur. It is an uncompromising poem, preaching menace to the ruling classes and all the pillars of aristocratic and bourgeois society.

Bovshover
Joseph Bovshover, from his Gezamelṭe shriften: poezye un proza (New York, 1911) 17104.a.3

Joseph Bovshover (1873-1915) was born in Lyubavichi (‘the city of brotherly love’) within the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, part of the limited territories in which Jews were allowed to live. Originally a home of the Chabad Hasidic movement, Lyubavichi’s Jewish community fell victim to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, massacred in November 1941. 

BovshoverPoeticVerse
Cover of Bovshover’s Poetishe verke (London, 1903) 17106.a.152

Half a century earlier in 1891, just a few years after a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms, Bovshover had emigrated from what he called ‘the Czar’s oppressed and knouted lands’ to New York – and bitterly regretted being torn from his mother and father to make a new life away from the pogroms alone. Joining the working-class ‘melting pot’ in the United States he became a noted anarchist-communist ‘sweatshop poet’ and agitator in the labour movement, publishing in Yiddish and in English under the pseudonym Basil Dahl. In his final years Bovshover was hospitalised for mental illness before dying in 1915.

BovshoverRevolution
First stanza of ‘Revolution’ in Yiddish, from the 1911 Gezamelte shrifṭen

After his death, Bovshover’s contribution to proletarian poetry was widely recognised, and not just in the United States. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 Russia reclaimed him as her own. David Shneer wrote that he was ‘canonized … as a founder of a Jewish worker’s literary history’ by the emerging Soviet Yiddish press. Throughout 1918, his poetry appeared in three of the twelve editions published of the first Yiddish language newspaper in Soviet Russia, Varhayt, meaning ‘Truth’ in German. This was an echo of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, which meant ‘Truth’ in Russian, and in August 1918 it was re-founded as Der Emes– ‘the Truth’ again, in Yiddish. Though supported by Lenin, it was shut down under Stalin in the late 1930s as part of a broader Soviet campaign against Yiddish culture.

Bovshover was soon recognised in Britain also. A number of translations of his poetry were published in The Spur in the years after the Russian revolution, including the extracts above. The Spur was a British journal of anarchist-communism taking inspiration from both Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx. Unlike many other anarchist publications its editors supported Lenin’s Bolshevik party until the consolidation of the Soviet state in the early 1920s. 

SpurNov1919
Cover of The Spur for November 1919, illustration by Henry Bernard. LOU.LON 702

A cast of colourful characters were involved in producing The Spur. It was edited by Guy Aldred, a Glasgow based revolutionary, and Rose Witcop, a Jewish anarchist and sexual reformer who had emigrated to Britain from Kiev in Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire. The journal’s distinctive cartoons were supplied by Henry Bernard. Joseph Leftwich translated Bovshover’s poetry for The Spur. He was drawn to Bovshover as a socialist and a passionate promoter of Jewish culture. Leftwich has become famous as one of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, a label he invented for a group of Jewish writers and artists in the East End of London before the First World War.

SpurMay1920
Cover of The Spur for May 1920, illustration by Henry Bernard. LOU.LON 463.

Bovshover’s poetry was also often set to music. While his work seems to have come to British anarchism in the late 1910s and 1920s through the Soviet Yiddish press, more recently he has been rediscovered through his contributions to the American labour songbook by the Scottish folk-musician Dick Gaughan, revived as part of Gaughan’s musical assault on Thatcherism and the escalation of the Cold War in the 1980s. Gaughan and Judy Sweeney can be heard performing a different translation of ‘Revolution’, with all the radical passion that such a poem commands, on YouTube here and there is a live version by Gaughan alone here.

Mike Carey, CDA Student

References/further reading:

‘Joseph Bovshover: Poet of the Workers and the Sweatshops’ at http://yiddishkayt.org/view/joseph-bovshover/

‘Yoysef (Joseph) Bovshover’ at http://yleksikon.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/yoysef-joseph-bovshover.html

Joseph Bovshover, ‘A Russian Jew Recalls the Day He Left Home, ca. 1896-1897’ in The Jew in the American World: A Source Book edited by Jacob Rader Marcus (Detroit, 1996), pp. 353-4 YA.1998.a.1050.

Encyclopaedia Judaica at http://www.bjeindy.org/resources/library/encyclopediajudaica/

Dick Gaughan, ‘Track Notes to Different Kind of Love Song (1983)’ at http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/discography/dsc-love.html 

Mark Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism: The Movement for Workers’ Councils in Britain, 1917-45 (Basingstoke, 1988) YC.1988.a.8404.

David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture: 1918-1930 (Cambridge, 2004) YC.2006.a.10674.

As part of the series of events to accompany the exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, the British Library will be hosting a one-day event exploring the relationship between the British Left and the Russian revolution on Monday 10 July 2017. Details are available here.

22 June 2017

Sounds Of The Revolution

Guest blogger Ilia Rogatchevski looks back at one of the events accompanying our exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  and considers the role of music in the Revolution.

What is a revolutionary sound? Is it defined by the characteristics of the music alone or does context form an integral part of the music’s revolutionary temperament? On Friday 5 May, an event at the British Library attempted to answer these questions. Late at the Library: Sounds of the Revolution featured performances by Gabriel Prokofiev and The Renegade Orchestra. Organised in collaboration with Dash Arts, Kino Klassika  and Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label,  the event incorporated compositions old and new, including the debut performance of The Renegade Orchestra: Journey One.

Gabriel Prokoviev
Gabriel Prokoviev performing at the event on 5 May (photograph: Samantha Lane)

Composed by Alexander Manotskov, Journey One tells the story of three musicians from post-Soviet states who operate in a liminal musical environment, which draws inspiration from styles as diverse as jazz, classical, folk and electronic. Brought together by Dash Arts’ artistic director, Josephine Burton, for a workshop in Kazbegi, Georgia last year, the musicians worked at combining their disparate experiences into a united sonic strategy. Marina Kryukova (violin, pipes, voice), Shavkat Matyakubov (sato tanbur, kushnai, voice) and Vladimir Volkov (double bass, voice), along with Manotskov on cello, experimented with augmenting traditional forms by deconstructing expectations of music’s temporal nature.

Sounds 2
Performing Journey One (photograph: Samantha Lane)

In between rehearsals, which took place the previous day in the Library, Manotskov elaborated on the concept of musical time by stating that “only through divine, abstract, musical time can time that is accidental, personal, mortal, historical, be conquered”. He went further than simply inverting T.S. Eliot’s quote from the Four Quartets (“Only through time time is conquered”) by adding that the “binary opposition of freedom and not freedom is essential to the musical piece”. Furthermore, in composition it is “important to have something more general, something more elevated than social context”. The verbatim texts that wove in and out of the music, recalling snapshots of lives from the former Soviet Union, are a testament to this idea. These moments provided context, of course, but also something more general too: alternative sonic textures.

Sounds and children
 (photograph: Samantha Lane)

Unlike Manotskov’s Journey One, Prokofiev’s compositions did not betray a sense of nostalgia. Howl, which was originally scored for Maurice Causey’s all-electronic ballet, mirrored, in its contemporaneity, Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens (‘Simfoniia Gudkov’). Performed in Baku to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, Avraamov’s notorious piece employed the sounds of the city itself – factory sirens, bus horns, cannons et al – in celebration of industry, communism and the future. Prokofiev did not conduct a city, but instead, dueted synthesised sounds from a laptop alongside Lydia Kavina’s theremin.

Avraamov Symphony of Sirens

‘Graphical score’ of Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. Reproduced in Sergeĭ Rumiantsev, Ars Novyĭ, ili Dela i prikliucheniia bezustalʹnogo kazaka Arseniia Avraamova (Moscow, 2007) YF.2008.a.31612.

Reflecting on the hopes, tragedies and myths of the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev conceded that “there is a kind of desperation, a loneliness, a cry – a howl” apparent in such momentous events. “You reach a breaking point when you revolt,” he continued. “Most people wouldn’t go as far as a revolution, unless they’re pushed so hard. And that’s what happened in the Middle East. That’s what happened in Russia.”

As if to emphasise the ambiguous nature of catastrophic political change, the evening climaxed with a new guided improvisation for Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1927 silent classic, The End of St. Petersburg. Prokofiev was joined on stage by the Renegade Orchestra, Kavina, Manotskov, Jason Alder (bass clarinet) and Molly Lopresti (percussion).

Pudovkin 1

Scenes from Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg, reproduced in A.M. Maryamov, Narodnyi artist SSSR Vsevolod Pudovkin (Moscow, 1951). 11796.b.43. 

Pudovkin 2

Together, the musicians constructed an alternative vision of the Revolution, one that did not simply celebrate the overthrow of a redundant despot or the provisional government that succeeded him, but focused on the people who suffered not only through the failings of the monarchy, but also the shadowy beginnings of the Soviet regime as well. Peasants and bankers had their own leitmotifs, characterised by Matyakubov’s dutar and Kavina’s theremin respectively, but neither purported to have moral supremacy over the other. The audience, too, collaborated with the musicians, towards the end of the feature, in a collective vocal exercise, oh-ing and ah-ing, like lamentful ghosts of revolutions past, to images of cannons firing on the silver screen.

Sounds overview 2
(Photograph: Samantha Lane)

In summary, it is not the sounds or the context that are revolutionary in of themselves. Rather, it is their combined presentation that leaves its mark on the public consciousness. Performing in the cavernous lobby of the British Library certainly throws up some challenges, especially when most of us are used to experiencing music in a concert hall, but it is precisely this unorthodox arrangement that helps to carry the music forward. On this point, both Manotskov and Prokofiev agree. Music has to evolve, particularly in the formal ways in which it is performed. To quote the former composer: “We should open our eyes and see that nothing is conventional. Everything is new and shocking. This is where we are musically and it’s a great place to be.”

The exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  is open until 29 August 2017 and is accompanied by a range of events. You can hear more music on 27 June at the free ‘Strains of the Revolution’ performances. Details of all events are on our ‘What’s On’ pages. 

Sounds-of-the-revolution-1920x1080

13 June 2017

Revolutionaries, spies and royals

William Melville was Head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and later a senior member of the British Secret Service MI5. While still at Scotland Yard, he was involved in intelligence operations against anarchists with suspected links to Russian revolutionary émigrés, such as Vladimir Burtsev, arrested by Melville in December 1897 when leaving the British Museum reading room. In his memoirs, Burtsev described this episode:

On 16 December 1897, when I was leaving the main British Museum Reading Room, I was arrested there by the chief of British Police Melville and sent to prison. In two hours, I was sent from prison to the preliminary court and indicted with accusation of plotting assassination of the person ‘who was not a subject of Her Majesty the Queen’, i.e. Nicholas II. The aim of that court was to decide whether my case could be heard by the jury court or not. I was taken to this court five times.

Melville
William Melville at his desk in Scotland Yard, ca. 1894. Reproduced in Andrew Cook, M: MI5's First Spymaster (Stroud, 2004) m07/.19673

In his letter to Petr Rachkovskii, the chief of the European intelligence department of the Okhrana, the secret service in Imperial Russia, Melville wrote:

If you found it possible to bring a case against Burtsev & Co you could only go about it in the following way. Send the aforementioned newspaper to the Russian Ambassador in London, having marked in it the most relevant passages, and accompany it with a letter in which you insist on the need to prosecute the editor. Ask the Ambassador to bring the letter to the notice of the Foreign Secretary, who surely pass it on to me. As you see, one will have to act through the diplomatic channel.

Sidney Reilly, who would be sent to Russia as an agent in the revolutionary years, was first recruited by Melville as an informer in an organization that was also involved with Russian anarchists. The rise of terrorist and anarchist activities alarmed the British public and became. For example, the central theme of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, where the Russian links are prominent.

X808-38955 Reilly Ace of Spies TV tie-in   YKL.2016.a.1066 Reilly 2014 ed

 Left: Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly, Ace of Spies, a life of Sidney Reilly, first published 1967 (X.639/2067). The copy shown (X.808/38995) was published as a tie-in for a 1980s TV dramatisation which starred Sam Neill as Reilly. Right: Reilly’s partially ghostwritten memoir, Adventures of a British Master Spy (London, 2014) YKL.2016.a.1066. 

In 1902 Melville’s service was recognized by the Russian Imperial State and he received a silver cigarette case made by Imperial goldsmiths possibly subordinate to Fabergé and a watch with an enamelled double-headed eagle made by the Russian Imperial purveyor Paul Buhre. The gift was presented by the then heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Michael, Nicholas II’s younger brother who represented the family at the Coronation of Edward VII.

Michael-K.T.C.111.b.2

 Grand Duke Michael in the military uniform of the Russian Royals of the 17th century at the Costume Ball at the Winter Palace that took place in February 1903. From Alʹbom kostiumirovannago bala v Zimnem Dvortse v fevrale 1903 g. = Album du bal costumé au Palais d'hiver : février 1903. (St Petersburg, 1904) K.T.C.111.b.2

At the time, Michael was considered a suitor to British-born Princess Beatrice nicknamed ‘Baby-Bee’, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria’s second son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and Grand Duchess Maria – Michael’s aunt, sister of his father Tsar Alexander III. And in 1913, Michael indeed came to live in England renting Knebworth House (pictured below) near London, but not as the husband of a British princess, rather as the husband of a divorced commoner, Natalia Sheremetevskaia.

IMG_1536

In a letter of 7 August 1911 to his lover Michael wrote:

My darling, I’m so afraid at the thought that I might not be allowed back into Russia, that we might be separated, when I think about it I literally pale with horror. What if I never, ever see you again or kiss, or embrace you again. You do understand how horrible it would be. I think of nothing else and in my thoughts and my dreams I am caressing you as if I was saying goodbye to you forever…

Having ignored the Tsar’s prohibition to enter a morganatic marriage, Michael was expelled from Russia and only granted permission to return on the outbreak of the First World War.

After Nicholas’s abdication on 15 (2) March 1917 Michael technically became Tsar, but called on the people to obey the Provisional Government. Historians still debate whether he was legally the last Tsar. His and Natalia Sheremetevskaia’s son Georgii (George) was smuggled out of Soviet Russia at the age of seven and, having settled in England with his mother, attended St Leonards-on-Sea College and Harrow School.

67-year old Melville and 39-year old Michael both died in 1918: the former of kidney failure and the latter shot by the Soviet secret police, the Cheka.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References:

Andrew Cook, M: MI5's First Spymaster (Stroud, 2004) m07/.19673

Rosemary and Donald Crawford. Michael and Natasha: the life and love of the last tsar of Russia (London, 1997) YC.1999.b.4117

 The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

09 June 2017

‘A Man of Throbbing Vitality’: Leon Trotsky and the ‘Leatherites’

In a recent article for the Guardian, the ‘weird fiction’ author China Miéville raised the issue of historian Orlando Figes’s ‘disapproving fascination’ with the leather jackets habitually worn by Bolshevik revolutionaries during the period of the Civil War. Figes’s fascination with their leathers and the ‘macho culture’ they signified is not just a personal quirk, but was a key element in the militant image of Bolshevism established in opposition to the suited politicians of the other parties in the Russian Revolution.

More than any other iconic figure of the revolutionary period, the founder of the Red Army Leon Trotsky has become associated with this uniform of leather, a radical departure from his dapper intelligentsia style of fashion in the pre-1917 years. A brief clip of the revolutionary in military garb can be found on the Getty Images website. While Trotsky wore an imposing suit of black leather, the guards on the famous train from which he commanded the war effort were reputedly kitted out in similar uniforms of red. Trotsky himself attributed the Bolshevik craze for leather to the lesser known figure Yakov Sverdlov, a leading Bolshevik who died of illness in 1919:

In the initial post-October period the Communists were, as is well-known, called “leatherites” by our enemies, because of the way in which we dressed. I believe that Sverdlov’s example played a major role in introducing the leather “uniform” among us. At all events he invariably walked around encased in leather from head to toe, from his leather cap to his leather boots. This costume, which somehow corresponded with the character of those days, radiated far and wide from him… 

LeninSverdlov
A 1918 photograph of Lenin with Sverdlov, in his leather jacket, from Tsetsiliya Samoilovna Zelikson-Bobrovskaya, Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov (Moscow, 1938) 10797.b.7.

The leather-look seems to have worked for Trotsky. British visitors to revolutionary Russia were often struck by his sense of fashion and personal charisma. Ethel Snowden, a figure on the right-wing of the Independent Labour Party (a section of the Labour Party which had taken an anti-war position during the First World War), was one such unlikely admirer. She was the wife of the austere Philip Snowden, the man who would become Labour’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer in the minority government of 1924 and again in the ill-fated government of 1929 – certainly no Bolshevik sympathiser.

EthelSnowden
Photograph of Ethel Snowden from her memoir A Political Pilgrim in Europe (London, 1921) 08026.b.51.

Ethel Snowden had been selected as a member of the Labour Delegation to Russia of 1920, which sought to establish the facts about the new Soviet state through the distorting mists of propaganda and counter-propaganda from both its enemies and admirers. During the visit she had the opportunity to share a box in the theatre with the ‘remarkable fine-looking man’ Trotsky, enjoying a performance of Borodin’s Prince Igor. Trotsky has the reputation of a rogue, his affair with Frida Kahlo during his more settled post-revolutionary years is well-known having been depicted in the 2002 film Frida, but in Snowden’s account in her book Through Bolshevik Russia he comes across as a devilish flirt even in the midst of heavy civil war:

At one point in the performance there came a tender love-scene.
“There,” said Trotsky turning to me and speaking in English for the first time, “is the great international language.”
“Yes,” I replied, “you are right. But there is also another – Art. These two great international languages of Love and Art will unite the world in peace and happiness at last.”
I should think Trotsky is a man of throbbing vitality and of strong feeling; once of splendid vision.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell was also in attendance and was, if anything, even more struck. He wrote a description of Trotsky at the theatre in his journal entry for 17 May 1920:

Very Napoleonic impression. Bright eyes, military bearing, lightning intelligence, magnetic personality. Exceedingly good-looking, which surprised me. Would be irresistible to women, and an agreeable lover while his passion lasted.

Russell’s published account repeats much of this description, but probably knowing how prudish the English can be he chose to omit the final clause. Despite Trotsky’s personal appeal, both figures would become committed anti-Communists following their trip, and Ethel Snowden in particular was attacked by Communists as a traitor to the cause of the working class. Although they managed to bring back a wealth of material from the Soviet state, much of which has found its way to the British Library, the Labour delegation did not carry the fashion for leather back to the British working class movement, which long retained its preference for impeccably proletarian and anti-militaristic cloth flat caps.

Mike Carey, CDA Student, British Library and Nottingham University

References / Further Reading

Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (London, 1997) YC.1997.b.5078.

Leon Trotsky, ‘Jacob Sverdlov’ (March 1925) online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1925/03/sverdlov.htm

Bertrand Russell, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell vol. 15: Uncertain Roads to Freedom: Russia and China 1919-22 edited by Richard A. Rempel et al. (London, 2000) YC.2000.a.8045.

Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (London, 1949 [first edition: 1920]) 09455.de.91.

Ethel Snowden, Through Bolshevik Russia (London, 1920) 10290.bbb.47.

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

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