05 September 2022
On 30 August 2022, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and the last President of the Soviet Union died at the age of 91 in Moscow. Born in 1931, when the Soviet state was already well established, he was a son of his time and country: he worked hard as a teenager during World War II, cried at Stalin’s funeral and believed in the communist future.
Christian Schmidt-Haüer. Gorbachev: The path to Power. London, 1989. YC.1987.a.6030
Although he led the country for only six years, the processes that resulted in global changes in the world and transformed the lives of millions of people started when he was in power. A controversial figure, he is remembered for his inconsistent attempts of reforming the miserably failing Soviet planned economy, while holding on to the already non-viable union of soviet republics, liberating political prisoners and dissidents, announcing glasnost and getting rid of censorship. The awful mismanagement of the Chernobyl disaster and signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the famous anti-alcohol campaign and liberalisation of the anti-clerical regime, the violent suppression of anti-Soviet and pro-independence demonstrations in Tbilisi and Vilnius, and the demolition of the Berlin Wall all happened on his watch.
M. Gorbachev. The Results and Lessons of Reykjavik. Moscow, 1986. YH.1987.a.530
Having ended the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1989, Gorbachev supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. He enjoyed a long life as a ‘common citizen’ after leaving office, could demonstrate self-irony, had a happy marriage and was not shy to show love and devotion to his wife – all very uncharacteristic features for Soviet and Russian leaders. However, Gorbachev never publicly admitted any mistakes and wrongdoings or openly criticised his successors, which is typical in Soviet and Russian politics.
The materials the British Library holds on Gorbachev and his time, of course, reflect the entire spectrum of views and opinions. Among the first books published in the West about Gorbachev are those written by a German international affairs correspondent in Moscow, Christian Schmidt-Haüer, (see the image above) and a noted Soviet scientist and dissident, Zhores Medvedev.
Zhores Medvedev. Gorbachev. Oxford, 1989. YH.1988.b.1201
While the West was deciding on an adequate reaction to the new challenges presented by the Soviet leadership, Polish dissidents were warning western politicians not to trust Gorbachev, as they saw his leadership as not a revision of the Soviet oppressive policies, but just a continuation of them.
How should America respond to Gorbachev's challenge: a report of the Task Force on Soviet New Thinking. Institute for East-West Security Studies, 1987. YC.1989.a.11100
Inny Gorbaczow. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Niepodległość, 1989. Sol. 268w
At the same time, the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain published two letters to Gorbachev written by prominent writers and cultural figures in support of the use and revival of the Belarusian language and against the russification of Belarus. Both letters were openly sent to Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in 1986, but their publication in London was still considered an offence and cost one of the authors his membership in the Communist party.
Letters to Gorbachev: new documents from Soviet Byelorussia. London: Association of Byelorussians in Great Britain, 1987. YC.1988.b.8198
Gorbachev did not attempt to solve this problem, and probably never fully understood it, although he went through a long evolution of political ideas from dogmatic Communism to a social democratic understanding of socialism. A book of conversations with Zdenĕk Mlynář, his good and long-standing friend since their student days at the Moscow State University, shows this evolution.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Zdeněk Mlynář (translated by George Shriver). Conversations with Gorbachev: on Perestroika, the Prague Spring and the crossroads of socialism. NY, 2002. YC.2002.a.14470
Zdenĕk Mlynář, an intellectual and politician, whose ideas formulated in the political manifesto Towards a Democratic Political Organisation of Society (1968) laid the foundation of the Prague Spring in 1968, was one of the signatories of Charter 77 and spent over ten years in exile before the Velvet Revolution. In the book, Mlynář and Gorbachev discuss such questions as ‘freedom of choice’, can the use of force ‘save socialism’, what to do with the party and ‘an airplane that took off without knowing where it would land’. As Peter Duncan wrote in his review of the 2002 English edition of the book, “it is symptomatic that no Russian edition has appeared yet”. To the best of my knowledge, the book has still not been translated into Russian.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator Central, East European and Slavonic Collections
Ilya Zemtsov, John Farrar. Gorbachev: the man and the system. London, NY, 2017.
David Barkin. Gorbachev and the decline of ideology in Soviet foreign policy. London, 2019.
William Taubman. Gorbachev: his life and times. London, 2017.
N. P. Makarkin. Gorbachev i peresptoika: popytka ob’’ektivnogo analiza. Moskva, 2014.
24 August 2022
On 24 August 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union by passing the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. On this day, we are exploring our collection of works by Ukrainian historians who contributed to Ukrainian scholarship and Ukrainian identity.
Samiilo Velychko and Hryhorii Hrabianka could be considered the first named historians of Ukraine. Although they still wrote their works in a chronicle style, they are distinctly different from the earlier anonymous work Litopys Samovydtsia (‘The Eyewitness Chronicle’) that described events in Ukraine from the outbreak of the Khmelnytsky revolt in 1648 until 1702. All three authors had their social roots in the Cossack officer class and their works are often referred to as ‘Cossack chronicles’. However, Samovidets’ (‘the eyewitness’) was the only one who had personal knowledge of the Khemelnitsky era. Both – Velychko and Hrabianka – came from the next generation. Their narratives include not only annual accounts of events, but also their own interpretations, memoirs and documents. The manuscripts of Velychko’s Litopys show that it is a unique example of historical reflection on the past. This is no longer a chronicle, or a collection and compilation, but a historical study, united by a common idea, approach and methodology.
The Cossack chronicles have been published several times since 1840s, and the British Library holds some of the most important editions.
The Eyewitness Chronicle - facsimile of the manuscript folio
A page from the 2001 edition of Hrabianka’s Historiia (Hystoriia ... H. Hrab’ianky ; Lietopis kratkii. Zhytomyr, 2001. YA.2003.30504)
Title page of the first edition of Velychko’s Litopys (Kyiv, 1848). Ac.7870/5.
Facsimile of the title page of the manuscript
Facsimile of one of the images in the Velychko’s manuscript – portrait of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyi
Like in many other countries in Europe, Ukrainian scholarly historical research reached a new level in the 19th century. Mykola Kostomarov was a historian by training. He graduated from Kharkiv University and in 1846 was appointed assistant professor at Kyiv University. We have numerous editions of his works, including the beautifully printed Slavianskaia mifologiia (‘Slavonic mythology’).
Kostomarov’s Slavianskaia mifologiia (Kyiv, 1847) 4504.h.20
Some important aspects of Kostomarov's life and work can be studied through the Endangered Archives Programme collection (EAP657), as digitised copies of archival Russian Imperial polices files on the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius can be accessed from anywhere in the world. The original documents are held at the National Taras Shevchenko Museum in Ukraine. Kostomarov’s involvement in the Brotherhood resulted in his arrest and exile.
If Kostomarov laid the foundations for Ukrainian national historiography, the researcher and prominent political and civic leader Mykhailo Hrushevsky made the most fundamental contribution to Ukrainian scholarship by writing a 10 volume history of Ukraine. Thanks to another EAP project (EAP900), free open access to the full run of the Papers of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in Lviv, where Hrushevsky was an active member, is also available from the British Library website.
Many prominent historians of Ukraine contributed to the Harvard series in Ukrainian studies and other publications by Harvard University, which, of course, would be easier to find in our online catalogue, and the most recent works are available as e-books from our Reading Rooms, like, for example, Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.
Cover of Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (London, 2015). YC.2017.a.1703 and ELD.DS.188427
This is probably the most popular English-language book about Ukraine today. Whichever book you choose, let us mark Ukrainian Independence Day by learning about Ukraine’s rich history and by celebrating the brilliant scholars who studied it.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator Central, East European and Slavonic Collections
M. IU Braichevsʹkyi, Annexation or reunification: critical notes on one conception; translated and edited by George P. Kulchycky (Munich, 1974) W39/2929
Dmytro Doroshenko, History of the Ukraine; translated from the Ukranian and abridged by Hanna Chikalenko- Keller ; edited and introduction by G.W. Simpson (Edmonton, 1939) YA.2003.a.10952
Ivan Dziuba, Internationalism or Russification? A study in the Soviet nationalities problem, 3rd edition (New York ; London, 1974) X.709/30122
Hryhorij Hrabjanka, The great war of Bohdan Xmelʹnycʹkyj, with an introduction by Yuri Lutsenko. ([Cambridge, Mass.], 1990) YC.1993.b.1849
M. Hrushevsʹkyi, Istoriia Ukrainy-Rusy : v odynadtsiaty tomakh, dvanadtsiaty knyhakh. (Kyiv, 1991-2000). ZA.9.a.8256
Kostomarov's “Books of Genesis of the Ukrainian People,” with a commentary by B. Yanivs'kyi. (New York, 1954). 10293.e.11/60.
Oleksander Ohloblyn, Arkadii Zhukovsky and Serhiy Bilenky. ‘Historiography’ in Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine
Omeljan Pritsak, Istoriosofiia ta istoriohrafiia Mykhaila Hrushevsʹkoho. (Kyiv, 1991) YA.1996.a.7702
The Eyewitness Chronicle, with an editor’s preface by Omeljan Pritsak (Munich, 1972) X.0800/445(7/1)
28 July 2022
The Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute is currently running Ukraine Lab, an online residency for six emerging writers based in the United Kingdom and Ukraine (or displaced by the war). Sasha Dovzhyk, curator of Ukraine Lab, writes:
The ongoing successful resistance to Russia’s war of aggression on an unprecedented scale has made the value of Ukrainian knowledge and experience undeniable. The urgency to learn from Ukraine is now existential for the rest of the world, and Ukraine Lab presents such an opportunity.
Working in cross-cultural pairs, the participants of Ukraine Lab will produce creative nonfiction pieces tackling global challenges in the areas of modern warfare, disinformation, and environment through the prism of Ukraine. Ukraine Lab is supported by the British Council as part of UK/UA Season.
Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov’s set design for Mob (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel They Call Me Carpenter), 1924. Mystetskyi arsenal, Kyiv, Ukraine.
As part of the project, the writers took part in an online workshop with Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and East European collections at the British Library. We encouraged the participants to engage critically and creatively with the Library’s rich Ukrainian collections, and to record their responses to some of the items they encountered.
Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). ZK.9.d.258
Jonathon Turnbull (United Kingdom)
Cultural and environmental geographer at the University of Cambridge researching the return of nature to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone
From original copies of CIA-sponsored radical newspapers born from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster to a traditionally-bound book celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, the British Library’s Ukrainian collections are packed with gems. Equally well-preserved are the stories behind these items, whose histories were richly conveyed by Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and Eastern European collections. In the collection, we can trace the history of Russia’s imperialistic attempts to erase Ukrainian culture and language, an endeavour which is more apparent than ever since February 24th 2022. But equally, we can find the perseverance and strength of the Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism. We were shown, for instance, a rare pocket-sized edition of Taras Shevchenko’s famous poetry collection Kobzar, published in Geneva and designed to be easily smuggled into Ukraine at a time when Ukrainian language was prohibited by Russian colonialism. Some editions were even disguised as cigarette papers to avoid detection. Items like this remind us of the power of literature, poetry, and other documentary forms in fostering community, protecting culture, and enabling resistance. It was a privilege to access such items and to learn about their history from Katie McElvanney who gave a wonderful insight into the British Library’s Ukrainian collections.
Front cover of Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children’s book, Brysko, huska i lysychka [Munich, 1949]. Awaiting shelfmark
Olena Kozar (Ukraine)
Journalist, editor, and copywriter
The book that stood out for me was Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children's book, Brysko, huska i lysychka, published in 1949 in a displaced persons camp in Germany and doodled by a kid’s hand. I couldn’t help thinking back to a cramped school library which I frequented and where doodling in books was strictly forbidden. Of course, it was. But after all, what else can bring a book to life and closer to us if not a mischievous message sent through time? I hope that the young reader of Pidhiryanka’s book didn’t witness or remember World War II and doodled care-free in a world where the evil was defeated. I salute you, little monkey, from the new Europe, torn apart by a new war. The evil came back but we are fighting.
Title page of the British Library’s copy of the 1881 Kobzar (volume one). 1451.a.42.
Kris Michalowicz (United Kingdom)
International volunteer and writer focusing on Eastern Europe
I was struck by the wealth of history and human experience contained in the collections. The eclectic range of items made a powerful impression on me, and made my connection to Ukrainian history all the more vivid. One item that stood out to me was the portable copy of Shevchenko's Kobzar, designed to be smuggled. It highlighted the ingenuity, determination, and bravery Ukrainians have needed to preserve their culture across the centuries under the threat of imperialism.
Page from Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine (Kyiv; Tallinn, 2007), YF.2017.b.1282
Kateryna Iakovlenko (Ukraine)
Luhansk-born visual culture researcher and writer exploring cultural and artistic transformation during the war and violence
I have always been fascinated by library collections: how they are formed, how curators distribute and catalogue books. It was interesting to observe how carefully the staff treated each book as a separate independent story. But among all that Katie McElvanney spoke about, I was most inspired by the collection of environmental sound recordings. While we grow up surrounded by the sounds of birds, frogs, and animals, it seems that nothing can change, that they will always be with us. Unfortunately, however, climate change and wars affect the environment. Some plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. For this reason, it's crucial to preserve them by all possible means.
Cover of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’, Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka, with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.
Phoebe Page (United Kingdom)
University of Cambridge Languages and Literature graduate, preparing for a Masters degree in Political Sociology
I was blown away by the breadth and variety of the collection, spanning so many styles, genres, places, and periods in history. I was particularly struck by the story each piece told, and the layers of experience you could divine from items which must have passed through several different hands, and which still bear the marks of previous owners. We were shown a rare edition of Orwell’s Animal Farm, translated into Ukrainian in 1947 and distributed throughout the displaced persons camps at the end of the Second World War. It was incredible to learn that Orwell wrote a special introduction for the Ukrainian version of Animal Farm, which became a message of hope for Ukrainians in the DP camps. Political independence was a matter of survival for Orwell and for Ukrainians facing Soviet oppression, and that such an iconic author would write a special introduction personally addressed to a tiny audience (only around 2,000 copies of this edition were distributed) is to me incredibly powerful.
Sofia Cheliak (Ukraine)
TV host, Programme director at the Lviv International BookForum, translator from Czech
I was surprised by the approach to the process of collecting items and the very diversity of the Ukrainian collection. I studied Ukrainian Philology (Literary Studies) for my degree and only read about the books that were published by Mykhailo Drahomanov. At the British Library workshop, I was able to actually see them, at least online.
Edited by Sasha Dovzhyk, Curator of Ukraine Lab and special projects curator at Ukrainian Institute London
11 July 2022
As part of the events programme accompanying our current exhibition 'Breaking the News' curators from the European, Americas and Oceania Collections department took part in an online 'Meet the Curators' event to introduce some stories about news media in the countries they cover. This blog post is based on one of the talks given at that event.
Living in 1980s Poland meant being surrounded by a graphic persuasiveness of visual communist propaganda. However, in this forest of policy-inspired art and slogans a perceptive passer-by could notice discrepancies: a leaflet handed over discreetly, posters popping up mysteriously during the night, often offering the familiar red discomfort of the favourite communist colour, but conveying a rebellious message. If you were curious and brave enough to risk your own comfort, and sometimes life, you could have access to a clandestine news network which functioned as an alternative to the official one-sided narrative of the communist government. A lot of these samizdat productions were prepared by members of Solidarity.
This organisation started as a trade union in the then Polish People’s Republic and evolved into a broad anti-authoritarian social movement that helped to build the foundations for overthrowing communist rule in Eastern Europe by means of civil resistance. One of the goals for Solidarity’s members was raising the nation’s civil awareness by fighting censorship and providing access to independent media.
A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. Sol. 764
This advertisement for the Solidarity journal edited by the students of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan is the perfect example of such civil resistance. The image of a man sitting on a clearly useless TV set reading the Solidarity magazine was self-explanatory to Polish citizens of the era. At the time television had only two channels and the state-owned broadcaster was a mouthpiece for the communist government. All news was meticulously censored before release and had to be approved by the General Office for Control of Publications and Spectacles. The agency’s main role was to suppress the freedom of news and free speech.
The relentless efforts of censors resulted in a backlash. Grassroots movements started spreading information coming to Poland from abroad and disseminating true stories of what was going on in and outside of the country. Samizdat books and the so-called ‘second circulation’ of illegally printed press flourished. Spreading pro-democracy news was dangerous and could result in imprisonment and torture – just like in today’s Belarus. Nonetheless, the oppressive situation only fuelled samizdat’s spread. Pamphlets such as this instruction manual made mockery of the government’s efforts to stop the circulation of independent news.
Przemiennik częstotliwości: z RWE na co dzień ('An RF radio frequency converter: for your daily dose of Radio Free Europe'; Warsaw, 1984), Sol. 215x
The manual teaches how to build your own radio frequency converter to listen to Radio Free Europe, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries were jamming Western radio broadcasts. In a foreword to the manual the author criticizes the West for not doing enough to support pro-democracy movements and a lack of technological investment that could counter Soviet efforts to block news. However, it is the author’s opinion on wider Western policy that makes contemporary readers take pause: ‘the supremacy of economy over politics in the West means that the West will purchase Soviet gas and construct pipelines as this lies in their interest. By doing so they are playing into Soviet hands – one frosty winter the Soviet Union will be able to turn off the tap and cut off heating in the entire West Germany.’ For those who broke the law to break the news recent headlines are no news at all.
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
For more information about the Solidarity collection, read our blog posts giving a general overview and focusing on satire in the collection. You can also read about some sensational news stories from interwar Poland here.
10 June 2022
Exploring five centuries of UK news through broadsheets, blogs and objects, the British Library’s current exhibition, Breaking the News, challenges and seeks to change the way we think about news.
A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. BL shelf mark Sol. 764
Looking beyond the UK focus of Breaking the News, on Thursday 23 June curators from the European, Americas and Oceania collections will be in conversation about items from their collection areas that speak to the themes of the exhibition and that they think deserve a spotlight. Join us for a friendly look behind the curating scenes as we discover unique collection items that illuminate news and the role it plays in our lives.
This free, online event will take place on Thursday 23 June 2022, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.
This session is run in partnership with the Library’s Asia and Africa department, whose parallel event takes place on Thursday 16th June 2022.
27 May 2022
On Sunday 23 August 1931 the front page of Tajny Detektyw (‘Undercover Detective’), a Polish weekly tabloid, featured a photograph of a beautiful woman ominously titled ‘Iga’s Tragedy’. The paper ran a story on a popular Warsaw dancer Iga Korczyńska shot and killed by her former fiancé Zacharjasz Drożyński. The story appealed to masses easily fascinated by classic tropes of love, high-life, obsession, adultery and crime. This was only one of many juicy articles that Tajny Detektyw chose to print that day.
Front page of Tajny Detektyw, no. 32 featuring Iga Korczyńska (Kraków, 1931) BL shelf mark RF.201.b.79
Extract from the article ‘Tragedja Igi’ in Tajny Detektyw, no. 32 (Kraków, 1931)
The newspaper was one of the most sensationalist titles in interwar Poland and made quite a name for itself. The weekly newspaper’s circulation of 100,000 used to sell out almost immediately. The title was owned by a Polish entrepreneur and publisher, the biggest and the most influential press magnate of the Second Polish Republic, Marian Dąbrowski.
Tajny Detektyw’s creators had an ambition for the newspaper to become something more than a regular penny paper. The periodical’s intricate graphic design was conceived and executed by Janusz Maria Brzeski a modernist artist, photographer and an avant-garde filmmaker headhunted by Dąbrowski. With determination not to be another ‘penny blood’ Tajny Detektyw’s publishers claimed that the paper’s mission was to ‘fight crime’.
United under this banner the periodical’s journalists did not shy away from any subject. They ventured deep into the realms of social pathology, murder, burglary and rape. They published gruesome stories and were uncompromising in the choice of protagonists that ranged from petty criminals, through corrupt civil servants to crooked judges and police officers. While the featured stories were grisly, their linguistic side had a certain poetic and literary quality to it. However, the newspaper quickly was blacklisted by various organisations, the Catholic Church amongst them. The paper was criticised for doing the exact opposite of what its mission was supposed to be – it was accused of propagating crime and corrupting public morals.
‘W sidłach sekty satanistów’ – ‘In the Clutches of the Satanic Cult’, gory details of a mysterious death in Warsaw. Front page of Tajny Detektyw, no. 25 (Kraków, 1934)
‘Zbrodnia nad Prutem’ – ‘Crime by the Prut’: members of the local authorities and police officers photographed over the body of a victim of an unknown perpetrator. Back page of Tajny Detektyw, no. 37 (Kraków, 1932)
Tajny Detektyw’s graphic designer, Maria Brzeski, favoured collages in his artistic practice. Under his guidance the newspaper produced many exquisite examples of this technique such as this front page of Tajny Detektyw, no. 48 (Kraków, 1931)
It was rumoured that some criminals treated Tajny Detektyw as their training manual. In the end, Dąbrowski was forced to close down the title in 1934. It was a widely-discussed criminal trial of a married couple, Jan and Maria Malisz, that became the final nail in Tajny Detektyw’s coffin. The couple, a painter and his wife, committed a burglary resulting in a double homicide and bodily harm. The scandal and the court proceedings not only exposed the brutal reality of societal poverty in the Polish Second Republic and shed the light on desperation of those struggling for survival, but also became Dąbrowski’s newspaper damnation (see Stanisław Salomonowicz’s book, Pitaval krakowski (Kraków 2010) YF.2014.a.27456 ). Jan and Maria Malisz testified that their deed was inspired by an article in Tajny Detektyw describing a murder of a postman committed in Toruń. The couple thought that they could improve on the already existing scenario. Although, the plan backfired, they instead succeeded in finishing off the most popular criminal chronicle of its time of the social life of the Polish Second Republic. After a turbulent public discussion the newspaper was finally closed down.
‘Strzały w Hotelu Carlton’ – ‘Shots at Carlton Hotel’, one of the articles from the newspaper targeted at readers hungry for juicy gossip from abroad. Pages from Tajny Detektyw, no. 30 (Kraków, 1931)
‘Breaking the News’, a current exhibition at the British Library, offers more insight into ways that public opinions and beliefs influence the news and vice versa, including the ways in which scandal and violent crime are depicted. Visit the British Library website to learn more.
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
10 March 2022
The British Library holds a number of interesting editions by and about the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Some of them are very rare. In addition, in 2014, as part of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), which is administered by the British Library, the Taras Shevchenko National Museum digitised print and archival materials relating to Shevchenko. These files are available via the EAP website and searchable via the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. This digital collection compliments the British Library’s holdings of print materials.
Title page of the British Library’s copy of the 1881 Kobzar (volume one). 1451.a.42.
I first had the opportunity to learn about rare copies of Shevchenko’s works in the collections of the British Library while working on a bio-bibliography of the outstanding Ukrainian bibliographer and librarian Iurii Mezhenko in the early 1990s. It was Mezhenko who collected the world’s largest private collection of Shevchenko’s works and books about the poet. His collection contained a very rare edition of Kobzar in two volumes, published in 1881 in Geneva by Mykhailo Drahomanov. As stated in the preface of the bio-bibliography, only two copies of this Kobzar have survived: one in Mezhenko’s collection and the other (volume one only) in the British Library (Iurii Oleksiiovych Mezhenko… p. 32). The British Library (then the British Museum Library) copy was discovered by Volodymyr Doroshenko, author of the most complete bibliography of Shevchenko, as early as 1942.
What makes this edition so rare? Five years before its publication, in 1876, a decree banning the use of the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire was issued by Tsar Alexander II. Known as the Ems Ukaz after the German town where it was promulgated, the decree also forbade the import of Ukrainian publications. That is why Shevchenko’s poems were published abroad. Another reason for this decision was that all previous publications of Shevchenko’s works in the Russian Empire were censored, and uncensored poems were only distributed in manuscript copies. Any criticism of the Empire, any hint of the subjugation of Ukrainians, any allusion to a separate Ukrainian identity or former Hetman state was removed from the poems. For example, from the poem ‘The Night of Taras’ lines 15-16, 45-64, and 131-136 were all cut. Among them:
Once there was the Hetmanate
It passed beyond recall.
…. Where the freedom-destiny?
The Hetmans and their banners?
Where is it scattered? Burned to ashes?
Or has the blue sea drowned
And covered over your high hills
And the lofty mounds?
(Translated by Vera Rich)
Copies of the 1878 and 1881 editions of Kobzar in Mezhenko’s collection. Reproduced with kind permission.
Mykhaylo Drahomanov, a scholar and political thinker who had been forced to emigrate following his dismissal from the Kyiv University of St. Volodymyr by the Russian government, initiated the publication of uncensored editions of Kobzar by the Hromada publishing house in Geneva, which operated there from 1876 until 1889. Both the 1881 Kobzar and an earlier edition printed in 1878 (a digitised copy of the 1878 Kobzar is available via the V. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine), open with the text of the Ems Ukaz and are very small in size. Part of the print run of the 1878 edition (5,5 x 8,5 cm) was transported to the Russian Empire “legally” under the guise of cigarette papers manufactured by the well-known French factory ‘Abadie’ as, wrapped in a branded cover, the small book resembled a stack of cigarette papers.
Abadie cigarette paper advert by E. Hilda.
The 1881 edition is a little bigger (7 х 11 cm) but is also of a pocket size which was convenient for transporting to Russian-controlled Ukraine and for hiding. Both of these editions were printed using a reformed Ukrainian alphabet called Drahomanivka. This phonemic orthography was developed in Kyiv in the 1870s by a group of Ukrainian intellectuals including Drahomanov. However, following the ban of Ukrainian language publications and the relocation of publishing activities abroad, this reformed orthography had no chance to be used in Ukraine. The alphabet was named after Drahomanov, who had used it in publications since 1876. As Drahomanivka did not catch on, these and some other editions are historical examples of its usage.
Example of Drahomanivka from the 1881 edition of Kobzar
Title page of ‘Mariia’ by Taras Shevchenko (Geneva, 1882). 011586.ff.49.(3.)
Later, in 1882, Drahomanov used Ukrainian orthography based on the Latin alphabet for printing Shevchenko’s poem ‘Mariia’ in Geneva. This very interesting and rare edition is also held by the British Library, as well as a copy of Drahomanov’s printed report ‘La Littérature Oukraïnienne proscrite par le Gouvernement Russe’, which was distributed at the Paris Literary Congress in 1878 (11851.ccc.19.).
Title page of the 1876 Prague edition of Kobzar. 11585.k.11.
Another rare edition of Kobzar which is preserved in the British Library (and in Mezhenko’s collection) is the Prague edition of 1876. It was published by the printing house of Eduard Grégr (1827–1907), a Czech publicist and politician who, together with his brother, founded the political magazine Národní listy (MFM.MF641; Digitised copies of Národní listy are available via the Moravian Library and the National Library of the Czech Republic).
Digitised file relating to editions of Kobzar published abroad (EAP657/1/51)
The EAP Shevchenko collection contains a file (1881) issued by the Main Department on Print Issues of the Russian Empire relating to editions of Kobzar published abroad, including the Prague edition. The file examines issues of censorship and rights. One report, dated 12 February 1881 and signed by a Russian censor, states that the Prague edition of Kobzar is “subject to unconditional prohibition” (f.6).
As this blog demonstrates, the stories behind these editions are part of Ukrainian history.
Nadiia Strishenets, Leading Researcher at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine and British Library Chevening Fellow. She is working on enhancing metadata for the Shevchenko digital collections.
References and further reading
Iurii Oleksiiovych Mezhenko (1892-1969): materialy do biohrafiï, compiled by T. A. Ihnatova, N. V. Kazakova, N. V. Strishenets (Kyiv, 1994). 2719.e.3344
Taras Shevchenko, “Song out of Darkness”: Selected poems translated from the Ukrainian by Vera Rich. (London, 1961) 11303.bb.3.
08 March 2022
“Your problems are also my problems” – tracing Ukraine in the British Library's Solidarity Collection
As the catastrophic situation in Ukraine unfolds, as human lives and cultural heritage are under threat, the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine keeps displaying a curt and distressing message: ‘Due to the imposition of martial law throughout Ukraine, the library remains closed to readers’.
The tragic circumstances of one of the most populous countries in Europe remind us of the importance of international solidarity and the need to come together to preserve lives and heritage. In this blog post we take a look at Ukraine in the British Library’s Solidarity collection to show the prominence of international connections for building democracies.
Since 1980, when the Gdańsk Agreement was signed between the strikers of the Lenin Shipyard and the government of the Polish People’s Republic, the Polish ‘Solidarity’ movement – the trade union – has been being widely credited with playing a crucial role in ending communist rule in Poland. For many activists around the world Solidarity became a symbol of a successful battle against tyranny and dictatorship.
The British Library’s collection named after the movement holds thousands of items inspired by the theme of freedom and democracy. A detailed description of the collection can be found on our blog.
The Solidarity Collection, which includes diverse pro-democratic materials from many independent bodies, is a true testament to the freedom movement spreading through the Eastern Bloc in the late 1970s and 1980s. The following collection items highlight the connection between the Polish movement and Ukraine.
Cover of Tomasz Jastrun, Życie Anny Walentynowicz (Warszawa, 1985). Sol.223.c
Anna Walentynowicz (née Lubczyk), born in 1929 in Volhynia into a Ukrainian protestant family, was an icon of the Polish solidarity movement. From 1950, when Anna started working for the Gdansk Shipyard, she was actively engaged in defending workers’ rights, protesting against financial fraud, and distributing underground newsletters. In 1978 she joined the Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża, WZZW), which two years later became an excuse for firing her from her post at the shipyard just before she was due to retire. The act, which infuriated her colleagues, triggered the famed strike on 14 August 1980, and consequentially led to the signing of the Gdańsk Agreement and the birth of the Solidarity trade union. By the mid-1980s Anna’s symbolic position within the ranks of the opposition prompted Tomasz Jastrun, a fellow dissident and literary critic to write her biography, Życie Anny Walentynowicz (The Life of Anna Walentynowicz), in the form of an extended interview. Although Walentynowicz later entered into a conflict with Lech Wałęsa over the direction the Solidarity movement was going, she worked relentlessly her entire life to defend human rights. She said in one of the interviews:
Our main duty is to consider the needs of the others. If we become alive to this duty, there will be no unjustly treated people in our midst, and we, in turn, shall not be treated unjustly. Our day-to-day motto should be: “Your problems are also my problems”. We must extend our friendship and strengthen our solidarity. Source: Extracts from Polish underground publications
A declaration of the hunger-strike protest signed by Anna Walentynowicz. Cele i zasady naszego głodowego protestu. List do społeczeństwa (Kraków, 1985) Sol.764
Anna died tragically in the Smolensk air disaster in 2010. Before her death she managed to find and reunite with her family in Ukraine from whom she had been separated during the Second World War.
Robotnik. Pismo członków Międzyzakładowego Robotniczego Komitetu „Solidarności” (Warszawa, 1986) Sol.764
This special issue of the underground periodical Robotnik (Worker) is devoted to the April 1986 atomic disaster in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The editors of Robotnik express their sympathy and proclaim solidarity with the victims of the catastrophe, which in their view occurred as a result of systematic negligence. They declare: ‘In the Soviet system there is no space for protecting human rights, even the most elementary right to life’. [my translation]
Proclamation on the Rules of Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation
Oświadczenie w sprawie zasad współpracy polsko-ukraińskiej (Paryż, 1987) Sol.764
The Liberal Democratic Party ‘Niepodległość’/’Independence’ aimed to overthrow the communist regime and make Poland an independent country. One of their goals was to establish a common position of the Ukrainian and Polish opposition regarding mutual support for the countries’ independence and the future Polish-Ukrainian border. The 1987 ‘Proclamation on the Rules of Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation’, held in the Solidarity collection, shows a joint attempt to reach a solution. The signatories promise to respect each other’s right to national independence.
A postcard celebrating 1000 years of Christianity in Ukraine (1988) Sol.764
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European collections
Shana Penn, Solidarity’s secret: the women who defeated Communism in Poland (Ann Arbor, Mich.; Bristol, 2005). YC.2007.a.10368
M. Szporer, ‘Anna Walentynowicz and the Legacy of Solidarity in Poland’ Journal of Cold War studies, 13:1 (2011), pp. 213-222. 4958.799420
03 March 2022
For the past week, the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine has dominated the news. War represents an existential threat not just to human lives, but to the cultural and intellectual heritage that helps us understand who we are – and which it is the mission of library staff to collect, preserve and share.
The British Library’s Chief Librarian is one of the signatories of this statement by the UK Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), which expresses solidarity with colleagues across Ukraine, and calls for the UK Government and international community to do all they can to restore peace and security for Ukraine.
In this blog post, we highlight three items from the Library’s Ukrainian collections that speak to the country’s history, people and culture. They present just a snapshot of what the collections have to offer.
Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (Kyiv, 1912). 12975.l.27.
Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko were two of the most prominent Ukrainian educators, folklorists, writers and linguists of the late 19th and early 20th century. They advocated the spread of the Ukrainian language at a time when it was banned from schools and print form by the Ems Ukaz, a secret decree issued in 1876 by the Russian tsar Alexander II aimed at the destruction of Ukrainian language and culture.
Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’) was compiled by Borys and Mariia and published in Kyiv in 1912. Borys initially used the reader, which he put together in 1889, to teach his daughter, Anastasiia, how to read. After publishing a Ukrainian primer in 1907 (012901.i.25.(1.)), Borys also planned to publish his reader. The book needed considerable work, however, and he died before it was finished. Following his death from tuberculosis in 1910, Mariia, edited the reader and added additional sections. The book was received as a gift by the British Museum Library in 1913, a year after it was first published.
The reader is arranged thematically, beginning with a section on domestic and wild animals, before moving on to subjects such as flora, clothing and science. In addition to short stories and poems (including by Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko, Lesia Ukrainka and Taras Shevchenko), songs and comprehension exercises, it contains a number of riddles relating to the topic of each section.
Lesia Ukrainka, Poezii: vybrani tvory (Regensburg, 1946). 11588.a.59.
This small volume of poetry by the modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka was published in the Regensburg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp in 1946, the 75th anniversary of her birth. Permitted by authority of the US Military Government in the American Allied Occupation Zone, the British Library copy contains the stamp of the London-based Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which is believed to have donated the book to the Library in 1948.
At the end of the Second World War, millions of people, including Ukrainians, were displaced from their homes, with more than six million refugees in Allied-occupied Germany alone. They included concentration camp survivors, political prisoners, former forced labourers and prisoners of war. While many were repatriated in the first few months, approximately one million people in Germany were unable to return to their countries of origin. Ukrainian and other DP communities set up schools, churches, synagogues, theatres, hospitals, and published their own newspapers and books.
The British Library holds a number of rare Ukrainian books, journals and newspapers published in and around DP Camps in Europe (predominantly Germany and Austria) between 1945 and 1955.
You can watch a recording of a 2021 event at the British Library to mark the 150th anniversary of Lesia Ukrainka’s birth on the Ukrainian Institute London’s website.
Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls (Tallinn: Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 2014). RF.2020.b.31. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre)
This handmade book celebrates the history and culture of the Hutsuls, an ethnic group from the Hutsul region in the Carpathian Mountains. It is one of a limited series of 35 items, which were donated to major libraries around the world by the Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UKK) in Tallinn, Estonia. One of the most striking and important aspects of the project is its collaboration with Hutsul communities. In addition to the plant specimens, which were collected from the Ukrainian side of the Carpathian Mountains, each book contains postcards and bookmarks from community members with their comments and reflections on aspects of Hutsul life and culture, as well as a cycle of poems in the Hutsul dialect by the poet Mariya Korpanyuk. The postcards were distributed in Hutsul villages and the hundreds of responses, with their stamps and postmarks, were divided among the individual books, further adding to their unique composition and design.
The UKK also partnered with the National Museum of Hutsulshchyna & Pokuttia Folk Art, which selected pre-Second World War photographs of Hutsul life to reproduce and include in the books. Located in Kolomyia, the largest town on traditional Hutsul territory, the museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting Hutsul culture. The photographs are thematically paired to speak to the themes of Korpanyuk’s poems, from childhood and marriage to crafts, music and mushroom picking.
Discover more about the project in this interview with a colleague from the UKK on our blog.
Further information about the collections
From rare 16th-century books and banned texts published in volumes small enough to smuggle across borders, to a futurist literary almanac and digital ephemera from the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, the Ukrainian collections at the British Library reflect the wealth and strength of Ukrainian culture. Each year we add more than 1,500 items to the collections from all regions of Ukraine and strive to bring them to as wide an audience as possible.
Find out more about the Library’s Ukrainian collections and Ukrainian culture and history by exploring our blog, collection guide, and the Ukrainian Institute London’s website – particularly their series of short films ‘10 Things Everyone Should Know About Ukraine’.
28 February 2022
Hardly anyone growing up in Poland in the 1980s can say they are not familiar with the flagship Polish TV production Nights and Days. The movie, later followed by a TV series, was a frequent guest in Polish homes and for many young people a much more dreaded part of the Christmas period than Home Alone is today. The production was based on Maria Dąbrowska’s novel of the same title, Noce i dnie.
Title page of Noce i dnie by Maria Dąbrowska. (Warsaw, 1934-35) 012591.dd.85
The author’s opus mundi was by most critics considered the greatest achievement of Polish interwar literature. Awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature Dąbrowska was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Maria Dąbrowska by Anna Linke, illustration from Maria Dąbrowska, Dzienniki, (Warsaw, 1988) YA.1989.a.16391)
To be perfectly honest, her epic (and compulsory) novel was a difficult read for a teenager. Barbara, the main protagonist, her fears of spinsterhood, unhappy marriage, burdens and boredom of mundane living are much better understood later in life – just like John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte’s Saga or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Nonetheless, generations of Polish pupils were ‘taught’ Nights and Days and learned about Maria Dąbrowska from zealous teachers who insisted on instilling in us the love of literature and of our mother tongue. However, what they mostly failed to teach at the time was an appreciation of diversity through the true life-story of the author.
Only years after my graduation from the Polish school system have I learned that Maria Dąbrowska was much more complicated and considerably more exciting a person that our teachers made us believe. Coming from impoverished landed gentry Dąbrowska was a socialist, an ardent critic of anti-Semitism, a tolerant and unprejudiced person who lived in an open relationship with her husband Marian Dąbrowski and later with her long-time partner, the social activist and freemason Stanisław Stempowski. However, the longest lasting and probably the most emotionally close relationship Dąbrowska had was that with a fellow writer, Anna Kowalska.
Cover of Anna Kowalska, Dzienniki 1927-1969, (Warsaw, 2008) YF.2009.a.30901
Although Dąbrowska met Kowalska by chance at a party in pre-war Lviv, their relationship did not start until the 1940s when Anna and her husband Jerzy arrived in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. In the course of their life-binding relationship Anna and Maria exchanged almost 2400 letters that testify to their turbulent relationship and deep affection for each other. Anna looked up to Maria who encouraged her to take more care with her writing. Nonetheless, Anna was a brilliant translator, publicist and intellectual. She was a creator and active participant of Wrocław’s post-war literary scene. In 1949 she received a Pen Club award for her Opowiadania greckie (Warsaw, 1956; 12596.bbb.18.). The two women constantly challenged and stimulated each other both emotionally and intellectually. Anna wrote in her diary: “Before I go to sleep, when I lie awake, after I wake up, when I wash, cook, drink and clean, I make up conversations with M. Only recently have I noticed that I stopped being lonely, or rather alone (as you can be lonely with someone) in my existence.” [Dzienniki, my translation]
Maria Dąbrowska, Bronisław Linke and Anna Kowalska at Anna and Bronisław Linke’s flat in Warsaw 1951. Illustration from: Anna Kowalska, Dzienniki 1927-1969.
As Dąbrowska insisted that her diaries must not be published in an unabridged form until 40 years after her death, only recently have we been able to fully appreciate the depth of her connection with Anna and to understand better the consequences this bond had for the work and personal lives of both women. Kowalska once commented:
I am fascinated by the fate of this relationship, when everything is against it: age, gender, circumstances, and on M.’s side weariness and emotional exhaustion. She craves artistic fulfilment only. However, so do I, but I cannot bring myself to talk about it as it is a sore point, an all-consuming anxiety. [my translation]
Anna and Maria discussed the complicated nature of their relationship, as Maria struggled with the notion that their love is dangerous. In a letter to her lover Anna states:
Love is not shameful. Darling, what a joy that you are not ashamed of love. What a relief! Homosexual love, if it is not for show, but is plainly more destructive and tormenting, is no less significant or ‘dignified’. … The middle class has hated love for centuries. The extent of the taboo is surprising. [Quote from Ewa Głębicka, Rzecz prywatna, rzecz sekretna. O granicach intymności w korespondencji Marii Dąbrowskiej i Anny Kowalskiej z lat 1946-1948, (Warsaw, 2017)]
Both women dared to be different – strived to fulfil their emotional and professional ambitions – in times when being different was not perceived as a virtue. Their lives were filled with struggles against societal norms, but at the same time, in their own way, they came out victorious from this fight by living their lives to the fullest.
Cover of Sylwia Chwedorczuk, Kowalska, ta od Dąbrowskiej, (Warszawa, 2020) awaiting shelfmark
Poland’s struggle to officially recognise LGBTQ+ rights creates challenges to those who want to commemorate and research the minority’s history and culture. However, the upside of the situation is that it generates more interest in human rights and it prompts efforts to build awareness of those in the country’s rich history who dared to be themselves despite limitations of social conventions. Sylwia Chwedorczuk’s fascinating and non-judgmental biography of Anna, Kowalska, ta od Dąbrowskiej (‘Kowalska, the one with Dąbrowska’) is a brilliant example of this trend. Chwedorczuk, who partly based her book on unpublished correspondence between the two women, gives the reader a sneak-peek into their lives – their virtues and their flaws, to put it simply, their humanity. I hope that books like this will one day become part of school curricula. Looking back at my young self, this is the book I would have loved to read.
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European collections
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