THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

180 posts categorized "Slavonic"

21 November 2019

‘The Man Who Lost His Homeland’*

Add comment

“The War was not our War! Yet it somehow found us. It took us in its clutches and threw us where we are now!” Cengiz Dağcı said, and added, “Fifty years! Fifty years away from my homeland, it has become a wound that never heals…”

The Crimean Tatar writer Cengiz Dağcı is one of the most underestimated novelists of the Second World War, with over 22 books on his beloved Crimea and its long suffering through world wars and Soviet oppression. He, like all Crimean Tatars of the time, suffered greatly. He was forced to leave his home and family when he was only 22. Despite being interned by the Nazis he managed to survive and, after liberation, made the arduous journey to London through a war-ravaged Europe. He would never return to his homeland again. Although he made a life in London, his heart was in Crimea. When he died at the age of 92, his body was transferred to his homeland through the cooperation of the Turkish, Ukrainian and British states.

Photograph of Cengiz Dagci

Photograph of Cengiz Dağcı by Zafer Karatay (reproduced with kind permission)

Dağcı was born, the fourth of eight children, on 9 March 1919 in Gurzuf, Crimea. His family moved to Kızıltaş from Gurzuf when he was a small boy. Located on the Simferopol - Yalta route, their house (which still stands today) has a beautiful, big, tranquil garden facing Ayi Dağı (Bear Mountain). Yalta has breathtaking landscapes and deep historical roots. Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy were among many world-famous Russian authors, artists, and poets who lived in the city.

Photograph of Bear Mountain

Photograph of Bear Mountain by Melek Maksudoglu

After the Bolshevik Revolution and establishment of the Soviet Union, private houses were confiscated. The Dağcı family house was seized and three Russian families were settled in it. In 1931, Cengiz Dağcı’s father, Seyt Omer Dagci, was arrested on account of complaints made by a neighbour that the family was not cooperating with Stalin’s collectivisation policy and had hidden goods from the Soviet. Seyt Omer Dagci was labelled an enemy of the state and sent to the Gulag. The policy of collectivisation and the mismanagement of resources led to one of the biggest famines in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. The Dagci family somehow survived.

A year later, Dagci’s father was released from prison and decided to move his family to Akmescit (Simferopol) from Kiziltas to avoid subsequent humiliation. The family’s new squalid and miserable lodgings are mentioned in Dagci’s memoirs, Letters to my Mother where he writes: “I see, mother, how you are saddened. This move to a miserable place reflects on your face. But how brave you were there and how you turned to God even more”.

Literatura krymsʹkykh tatar cover

A.E. Krymskii, Literatura krymsʹkykh tatar = Kʺyrymtatarlarnynʺ edebiiaty = Literatura krymskikh tatar (Simferopolʹ, 2003). YF.2006.a.11536. A Ukrainian-Tatar-Russian anthology of Crimean Tatar literature from the 20th century

Dagci continued his schooling in Akmescit and started writing short stories. He loved poetry and his early poems were published in 1936 in Crimea’s youth journal Gençlik Mecmuası. His early writings include one poem praising Stalin and the Soviet regime, but in his memoirs he admits that he was asked to write in such a manner. Another poem he wrote about Hansaray (a palace of the Crimean Khanate, the Turkic state which existed from the mid 15th to the late 18th century) in Bakcesaray, which is entitled ‘Söyleyin Duvarlar’ (‘Walls! Talk to us’), was published in the literary journal Edebiyat Mecmuası in Crimea in 1939 and glorifies the Crimean Khanate.

In his second year at university, Dagci enlisted in the Soviet Army and fought shoulder to shoulder with Soviet citizens, consisting of ethnicities such as Ukrainian, Uzbek, Kirgyz, and Tajik. In 1941 he was captured and became a prisoner of war. Throughout his imprisonment, he refused to collaborate with the German troops. When the war ended he tried to return to his homeland but to his dismay the roads were closed. He wanted to go back to his home, finish his studies, and become a good school teacher.

Cover of XX. yüzyılda Kırım with a photograph of 'The Swallow's Nest', a decorative castle located at Gaspra near Yalta.

Feyzi Rahman Yurter, XX. yüzyılda Kırım (Turkey, [1998?]). ITA.2000.a.6. This work, ‘20th-century Crimea’, examines the experience of Crimean Tatar POWs in the Second World War.

In 1945 he joined a Polish émigré group with his wife to seek refuge in the UK. It was a difficult and long journey to London where he built a life for himself and his family. He says in his memoirs; “I created a new home away from home. A home in which I and my wife could take sanctuary and feel safe.” He worked long hours in a restaurant during the day and wrote only at night. He kept writing about his beloved Crimea and the tragedies the Crimean Tatars faced.

All of Dagci’s novels were originally published in Turkish in Turkey. Coupled with the fact that he was living in the UK, this meant that he was able to write about the tragedies of the Crimean Tatar people. However, in the 1980s, Moscow sent a KGB agent to obtain copies of them, which were examined by the authorities and classified as foreign and restricted from the public.

Covers of four books by Cengiz Dagci

A selection of Dagci’s books. Awaiting shelfmarks. 

The most important theme running through all of his novels is the national identity of the Crimean Tatars. He evokes a clear picture of how they lived, their everyday life, customs, beliefs and the structure of their lives revolving around the seasons and their land. The Crimean Tatars lived a double life, having to outwardly demonstrate loyalty to the Soviet Regime that was actively trying assimilate and erase their identity, while keeping that identity alive among themselves, their families and communities, with hidden texts of resistance. They had been resisting Russian rule since 1774. Dagci, in his novels, also suggests that only after the Crimean Tatars become well educated could they ask for, and eventually receive, justice. The Soviet government’s ban on use of their language made it impossible to receive education in their mother tongue and this fact drove some Crimean Tatars to seek higher education in the Soviet system. Many of those educated in this system were subsequently involved in setting up the Crimean Tatar National Movement. 

*‘The Man Who Lost His Homeland’ is the title of one of Cengiz Dağcı’s books

Melek Maksudoglu, independent researcher

This blog post is based on an article by the author published by OCA magazine in January 2017

References/Further reading

E. Allworth, ed., Muslim Communities Re-emerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (Durham, 1994). YC.1995.b.3180

E. Allworth, ed., The Tatars of Crimea: Return to The Homeland (Durham; London, 1998). 98/11840

Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Stanford, 1978). 81/14726

Isa Kocakaplan, Kirim’dan Londra’ya Cengiz Dagci (Istanbul, 1998)

Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation (Leiden, 2001). ZA.9.a.11852

Paul R. Magocsi, This Blessed Land: Crimea and the Crimean Tatars (Toronto, 2014). YD.2015.a.1261

Hüseyin Su, ed., Çağdaş Kırım Tatar Öyküsü (Ankara, 2014). YP.2017.a.5735

A.E. Krymskii, Literatura krymsʹkykh tatar = Kʺyrymtatarlarnynʺ edebiiaty = Literatura krymskikh tatar (Simferopolʹ, 2003). YF.2006.a.11536

Feyzi Rahman Yurter, XX. yüzyılda Kırım (Turkey [1998?]). ITA.2000.a.63

 

05 November 2019

‘The Ark of Unique Cultures’: the story of a remarkable handmade book

Add comment

The British Library recently received an unusual donation from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Tallinn: a handmade book – The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls – celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, an ethnic group from the Carpathian Mountains. It is one of a limited series of 35 books, which were donated to major libraries around the world. As well as poems in the Hutsul dialect and English translation, the book includes postcards, photographs and even specimens of Carpathian plants. Slavonic curator Katie McElvanney spoke to Eric Johnson, a volunteer at the Centre, to find out more about the project.

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls (Tallinn: Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 2014). (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre)

How did the book project come about and what was its aim? 

The Ark of Unique Cultures is one of the many creations of Anatoli Ljutjuk, a Benedictine friar born in Western Ukraine who has been a resident and citizen of Estonia for decades. Anatoli’s greatest creation is Tallinn’s Church of the Virgin with Three Hands, who is the protector of all living beings who have been falsely accused or unjustly persecuted. The church is affiliated with the secular Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UKK to use its Estonian initials). From the beginning, Anatoli’s conception for the small Eastern-rite Catholic church included the natural world around it. As a result, the UKK’s first book project focused on those vanishing plants and animals that we humans have unjustly persecuted. And so The Poetics of Endangered Species was born (both books in this series were kindly donated to the British Library by the UKK. See YF.2017.b.1281 (Estonia) and YF.2017.b.1282 (Ukraine)).

After the first edition of The Poetics of Endangered Species appeared, Anatoli soon realized that not just plants and animals are in danger of disappearing from our world but also entire human subcultures. As it happens, Estonia became the new home to a fair number of Hutsuls who speak their own dialect and observe many distinct traditions. Known for their forestry skills, Hutsuls were hired in Soviet times to help manage Estonia’s forests. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some of those who chose to remain in Estonia helped Anatoli build his new church.

So Anatoli first came up with the idea of The Ark of Unique Cultures as a way to honour all those ethnic groups whose traditions are in danger of being overwhelmed by the larger groups around them. The goal of this Book Ark is to document and preserve each culture’s unique features for future generations. In the case of the Hutsuls, it also serves as a 21st-century update to Sergei Parajanov’s landmark film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).

BL copy page

The British Library’s copy of the book. Awaiting shelfmark.

What can you tell us about the poems included in the book?

Ukrainian Poet Mariya Korpanyuk is widely regarded as the best poet writing in the Hutsul dialect. Although she had already written a short series of poems about the life and customs of the Hutsuls, she agreed to expand her series after meeting Anatoli. Each poem is dedicated to a unique feature of Hutsul culture that was in danger of disappearing.

Because many unique Hutsul words are unknown even to Ukrainians — or a seemingly familiar word may hold a different meaning — Anatoli decided that the poems should be translated into English to help tell the Hutsul story to the world. The UKK is working to secure funding to print a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures so that the book and its wonderful cycle of poems can reach an even wider audience.

Hutsulka page

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

How and where did you collect the plants, postcards and photographs?

The plants were collected by Anatoli and his friends on one of his ‘expeditions’ up into the Ukrainian side of the Carpathian Mountains. They were then dried and used as inclusions in the handmade paper made at the UKK’s hand paper mill in Tallinn.

The postcards, designed by Anatoli, were hand printed on the UKK’s press by Labora — as the UKK’s paper, print, and other workshops are known in distinction to the church (Ora). On another trip to the Carpathians, Anatoli and friends distributed the postcards in Hutsul villages and asked the villagers to send the postcards back to the UKK in Tallinn with their comments on the Ark’s poems or any other aspects of Hutsul life they wanted to highlight. Thanks to the postcards, the Ark became a real community-wide project.

The pre-Second World War (and in many cases pre-First World War) photos were selected by the wonderful National Museum of Hutsulshchyna & Pokuttya Folk Art — the UKK’s partner for this book project — located in the town of Kolomyia and dedicated to preserving and promoting all things Hutsul. Kolomiya is the largest town on traditional Hutsul territory, in the foothills of the Carpathians.

Bride and groom page from book

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

Can you talk us through the book-making process?

The book’s illustrations and overall design are the work of Anatoli. All of the UKK’s original books are made pretty much entirely in its Labora studios, which employ a small group of calligraphers, printers, artists, and bookbinders who can create handmade books — or indeed illuminated manuscripts — in similar ways to a medieval monastery. The UKK and Labora are actively involved in teaching book-related crafts, from ink-making to bookbinding, to future generations through workshops, classes, and various partnerships.

The handmade paper — usually made from a combination of cotton, linen and rag — is beaten in a Hollander Beater before each sheet is hand-pulled by one of the UKK’s paper makers using handmade molds and deckles. The smaller plants are added right into the pulp or slurry. Larger ones are added onto the wet sheets of paper before they are pressed and dried.

Paper sheets before pressing

The paper making process (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and Labora)

What other book projects is the UKK currently working on?

In addition to publishing a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls, the UKK is working on several other book projects including Sanctuarium: The Story of the Church of the Virgin with Three Hands and Horse Tales, an illustrated picture book by Anatoli Ljutjuk about goodness during wartime which will be released around the same time as a new Ukrainian documentary film about Anatoli and his travels with his wooden horse.

Of course, the UKK is also always on the lookout for new country partners to create new volumes — beyond the current two about Estonia and about Ukraine — for its two series The Poetics of Endangered Species and The Ark of Unique Cultures, dedicated to ethnic groups in danger of disappearing.

With kind thanks to Eric Johnson, and to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre for donating a copy of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls to the British Library. A digitised copy of the book is available via the National Library of Estonia. 

29 October 2019

UNOVIS – the Bauhaus of the East

Add comment

This year is the centenary of the Bauhaus, prompting worldwide celebrations from Brazil to the UK, from Germany to China. The Bauhaus as a school of art and architecture is long gone, but as a marketing and PR campaign it has not yet run out of steam. The history of art has put it on a pedestal, and for decades it has been widely recognised as the undisputed primary source of inspiration for Modernism, but is it?

The almost fanatical reverence for the Bauhaus in the West certainly overshadows its most influential contemporary, the People’s Art School, which was located in a small provincial town in modern-day Belarus called Viciebsk (Vitebsk), hundreds of miles from any major cities.

Professors at the People's Art School in Viciebsk

Teachers at the People’s Art School in Viciebsk, July 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

The school was the brainchild of Viciebsk’s most famous son, Marc Chagall. It was approved in August 1918 by Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, and officially inaugurated in January 1919, just over two months before the Bauhaus and amid the upheaval of the Russian Civil War. But it was what happened next that actually cemented Viciebsk’s place in the history of modern art. The following year in November 1919, Chagall invited the maverick of 20th century modern art, Kazimir Malevich to teach in his humble art school in Viciebsk.

Title page of O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve (Viciebsk, 1919), C.114.n.46.

2019 therefore marks the centenary of Malevich’s arrival in Viciebsk, and under Malevich, the People’s Art School became a completely different breed with a singular voice. Malevich was in fact persuaded to move from Moscow to Viciebsk by a young teacher who was already teaching there, El Lissitzky, who would later become a celebrated artist worldwide in his own right. With Malevich came his Suprematism, and a clash with the pluralistic approach to styles preferred by Chagall was inevitable. Lissitzky very soon was won over by Suprematism and created his famous/ infamous pro-Bolshevik propaganda poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919), a powerful image that graces the floor of the art school (now a museum) today.

El Lissitzky  ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919)

El Lissitzky, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919) (Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will be the centenary of another significant event in modern art history: the emergence of UNOVIS, and this warrants separate mention. The group was first founded by students from the People’s Art School on 19 January 1920 under the Russian acronym MOLPOSNOVIS, meaning ‘Young Followers of the New Art’, but within days, the group was joined by the teachers and was renamed POSNOVIS, meaning ‘Followers of the New Art’.

On 14 February 1920 it was renamed again, this time UNOVIS, meaning the champions, or the affirmers of the New Art – not followers any more. The architect of this cult-like group was Malevich, and it counted many future superstars among its converts, including Lissitzky, Vera Ermolaeva (who was also director of the School for a time), Nina Kogan, and Lazar Khidekel. The transition of the school from the influence of pluralistic individualism championed by Chagall to collective, impersonal and non-objective art was now complete – all the works created by UNOVIS were signed with Malevich’s iconic black square for anonymity.

Title page of Suprematizm. 34 risunka with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematizm. 34 risunka (Viciebsk, 1920). Wikimedia Commons. The British Library holds two facsimiles of this work in Russian and English (X.419/3137 and YA.1997.a.15443).

The whole town of Viciebsk soon became their testing ground as members decorated it with Suprematist art in all its forms, but the group’s ultimate goal was to apply Suprematism to the largest and most permanent art form with a more lasting impact on society: architecture. Although the group did not actually realise any architectural projects during its ephemeral existence, its Suprematist aesthetics inspired and continue to inspire many architects, even its antagonists, throughout the 20th century and up to this day, including the late Zaha Hadid, one of world's most sought-after ‘starchitects’ of recent decades.

The Bauhaus as a school is famous for its short life-span which ended in 1933, but UNOVIS was even more short-lived, it lasted just over 2 years and was dissolved in May 1922 for various reasons including financial ones. Nevertheless, UNOVIS had announced its presence to the world and had a far-reaching impact on 20th-century art and architecture beyond its very short life. The legacy of Viciebsk was re-affirmed by a major exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris last year (the catalogue is available at the British Library, LF.31.a.6493). The Viciebsk Centre of Modern Art is also planning a series of UNOVIS centenary publications and events next year, including exhibitions, a conference, and a poster competition.

Issue of Supremus newspaper

Issue of Supremus, a newspaper dedicated to Malevich and the legacy of Suprematism (Moscow/Zurich, 1991-2001). HS.74/803

There are a number of additional items related to this intensely creative period in Viciebsk in the collections of the British Library. Most notably, they include an original copy of Malevich’s manifesto Bog ne skinut: iskusstvo, tserkov', fabrika (‘God is not cast down: art, church, factory’; Viciebsk, 1922; C.114.n.33.). The Library also holds the first issue (1919) of the Viciebsk journal Revoliutsionnoe iskusstvo (‘Revolutionary Art’; C.191.b.6), which includes articles by Chagall and Malevich, as well as a facsimile of Almanakh UNOVIS 1 (Moscow, 2003; LF.31.b.1837), which was originally published in 1920. In addition, there is a strong collection of works by and about individual members of UNOVIS, as well as a wealth of secondary literature on the group.

Tszwai So, co-founder of Spheron Architects, is a London-based artist and architect

 

11 October 2019

The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature

Add comment

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke have been awarded the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature after the award was suspended last year due to a sexual assault scandal

Born in Poland in 1962, Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Prize, is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary Polish writers. Noted for the mythical tone of her writing, she is adored by her readers and highly praised by critics. Tokarczuk has won many prestigious literary awards for her works both in her native country and abroad. In 2018 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, translated into English by Jennifer Croft (London, 2017; ELD.DS.228759). The book was first published in Poland in 2007 as Bieguni (). The Polish title refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from the perspective of an anonymous female traveller.

Cover of Bieguni ('Flights')

Cover of Bieguni (Krakow, 2007) YF.2008.a.36755

A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk spent a few years practising as a therapist before devoting her working life to her literary career. She is the author of nine novels and a few short stories and essays, and her books have been published into 30 languages including English, Chinese and Japanese. The main translator of her books into English is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose most recent translation is Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (London, 2018; ELD.DS.325469), shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The novel, regarded as an eco-crime story, explores the issues of the animal rights and vegan movements unveiling the hypocrisy of traditional beliefs and religion. The book and the film Spoor by Agnieszka Holland based on this novel caused a political uproar in Poland.

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych ('Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead')

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Krakow, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348

Olga Tokarczuk was a speaker at two recent British Library events: “A life of Crime? Crime writing from Poland”, in 2017, and “Olga Tokarczuk: An evening with Poland’s best”, in 2018. Recordings of both events are available to listen in our Reading Rooms via the online catalogue.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

The 2019 prize has been awarded to the Austrian writer Peter Handke. The Nobel Foundation cites his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” He has won many of Austria’s and Germany’s major literary prizes over the course of a long career.

Born in 1942, Handke began to write while studying at the University of Graz. He became involved with the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, a group of writers (including another future Austrian Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek) associated with the literary magazine manuskripte (P.903/797). 

Alfred Kolleritsch und Peter Handke

Peter Handke (left) and magazine editor Alfred Kolleritsch at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of manuskripte, 2013. (Photograph by Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Handke became known in the 1960s for his experimental plays such as Publikumsbeschimpfung (Frankfurt am Main, 1967; X.907/8495. English translation by Michael Roloff, Insulting the Audience (London, 1971) 11663.l.2/42.). This begins with the words, “You will not see a play” and has the uncostumed actors address the audience from what is usually a bare stage. He has also written novels, poetry and essays. English-speaking audiences, although they may not realise it, are perhaps most likely to have come across his work as the screenwriter for Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Handke has also won awards as a film director.

From the start of his career Handke attracted controversy, although not necessarily for the experimental nature of his work. In an early public appearance at an event organised by the influential post-war writers group Gruppe 47, he gave an angry speech attacking the Group and the work of its members. More recently he has been criticised for his stance and his writing on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This has led to protests at the award of other literary prizes to Handke in recent years, and the Nobel award has attracted similar criticisms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

01 October 2019

Defending a Nazi – a barrister’s path from opponent of Nazism to advocatus diaboli

Add comment

“If you appoint me to defend this man, I will stand on the river bank naked, wearing only a white sheet, and scream that I am Jesus Christ” – that’s how we can summarize the reaction of Jaroslav Mellan, a lawyer, at the idea of him being asked to defend Karl Hermann Frank.

Cover of Noc pred popravou with a photograph of Karl Hermann Frank

Cover of Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou (Prague, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

The Czechoslovak Bar Association was in a tricky position. It was March 1946. Karl Hermann Frank, one of the most prominent Nazi leaders, had just been transferred from an American prison to Czechoslovakia, where he was to be tried and convicted of war crimes. The Bar Association, closely watched by the international community, had the difficult task of finding an advocatus diaboli for Frank, a job which no one wanted. The choice fell on Kamill Resler, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement and a defender of Jewish clients during the war, who was threatened with the withdrawal of his professional qualifications if he refused to defend the accused. Resler tried to challenge the decision a number of times, but to no avail. The situation was made even more dramatic by the fact that some of Resler’s relatives and friends were killed during the war as a result of Frank’s orders.

Photograph of Frank in front of his shop

Frank in front of his bookshop in Karlovy Vary, reproduced in Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu: K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Prague, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

And yet, despite his hatred for Frank, Resler believed that every criminal deserves a fair trial. In his opinion, a barrister’s duty was to disregard his feelings about the accused and to defend him to the best of his abilities. And that’s precisely what he did. Resler argued that Nazism was a disease and Frank, as its follower, must have suffered from a psychiatric disorder. He claimed that Frank lacked the ability to judge the consequences of his actions during the war and, on top of that, was unaware of what was happening in the concentration camps, even though he visited them several times.

Caricature of Resler

Caricature of Resler, reproduced in Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia: the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Before the war Frank worked as a bookseller and clerk. He enrolled in the German National-Socialist Workers Party in 1919, and when it was dissolved by the state, in the Sudeten German Party. Gradually he managed to reach the highest-ranking position in occupied Czechoslovakia, that of Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and chief of police. But now, with the war being over and he himself incarcerated in a Czechoslovak prison, isolated from family members and fully aware of the general hatred towards him, he became extremely depressed and struggled to find the emotional stamina to defend himself. That meant that Resler not only had to defend Frank, but that he actually found himself forced to console the Nazi prisoner and motivate him to fight for his life till the very end. The idea of Frank’s having hope of avoiding the death sentence would contribute to the image of a fair court trial that could not be questioned by international opinion.

Photograph of Resler during Frank’s trial

Resler during Frank’s trial, reproduced in Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia

Frank was at first very displeased with the fact that he would be defended by a Czech barrister. Resler upset him a number of times, as he didn’t hide his criticism of Nazi ideology and actions. Yet Frank had his softer side too. One day prison guards found him crying in his cell because two Czech prisoners had given him a loaf of bread as a Christmas gift. Frank was emotionally prepared to deal with hatred, but he wasn’t prepared for kindness.

Throughout the trial Resler was careful to keep a distance from him. Only when Frank heard the pronouncement of the death sentence did Resler shake his hand for the first time. He stayed with him in the prison cell for the three hours between the announcement of the verdict and the execution. When Frank was being taken to the gallows, he bade him farewell by saying: “Die like a man!”

Photograph of Frank sitting on a chair in a prison cell

Frank in prison cell, reproduced in Pán protektorátu

And thus Frank had a fair trial and the Czechoslovak justice system could not be criticized by the international public. The only detail that spoiled the whole picture was the hangman, who after the execution took the noose with which Frank was hanged and drank it away in a bar. Other than that, the moral standards of the Czechoslovaks successfully passed the test.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Slavonic and East European Collections Cataloguer

References/further reading

Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia : the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu : K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Praha, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou : K.H. Frank a jeho obhájce : archivy promluvily (Praha, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

28 September 2019

A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, or a story of Imperial glory, radical ideas and rare books

Add comment

Banned Books Week (22–28 Sept 2019) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to the number of challenges to books in schools, bookshops and libraries. The theme for 2019 urges readers to ‘keep the light on’ to ensure censorship doesn’t leave us in the dark.

For over six months, from the beginning of January 1787, Empress of Russia Catherine the Great conducted an inspection of her newly-acquired lands in the south. The journey, known as the Taurida Voyage, was documented in an account kept by the Tsarina’s secretary Alexander Khrapovitskii (now digitised), but the itinerary with short descriptions of the places that she had intended to visit or pass by was published prior the trip.

Title page of Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu

Title page of Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu. (St. Petersburg, 1786) 1426.h.1

Map from Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu

Map from Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, 

The purpose of the voyage was to celebrate the Empire, the Empress, and her victorious policies of expansion. Accounts of travels were a popular genre in 18th-century literature, but of course, Khrapovitskii’s ‘journal’ was also a distinguished piece of state propaganda.

We might speculate that the journal of Catherine’s travels ‘inspired’ Alexander Radishchev, a graduate of the University of Leipzig and therefore somewhat radical thinker, and a civil servant of the ninth rank (out of 14, first being the highest), to write his book A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow and publish it in 1790.

Title page of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu

Title page of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (Moscow; Leningrad, 1935) 010291.f.36

The last pages of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu

The last pages of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu 

An account of a routine journey from the capital city to the second most important city in the country and its ex-capital does not sound like an exciting new adventure that could capture readers’ imagination. And indeed, it meant to do the complete opposite – to show the dire state of social conditions in Russia where serfdom was as routine as a trip from St Petersburg to Moscow. If Catherine’s trip was a symbol of glory and victory of the ruling classes, Radishchev’s book presented an account of the misery and defeat of the people of Russia.

Map of the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg

Map of the journey (Materialy k izucheniiu “Puteshestviia”)

As one can see, there is no author’s name on the title page. In addition, the statement that the work had received approval from a censor – a mandatory condition for any print publication at that time in the Russian Empire – is put on the last page. It becomes obvious that Radishchev is playing some kind of trick here. The version he deposited for censorship was much lighter on criticism of the state than the version he eventually printed. Having received approval for printing, he reinstated the pages that contained his most radical, critical views.

Radishchev made use of Catherine’s decree on free printing, which from 1783 allowed individuals to set up private printing presses, and had a printing press in his own house. Between January and May 1790, he, his subordinate from the civil service, and domestics (mainly his own serfs) managed to produce 650 copies of his book. The first 50 copies were sent to the bookseller Zotov, and 30 of them sold. Quite unfortunately, one copy landed on Catherine’s desk. The Empress was infuriated, as she interpreted Radishchev's calls for reform as the most dangerous radicalism, and therefore all the remaining copies were confiscated and destroyed. Zotov was arrested and revealed the author’s name while being interrogated. Subsequently, Radishchev was also arrested and condemned to death, though the sentence was later softened and he was exiled to Siberia.

Out of the 650 copies originally printed, only just over a dozen survived. For decades, this book became the rarest and most desirable for any Russian bibliophile. Alexander Pushkin paid 200 Rubles for his copy. In 1858, Alexander Herzen published the book in his Free Russian Press in London. However, the Russian edition of 1872 was again banned by the authorities.

Title page of Herzen’s edition

Title page of Herzen’s edition. 9455c.11

In 1888, Aleskei Suvorin, one of the most prominent publishers of that time, managed to get permission to reprint 100 copies of Radishchev’s book. He borrowed a copy of the 1790 edition from a Moscow bibliophile, Pavel Shchapov, but his careless employees damaged and then disposed of this rare copy. To replace it, Suvorin first quietly tried to obtain a copy from antiquarian booksellers for around 300 Rubles, but did not get very far. He then published an advert in the newspaper Russkie vedomosti (No. 56, 1888) where he offered 1,500 Rubles for a fine copy. Eventually, he managed to get a copy for two thirds of this price and Shchapov was satisfied, although he died shortly after having received a new copy of Radishchev’s journey back into his collection. His friends and relatives were sure that the stress of losing the rarity contributed significantly to his premature death.

Newspaper advert in Russkiie vedomosti

Newspaper advert in Russkie vedomosti (N 56, 1888)

Thus, ironically, this criticism of social injustice became one of the most expensive collectors’ items on the market. The British Library does not hold the 1790 edition of Radishchev’s book.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The Library will be holding a number of events to mark Banned Books Week, and for more related posts, see our English and Drama and Americas blogs

10 September 2019

A European Autumn at the British Library

Add comment

This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.

Cover of Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the Citytranslated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337 

First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.

Cover of The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811

Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!

Covers of recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.

Photograph of Rosie Goldsmith next to the Berlin Wall

Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall

On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Finally, on Thursday 29 November, Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.

Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

Add comment

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

27 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 1)

Add comment

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

Founded in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) aims to celebrate and promote women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. So why do we need WITMonth? As the organisers of the upcoming ‘Translating Women’ conference in London highlight, ‘translated literature notoriously accounts for only 3.5% of published literature in the English-language book market, and less than one-third of this is women-authored.’

In addition to WITMonth, initiatives such as the Translating Women project and associated conferences and events all help to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry. And there does appear to have been a shift in recent years, with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize shortlist featuring five women authors and six women translators.

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

 

Cover of The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

Goliarda Sapienza, The Art of Joy, translated by Anne Milano Appel (Penguin Books, 2013), Nov.2015/2304
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Written between 1966 and 1976, rejected by many publishers and issued posthumously in Italian, The Art of Joy only sparked interest after its French and English (by award-winning translator Anne Milano Appel) translations appeared, in 2008 and 2013. The Art of Joy is, above all, a novel of instruction and liberation, feminist, socialist, anti-Fascist. Goliarda Sapienza, its provocative and nonconformist Sicilian author, has just recently been rediscovered, being the subject of an international conference organised by UCL in 2013.

Cover of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019, The Pine Islands follows a lecturer with a specialism in beards, as he decides to take off to Japan on a Bashō-inspired journey to the pine islands of Matsushima. It is a poetic exploration of nature and man, and of the potential for resisting conventional existence. This light but profound text is seamlessly reflected in the translation of Jen Calleja, the British Library’s first Translator-in-Residence and writer of fiction and poetry.

Cover of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina,

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Russian author and filmmaker Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel explores one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Soviet history – the large-scale repression of wealthier peasants, kulaks, who were stripped of their property and forcefully relocated to distant and uninhabited parts of the Soviet Union together with other groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, ethnic groups and peoples and ‘enemies of the state’. At the same time, this is a very personal story that relates to the experience of the author’s grandmother – a Muslim Tatar woman in the 1930s Soviet Union. This multi-award winning book is beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden, who described the process as an ‘enjoyable challenge’ due to the novel’s vivid characters and rich cultural and historical elements.

Cover of Sphinx by Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015), YA.1987.a.16171 (French), English translation awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Born in 1962 in Paris, Anne Garréta currently teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. In 2000, she joined Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature), a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. Garréta’s first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) is a work of literary ingenuity: a love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A***, written without any gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult with the strict gender requirements of the French language. Sphinx is the first novel by a woman member of Oulipo to be translated into English. Emma Ramadan’s translation was nominated for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.

Cover of Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press, 2018), ELD.DS.269711
Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

Nora Ikstena’s bestselling and widely translated novel is set in Soviet Latvia and tells a story of three generations of women. The mother, a doctor, is banished for political reasons to rural Latvia and takes her daughter with her. Uprooted and separated from her loving grandparents, in a reversal of roles, the daughter cares for her psychologically damaged and suicidal mother. This novel by one of the most prominent and influential prose writers in Latvia not only explores the mother-daughter relationship (under-represented in literature, according to Ikstena) but also gives a powerful voice to women living under - and coping with - an oppressive regime. It is seamlessly translated from Latvian by translator and poet Margita Gailitis.

Cover of Nada by Carmen Laforet, featuring a woman walking down an alleyway

Carmen Laforet, Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (Harvill Secker, 2007), Nov.2007/1429
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Published in 1945, Carmen Laforet’s first novel tells how 18-year old Andrea comes to Barcelona to live with her grandmother’s family while studying at university. The Spanish Civil War has greatly impoverished her relatives and created a nightmarish household of conflict, domestic abuse and religious bigotry. This world contrasts with the better-off milieu of her university friend, Ena, who also becomes embroiled in the family’s personal hell. The novel was translated into English in 2007 by Edith Grossman, whose credits already included works by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

20 August 2019

Learning to read Cyrillic from 13th century Novgorod to the USSR

Add comment

We do not know much about how children learned to read and write Slavonic languages in Cyrillic script in the 11th-15th centuries. The most popular teaching method was learning Psalms and copying manuscripts. Near the Russian city of Novgorod, among birch bark manuscripts, archaeologists found a tablet with a wax surface for writing on the right and the Cyrillic alphabet carved on the left.

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century. Reproduced in A.F Medvedev, Drevnerusskie pisala X-XV vv., in Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1960, issue 2

It definitely looks like a school exercise book, but who keeps their jotters? Children learning to read Cyrillic did not, and nor did they even care much about their textbooks, passing them from one to another until the books disintegrated. That is why only two copies of the first Eastern Slavonic printed primer, published in Lviv by Ivan Fedorov in 1574, are known. The copy held at the British Library has been digitised and is freely available. 

The first page of the 1574 Azbuka

The first page of Ivan Fedorov’s primer (Lviv, 1574). C.104.dd.11(1)

It starts with listing Cyrillic letters three times: in the direct and reverse order, and in columns rather than lines. Then the book suggests that learners could put together consonants and vowels. As Russian is primarily a phonetic language, where written symbols directly correspond to spoken sounds, it is quite an easy exercise. Try it yourself: M+A=MA, B+A=BA, etc. Elementary grammar and texts for reading were also included.

Such books were called Azbuka, for the first two letters of the Cyrillic alphabet: A – was called Az and B – Buki. Another name for them was Bukvar’, from the word ‘bukva’ – letter. Soon, educators started separating such alphabet books from more advanced grammars. Also, the power of images in teaching and learning was recognised and more educators started to include pictures in their textbooks.

The most remarkable example of an illustrated primer was created by Karion Istomin, one of the first Muscovite enlighteners, who was editor of the Moscow Printing House, court poet and tutor to the royal children. The book was published in Moscow in 1694, but previously two manuscript copies had been presented to the royals for Peter the Great’s son and two young nieces.

The book opens with a short introduction illustrated by an engraving showing Christ teaching schoolchildren. Each page is devoted to one letter, which is drawn symbolically as a picture, and then in various other ways – print and shorthand. Istomin also wrote short poems that would help learners remember the letter, and included images of objects and animals whose names started with that letter. The book was too complex to be printed with moveable type and therefore was engraved by Leontii Bunin. He seems to have worked on it for about two years, between 1692 and 1694.

First page of Karion Istomin's Bukvar

Letter A from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter A.

Letter Zh from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter Zh.

Letter O from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter O.

Letter S from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter S.

First page, letter A, Zh, O, S. Images from the facsimile edition: Bukvar’ sostavlen Kariononm Istominym; gravirovan Leontiem Buinym; otpechatan v 1694 godu v Moskve. Leningrad: Avrora, 1981. X.955/980.

Although most scholars agree that so many variations in the letter shapes could confuse rather than help learners, this primer set up a tradition of illustrated textbooks for learners.

By the beginning of the 19th century, textbooks and learning materials were in demand by a network of various educational establishments and private tutors. Not only royal children could get books with pictures (although of course not so lavishly printed!). An Azbuka published in 1818 for public schools, was called Dragotsennyi podarok detiam (‘A Precious Present for Children’). It also introduced the alphabet in various types and shorthand, illustrating it with pictures, elementary reading exercises and texts for further reading, such as moral instructions and prayers.

As part of our Google Books project the British Library’s copy of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam published without changes from the 1818 edition was digitised

Title-page of 1830 Azbuka

Title-page of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam, ili novaia i polnaia rossiiskaia azbuka (Moscow, 1830) RB.23.a.23374

The cheap popular editions that mushroomed at the end of the 19th century could not afford many pictures, but at least tried to include some under colourful and attractive paper covers.

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Most of the reading materials were still prayers, adaptations from the Gospels, and some simple statements and proverbs. Leo Tolstoy, who established a school for village children, was also concerned with education. He wrote his own Azbuka, where he aimed to offer exercises suitable for any learning method, including the ‘word method’ (reading not syllable by syllable, but memorising whole words), which, as he wrote in the introduction, was popular in England and America. It is interesting to note that Tolstoy thought pictures to be a luxury feature that could only distract pupils.

Cover of L. Tolstoy's Novaia Azbuka

L. Tolstoy. Novaia Azbuka . 25th edition (Moscow, 1908) 12975.m.33

In the new Soviet state this idea of Tolstoy’s was definitely not accepted. Primers illustrated with new communist propaganda became quite popular and were issued for adult learners. In 1921 Dmitrii Moor illustrated an Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier where he applied the same principle as in standard textbooks – introducing letters with a two-line verse and a picture. For example, letter ‘B’ showed a miserable bourgeois, begging for mercy.

Letter B from Dmitrii Moor's Red Army Alphabet. The illustration shows a worker, a peasant and a Red Army soldier standing over a 'bourgeois capitalist'.

Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa, (Moscow, 1921) Cup.401.g.25.

The campaign “Down with illiteracy!”, which started almost immediately after the October revolution in 1917, also required new textbooks, where learners’ first texts would be citations from Lenin and Trotsky instead of prayers.

Cover of a textbook for adults with an image of adults learning

Doloi negramotnost’. Bukvar’ dlia vzroslykh, (Moscow, 1920). 12975.n.15.

The Soviet primary school textbook had Lenin and a map of the USSR as the first pictures that children would see when they started learning to read and write. This is what the last Soviet edition of primer looked like; it was reproduced in more or less the same way for decades, so I also recognise the cover as my first schoolbook.

Last Soviet bukvar' with an image of Lenin and map of the USSR

Bukvar’. 9th edition (Moscow, 1989). YA.1996.a.6783.

Meanwhile, Russian-speaking children abroad also needed primers. Their parents, who had fled the Soviet regime, wanted them to keep their heritage language. It is interesting to see how old fashioned the YMCA-Press edition of 1957 looks. Children born in the early 1950s were introduced to reading through pictures of a 10 kopeks coin of 1911, a samovar, a horse-drawn carriage, and birch-bark shoes. As well as modern Russian, émigré children were also supposed to learn Church Slavonic so that they could read Christian Orthodox books.

Double-page spread from the 1957 reading book for Russian émigré children

V.P.Vakhterov. Russkii Bukvar’ dlia obucheniia pis’mu I chteniiu russkomu i tserkovno-slavianskomu. (Paris, 1957). 12993.w.1

To learn more about reading and writing in various countries, languages, alphabets, and societies, visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark which is still open until 27th August.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading:

Christine Thomas, ‘The East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow 1637,’ The British Library Journal, 10 (1984), 32-47.

E. Rogatchevskaia, ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Volume 51 (2017) Issue 2-3, 376-397.

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship