THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

21 August 2017

A Tale of Two Countries

As we mark 100 years since the Russian Revolution, we should also consider another centenary linked to it. In 2017, Finland has been celebrating 100 years of independence from Russia. Finnish independence was officially declared on 6 December 1917 by Pehr Evind Svinhufvid, the head of the majority in the Senate at the time. With Russian powers supposedly transferred back to Finland in the middle of 1917 thanks to laws enacted by the newly configured Finnish Senate and an election that returned a low number of Russian-supported socialists, Svinhufvid was able to proclaim sovereignty in December and this was formally recognised by the new Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Vladimir Lenin. Independence did not however mean stability for a nation that continued to be influenced simultaneously by various Russian and German forces and the Finnish Civil War ensued in the first half of 1918.

Finland100 - Rodt eller Hvidt

Johannes Erwig, Rødt eller Hvidt? Sandheden om Finland (Copenhgen, 1918) 8095.ee.23. A pamphelt from the period of the Finnish Civil War.

With this tumultuous beginning in mind, Finland is proudly celebrating this century of independence with a host of programmes worldwide under the banner ‘Finland 100’. One project that has been developed for this year between the Finnish Institute in London, The National Archives of Finland, the National Library of Finland and the British Library, with the contribution of other archives, is a ‘Tale of Two Countries’. This is a digital gallery offering ‘carefully curated pieces of the shared history of Finland and Britain and their cultural, political and economic relations.’

The British Library has contributed images from its digitized collections, and has also completed new digitizations of some significant relevant materials, including the first English translation of the Finnish epic Kalevala

Finland100 - Kalevala hero

Ancient Finnish hero from The Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland, translated into English by J. M. Crawford (New York, 1888) 11557.d.8.

Another title to be newly digitized is M. Pearson Thomson’s 1909 travel guide to Finland, part of his series of guides Peeps at many Lands.

Finland100 - Peeps at many Lands cover Cover of M. Pearson Thomson, Peeps at many Lands: Finland, (London, 1909) W10-1152

The folks at the Tale of Two Countries website proudly show off a book that ‘gives us everything we need to spread the good word about Finland. He takes a quick look into history and tells us what the Finns are like.’

Finland100 - Peeps at many Lands woman

 Colour plate of a Finnish woman in traditional dress from Peeps at many Lands. Finland

In Winter sketches in Lapland, Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke travels through Lapland in a sledge describing for the reader the sights of the land and the customs of the people. The book’s 24 lithographs transport us to the winters of the Arctic!

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland

Above and below: Sleigh travel, from from Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke, Winter Sketches in Lapland, or Illustrations of a journey from Alten ... to Torneå ... (London, 1826) HS.74/1112 

Finland100 - Winter sketches Lapland 2

With a host of material from the various partner organisations, the cultural relationship between Finland and Britain is illuminated in a special way in this virtual gallery. Whether it’s a letter from Jean Sibelius to the British pianist Harriet Cohen, or an issue of the Finland Bulletin  (‘An English Journal devoted to the cause of the Finnish People’), the connected memory of two nations is preserved here.

A look at the website might even inspire your own peep at Finland… For those who have memories of Finland, there is even an option to share your memory through an uploaded image or a story. Have a peep!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Studies

18 August 2017

Devil, Rascal, Love Machine? The Afterlives of Rasputin

One of the exhibits in our current exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is a cartoon from the satirical magazine Novyi Satirikon. It shows the religious mystic Grigorii Rasputin sitting on a throne, gazing out with his trademark intense stare. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra crouch at Rasputin’s feet while the German Kaiser Wilhelm II stands behind the throne.

Rasputin Novyi Satirikon
Novyi Satirikon
,  No. 23,April 1917. RB.31.c.900

This reflects the popular view at the time that Rasputin had undue influence over the Russian royal family and that he and the German-born Alexandra plotted against Russian interests during the First World War. The same belief is reflected in a Japanese cartoon of the period, which shows the Tsarina, Kaiser and Rasputin (in the guise of a demon) sitting conspiratorially round a table.

Rasputin ORB 30 757
Cartoon from Itō Chūta, Ashurachō (Tokyo, 1920-21). ORB.30/757 

But one interesting point about the Novyi Satirikon cartoon is that it was actually published in April 1917, four months after Rasputin’s death (and two after Nicholas’s abdication). Such a caricature would of course have been hard to get past the censors while Rasputin was alive and enjoying the patronage of a still-intact monarchy. But it is striking that, even after his death and the fall of the monarchy, his image was a powerful enough symbol of corruption to make the front page of a satirical magazine.

This is an early example of Rasputin’s afterlife in propaganda, history, conspiracy theory and popular culture. Rumours and legends – such as his wartime plotting and the belief that he and Alexandra were lovers – had grown up before his death but afterwards they were given ever freer rein, with stories of a criminal youth, of wild parties and orgies in St Petersburg, of hypnotic powers, and of an almost supernatural resistance to his murderers’ poison and bullets.

Rasputin's Diary
‘Rasputin's Diary’, a White Russian propaganda leaflet published in Rostov-on-Don (private collection)

A look at some of the books about Rasputin in our catalogue give an idea of his reputation. Titles describe him as ‘Holy Devil’ (10790.pp.22.), ‘Prophet, Libertine and Plotter’ (010795.aaa.7.), one of ‘Twelve Monstrous Criminals’ (06055.ee.17.), an ‘All-powerful Peasant’ (010795.a.52.), ‘Satyr-monk and Criminal’ (10796.aa.37.) and ‘Rascal Monk’ (10796.a.28.). This last was by the thriller-writer and conspiracy theorist William Le Queux who, perhaps thinking that ‘Rascal’ might sound rather playful, followed it up with the more strongly titled The Minister of Evil.

Rasputin Le Queux
William Le Queux, The Minister of Evil (London, 1918) 010795.a.9. 

However lurid and fanciful some of their claims, these works were presented as factual – even George Sava’s bizarre Rasputin Speaks (London, 1941; 10795.p.27), supposedly Rasputin’s own story told to Sava through a Russian spirit medium. But of course Rasputin made his way into works defined as fiction too, beginning as early as 1923 with Ivan Nazhivin’s Rasputin (English translation New York, 1929; 010795.aa.66). Since then he has featured in everything from straightforward historical novels to elaborate conspiracy thrillers where he wields supernatural powers or works evil from beyond the grave. More recently Rasputin has appeared in graphic novels, usually in his more fantastical guise as in the Hellboy universe or Alex Grecian’s Rasputin series  (vol. 2, 2016 at YKL.2017.b.2935).

Rasputin in fiction
A selection of Rasputin-related fiction from the BL collections

Rasputin appeared on film even before he appeared in fiction, starting in 1917 with The Fall of the Romanoffs, featuring Rasputin’s former ally and later antagonist, the Monk Iliodor, as himself. The 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress led to a lawsuit from Prince Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s assassins, and his wife Irina, angered in particular that a character believed to represent Irina was portrayed as Rasputin’s lover. A curious, if indirect, aspect of Rasputin’s legacy is that the lawsuit resulted in the introduction of the now-familiar disclaimer in film credits that the characters ‘bear no resemblance to living persons’.

Rasputin Yusopov trial
Some of the press coverage of the Yusupovs’ libel case, reproduced in Sir David Napley, Rasputin in Hollywood (London, 1989) YC.1990.b.3188.

Of course Rasputin is a gift for any actor with a powerful presence and intense gaze – step forward, among the Brits, Christopher Lee (Rasputin the Mad Monk, 1966), Tom Baker (Nicholas and Alexandra, 1971) and Alan Rickman (Rasputin, Dark Servant of Destiny, 1996). While the latter two are straight historical dramas, the first is at the lurid end of the scale. But perhaps the nadir of Rasputin’s film career is the 1997 animation Anastasia in which he returns from limbo (with a wisecracking bat sidekick) to pursue the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia.

In Anastasia, Rasputin gets to sing, as he also does in at least three operas: Rasputin’s End (1958; F.1256.q) by Nicolas Nabokov, and two works simply entitled Rasputin by Jay Reise (1988) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (2003). He has been sung about too, perhaps most famously in Boney M’s 1978 hit ‘Rasputin’ which immortalised him for a generation as ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’. But 45 years earlier Allie Wrubel and Joe Hoover had come up with a similar concept in ‘Rasputin, that Highfalutin’ Lovin’ Man’ (VOC/1933/WRUBEL).

Rasputin and women
Rasputin surrounded by women, reproduced in Rasputin goes to Hollywood.  His elite female admirers were fascinated more by Rasputin’s  mysticism than by any supposed sexual magnetism.

Reputable modern non-fiction tends to reject the more lurid stories about Rasputin or to engage seriously with their origins and likely veracity. However, as so few facts are known about parts of Rasputin’s life and so many things reported as facts cannot be proven or otherwise, we can never know the whole truth. Clearly he was not the evil mastermind depicted by many writers, nor was he the kindly and slandered saint recalled by his daughter Maria in her two books attempting to clear his name of any scandal or wrongdoing. But even for those who seek a balanced and scholarly view of the real Rasputin, there is much fascination in exploring his enduring afterlife in popular culture.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

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

15 August 2017

Miracle on the Vistula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

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

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

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

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