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Exploring Europe at the British Library


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30 March 2015

The Goddess of Air at The Stray Dog Café

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On 28 March 1914 Tamara Karsavina, a legend of the Russian ballet, celebrated her birthday by dancing at The Stray Dog Café  at Number 5, Mikhailovskaia Square (today Ploshchad’ iskusstv,  ‘Square of the Arts’)  in St Petersburg. Also called an art-cellar, the café was in operation between  31 December  1911 and 3 March 1915. Its name was drawn from the romantic and at the same time ironic image of a poet or artist as a stray dog, created by one of the founders of the enterprise Mstislav  Dobuzhinzky.

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The logo of the Stray Dog Café, from the cover of a tribute volume to Tamara Karsavina

The idea of a cabaret-club came from the actor and theatre director Boris Pronin (1875-1946), one of the noteworthy figures of the Russian Silver Age in art and literature. The founders of the Stray Dog Café (including writer Alexey Tolstoy, artists Nikolay Sapunov (1880-1912) and Sergey Sudeikin (1882-1946), and  theatre director and dramatist Nikolai Evreinov) aimed to synthesise visual and performing arts with literature and create a playful  atmosphere for participants and the audience.

The programme of the Stray Dog Café included poetry readings by such famous Russian authors as  Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Mikhail Kuzmin and Vladimir Mayakovsky as well as foreign guests like Paul Fort. The founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gave a lecture there.  The audience was divided into two categories:  “artists” and “pharmacists” (those who didn’t belong to the bohemian world of creativity) and the price for an entrance ticket for the latter category was several times higher than for “artists-bohemians”.

The celebration of Tamara Karsavina’s birthday was documented in a number of memoirs. For example, Sergey Sudeikin recollected how this “goddess of air” moved around the stage in the middle of the hall between authentic  18th-century wooden sculptures of Eros placed on a wonderful blue carpet. Carefully selected musicians played old musical instruments. The intimacy of the performance was shared by fifty dance-lovers who paid 50 roubles per ticket.  At the end of evening, the heroine was presented with a memorable book made for her that included drawings, poems and dedications to the admired ballerina. Beautifully designed, this gentle book (held by the British Library at shelfmark Cup.410.f.519) is a unique artefact of the time, as the images below illustrate.

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The title page of the book

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Sargent’s portrait of Karsavina

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Poem by Mikhail Kuzmin

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Drawing by Sergey Sudeikin

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A letter of congratulation from Nikolai Evreinov

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

27 March 2015

The Growth of the Beard

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All the media assure us we are living in a new age of the beard.

A landmark in pogonology is the pioneer study A Barba em Portugal. Estudo de etnografia comparativa [The Beard in Portugal.  A Study in Comparative Ethnography] (Lisbon, 1925; British Library 10009.t.29) by  José Leite de Vasconcellos  (1858-1941).

Beards - Leite de Vasconcelos                                    José Leite de Vasconcellos (with beard). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Beards - Barba em Portugal tp                                                    Title-page of Leite’s A barba em Portugal.

Leite (1858-1941) was a distinguished professor of Latin and Medieval French at the University of Lisbon and editor of the journal Revista Lusitana, but the bulk of his publications are ethnographic studies of topics such as the “figa” gesture: in this respect his work prefigured much 20th and 21st-century research on the body.  The figa’s opposite number in British culture is the V-sign, now sadly depleted to the single finger.

Beards - Figa tp José Leite de Vasconcellos,  A Figa : estudo de etnografia comparativa, precedido de algumas palavras a respeito do ”sobrenatural” na medicina popular portuguesa. (Porto, 1925). Ac.3709.d.

Like many Portuguese men of letters (Júlio Dinis and Trindade Coelho  among them), Leite studied medicine although he practised for  only a year on account of his own ill health.

The chapters of A Barba em Portugal cover: The beard anthropologically, the making of the beard, beard forms and cuts, the beard through the centuries, the symbolism of the beard, and the beard in vocabulary and literature; in an appendix Leite edits the ordenances of the guild of barbers from the 16th century.

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A selection of historical Portuguese beards from A Barba em Portugal

A habit which 21st-century hipsters seem not to have adopted is swearing on the beard.  The Cid did it, and Leite was told by an old man of A Beira that he had heard in his youth that in olden times the oath was “Juro por estas minhas barbas” [I swear by these my beards], accompanied by the appropiate gesture.  

Perhaps its time has come again, by my beard!

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

Beards - Herod                                  Beards - Ancient
Ancient beard ideas for the hipsters of today? King Herod (left) and an Bronze Age figurine (right) from A barba em Portugal

25 March 2015

Collection of hopes and despair: 30 years ago Mikhail Gorbachev started Perestroika

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In the late 1980s the famous Revolution Square in Moscow  turned into a huge market. But it was a ‘press market’ - only alternative publications were sold there in abundance, usually by elderly ladies. Most of them were quite politicised themselves and were selling only publications of a certain political standing, but some had a variety of publications on display representing a wide ideological spectrum. Our colleagues at the State Historical Public Library in Moscow started collecting documents relating to various political and public movements in 1989. They often went to Revolution Square themselves to buy materials, attended various meetings, and asked friends and relatives to bring ephemera to the Historical Library. Chris Thomas, at that time Head of the British Library’s Slavonic and East European collections, managed to secure an agreement with the Historical Library that they would also help us to create a similar collection. Through this source and via her wide network of friends in Russia who started sending materials to London, Chris managed to accumulate invaluable unique primary source materials on the era of Perestoika which started in spring 30 years ago.


Samizdat2                                                                         Samizdat publications

Now we can say that our collection of Russian ‘Underground periodicals’ or ‘Samizdat’, which should probably be called ‘Collection of alternative periodicals and ephemera’, comprises  over 2,500 titles produced in the Soviet Union during Perestroika and in the early 1990s. Apart from published, print and typewritten items, it also contains original photographs:



Although Perestroika officially finished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian political life in the early 1990s was lively, vibrant and chaotic. This is perfectly reflected in the collections of ephemera relating to the coup of August 1991, the two referendums (1991 and 1993) and the Duma and presidential and local election campaigns of the early 1990s.

In autumn 2012 Laura Todd, a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham, worked in the British Library for two months on the collections of Russian ephemera from the late 1980s and the 1990s. She documented this project in her blog. How proud we are to say that the collection has been now sorted, catalogued, properly preserved and housed (shelfmarks: HS.74/2113-HS.74/2117 and HS.74/2124) and is available for researchers. We would like once again to thank Laura and our colleagues in Collection Care  for completing this project. Now the collections look like this:






Although securely preserved in plastic sleeves and hidden in the vast climate-controlled basements of the British Library, these papers are waiting for their researchers to tell many stories of hope and despair from the first years of Russia’s post-communist era.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)