European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library


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

19 December 2014

Punishment as a Crime?

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library has recently acquired a collection of articles called Punishment as a Crime? Perspectives on Prison Experience in Russian Culture. In this guest post the volume co-editor,  Andrei Rogatchevski , introduces the book and its topic, in both the Russian and a wider context.

Punishment as Crime cover                                                                Cover of Punishment as a Crime?

The volume consists of seven articles by scholars from Italy, Sweden, the UK and the USA, and is devoted to the subject that has primarily been familiar in the West through Stalin’s Gulag. Back then, as a bitter joke had it, Russians could be divided into three categories: those who were imprisoned, those who are imprisoned and those who will be imprisoned. However, Russian prison experience had not begun and would not end with the Gulag. None other than the current Russian  Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov admitted publicly in September 2011 that the modern “Russian prison system has retained some features of Stalin’s Gulag and even the pre-revolutionary katorga” (see The number of those in Russian jails, however, is not always in reverse proportion to how liberal the ruling regime is. A former adviser to President Putin, Andrei Illarionov, points out that in 1989-91 there had been 699,000-723,000 convicts in the USSR, yet in the mid-1990s, in what became the Russian Federation (i.e. much smaller territory), their number exceeded one million ( According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as of 1 December 2014, there were 671,700 prisoners in Russian colonies and jails, 54,700 of them women (for information on a relatively recent documentary film about women’s experiences at a post-Communist Russian prison, see

Today’s situation is at variance with a popular pre-revolutionary Russian belief that “the punishment of criminals is not the business of man, but of God” (Fyfe). In the opinion of a Russian prison official, interviewed by a journalist, “our state and our nation have created only one efficient industry: putting people behind bars. It’s the only thing that works at present” (Svinarenko 190). To quote Allison Gill, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Russia, Russian prisons “are widely acknowledged to be troubled institutions with poor conditions, torture and ill treatment” (see here).  It is not yet clear whether the ongoing Russian penal reform will lead to any improvement in a foreseeable future.

Some would say that harsh conditions are necessary for prisons to serve as a deterrent, and criminals only get what they deserve anyway. Others would insist that such conditions only harden the criminals, instead of reforming them. Punishment as a Crime? examines the complex phenomenon of Russian prison culture from various angles, mostly on the basis of the evidence provided by the well known individuals with a first-hand knowledge of Russian penal institutions, from Fedor Dostoevsky and Vlas Doroshevich, via Andrei Siniavsky and Sergei Dovlatov, to Eduard Limonov and Igor Sutyagin (who has supplied the book’s opening participant-observer piece). Prison humour, film and popular songs, as well as theories of human motivation and philosophical musings by Arendt, Foucault, Cioran, Kierkegaard, Agamben and others, also have a role to play as material and/or methodology for analysis. An exercise in comparative penology is in evidence too, juxtaposing Russia and the UK in the 2000s (and finding quite a few things in common).

Needless to say, many penal systems across the globe face the same problems, such as overcrowded prisons and high reoffending rate (see, for example, and, showing some 2012-13 data for the UK and Sweden respectively). Moreover, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1962 book describing a typical day of a Gulag convict in the early 1950s), has been perceived, by some at least, as “a day in anybody’s life. The majority of the human race are trapped in a monotonous daily routine which differs from that of a concentration camp only in the degree of its unpleasantness and hopelessness” (Hayward). Furthermore, John Hillcoat’s  1988 Australian film Ghosts of the Civil Dead provides an ”existential vision of prison [in an unnamed country] as a metaphor for the human condition” in general (Johnston).

According to the proponents of such a view, prison (defined by Joseph Brodsky as “a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time”, see does not do anything to human beings that the society at large could not do, when coercing them into submission. In prison the coercion process is merely accelerated and takes a highly concentrated form, not unlike radiation overdoses speeding the ageing process. Can incarceration serve as an answer to the challenges presented by crime? Many observers seriously doubt it. In the opinion of one, “Deprivation of freedom is a symbolic murder, a symbolic annihilation. Part of a person’s life is taken away. It’s like a temporary partial reversible murder, which doesn’t solve the problem” (Svinarenko 242). Using the example of a notorious Sao Paolo prison, demolished in 2002, Hector Babenco’s 2003 Brazilian film Carandiru seems to suggest that dispensing with prisons altogether is the only reasonable way forward.

However, it is highly unlikely that Russia (or any other country, for that matter) will be prison-free any time soon. Meanwhile, as the question mark in the volume’s title implies, readers are invited to form their own opinion about the pros and cons of the balance between the punitive and the reformative particularities of the Russian penal system from the 1840s onwards, in comparison with elsewhere.

Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Tromsø

References/Further Reading

Punishment as a crime? Perspectives on prison experience in Russian culture, edited by Julie Hansen and Andrei Rogachevskii (Uppsala, 2014). Uppsala Studies on Eastern Europe; vol. 5. ZA.9.a.1917.

Hamilton Fyfe, “Russia: The Genius and Simplicity of Its Peoples”, Peoples of All Nations: Their Life Today and the Story of Their Past, ed. by J. A. Hammerton ( London, 1922), W50/0816. Vol. VI: 4309 .

Max Hayward,  “Epilogue,” in Soviet Literature in the Sixties, ed. by Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley (London, 1965) X.909/8120. P. 206.

Ian Johnston,  Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave ( London, 1996) YK.1996.a.20413. P. 223

Svinarenko, Igor’. Russkie sidiat: Po zonam Rodiny [Russians in Confinement: Motherland’s Penal Institutions]. (Moscow, 2002) YA.2003.a.34306.

17 December 2014

A dish fit for the gods: 150 years of Offenbach’s ‘La belle Hélène’

Add comment Comments (0)

When in the 1690s the Académie Française was rocked by the so-called Querelle des anciens et des modernes between two factions headed by Nicolas Boileau and Charles Perrault respectively, history might have regarded it as a short-lived conflict unlikely to have much lasting influence on the development of French culture. However, in a society with a long tradition of respect for classical learning and its place within the educational system, it was never completely extinguished, and continued to flare up in the most unlikely places – such as the Paris comic opera stage.

By 1858, when the restriction limiting the number of performers in such productions to three was finally lifted, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1860) had already achieved considerable success in the small theatre which he had leased at his own expense, the Salle Choiseul, to accommodate his troupe, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, when unable to make a breakthrough at the Opéra-Comique. His tastes, though, ran towards the lavish, and once free of the previous limitations he set about engaging a cast of 20 principals and making plans to stage his latest work, Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).

An early photograph of Offenbach, from ‘Argus’ Jacques Offenbach (Paris, 1872). 10602.e.4.

It success exceeded all his dreams, but not, perhaps, for the reasons which he had anticipated. Most unlike Monteverdi’s Orfeo or Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, it presents the hero not as a noble tragic figure descending to the realm of Hades to rescue his beloved wife but as a lackadaisical violin teacher whose wife is driven distracted by his trills and arpeggios, so that her abduction by the sinister king of the underworld, disguised as a shepherd, comes as a relief to both. Indeed, it was so far removed from the marmoreal world of classical antiquity that it provoked a furious outcry in the pages of the Journal des débats and Le Figaro. No voice was louder than that of the critic Jules Janin, who accused Offenbach of making a mock of the austere values of Roman mythology so revered by the great figures of the Revolution. Behind this, though, lay a more contemporary target for satire – no less than the figure of the Emperor Napoleon III and his court in the guise of Jupiter (familiarly tagged as ‘Jupin’, i.e. Joops) and his entourage. The notoriety, as much as the sparkling music and witty libretto by Hector Crémieux, did wonders for the box-office takings, and in April 1860 the emperor himself ordered a command performance – and presumably was not disappointed, as that year he made a personal grant of French citizenship to the Cologne-born Offenbach, followed in 1861 by the Légion d’honneur.

Inspired by this success, Offenbach proceeded to tackle another classical subject, the story of Helen of Troy, in La belle Hélène. The librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy showed no more respect for their theme than their predecessor Crémieux, and fell foul of the censor for their portrayal of the Grand Augur, Calchas, which was viewed as an attack on the clergy. Pompous and hypocritical, Calchas cheats outrageously while gambling, and was at one point intended to fall into the water until the censor insisted that this was taking irreverence too far. Nor do Agamemnon, Menelaus and the other heroes fare any better; they appear as a gang of ridiculous blockheads who are easily trounced by the debonair ‘shepherd’ Paris (‘l’homme à la pomme’) in a series of word-games designed to sharpen the dull wits of the Greeks.

 Offenbach zweig_ms_72_f027r detail
The chorus which accompanies Orestes’ entrance, from Jacques Offenbach, La belle Hélène, autograph score, 1864. Zweig MS 72

Most startlingly of all, perhaps, Orestes makes his entrance as a precocious playboy, flanked by two good-time girls, Parthénis and Léoena, dancing in to the refrain ‘Tsing-la-la! Tsing-la-la! Oyé Kephalé, Kephalé oh-la-la!’ and intent on emptying his father’s coffers in the pursuit of pleasure. The role is sung by a soprano, and its creator, the all-too-aptly-named Léa Silly, proved a major headache to Offenbach. In a situation reminiscent of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), a skit involving a hapless director and his two warring prima donnas which Offenbach had staged some years earlier, she antagonized the diva Hortense Schneider, a long-term star of the company who was cast as Helen, by upstaging and mimicking her, dancing a cancan behind her back as she sang a major aria, and so enraging Schneider that she threatened to quit not only the production but Paris altogether.

Offenbach Hortense Schneider
Hortense Schneider as Helen in La belle Hélène, from Louis Schneider, Offenbach (Paris, 1923) 7896.t.20.

Yet despite these trials the first night went ahead on 17th December 1864 at the Théâtre des Variétés, delighting critics and public so much that it launched a run of 700 performances. Among its admirers was the famous chef Auguste Escoffier, who created a special dish in its honour – Poire Belle Hélène, a luscious confection of poached pears and vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and crystallized violets. Like the opera itself, it is a treat for the connoisseur – and certainly fit for an Emperor.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak

15 December 2014

"I raised a fire in my heart": remembering Eroshenko

Add comment Comments (0)

On 15 December each year Esperantists worldwide celebrate the birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto. Traditionally it is also celebrated as Esperanto Literature Day  – as   books have been written in Esperanto from its start in 1887. Many books have also been translated into Esperanto and, as original literature in Esperanto grew decade after decade, translations from Esperanto into other languages started to follow.

Many libraries worldwide collect Esperanto books. One of the biggest collections of Esperanto items  is in the Austrian National Library. The Esperanto Collection of the British Library is one of the finest in the world: it has British publications from the beginning of Esperanto received  by legal deposit as well as purchased and donated books and journals from many countries. It is a growing collection used by researchers from all over the world.

My own way into Esperanto started with a book. In 1973 the Ukrainian publishing house for children Veselka (Rainbow) published a book by  Nadiia Andrianova-Hordiienko Zapalyv ia u sertsi vohon’ (‘I Raised a Fire in My Heart’, the first line of Eroshenko’s poem Ekbruligis mi fajron en kor’, written in Esperanto). It is fascinating story about the life and work of the blind Esperantist, traveller and writer Vasili Eroshenko (1890-1952). I was so taken by the history of his extraordinary life and his travels with the help of Esperanto that in the autumn of the same year I enrolled on an Esperanto course in my home town of Khmelnitskyi, Ukraine.

Portrait of Vasili Eroshenko by Tsune Nakamura (1887-1924)  (from Wikimedia Commons)

Years passed, and I met the author  in Kyiv, who signed the book for me. In 1988 for the first time I walked the streets of London – the same ones as Vasili Eroshenko during his 6-month stay in London in 1912. Later I found books by Margaret Lawrence Blaise (1878-1935), pioneer of the Esperanto movement in Britain, in the British Library (her book The Esperanto Manual was very popular and had a few editions). She and her Belgian husband Paul Blaise hosted Eroshenko during his first 10 days in England when he arrived from Moscow by train via many European cities to London Charing Cross. Eroshenko’s  arrival and stay in London were documented in British, Russian and Esperanto papers, as for example in The Daily Herald: “A Blind Russian, a member of a Moscow orchestra, having received six months’ furlough, has come to London, being passed on from town to town by Esperantists, and is engaged in learning English”.

The British Library holds about two dozen books by and about Vasili Eroshenko, published in the former Soviet Union (Serdtse orla, translations into Russian; Belgorod, 1962; 11769p.22 and a biography by Aleksandr Kharkovskii, Chelovek, uvidevshii mir (Moscow, 1978; X.908/85973)), in modern Ukraine (Kazky ta lehendy, translations into Ukranian; Kyiv, 2006; YF.2010.a.26418) and in Russia, as well as in China and Japan, where Eroshenko lived for many years and is very well known.

In Japan the publishing house Japana Esperanto Librokooperativo published a whole series of lovely books of short stories and tales by Eroshenko (written originally in Esperanto or Japanese):  Lumo kaj Ombro (Light and Shade;  1979; YF.2008.a.6621), La tundo  ĝemas. El vivo de  Ĉukĉoj  (The Tundra is Groaning, From the Life of Chukchi; 1980; YF.2007.a.9371), Cikatro de Amo (Love’s Scar; 1996; YF.2007.a.9358); Malvasta kaĝo (Narrow Cage; 1981; YF.2007.a.9374); Stranga kato (A Strange Cat;  1983; YF.2007.a.9372); La kruĉo de la Saĝeco (The Jug of Wisdom; 1995; YF.2008.a.6620) and others (see picture below).   

An interesting study about  Eroshenko’s tales appeared recently in a book Developmental fairy tales. Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture by Andrew F. Jones (Harvard, 2011; YC.2011.a.7404). In Chapter 5 the author analyses the friendship between the great Chinese writer Lu Xun and Vasili Eroshenko and Eroshenko’s story ‘A Narrow Cage’ (Lu Xun translated Eroshenko’s story from Japanese into Chinese). Eroshenko himself features in Lu Xun's short story 'A Comedy of the Ducks'.

EROSHENKOLUXUN9856711306_2526aff495_z                   Eroshenko with Lu Xun (Lu Sin) in 1922 (A photograph taken in Beijing at the Esperanto Society by Marco Sotgiu)

The oldest book in our collections which mentions Eroshenko dates from 1914 and comes from the pen of a keen helper of blind people, William Phillimore (1844-1934). In  his essay  La Graveco de Esperanto por la Blinduloj (The Importance of Esperanto for Blind; London, 1914; 875.r.6) he tells the story written by Eroshenko himself about his first travels abroad and published in  La Ondo de Esperanto (January 1913) as an example of great use of Esperanto for blind people.

 Graveco de Esperanto
Cover of La Graveco de Esperanto por la Blinduloj by W.Phillimore.

The memory of Vasili Eroshenko is alive: there is a small museum in his native village Obukhovka in Russia, the Charitable Foundation in Ukraine bears his name, conferences are organised to mark his anniversaries and study his works and ideas (like these virtual conferences in Russia Eroshenko i ego vremia – Eroshenko and his time), and new publications and translations appear regularly in various languages.

Every Esperantist has their own story to tell about “becoming an Esperantist”. I owe my fondness to the language and ideas of Zamenhof to a book about a life of one extraordinary man – Vasili Eroshenko.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Esperanto Studies


Concise Encyclopaedia of the original Literature in Esperanto 1887-2007. (New York,  2008), pp. 107-113. YC.2008.a.12495

Kerziouk, Olga. Eroŝenko en Anglujo. In: La Brita Esperantisto, Autuno 2010, p. 7-14. ZK.9.a.8223