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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

26 October 2016

Studying migration and diaspora through Russian language publishing

Dear Sir,
I take the liberty of sending you our catalogue of Russian books and pamphlets forbidden by the Russian censorship. Should you wish to order anything from us for the Russian department of the British Museum Library, we could give a discount of 10 per cent on all prices. We have also some new works of Leo Tolstoy, also forbidden in Russia.

This letter was registered in the British Museum as incoming post on 10 October 1892. It was written on Russian Free Press Fund headed paper and signed by one J. Kelchevsky, the pseudonym of a Polish revolutionary and bibliophile, Wilfrid Voynich, probably now better known not for his revolutionary activities, but for the famous mysterious manuscript formerly in his possession. The Keeper of the Department of Printed Books, Richard Garnett, replied expressing interest, and so “some orders [were] given”. These books, periodicals and brochures, mostly published outside the Russian Imperial borders, contributed to the British Library’s now considerable collection of Russian émigré and Diaspora publications.


A selection of uncensored brochures published by the Russians abroad

The output of printing activities by the first wave of Russian post-revolutionary émigrés is also well represented in the collections, from rare book art items and newspapers, such as, Novaia Rossiia (‘New Russia’), started in 1936 by Alexander Kerensky, a key political figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917, to popular periodicals.

Zvorykin's Boris Godunov
Title-page of an an art book edition of Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov, with plates by Plates by Boris Zvorykin, published in Paris. RB.23.b.5893

Kerensky's Novaia Rossiia
 Kerensky’s periodical Novaia Rossiia; NEWS 15932

Zaria Kharbina
An advertisement in Russian from Zaria Kharbina (‘The Dawn of Harbin’), a popular newspaper published by the Russian community in China (PP.7611.ccd)

In the 1980s and 1990s the British Library continued building its collection of Russian émigré publications from various sources, including donations, and several commercial vendors, one of whom – André Savine – was a dedicated bibliophile who created a personal database of Russian publications abroad.

We actively continue collecting material produced by Russians abroad.

New batch

 New Russian books just arrived from North America.

Whether uncensored or banned by political regimes in Russia and the Soviet Union, or produced for the local Russian language community by various Russian language publishing enterprises aboard, the British Library’s collections of such material have never formed a discrete unit. The materials were not acquired at any single point in time and they have no name that one can refer to (such as ‘free Russian press, ‘Russian underground collection’, etc.). The materials are not stored together in one place but scattered among the Library’s general collections. Moreover, since the material was not always easy for cataloguers to deal with, it is sometimes not obvious under what headings to look for relevant items in the catalogue. Research into these collections can bring to life many interesting stories, change our understanding of the mechanisms of publishing (including new media and digital formats) in the diaspora and by local communities, and help in formulating new challenges in the world of digital media.

Collaboration is important for us. We have invited academics at UK universities to submit proposals for AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships with the Library. One of the topics this year is ‘Studying migration and diaspora through Russian language publishing’, a project which will help to meet some of the challenges described above. Please visit our website for more information and application form or contact details

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of East European Collections

24 October 2016

Trotsky, Sri Lanka and an ‘Olympian goddess’

What links Trotsky, Sri Lanka and a young Bolshevik woman journalist? The answer lies in a 20-page book published in Maradana, Sri Lanka, in 1948.

Svyashk cover 9458.b.10

 Larisa Reiner, Svyazhsk: An Epic of the Russian Civil War – 1918 (Maradana, 1948) British Library 9458.b.10

Entitled Svyazhsk: An Epic of the Russian Civil War – 1918, the book contains the only known English-language translation of a civil war-era work by Larisa Reisner, a journalist and writer who reported on the Russian Civil Wars while simultaneously serving as a political commissar in the Red Army.

Image 1 Larisa_Rejsner

 Portrait of Larisa Reisner (From Wikimedia Commons

Svyazhsk tells the story of the Red Army’s successful campaign in the town of the same name – some 250 miles southwest of Moscow near the Volga River – to recapture the nearby city of Kazan from anti-Bolshevik forces in August/September 1918. Reisner, who participated in the events as part of the Fifth Army, describes how Trotsky was sent to organise the campaign:

No matter what his calling or his name, it is clear that this creator of the Red Army, the future chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, would have had to be in Svyazhsk; had to live through the entire practical experience if these weeks of battle; had to call upon all the resources of his will and organisational genius for the defence of Svyazhsk, for the defence of the army organism smashed under the fire of the whites.

A version of Svyazhsk was first published in Russian in 1923, in the Soviet historical journal Proletarskaia revoliutsiia (‘Proletarian revolution’; Mic.C.1326). The following year, a slightly longer version was published in Front, an edited collection of Reisner’s articles from the frontline. Almost a decade later, in 1943, an English-language translation of the Front piece – by John G. Wright, a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who became well-known as a translator of many of Trotsky’s works into English, and the lesser known Amy Jensen – appeared in the SWP’s journal Fourth International (Mic.B.617/1,2). While remaining faithful to Reisner’s text, Wright and Jensen added headings – such as ‘The Arrival of Trotsky’s Train’ – to signpost various stages of the campaign. It is this translation which was published in book form in Sri Lanka in 1948. Four years later, in 1952, the book was deposited in the British Museum Library.

Image 2 Trotsky lion

 Bolshevik propaganda painting showing Trotsky, depicted as a lion, destroying the counter revolution. This is the original of the image shown in grainy black-and white on the front over of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk. Image from:

As detailed on its front cover (along with a striking pro-Trotsky propaganda image), the book is dedicated to the memory of Trotsky, who was assassinated in August 1940. It was published by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) – a Trotskyist party founded in Sri Lanka in 1935. Several works by, or relating to, Trotsky were published by the LSSP, making Sri Lanka one of the main places to publish Trotskyist works at a time when they were banned in the Soviet Union. As noted by the editors of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk, Reisner’s civil war sketches were also forbidden in the Soviet Union during this period ‘for their unforgettable portraits of the civil war leaders murdered by Stalin.’ The chapter Svyazhsk was removed from later editions of Front – even those published as late as 1980 (X.950/14395).

4th international logo

 The logo of the Fourth International as printed on the inside-back cover of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk

Reisner undoubtedly provides a celebratory account of Trotsky’s role in the Svyazhsk campaign, but her piece was also chosen by the LSSP as a memorial publication for another reason. Trotsky and Reisner were close acquaintances, writing informally to each other in the decade after the October Revolution. The feeling of admiration was clearly mutual. In Trotsky’s autobiography My Life, published a few years after Reisner’s untimely death at the age of 31 in 1926, he described her as an ‘Olympian goddess’ who ‘combined a subtle and ironical mind and the courage of a warrior.’

Katie McElvanney, British Library – QMUL Collaborative PhD student


Larisa Reisner, Izbrannoe (Moscow, 1980). X.950/14395.

Larisa Reisner, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1928). 12593.l.24.

Trotsky, Leon, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, 1979). X.708/22026.


20 October 2016

In the service of the children of Serbia 1915-1947

In 1995 a tiny book of great significance for Anglo-Serbian relations was donated to the British Library. It is a brief account of the life of Florence Maw and a record of her years in Serbia and Yugoslavia from 1915 to 1953. The book was privately printed in London in 1957 and only three copies are recorded in British public collections.


 Florence Brereton Maw (1876-1953); front cover of Una P. Moffet, Lena A. Yovitchitch, Florence Maw: the chronicle of her lifework in Serbia. (London, 1957). British Library YA.1995.a.26004.

Maw was one among the hundreds of British women who volunteered their services for Serbian people in the First World War. She was a native of Cheshire, from a Quaker family, and during the war served as a member of the London-based Serbian Relief Fund, a charity formed in 1914 to provide humanitarian aid to Serbia.

This biography also sketches a portrait of Jean Rankin, Maw’s lifelong friend and collaborator, who was among the first to go to war-torn Serbia, whose people were in dire need of help. Rankin served as a trained nurse in the Serbian Relief Fund’s first hospital in Skopje in 1914, while Maw served as an orderly in the Fund’s third hospital in Kragujevac in 1915. They assisted soldiers and civilians affected by war and lived through the great typhus epidemic  Maw took part in the gruelling retreat of Serbia in 1915.

Although only a short biography drawing on a few surviving personal records, the book provides an insightful account of the work of the Serbian Relief Fund. Thanks to the generosity of the British people the Fund organised six hospitals for Serbia, looked after 65,000 Serbian prisoners of war, and supported the education of over 300 Serbian children in Britain, among other humanitarian efforts.

After the liberation of Serbia in 1918, the Serbian Relief Fund played a prominent role in bringing relief to the devastated country. Serbia lost over 22% of her pre-war population and up to 250,000 Serbian children were orphaned by the end of the First World War. In the aftermath of the war the Fund worked with the government of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to establish modern medical and social institutions primarily for the care of children, disabled war veterans and the sick people.

Funds raised by British children for Serbian orphans during the war were used for the creation and upkeep of an orphanage in the town of Niš in Serbia. In 1919 Maw was put in charge of this orphanage which, in the absence of any suitable housing, was accommodated in a dilapidated former poorhouse.

Maw Serbian orphans (1)Serbian orphans in countryside.  The Home’s annual summer camp was set up in the hamlet of Manastir in Sićevo, 20 kilometres east of Niš. From Florence Maw. 

As the work of the Serbian Relief Fund was ending in 1921, the Committee decided to invest the remaining funds in a purpose-built modern orphanage in Niš. Construction began in 1924 in the grounds of the St. Pantaleon Church, between the village of the same name and the Nišava River, two kilometres from the town centre. Maw closely supervised the building of the orphanage designed by Iulian Diupon, a Russian émigré architect.

Maw OrphangeThe Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home (Englesko-srpski dečiji dom), with British, Serbian and Yugoslav national flags flying. (From Florence Maw).

The Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home was built to accommodate 50 children and about six staff. It had a large open space around it with a garden, an orchard, and a large playground. Its inauguration on 7 November 1926 was a local and national event in the presence of Prince Paul and Princess Olga, government and church officials, British envoys and guests, and Church of England delegates. The Serbian Relief Fund was represented by Mrs Carrington-Wilde, a former president of its subcommittee for the education of Serbian children in Britain, who came from England for the occasion. She continued to visit the Home every two years on behalf of the Serbian Relief Fund estate. The Home was mainly funded by a proportion of the interest earned from the Fund’s final investment, deposited for this purpose in 1921. Other income came from donations from the local authorities, charities and people of Niš.

Maw and Rankin were responsible for the children’s upbringing, with a focus on discipline, practical training and traditional moral values. Children were brought up in the Orthodox tradition and religious holidays were observed according to Serbian and British customs. The children were directed according to their potential or abilities to apprenticeships, the army, engineering, nursing, commerce, teaching, law or religion. Maw was known in Niš and at the Home as “Sister Mother” (сестра-мајка), a term of respect used in Serbia for British nurses in the First World War. She had great authority over the children but never mastered Serbian and addressed her protégés only in English as “my child”.

The book finishes with a chapter on her precarious life under German occupation and the struggle to keep the children safe in the vortex of the Second World War. The Gestapo had taken possession of the Home and by the time the children were allowed to return at the end of 1944 the Home and its estate had been plundered and damaged, and the country was under the control of Yugoslav Partisans.

After the Second World War the communist authorities sought to undermine the Home’s strong link with the Serbian Church and to impose their own ethos and values. These pressures ultimately led to Maw’s and Rankin’s resignations and the handover of the Home to the city of Niš in 1946.

Maw and Rankin decided to retire on modest state pensions to a little cottage in Dubrovnik. In 1951 they made a final visit to Britain before returning to Yugoslavia. Rankin died suddenly in 1952 and only a few months later Maw passed away. Two of Maw’s devoted war orphans were beside her until the end.

Maw Retirement

 The cottage in Dubrovnik where Maw and Rankin lived in retirement from 1947 to 1953 (From Florence Maw).

In 1954 on the initiative of a former member of the staff of the Home, the Serbian Church had a marble plaque made with the following inscription: “To the Glory of God and in memory of Florence Maw and Jean Rankin who devoted their lives to the service of the children of Serbia, 1915-1947.”

Maw Anglo_Serbian Children_s Home 1926-1946

The Home today is a listed building widely known as “The English Home” (Енглески дом). Since 1965 it has been a hall of residence for High School Students. Photograph © Bratislav Arsić, 2016.

In 1953 the British authorities transferred the ownership of the Home to the Yugoslav authorities on two conditions: to serve its original purpose as a home for children, and to set up a Serbian Relief Fund commemorative plaque on a wall of the Home.

Maw Carrington Wilde

A 1938 bust by the sculptor Slavko Miletić of Mrs Carrington Wilde in front of the Home.The Serbian inscription reads “A great friend of the Serbian people.” The bust was removed from the courtyard in 1948 but reinstated in 2004.
Photograph © Bratislav Arsić, 2016.

The Anglo-Serbian Children’s Home is a lasting memorial to the work of the Serbian Relief Fund. It represents the outstanding achievement of a band of truly exceptional people who made a difference in the First World War. Its archives were destroyed in the Second World War, but we can assume that several hundred orphaned children were brought up by this institution from 1919 to 1946.

The Home will celebrate its 90th anniversary on the present site on 7 November 2016.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator Southeast European Collections

Further reading:

Francesca M. Wilson, Portraits and Sketches of Serbia. (London, 1920). 012350.f.15.

Simon Milčić. Engleski dom, kuća nade i ljubavi : svim domcima ma gde bili. (Niš, 2009).

Aleksandar Rastović, Marija Ranđelović. English-Serbian Children’s Home: 1926-2011. (Niš, 2014).