Slavonic item of the month : February 2014

Pesenka shkol'nogo uchitelia (CCD.54.315)

Pesenka shkol’nogo uchitelia (CCD.54.315)

Russia’s recent PR hasn’t been good, despite (and sometimes because of) the Sochi Olympics.  Sochi itself was even the location of the Putin/Ianukovych meeting often considered the catalyst for the shocking events we have seen unfold in Ukraine.  So what did the Olympic opening ceremony have to say in favour of Russia?  Rather a lot.

The Sochi 2014 opening ceremony did not attract total approval.  Many news sites and commentators focused on the failure of the fifth snowflake to turn into an Olympic ring (a technical failure nicely taken off in the closing ceremony held last night, with a will-it/won’t-it sequence mirroring the original).  Many also focused on the surprising/unsurprising involvement of Alina Kabaeva, rumoured to be Putin’s partner, in the finishing stages of the torch relay.  Others, though, found more interesting food for thought.  This University of Nottingham blog post, for example, looks at the way in which the ceremony’s representation of Russian history and culture played to domestic and international audiences.

The ceremony opened with the azbuka, the Russian alphabet.  Each letter was paired with someone or something related to it, even if not always straightforwardly (the use of Pushkin for the letter ъ (the hard sign, a letter whose use was significantly curtailed by the early Soviet orthography reforms but which had previously been very common (Pushkin’s own name would have ended with it during his lifetime)) was a bit of a stretch).  The azbuka sequence works well as a section to look at in more detail, since its make-up is representative of the broader issues of a ceremony which celebrated Russian history and culture – including the choices the organisers made about what to include.

Many of the subjects of the azbuka were obvious, reflecting the ceremony’s emphasis on Russia’s huge contribution to literature, music, and art and also her contribution to science, particularly in terms of space exploration (G for Gagarin, etc).  Some of the subjects were less obvious, and particularly for the non-Russian audience.  The letter Ë, for example, stood for Ezhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the fog), a hugely popular Soviet cartoon.  As one would expect from any list compiled with such a huge ambition of representation, certain inclusions and exclusions were notable; it would have been fascinating to have heard the discussions which led to the final choices.  Once the sequence had started, one wondered, for example, if S might go to Stalin or to Solzhenitsyn (it went to Sputnik).

In total, it gave the impression of huge pride.  Yes, there were issues of selective memory, but certainly for this viewer it stood up as a celebration of the many great things which are too often forgotten in favour of the negative publicity modern Russia tends to attract.  Among the figures it celebrated was Tchaikovsky (strictly transliterated as Chaikovskii, but usually referred to with the standard anglicised Tchaikovsky version).  He was paired not with the letter which begins his name (Ч) but the one which ends it (й).  His inclusion was not notable in terms of his importance as a composer, but it was potentially (if possibly just my own interpretation!) notable given the issue of his probable homosexuality.  It might be that the organisers are among those who dismiss the discussions of Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation as totally false, or it might not – but nevertheless the inclusion of his name (not, in fact, the only one in the azbuka who is thought to have been gay) is simply a celebration of the delight his work has brought to Russian and global audiences for over a century.

The Slavonic February item of the month is a music pamphlet by Tchaikovsky called Pesenka shkol’nogo uchitelia (Little song of the school teacher; CCD.54.315) dating from 1930.  It features an excerpt from the opera Cherevichki, based on a Gogol short story, and has been adapted for a piano accompaniment.  It comes from the UL’s peerless Catherine Cooke collection.  Catherine, who died ten years ago this month, in February 2004, collected both material which was about architecture and design and also examples of design – and this little pamphlet is likely to have been procured with the latter in mind.  Its front cover, a photo of which accompanies this piece, is attributed to an artist called Boris Titov, and is a lovely specimen of good design and careful printing.


The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

 Mel Bach

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