Slavonic item of the month : August 2014

In August 1914, Germany and Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia, and the bloody Eastern Front of the First World War opened. The war saw a great deal of propaganda on all sides, some surprisingly humorous. We look at a mischievous pamphlet from Petrograd (renamed from the Germanic “Sankt-Peterburg” that same month) about Kaiser Wilhelm.

Front cover of N.A. Ratomskii's Chto dumaet Vil’gel’m kogda emu ne spitsia? (CCC.54.469)

Front cover of N.A. Ratomskii’s Chto dumaet Vil’gel’m kogda emu ne spitsia? (CCC.54.469)

Imperial Russia’s involvement in the First World War was disastrous, seeing the deaths of millions of soldiers and eventually the empire’s own demise too. The bloody Eastern Front opened after Russia’s incursion into Galicia with the Battle of Tannenberg, a battle lost so catastrophically by the Russians that their commander, Aleksandr Samsonov, chose to commit suicide than face the Tsar.

Anti-German sentiment was at fever pitch in Russia, and in August 1914, the empire’s capital, Sankt-Peterburg (St Petersburg) was renamed Petrograd to be more Slavic. The University Library has about 30 publications printed in 1914 with the place of publication given as Petrograd. Among these is Chto dumaet Vil’gel’m kogda emu ne spitsia? (What does Wilhelm think about when he can’t sleep?; CCC.54.469), by N.A. Ratomskii.

Written in verse and highly illustrated by ‘A.Ia.’, it pokes extremely satirical fun at the Kaiser, who is shown on the front cover cowering in fear at the devil, surrounded by delighted imps. Its opening lines show Wilhelm tossing and turning in his bed, waiting for morning and thinking about his life – ‘nothing but sins, all sins!’. One of its illustrations shows the Kaiser staring aghast at a map of Europe on which he cannot find Germany.

There is no Germany on it! No Germany!
On the left, he sees French control,
And beyond, the Belgians,
On the right and below – Russian control.
Where is Germany? Where?!

On the back cover, other books from the same stable are mentioned (including Vil’gel’m sumashedshii (Wilhelm the Mad), listed there as forthcoming, but not to be found in library catalogues). The University Library’s fragile copy of Chto dumaet Vil’gel’m, part of the peerless Catherine Cooke collection, is the only one in the country.

The book’s illustrator is identified only by the initials A.Ia., leading, it would seem, to a dead end. This, though, is where the Library’s reference collection comes into its own. Our 1956-1960, 4-volume copy of Ivan Masanov’s Slovar’ psevdonimov russkikh pisatelei, uchenykh i obshchestvennykh deiatelei (Dictionary of pseudonyms of Russian writers, academics and public figures; in the Reading Room at R756.45) has an index in volume 3 specifically dedicated to artists. A.Ia. is listed there, with the artist’s name given as Aleksandr Ianov, and the supplementary 4th volume also provides his patronymic (Aleksandrovich) and date of birth (1887).

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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