Connections with the past : provenance and the August Slavonic items of the month


Dedication to Michel Fokine.

Three recent acquisitions – The Russian theatre (New York, 1922), Bonfire : stories out of Soviet Russia (London, 1932), and A history of Russian literature (1927)  – bear marks of provenance that make their addition to the Library’s collections particularly valuable.  The first, for example, contains a lengthy dedication to the Ballets Russes choreographer Michel Fokine from theatre producer Morris Gest.

Oliver M. Sayler’s The Russian theatre is a much-expanded version of an earlier work, The Russian theatre under the Revolution, and covers theatrical work in late Imperial and early Soviet Russia as well as Russian theatre in other countries.  On the flyleaf in our copy (at Syn.5.92.110) is the following text:

To Michel Fokine, To whom America and in fact the whole world is indebted for his great artistry and for his genius which spoke the first word for Russia to America through his great creations of the Ballet Russe. For myself I shall always cherish the moments of our association and always be proud of knowing you! Affectionately, Morris Gest

Michel Fokine (1880-1942) was an massively influential choreographer best known for his work with the Ballets Russes, all of whose earliest performances he choreographed.  While the company continued to perform his works throughout its existence, the deterioration of relations between Fokine and Diaghilev (the founder of the Ballets Russes) caused the former to sever his connections with the company within only a few years of its formation in 1909.  By the time Morris Gest wrote his dedication in The Russian theatre, Fokine was in the United States.  The American National Biography Online’s entry for Fokine provides the connection between dedicator and dedicatee.  Fokine choreographed the ballet sections for Aphrodite and Mecca, two “oriental extravaganza[s]” produced by Gest.

The University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center holds the Morris Gest Collection, and their front page for the collection contains interesting details about Gest’s own life.  Gest was, as Fokine, born in the Russian Empire – in modern-day Lithuania.  At the age of 12, he emigrated alone to the United States.  The extraordinarily self-reliant and enterprising Gest (the Mishka Gershonovitch who had set out from Vilnius had adopted an American name) eventually built an impressive career in theatre production.  Working with Fokine was only one example of the many times that Gest involved Russian artists.  He brought, for example, the famed Moscow Art Theatre over for several tours.

The bookplate in S950.d.9.279.

Bonfire : stories out of Soviet Russia contains dozens of short stories by a total of 24 Soviet writers.  The University Library’s copy (S950.d.9.279) contains the pretty bookplate as well as the confident signature of a previous owner – Monja Danischewsky.  The bookplate (shown to the left) also has worked into it the name “Brenda”, Danischewsky’s wife. Monja Danischewsky was a scriptwriter, whose output included the script for Toptaki.  Danischewsky was, again like Fokine and Gest, of Russian origin.  Born in 1911, he was brought out of Russia in 1919 when his family fled the civil war.  The Library holds Danischewsky’s autobiography White Russian–red face at 9415.c.878.  Bonfire : stories out of Soviet Russia was put together by Serge Konovalov, of Birmingham’s Russian department, and includes one story (‘The cave’ by Zamiatin) translated by Prince D.S. Mirsky, a copy of whose A history of Russian literature is the last of the three recent acquisitions.

This was one of Mirsky’s landmark works – and this copy (at S950.d.9.278) contained a handwritten letter from him.  The Oxford DNB article on Mirsky is written by G.S. Smith, the author of his biography (757:67.c.200.1).  Also an Russian emigre (born in modern-day Ukraine) – the emigration necessary both through his own career as a White officer but also through his father’s work as a government minister in Imperial Russia – Mirsky was an extraordinary philologist whose books on Russian literature remain key reading to this day.  He worked at the School of Slavonic Studies, as it was then called, in London from May 1922 for nearly 10 years.  His association with the School ended in connection with a fact that seems extraordinary on the face of it – the White Army prince had become a Communist and applied for (and been granted) Soviet citizenship.  In September 1932, Mirsky moved to the Soviet Union, where his new-found political zeal could not quite erase the Soviet memory of his background.  The Stalinist purge of 1937 would claim him; he died in Siberia in 1939.


The letter from Mirsky found in S950.d.9.278.

The letter is dated 22 April 1930 and contains Mirsky’s very positive responses to editorial feedback.  “I was sure the book was too long,” he writes, “& I was precisely expecting you to tell what parts should be best compressed.  There will be no difficulty in doing that.”  Mirsky writes from the Hotel Littré in Paris and suggests a meeting at his editor’s club in London on the 29th (whether or not lunch might be included isn’t mentioned; Mirsky was an infamous gourmand).  It isn’t clear about which new book or edition Mirsky and his editor (Mr Burdett) are in correspondence, nor can we be sure that the letter always belonged in this book.  Nevertheless, the letter itself is a remarkable addition to our collections – a palpable connection to a fascinating figure.  The letter is now in the safe hands of the Manuscripts Department, at MS Add. 9750/269.

Were the letter from Mirsky not enough, this copy of A history of Russian literature also contains the signature of a previous owner – the renowned artist R.B. Kitaj, a Jewish-American painter with East European roots.  The Oxford DNB article on Kitaj details his work and life (the Oxford Art Online article on him has more on the former and less on the latter), with Kitaj’s painful departure from England – where he had lived for decades – back to the United States discussed in some detail.  The book in hand would most likely have been acquired and then later left by Kitaj during his long sojourn in this country.  His connection to the UK continues not only in the great number of his works in art museums (the Royal Academy alone holds 179 pieces) but also in the vast tapestry reproduction of his complex If not, not which hangs in the British Library’s lobby.

Mel Bach

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