A recent Russian arrival to the University Library takes as its subject tourism in the Soviet Union. Skvoz “zheleznyi zanaves” : See USSR! : inostrannye turisty i prizrak potemkinskikh derevenʹ (Through the Iron Curtain : See USSR! : foreign tourists and the spectre of Potemkin villages; C215.c.1563) is by Igor’ Orlov and Aleksei Popov. Visitors to the Soviet Union normally saw the country in carefully choreographed tours arranged by the state agency Intourist. Such control made sure that the tourists saw strictly what they were meant to see, hence the mention in the book’s titles of Potemkin villages – shorthand for ensuring that appearances support the desired narrative (the term comes from Catherine the Great’s favourite, Potemkin, pulling the wool over her eyes by assembling fake village fronts during a tour).
Later this week, on 19 and 20 April, the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, will hold an international conference in Cambridge on The People’s Art School and Unovis in Vitebsk. Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, was the home of an extraordinary avant-garde art school at which Marc Chagall (the town’s most famous son), Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitsky taught. Many of the artists at the school joined the art union UNOVIS, set up by Malevich. Unovis stands for Utverditeli novogo iskusstva (Champions of the New Art).
Among the early Soviet treasures in Catherine Cooke’s collection in the University Library is a small and fragile Unovis publication dating from January 1921 and described as the union’s second publication or edition. On its cover is Malevich’s famous Black Square, with the words “Let the overthrow of the old world of arts be traced out on the palms of your hands” written above it. The booklet has four sections in it (NB the links below are to Russian Wikipedia entries for the authors):
On its back cover, the booklet ends with an exhortation: “Comrades! Get ready for the all-Russian spring exhibition of ‘Unovis’ in Moscow”.
Lithographed on poor-quality paper, the booklet is a rather miraculous survivor. According to the WorldCat and COPAC union catalogues, Cambridge is unique amongst major Western collections in having a copy. The title can be accessed through the Rare Books Reading Room. Its classmark is CCC.54.464.
A few spaces remain at the conference this week. For those interested in attending, please see this page for joining details.
Last month, the CamCREES Revolution lecture series audience enjoyed a beautifully illustrated talk on Soviet porcelain. Petr Aven spoke about the development of porcelain work in the Soviet Union, with examples from his own superlative collection. This blog post looks at the collection’s staggering 3-volume catalogue, generously presented by Mr Aven to the University Library after his talk. The subject of porcelain as a medium for Soviet propaganda is fascinating, and the catalogue is an exquisite and important addition to the Library on the topic.
Among the February 1918-related exhibits soon to be added to the University Library’s Revolution exhibition is a letter from Leon Trotsky. The letter came to the Library as part of the papers of the Conservative politician, Sir Samuel John Gurney Hoare (1880-1959), second Baronet, and first and last Viscount Templewood. Hoare was in Russia as an intelligence officer in 1916, and his interest in the country continued long after his departure. Quite how this letter, which is dated 27 February 1918 and refers to the work of the agent Bruce Lockhart, came to be amongst Hoare’s papers is only one of its mysteries.
The December 2017 item of the month was held up in the post, so with apologies here is a lovely festive card sent on 20 December 1967 to celebrate the incoming new year.
In the Soviet period, Christmas played a much-diminished role – new year celebrations took on much of Christmas’ character and iconography, and New Year’s Eve remains the main time for present-giving in much of the former Soviet bloc to this day. In the card above, we have Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) being ferried by a troika of horses, with the Kremlin star shining in the background.
This lovely card was sent from Nizhnii Tagil, a town in the Sverdlovsk Region, to the small Norwegian town of Vikersund. The fact that the Russian sender had a personalised stamp for his details (a sign that he was well established), bottom right, made me hope that he and the recipient might be traceable – and so it turned out to be the case.
Rudol’f Kopylov was an artist and Thor Skullerud was a pharmacist – what linked them appears to have been bookplates. Kopylov specialised in the production of ex-libris and Skullerud was an avid commissioner of them. For readers of Russian, here is more about Kopylov in connection with an exhibition of some of his works in 2014: http://www.shr-ekb.ru/exibitions.php?exid=144; for all, here is a link to some of the bookplates he produced which commemorate the poet Sergei Esenin: http://www.esenin.ru/esenin-v-izobrazitelnom-iskusstve/ekslibris/kopylov-r-v Skullerud is harder to pin down in terms of biographical details, but here are some of the ex-libris he had made for him: http://art-exlibris.net/person/1922 It would seem that several of his bookplates are now in the Rijksmuseum, but copyright sensitivity prevents the museum from providing images: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search?q=skullerud
Somewhere, presumably, there is a bookplate designed by Kopylov for Skullerud to be found, but I have yet to track it down. Ex-libris are the subject of many books in the UL. A search for the subject bookplates will provide long lists. Among the results will be a formidable Russian publication which lists all bookplates found in the holdings of the rare books department of the Gosudarstvennaia publichnaia istoricheskaia biblioteka (the State Public Historical Library). Listed by name of owner, the set has covered only three letters of the alphabet and already stands at four volumes. Once complete, it will be an extraordinary resource. It can be consulted via the West Room and stands at 874.d.70-73.
Happy New Year to all our readers.