As several readers quickly guessed, last week’s crocodile image was a photograph of a Russian edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The “ghost” type in the image is due to a glassine (translucent paper) jacket around the volume, which obscures the printed text of the cardboard cover below. This edition was translated by Modest Tchaikovsky (dramatist, librettist, and brother of the Romantic composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)1, and published in 1914 by I. N. Kushnerev, a long-running publishing firm (and the first publisher in Moscow to acquire a linotype machine, in 1903).2
You’ll notice in the full view that there is additional text printed on the glassine jacket. It translates loosely as “Proceeds from the sale are being donated to benefit the suffering Belgians,” referring to the Belgian refugees displaced by German invasion in August 1914, around the time this book was produced.
The invasion of Belgium, a country designated as neutral for decades through the 1839 Treaty of London, by the German army in August 1914 was one of the first major events of the World War I. It sparked waves of anger across the western world at the disregard of an international treaty, and sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Belgians displaced from their homes.3
Russia joined the world in this outpouring of sympathy and support, and the Belgian plight was a major theme in Russian visual and performing arts communities. The invasion was depicted by Russian cinema in films with evocative titles such as The Belgian Lily and German Barbarians in Belgium, and one circus even produced a routine showing “the deluge of Belgium.”4 Belgian suffering was commemorated in poetry and on postcards, a broad range of media which “indicates that kaiser-bashing and sympathy with Belgium were popular among all strata of society,” even at a time when tension between Russian social classes was running high (and would lead to the Russian Revolution just three years later).5
A number of books were also produced to express sympathy for or raise money for Belgian refugees. The most famous is probably King Albert’s Book, a multinational “tribute to the Belgian king” published by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. However, a number of smaller books were produced in multiple countries. This volume of sonnets appears to have been produced for regular sale—perhaps even in Germany, with whom Russia enjoyed a thriving trade exchange—not long before the invasion of Belgium, and repackaged with its added glassine jacket to raise funds as news began to spread of the Belgian refugees.
The bookseller’s label inside the back cover of the volume is from a shop in Petrograd, as the city of St. Petersburg was renamed on September 1, 1914. Together with a handwritten inscription on the title page dated 1915, this suggests that the volume of Sonety was for sale during the fall of 1914.
As war broke out across Europe and revolution stirred in Russia, we can only hope that readers of this volume found comfort—or at least a momentary distraction—in Shakespeare’s lines.
- I’ve used the more common (Roman) spelling of “Tchaikovsky” for both brothers here, but you may notice that in our catalog, the composer appears as “Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich,” while his brother appears as “Chaĭkovskiĭ, Modest.” These are the forms in which their respective names were established in the Library of Congress name authority file (a central database of established forms for personal, corporate, and family names, to which the Folger contributes), and a result of the varying practices in transliterating Cyrillic characters into the Roman alphabet. Since there is no one-to-one match between Cyrillic and Roman characters, variants spellings are common—for instance, Cyrillic characters Ч and Ш represent sounds that take multiple Roman characters to express: Ch (or sometimes Tch) and Sh, approximately. The Library of Congress produces standardized Romanization tables for working with resources and names in non-Roman alphabets, but established names sometimes deviate from those if they were created early in the authority file’s existence, or if a name or term is known commonly with a particular Roman spelling, such as Peter Tchaikovsky.
- Koenker, Diane. Republic of Labor: Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), page 31.
- Exact counts vary, but most sources place the number of Belgian refugees from the German invasion at around one million.
- Jahn, Hubertus. Patriotic Culture in Russia During World War I (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pages 88, 160-165.
- Jahn, page 173.