In the course of the past three centuries, publishing and literature played a significant role in the cultural lives of Russians who had the privilege of literacy. This exhibit displays the variety of publications produced in Saint Petersburg from its founding in 1703, and provides the background for this exhibit. Not only did publications include histories, poetry, prose, drama, religious texts, and city plans, but works were translated from other languages into Russian, Russian works were published abroad in other languages, Russians wrote books about their exotic eastern neighbors, and their Slavic neighbors to the west wrote about them. Books and publishing showed Russia to the world and taught the world about Russia.
Between the reign of Peter the Great and the beginning of the twentieth century, French was the language at court, and royalty traveled frequently to Europe. By the 1890s it was typical for all students of means who had finished a course of study to spend time in European cities such as Paris, Berlin, or Munich. Most returned bringing with them broader and more avant-garde approaches to art and literature, many of which are reflected in this exhibit.
The Silver Age and its aftermath were characterized by experiments and innovations in the worlds of art, literature, music, theater, and dance, both separately and in combination with one another. Poets were artists, artists were set designers, journal editors were theatrical impresarios, and choreographers were caricaturists.
By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, many different literary movements were active in Russia, among them Symbolism, Acmeism, and Futurism. All had strong proponents and were manifested in book design as well as in writing. These new schools of thought generally did not prevent artists from publishing with one another, or in collaborating in other ways; nor did all artists join a specific group.
Although the revolution eventually caught up with the artistic freedom that characterized the first two decades of the twentieth century, it took close to a decade for Communism to successfully redefine the role of art and suppress those who didn’t support this redefinition in the new Russia. Those artists and writers who remained in Russia and survived the privations following 1917 continued to create, but in many cases suffered, or even died, for that right. Despite the fact that many of these artists’ lives were prematurely cut short, their works survived and are their legacy.
It was clear to me when I began to assess our holdings for this exhibit that we certainly had enough material to display. Surprising to me was the concentration of early twentieth-century publications from Saint Petersburg, many of which I had not seen before. The collection was built through purchases from booksellers who understood the value of literature from this period, such as Israel Perlstein, our exchange partners in the former Soviet states, such as the National, State, Academy of Sciences, and History Libraries, and through the overwhelming generosity of donors, such as Irwin T. Holtzman and Professor Fan Parker. Our collection is so rich that in the United States our early twentieth-century holdings rival those of the New York Public Library, the Harvard University Libraries, and the Library of Congress.
I would like to thank University Librarian William Gosling and the University Library for making this exhibit possible, the remarkable Laurie Alexander, Assistant to the University Librarian, Tom Hogarth and Leyla Lau Lamb, Sandy Ackerman, Becky Dunkle and Tom Hubbard for saying yes to everything, Alan Pollard for his excellent work and scholarship in the North Lobby exhibit, Karl Longstreth for his contributions to both exhibits, and each and every staff member in the Special Collections Library and the Slavic and East European Division, without whom this exhibit would never have been realized.
Janet Crayne, Curator