RUSSIA, CRIMEA AND UKRAINE IN THE 1930s: RECENT WOLFSONIAN ACQUISITIONS
LIBRARY OBJECT(S) OF THE MONTH:
Party to USSR / Intourist State Tourist Company
Anti-Communist propaganda poster
Each morning I have been listening to the news on NPR concerning the dangerously tense relations between Ukraine and Russia following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and escalating threats of secession and defection of pro-Russian provinces in the Eastern Ukraine. And so it seemed only appropriate to focus today’s blog post on a recent acquisition that deals with those regions during the era of the Soviet Union.
Even before the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi provided Russia with some positive PR quickly lost after their intrigue in Crimea, the library had purchased a brochure published by the state-run Intourist Company authorized to organize tours of the U.S.S.R. for foreigners in the 1930s.
Published in English and designed for an American audience, the booklet opens with photographic illustrations of American tourists posing in the Kremlin, Red Square, and other popular sites in Moscow.
The booklet then focuses on other popular destinations within the Soviet Union, including the former Winter Palace and the fountains of Petershof in Leningrad.
But what was of real interest to me as I catalogued the brochure and created the metadata needed to digitize it was the section on “The Ucraine.”
This section of the booklet describes the “industrial cities of Charkow, Dnjepropetrowsk, the cultural centre Kiev, the port of Odessa, the picturesque scenery of the Dnjepr Rapids” as “important stages of a journey through the Ucraine.” Among the highlights not to be missed on a tour through the Ukrainian capital city of Kharkov were the Museum of the Free Ukraine, the Museum of Ukrainian Arts, and the Ukrainian Revolutionary Museum, as well as the Palace of State Industry, a modern fourteen-story building erected in 1928.
Kiev is described in the 1930 booklet as home to “510,000 inhabitants, the mother of Russian cities, the cradle of mediaeval Russian culture” and “one of the most interesting cities in the Soviet Union.”
Dnepropetrovsk is described as being the “most important industrial city” in the Ukraine, hosting the largest iron works in the USSR, many large factories, and a short distance from the “largest water power station in Europe” under construction at that time.
The Soviet booklet describes Crimea, situated on the Black Sea, as the “Peninsula of Wonders” on account of its “natural beauties and historical relics.” Traveling by rail from the North, the traveler will first encounter Bachtchissaraj, the first “oriental” city, complete with narrow streets, the minarets of mosques, and the Tartaric Khan’s castle. A journey by rail of an hour and a half brings the tourist to Sebastopol, a city of 70,000 inhabitants and the naval port on the Black Sea. The Historical and Revolutionary museums attest to the besieged city’s importance during the Crimean War (1854-1855). Crossing the Tauric Mountains, the traveler arrives in Yalta, described in the brochure as the “Pearl of the Russian Riviera.”
Blessed with a mild climate, Yalta had been a favorite beach resort of the imperial court, though in the Soviet era, the Czar’s luxurious palace, Livadia and the castles of the aristocracy had been converted into “reconvalescent homes and sanatoriums for workmen and employees.” In Massandra, Crimean wines were stored in “extensive subterranean cellars” while the nearby Nikitski Gardens boasted as being one of the foremost botanical gardens in the world.
The warm water port city of Odessa is also briefly described in the guide-book, with mention of the 142-metre-long “broad marble steps” leading down to the harbor constructed between 1837 and 1841. The boulevard steps were made infamous by director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) in the Soviet Propaganda film Battleship Potemkin (1925), when he staged a scene in which Czarist troops march down the stairs, shooting down civilians. During that scene, a dying mother inadvertently knocks her baby’s carriage headlong down the steps in one of the most famous–and copied–moments of cinematic history.
Film stills courtesy of: http://www.lassothemovies.com/battleship-potemkin/
In reality, the massacre on the steps never happened, but were included in the film by the director for its obvious dramatic effect. Some years later, Dutch anti-Communist propagandists turned the scene on its head by publishing a poster reversing the roles in the infamous scene. The poster, recently added as a promised gift by museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. depicts robotic Red soldiers descending the stairs to the bottom, where a woman lies dead and her infant cries inconsolably from within an overturned baby carriage.
Over the last few weeks, the Potemkin steps have again become the scene of conflict (so far bloodless) as pro-Russian agitators attempted to plant a Soviet flag above the stairs, only to have some Ukrainian nationalists tear it down and stage their own pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.
Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, Sunday March 9, 2014 (Photo courtesy: AP)
One can easily see from these historical documents just how important the industrial, cultural, port, and resort cities of Crimea and the Ukraine were to the Soviets and why both the Ukrainians and Russians are determined to hold onto them.