Monthly Archives: November 2013

Emphasis is placed upon destruction

Quai d'Orsay

The French foreign ministry building on the Quai d’Orsay

There are sensible times to destroy archives. In 1940, for example, the German army was advancing on Paris, the secretary-general of the French foreign ministry, Alexis Léger*, had all the ministry’s current records burned. This creates a bit of a problem for me, as a historian of French mandate Syria, because it means all the records of the 1930s negotiations in Paris between the French government and Syrian nationalists over Syrian independence are missing—but I can see that it made sense at the time. The war ministry took no such action (I wonder if this is because the general staff was packed with collaborationists-in-waiting, while Léger was a known anti-Nazi whose French citizenship would be revoked by the Vichy government); as a result, it saw its archives looted by the Germans, who carted vast quantities of militarily sensitive documentation back to Berlin, from where the Red Army looted it in 1945. Forty thousand boxes of material were returned in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, but an unknown quantity remains in Russia.

Chateau de Vincennes

The Château de Vincennes, Paris, HQ during the 1940 campaign and site of the defence ministry archives today

Britain had different reasons for destroying archives. The policy of archive destruction that was implemented extensively across British colonies as they approached independence, in the period after 1945 , aimed to whitewash the historical record, to ensure that anything that might like the retiring colonial master look bad (and there was plenty of it) shouldn’t fall into any, well, black hands. Or those of future historians. Plenty more material—1.2 million files—was repatriated, but withheld from the national archives.

There’s an article about it in yesterday’s Guardian, and a slightly earlier comment piece that’s worth reading by Richard Drayton.


*Under the pseudonym St-John Perse, Léger also wrote poetry: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1960.

Click images for source

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Histories of the supernatural

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera PoncianistaAutumn term round table
Histories of the supernatural

Friday 6 December, 2–5pm
(coffee and cake served from 1.45)
Muirhead tower, room 118

Please email Ben White to confirm attendance, just to help us plan the catering.


Rhodri Hayward (Queen Mary)
Confronting the luminous raccoon: historical writing and the problem of the supernatural

David Gange (Birmingham)
Religion and the rise of magic, 1890–1910

Isak Niehaus (Brunel)
Witchcraft and the South African Bantustans: evidence from Bushbuckridge

This promises to be a lot of fun…

Click image for source, which is Cornell University Library’s splendid collection of images The Fantastic in Art & Fiction. This grinning gentleman is by Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), and his title is Calavera Poncianista.

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Week 9 seminar

Our seminar this week is by our new colleague Su Lin Lewis, who’ll be presenting a paper entitled Sex and civil society in Asian port-cities, 1910–1940. Details below; as ever, all are welcome, and there’ll be drinks.

Lewis poster

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There had been one other letter in Mr Crouchback’s post, which saddened him though it presented no problem. His wine merchants wrote to say that their cellars had been partly destroyed by enemy action. They hoped to maintain diminished supplies to their regular customers but could no longer fulfil specific orders. Monthly parcels would be made up from whatever stock was available. Pilfering and breakages were becoming frequent on the railways. Customers were requested to report all losses immediately.

—Guy Crouchback’s father in Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh, afflicted by the pilfering of British railway workers during the second world war. To hear about their French counterparts at the same time, come along to our seminar tonight with Ludivine Broch.

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Escaping Cilicia

5. Mersina from the sea, close up

This is the eastern Mediterranean port of Mersin, seen in about 1898—the photo’s from the Library of Congress, and they’re a bit unclear about the date, as you’ll see if you click it for the source.

In the aftermath of the first world war, the region of the Ottoman empire that the port serves was occupied by French forces, who hoped to include it in the territories they were administering under a League of Nations mandate. For over two years after 1919 they occupied the zone, which they termed Cilicia (like most places it has a number of different historic names). They also turned it into a destination for Armenian genocide survivors in Syria: some were from there originally, others were sent there in the hope that they’d be able to proceed back to their homes elsewhere in Anatolia. But sustaining the occupation in the face of military opposition from the Turkish nationalist movement and increasing unrest among the mostly Muslim civilian population proved beyond French capabilities, and in 1921 they came to an agreement with Ankara to end the war and withdraw. This raised the question, which the French foreign ministry tried its hardest to ignore until very late in the day, of what to do with the 60,000 or so Armenians who were resident in Cilicia.

I wrote a blog post about this on the Saving Humans blog earlier in the term, and I’m giving a seminar on it this Thursday, 21 Nov, as part of the Eastern Mediterranean seminar series at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies. Details of time and venue are here. If you’d like to find out more about what happened, do come along!

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Week 8 seminar, and some other events

Our week 8 seminar speaker is Ludivine Broch of Birkbeck (and, this year, the European University Institute). All details as usual; poster below, with a particularly striking image this week!

Broch posterThere are a couple of other events taking place this week that you may also be interested in. On Thursday, the History of Medicine seminar welcomes Elise Smith (Oxford):

Slide1In inadvertent competition with that, on the same evening the Eastern Mediterranean seminar series at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies is operating at the modern end of its expansive time period, with a seminar on the French withdrawal from Cilicia and the evacuation of its Armenian population in 1921; post about that coming up tomorrow.

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Late Soviet Armenia

In our week 7 seminar today Jo Laycock will be telling us about dilemmas of humanitarianism in early Soviet Armenia. So it struck me that a post on late Soviet Armenia might be in order, especially as we’re coming up to the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Spitak earthquake. Mikhail Gorbachev’s formal request to the USA for humanitarian assistance in the wake of this hugely destructive earthquake was the first such request made by a Soviet leader since the second world war: it’s a late cold war example of humanitarian disasters leading to temporary relaxing of suspicions between mutually hostile states (cf. the Greek-Turkish earthquake diplomacy of a decade later). In the end over a hundred countries provided humanitarian assistance.

alexandropol_engravingThis image, from the Armenian architecture website Virtual Ani, shows the city of Alexandropol in the 1870s, with the church of the Holy Saviour dominating the skyline. By 1988, tsarist Alexandropol had become the Soviet city of Leninakan and the same church was surrounded by poorly-constructed apartment blocks. Here’s a picture of the church after the earthquake from the US National Geophysical Data Center’s natural hazards image database:

Holy Saviour church in ruins

Collapse of Church of the Holy Saviour of All, Leninakan, Armenia
C.J. Langer, U.S. Geological Survey

The church now stands in the Armenian city of Gyumri, and has largely been reconstructed—Virtual Ani has more, and Wikipedia has a detailed page on the 1988 earthquake. But tonight we’ll be hearing about an earlier period in Soviet Armenian history.

Click images for source


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Week 7 seminar

Our seminar speaker this week is Dr Jo Laycock (Sheffield Hallam), who’ll be giving a talk entitled ‘Saving the remnant or building a Soviet state? The dilemmas of international humanitarian intervention in early Soviet Armenia’—please do join us. Time and place as usual; poster below.

Laycock poster


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Big city street life

On the Guardian website today they have some pictures by John Thomson, the Edinburgh-born pioneer of street photography. There’s a topical picture of the day, of bonfire night in 1876 (fireworks are going off in the distance as I write this, unless it’s the kids upstairs stamping about) and a gallery of photos from the famous series he published with Adolphe Smith, Street life in London—a copy of the book has just gone up for sale at auction. (It first came out as a series of monthly magazines.)

A Boatwoman, by John ThomsonBut Street life in London was far from being Thomson’s first major work: for most of the decade from 1862 to 1872, he was living and working across east Asia, initially as an instrument-maker but then as a photographer. Wikipedia has these understated words about his exploits:

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals.

A Knife-grinder, by John Thomson

As these pictures of a boatwoman and a knife-grinder show, Thomson had plenty of experience of street photography before he returned to Britain and settled in London. But he’d also picked up some experience that would serve him in his later career as a portrait photographer in Mayfair (he got a royal warrant in 1881). This image, for example, shows Mao Changxi, a senior Chinese minister who appears to have a pretty diffident attitude to the camera:

Mao Changxi, by John ThomsonThese images are from the Wellcome Collection, which has a fine selection of Thomson’s Chinese photos to explore here. There’s a web resource at the National Library of Scotland, too, related to a past exhibition—but the photos there are a bit too small to appreciate. It’s a pity, as they include this beautiful land-and-seascape, which I’ve left small so it doesn’t appear too pixellated.

A Canton Junk, by John ThomsonNow there are fireworks going off on the back green, so I’ll leave it at that.

Click images for source — the higher-res Wellcome Collection images are released under a Creative Commons licence


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I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty recently—not a history book, not a novel, but something in between. (Much more interesting than most history books, but with more footnotes than most novels that aren’t by David Foster Wallace.) It’s about the Soviet economy in the years around 1960, and it’s a lot more fun than that sounds.

One of the settings for the book is the Siberian science town of Akademgorodok (‘Academytown’), founded outside Novosibirsk in the 1950s by the Soviet Academy of Science. Here it is at the planning stage:

Akademgorodok, opening

The town is outside the city of Novosibirsk, and is formally a part of it. When it was being built, different disciplines squabbled bitterly over who would get which building: ‘Cytology and Genetics itself obtained its premises by seizing, one weekend, a facility promised to the Computer Centre, and the Computer Centre nearly lost its next earmarked site as well, to an opportunistic grab by a group researching transplant surgery.’


And the many advantages that the academics enjoyed meant that their Siberian neighbours weren’t always helpful: ‘Envy of the town’s material privileges was a factor in the unhelpfulness of the city government of Novosibirk [sic] over such issues as the water supply. At one point, the city stole an entire trainload of supplies earmarked for Akademgorodok, and Academician Lavrentiev, the de facto mayor, had to ring Khrushchev personally to get it back.’ (Spufford, notes to p. 151—his main source for all this is Paul Josephson’s New Atlantis Revisited).

The place went into a tailspin after the Soviet period but—as some of the references to the Wikipedia article show—has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub, a kind of Silicon Forest.

Akademgorodok, 21st centuryIt has something of a web presence, from the unexpected photos of sunbathers and sailing boats on on TripAdvisor that came up when I looked on Google images (they’re on the Ob Sea, a large artificial lake, and resort, next to the town) to the excellent Facebook page that I got these images from. That’s well worth a look, even if like me you speak no Russian. It has lots of archival photos and other resources, including this short cine-film tour, with its er delightful backing music:

And there’s Spufford’s own website for the book, linked at the top of the page, which includes his travel notes from a research trip to Siberia in 2006. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy in reading week, you could do a lot worse than spend a bit of time in high Soviet Siberia.

Click images for source

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