Russian revolutionaries in London, 1853-70: Alexander Herzen and the free Russian press - British Library Research Repository
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Russian revolutionaries in London, 1853-70: Alexander Herzen and the free Russian press

2002

Abstract

The opening passage of the section of Alexander Herzen's memoirs which describes his life in Britain reads: 'When at daybreak on the 25th August 1852, I passed along a wet plank on to the shore of England and looked at its dirty white promontories, I was very far from imagining that years would pass before I should leave those chalk cliffs ... The idea with which I had come to London, to seek the tribunal of my own people, was a sound and right one ... I had had my own people once in Russia, but was (now) completely cut off in a foreign land; I had at all costs to get into communication with my own people ... Letters were not allowed in, but books would get through of themselves ... I would print; and so little by little I set to work upon ... setting up a Russian printing-press.' With these words, Herzen not only embarks on an account of his life in England, but also, in effect, begins the history of Russian-language printing in London. This history is surprisingly short. In theory, the prospects for Russian-language printing in Britain were good. Russians have been present in England from as early as the twelfth century. Moreover, Heinrich Ludolf's Rossiiskaia grammatika (Russian Grammar), variously described as the first Russian grammar ever printed and the second book ever printed in the Russian vernacular language (the first being the Ulozhenie or Code of Laws)was printed in Oxford by Oxford University Press in 1696. Yet despite this, research to date has uncovered almost nothing printed in London in Cyrillic type prior to Herzen's arrival in Britain. On initial view, an English-Russian commercial dictionary, compiled by Adam Kroll and printed by Thomas Plummer of Seething-Lane in 1800, seems promising. However, a glance at the preface reveals that the cited purpose of the work is 'to enable the English trader to render himself intelligible to the Russian, without having to resort to ... the laborious and difficult task of learning the RUSSIAN characters, which would appear so formidable to his imagination, that he would be deterred from making the attempt'. The preface goes on: 'to obviate this difficulty, the Author has substituted ENGLISH Characters, in a manner that he conceives ... will enable the Reader to speak plain enough for a RUSSIAN easily to understand him'. And indeed, the Russian words have been transliterated into Roman characters.

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