‘Seeing, handling, turning the pages of a first edition of Pushkin or Dostoevsky or Akhmatova is compellingly — even magnetically — engaging,’ states Chicago lawyer and renowned collector of Russian literature Robert Eden Martin. ‘Books are the lifeblood of our cultural heritage.’
The collector likens the first edition of a great story or poem to ‘a new-born infant at the earliest stage of its cultural life.’ A first edition of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila, he says, ‘has a fascination about it as great as one of the Wright brothers’ early airplanes, or the first Apple I assembled circuit boards.’
The sale of R. Eden Martin’s Collection of Russian literary first editions and manuscripts in London on 28 November is, says Christie’s specialist Sven Becker, ‘the most important to take place outside of Russia since the Diaghilev-Lifar auction more than 30 years ago. This is almost certainly the last great private collection of Russian literature to come out of America, and one of the last opportunities to acquire genuine rarities in this field.’ Here, we present 10 highlights.
1. A rare CIA-sponsored first edition of Doctor Zhivago in Russian
Documents declassified in 2014 revealed that the CIA sought to embarrass the Soviet government by facilitating the publication of Boris Paternak’s (1890-1960) novel, and by distributing copies to Russian visitors via the Vatican Pavilion of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The blue linen covers of the CIA-sponsored first edition were found littering the site of the event, made famous by the specially commissioned construction of the iconic Atomium. Some of those who acquired copies ripped off the covers and divided the pages, to make it easier to hide in their pockets. This copy was previously in the collection of the Library of Congress.
2. The first edition of Nabokov's valuable Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland
Produced in 1923, while Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, this faithful yet imaginative version is one of the most successful renderings of Alice into another language. Nabokov later attributed an invitation to teach at Wellesley College in part to the fact that the college had this book in its Lewis Carroll collection.
3. The first appearance of any part of The Master and Margarita with contemporary typescript inserts restoring the censored text
This rare survival is a remarkable reminder of the risks that Russian writers took in keeping the flame of subversive thought alive under a repression regime. Mikhail Bulgakov’s (1891-1940) explosive critique of Soviet society could only be published long after his death, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and the relaxation of state control that followed had taken root.
4. The first edition of Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in contemporary cloth binding
Arguably the most attractive surviving copy of ‘the most magnificent novel ever written’ (according to Sigmund Freud), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) works were typically issued in sober cloth bindings during his lifetime. This colourful and decorative binding, however, is otherwise unrecorded, and may have been commissioned by the publisher for presentation.
5. The first edition, in the original wrappers, of the first part of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s masterpiece
This publication marks the first appearance in print, in original wrappers, of the opening chapter of arguably the most important work in Russian literature, making it a bibliographical rarity of the highest order. N.P. Smirnov-Sokol’skii, the legendary collector of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), remarked, ‘In all my time collecting [...] I have not been able to find an example in original wrappers of the first edition of Chapter I.’
6. The first edition of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina, in a contemporary cloth binding
‘As art, it is perfection,’ declared Dostoevsky, who felt that there was nothing in European literature that could be compared with Anna Karenina. There is no record of another copy in contemporary cloth binding ever having been offered at auction.
7. The first edition of the very first Russian homoerotic novel
The Russian Revolution of 1905 forced Nicholas II to endorse a parliamentary system, and to abolish practically all pre-emptive censorship of the press. A generation of gay and lesbian authors seized the opportunity to describe their thoughts and lives more openly — chief among them Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), the most vocal and prominent gay writer in Russia at that time. There is no record of a copy of Wings. A Tale in Three Parts having been previously offered at auction.
8. The first edition of the debut book by Russia's greatest 20th-century poet
In the first decade of the 20th century, Osip Mandel’shtam (1891-1938) maintained a correspondence with Viacheslav Ivanov, who at the time was regarded as the uncrowned king of Petersburg poets. ‘Your seeds have lodged deep in my soul and it frightens me when I look at the enormous shoots coming out,’ Mandel’shtam wrote on 20 June 1909. As well as letters, Mandel’shtam sent his early poems to Ivanov, asking for advice about what to do with them.
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9. Tsvetaeva expresses her thoughts on Pasternak, ‘the best lyrical poet of our time’
Autograph manuscripts by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) are very rare, with only two lots having been offered in past auctions. In 1935 she wrote a letter to the Russian writer Nikolai Tikhonov, thanking him for encouraging her to contact Boris Pasternak. ‘It troubles me that everything which is to me right, is to Boris sinful and diseased,’ she continued. ‘I cried because Boris, the best lyrical poet of our time, betrayed lyricism in front of my very eyes, calling himself and everything within himself diseased. (Let him claim the high ground [...] but what he does not say is that this disease is dearer to him than health itself).’
10. An early corrected typescript of Akhmatova’s masterpiece, Poem Without a Hero, inscribed by the poet
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century, presented this inscribed copy of her greatest poem to her friend, the composer Aleksei Kozlovskii. Akhmatova began work on Poem Without a Hero in 1940, completed much of it while in Tashkent — where she met Kozlovskii — and continued reworking it into the 1960s. Corrected typescripts from the 1940s are very rare — the Pushkin Museum’s jubilee exhibition dedicated to Akhmatova featured various corrected typescripts, but all dated between 1955 and 1963.