H is for Sven Hedin

Sven Anders Hedin (1865-1952) was a Swedish geographer and travel writer who led four major expeditions into Central Asia. He was an excellent draughtsman and a more than competent photographer who illustrated his own books. The Sven Hedin Foundation says of him personally that he “still evokes many different memories and feelings” meaning you can find as many people who like him as loathe him. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Germany in the Second World War, and used his contacts with leading Nazis to rescue many of his friends from concentration camps. Over to you.

photo of Hedin c.1910 by R Duhrkoop

Why would an English bookseller who reads not a word of Swedish buy nineteen Swedish language Sven Hedin first editions from a Fakenham auction? The answer is indeed obvious. I made a staggering profit and haven’t lost all of it by going back there in the misguided hope that lightning might strike twice in the same place. They were also very attractive and books do furnish a room. Here is Hedin’s most famous book.

And below by way of balance is the titlepage of what is arguably his most offensive book (though there is a wide range of choice). Sweden’s good fortune, you might think, was to have stayed out of the First World War. But not if you’re Sven Hedin. In his view, Sweden’s Woe, which is how the title translates, was to have failed to secure its racial future by fighting at Germany’s side. “Our front is directed against Russia,” he writes – for 734 pages. See Sarah Danielsson’s Explorers Road Map to National-Socialism.

Which is about all I want to say about this brilliant but decidedly unpleasant man. What I want on to focus on next is a Russian explorer, then little known in western Europe, who was introduced – to a Swedish audience at least – by Sven Hedin.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Mercifully the binder chose to retain the original paper cover and use it as an additional frontispiece. The book was published in 1891 before Hedin was known outside Sweden. Later his books were published in Germany. Later still they were published in London and New York. But his book on Nikolai Przhevalsky (the usual spelling – though don’t murder me if you’re Ukrainian) was published in Sweden only.

The Russian general, here depicted in the actual frontispiece of Hedin’s book, was born in Smolensk in 1839 and died in 1888. He undertook four major expeditions across the Gobi and towards Tibet, finding the source of the Yellow River, but never quite reaching Lhasa. He identified vast quantities of flora and fauna including the famous horse that bears his name and a Bactrian camel that also bears his name.

Przhevalsky is a man well worth studying though he deserves a more serious context than this one. Here I’m going to conclude with an urban myth that gained a deal of traction in the Soviet era – that Stalin was Przhevalsky’s illegitimate son. Look at the picture Hedin used as a frontispiece. Then look below. There is a likeness, isn’t there?

Edward Radzinski in Stalin in The Washington Post quotes a correspondent writing to him, “Even in his lifetime, when people vanished for a single wrong word about him, he was openly spoken of as the illegitimate son of the great Przhevalsky. These stories could go unpunished only because they had approval from on high. It wasn’t just his hatred for his drunken father, but a matter of political importance. The point is that he had, by then, become Tsar of all Russia. So instead of the illiterate Georgian drunkard, he wanted an eminent Russian for his daddy.”

There is an element of truth in this. Stalin was none too keen on detailed study of the early life of Iosif Dzhugashvili (as he was born) or the activities of Koba (as he was known by other revolutionaries before 1912). Iosif was altogether too Christian and middle class while Koba had a complex relationship with the Tsarist secret police. Young Stalin definitely attended a seminary and many people think he was an informer.

But a famous father could do him no harm and might enhance his standing. So Stalin did nothing to dispel the rumours. Przhevalsky was portrayed on a Soviet era postage stamp and in many encyclopaedias. The artists emphasised his likeness to Stalin.

Satire was a different matter. Enter Vladimir Voinovich, anti-social element and writer of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. Chonkin talks about Stalin’s origins while satirising the idiocies of the Stalinist regime. The book was published in West Germany in 1969 and circulated in Russia as a samizdat. An English language edition is still in print. In 1974, with the Politburo taking a tougher line on dissent, Voinovich was thrown out of The Soviet Writers’ Union. In 1979 he was exiled.

So pervasive is the myth Voinovich created that you can find it on Trip Advisor – “Someone in our group commented that during their visit to Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, this rumor that Stalin was Przhevalsky’s father was also mentioned. Then someone else in our group pulled up images from Google comparing a young J. Stalin to a young N. Przhevalsky. There is a slight resemblance. These descriptions made the monument more meaningful to me. Otherwise, if I had visited on my own, it would have been just another monument, as there are no English signage anywhere. Nikolai Przhevalsky’s tomb is behind the monument.” Sic transit gloria mundi. Poor Przhevalsky to be remembered for nothing more than a faint resemblance to Stalin. Below is Przhevalsky’s monument in St Petersburg. Go to Trip Advisor for photos of his tomb.

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