Biographical details
from S.M. Stepniak - Krachvinskii, the London years, by Donald J. Senese, 1987
and Notes on the firm of W. M. Voynich, by Herbert Garland, 1932

You will find here some biographical details on Voynich, mainly derived from S.M. Stepniak - Krachvinskii, the London years, by Donald J. Senese, Oriental Research Partners, 1987. (The main Senese's source is: E. A. Taratula, Etel' Lilian Voinich : sud'ba pisatelia i sud'ba knigi, Moscow, 1964; I have access to this book, but i am unable to translate it).

Topics :
- Dates and places
- Ethel Voynich and her work for Free Russia
- Voynich and the Russian Free Press Fund
- The personality of Voynich
- Voynich, books and money
: probably the first contacts between Voynich, books, and the business of bookseller.

On dates and places

Ethel Lilian Boole was introduced to Kravchinskii, the Russian revolutionary leader in 1886.

"Born near Grodno in 1865, Voinich was almost a generation younger than the other members of the Fund. He had worked for two years with the Polish revolutionary party, Proletariat, until his arrest in Warsaw in 1886. After 18 months in the citadel in Warsaw he was exiled to Irkutsk where he met Kravchinskii's sister-in-law Praskov'ia Karaulova who persuaded him to escape to England(1). He arrived in London in October 1890. Shortly afterwards (n.d.r.l.: 1893), he married Lilly Boole who was to loyally second him in all his disputes with the other fundists." p.81.

Between 1890 and 1894, he was directly involved in the political activities of Russian refugees in London, under the leadership of Stepniak - Kravchinskii, who founded the SFRF (Society of Friends of Russian Freedom) and the RFPF (Russian Free Press Fund).

On Ethel Voynich and her work for Free Russia

Free Russia devoted two or three pages in every issue to translations from recent Russian fiction, chosen for its social commentary.

" The translations were the work of Ethel Lilian Boole. She married Michael Voinich in 1893 and wrote henceforth under her married name, E.L. Voynich. She is chiefly remembered for The Gadfly a novel which enjoys a far greater vogue in Russia than in the West. Charlotte Wilson introduced her to Kravchinskii in 1886, and he taugh her Russian in an astonishingly short time. She spent almost a year in 1887-88 in Russia, where she travelled in the company of Fanny Kravchinskaia 's sisters and was drawn into the periphery of the revolutionary movement. A stern and humorless woman, she was nonetheless a great favorite of Kravchinskii, who nicknamed her "Bulochka" (2). She was a tireless worker for Free Russia. Editing, translating, and, to Volkhovskii's annoyance, meddling in the most important policy decisions (3). After her marriage to Voinich she regarded herself as a participating member of the RFPF. As the resident translator of Free Russia she was charged with translating Kravchinskii's Chego nam nuzhno and Zagranichnaia agitatsiia into English. Even apart from her work on Free Russia, her career as a translator was supervised and directed by Kravchinskii. He provided introductions to her very popular collection, The Humor of Russia, and her Stories from Garshin; and after his death she published a collection of poems by his favorite author, the Ukrainian, Shevchenko.". p.59.

On Voynich and the RFPF

" In June 1891 Kravchinskii, together with four other émigrés, Volkovskii, Chaikovskii, M.V. Voinich, and L.E. Shisko established the Russian Literary Fund, soon renamed the Russian Free Press Fund (Fond vol'noi russkoi pressy) (4) . Krachinskii viewed the Fund as the Russian counterpart to Free Russia. Because of the censorship, he believed that most Russians were scarcely more aware of the true state of affairs in Russia than were the English (5). The task of the RFPF was to dispel this ignorance." p.72.

" Shishko was immediately accepted as a full-fledged participant in the councils of the RFPF. This situation provoked the resentment of Michael Voinich, the fifth of the original fundists , who keely felt he was being treated as an outsider(6). Voinich's resentment is understandable, for even to an unprejudiced eye it would appear that Shishko was very ill-equipped to make any useful contribution to the work of the fund…Voinich summed it up, " He's a nice fellow, but not of this world "(7)" . p.73.

On Voynich' personality

" Voinich was a capable and energetic man. No one ever criticized his efficiency in managing the Fund's business. However, he has serious personality flaws which almost immediately caused friction with the others members of the RFPF and eventually forced him to resign from the organization. He regarded himself just as much of a theorist as Volkhovskii or Chaikovskii and chafed at being relegated to handling the more mundane side of the Fund's affairs. The older fundists, especially Volkhovskii, treated him as mere apprentice, immature and unsuited for the serious task of shaping the Fund's policy(8). Secondly, Voinich was by all accounts insufferably brash and rude. There was something about him that caused everybody to bridle at his presence. He made two trips to the continent in search of support for the Fund, and each time only managed to further alienate Lavrov and Plekhanov, a fact duly noted by the Russian secret police (9) ". p.81.

On Voynich, books and money

" The stock of books which was assembled at the Fund's offices at 15 Augustus Road in Hammersmith reflects in its composition the vnepartiinyi character of the Fund's appeal…Beginning with writings of K. R. Ryleev and others Decembrists, the stock catalogue was a reading list for the history of the 19th century revolutionary though…". p.75.

" The RFPF was relatively successful as a business operation. In their desire to widen their activities, the fundists frequently complained of lack of money; but the income of the RFPF consistently exceeded that of the SFRF, rising from almost nothing in 1891 to a peak of 427 pounds for the year 1895(10). The most profitable enterprise of the Fund was the sale of books which provided approximately one third of the total income. " p.80.

" The first business manager of the Fund was Michael Wilfred Voinich ". p.81.

"Late in 1894 Voinich left the RFPF, apparently taking a list of the Fund's correspondents with him, and established the Bookseller's Union (Soiuz knigonosh). Voinich wrote that the Soiuz knigonosh was a "repudiation of the narrowly-nationalist and narrow party views " of the Fund. Its task would be " the transmission of literature in Polish, Armenian and Jewish and designed for everyone - Stundists, politicals, etc. (11) " . Actually he envisioned something quite similar to the RFPF but on a vastly larger scale. Since he had no money and the help of only his wife, the sole accomplishment of the Bookseller's Union was the printing of a single prospectus." p.81.

This was probably the first contact between Voynich, books, and the business of bookseller.

Herbert Garland, who joined the Voynich's firm as a cataloguer, in Shaftesbury Avenue, between 1909 and 1916, write (12): "His career as a politician does not belong to this article, but it is relevant to mention that he afterwards made an important collection of literature connected with the Polish revolutionary movement, including some very rare proclamations of the 1849 period, which is now in the library of the London School of economics."

Voynich became finally an antiquarian bookseller about 1897, on a suggestion of Dr. Richard Garnett, as related by Herbert Garland. Some clues of his reputation and success are mentionned in his article. In his catalogues, " he employed a method which he never gave up, even after he ceased to issue printed catalogues. Its main characteristic was that every book, whether of great or small importance, was described with a wealth of bibliographical detail, far more than has hitherto, or has since, been attempted in a sale catalogue". (He created added value and strengthened the link between the book and the client). " Voynich was one of the first booksellers, who periodically and systematically...made personal visits to the Continent which extended into the remoter parts of France, Spain and Italy" (He offered a large choice of books)." The eight of his first series of catalogues, issued in 1902, wa of "lost books", that is books of which no other copy was known. It aroused considerable interest and the collection was purchased en bloc by subscription, and now reposes in the British Museum as the "Voynich" collection" (great sense of sensational marketing). "He was also the first to establish branches of his business abroad " (mondialisation and multinational firm).


Notes :

1: Obznor vazhneishikh doznanii po delam o gosudarstvennykh prestupleniiakh peoizvodivshikhsia v Zhandarmskikh Upravleniiakh Imperii (1885), p.66; (1887), p. 173; (1891), p.23. E. A. Taratula, Etel' Lilian Voinich : sud'ba pisatelia i sud'ba knigi (Moscow 1964) pp. 81 -83.

2 : E. A. Taratuta, pp. 20-40.

3 : E. A. Taratuta, p. 290.

4 : Free Russia (Aug. 1891), p.15.

5 : Free Russia (Janv. 1892), p.10.

6 : E. A. Taratuta, p. 291.

7 : E. A. Taratuta, p.94.

8 : E. A. Taratuta, pp. 290-291, note.

9 : Report of P.I. Rachkovskii to the Department of Police, Oct. 18, 1895, quoted in E. A. Taratuta, p. 287. Note : Rachkovskii was appointed the chief Russian agent in Paris and Geneva, in March 1885. He headed the operations of the Russian secret police abroad until 1902, then he felt in disgrace.

10 : Letuchie listki izdavaemye Fondom Vol'noi Russkoi Pressy v Londone, Nº 36 (Dec. 23, 1896), pp. 12 -14.

11: E. A. Taratuta, p. 117.

12 : "Some Famous English Bookshops, III -Notes on the firm of W. M. Voynich", Herbert Garland, The Library World, vol.34, April 1932, pp. 225-228.


May 24, 2003; updated June 15, 2003.