The Whitney Gift

Through the generous gift of Thomas P. Whitney '37, Amherst College acquired in 1991 what has generally been considered the West's largest private holding of rare Russian books, manuscripts, newspapers, and periodicals. Formerly housed in a three-story converted 19th-century barn in Washington, Connecticut, the collection took almost fifty years to assemble and represents the breadth and depth of Russian cultural achievement in modern times. Professor Stanley Rabinowitz, who is curator of the collection and director of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture, has coordinated the formidable task of sorting out and prioritizing the prized material in the collection, which is a kind of mirror that reflects what Russian intellectuals were doing in the Soviet Union and all over the world for over seventy years. In all, the materials donated by Thomas P. Whitney  (1917-2007) cover every aspect of modern Russian culture, with a particular emphasis on the emigration. The language used throughout the collection is for the most part Russian; however, documents written in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Chinese, and English are also represented. The material can be categorized into every subject area of the humanities, and besides the kinds of materials listed above, there are also galley proofs, wallets, memos, photographs, menus, leaflets, broadsides, diaries, and personal effects of every conceivable kind. One need not go elsewhere to get the entire picture of 20th-century Russian — especially emigre — life, from the mundane to the spectacular, from laundry lists to grand works of art.


The periodical collection is very special. Here are located complete or long runs of Soviet publications through the current year, as well as complete or long runs of scores of Russian emigre newspapers and journals published not only in Europe and North America, but also in such faraway places as China, Australia, and South America. The many rare and unique periodicals and newspapers will be of considerable value to specialist researchers. These publications include complete runs of the two most important journals of the Russian emigration — Sovremennye zapiski (Annales contemporaines, published in Paris from 1928-1940) and Novyi zhurnal (The New Review, published in New York from 1942 to the present). Of special note as well are such rarities as Evraziya (Eurasia), the Paris weekly published in 1928-1929 by some of Russia's leading emigre intellectuals, which exists in the collection in perfect condition, Zhar-ptitsa, Apollon, Mir iskusstva, and Zolotoe runo.


The collection contains nearly 15,000 books representing all areas and schools of Russian creative activity, with a particular focus on early 20th-century culture. Soviet period fiction and non-fiction, poetry, prose, and art and architecture are featured here, as is the rich literature of the Russian emigration. In the latter category are contained hundreds of first editions published in Prague, Paris, Constantinople, Berlin, Shanghai, New York, and other cultural centers.


Of special note is a collection of nearly 1,500 books of Russian — largely emigre — poetry (most autographed or inscribed by the author), which was assembled and sold by Dmitry Tarasenkov, the son of a prominent Russian literary scholar and bibliophile. There are many first editions here, ranging from Sirin (Nabokov) to the very latest works of the avant-garde writers of the "Third Wave" who publish in very small editions. Combined with the Ivask Collection of Russian Emigre Poetry, purchased by the college in 1987, the Tarasenkov Collection makes Amherst College one of the largest repositories of Russian emigre poetry in the US. The "jewel in the crown" of the Whitney library is a truly magnificent collection of books by early 20th-century Russian avant-garde writers and artists (e.g. Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Rozanova, Remizov, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh) whose creations are by design both art and literature. An expert who has recently examined this collection claims: "there probably is none like it in the United States, in private hands." Often the fruit of collaboration between writers and artists, these books, many of which were hand-made and all of which were published in tiny editions, often contain stunning graphics. The art section of the library (1,000 volumes) contains a very rare early 18th-century lectern Bible with typographical decorations and rich engravings, as well as several folios and elephant folios of considerable value. An especially scarce set is Grand Duke Nikolai's Portraits Russes des XVIIIe et XIXe Siecles, published in 5 volumes between 1905 and 1909. If this set weren't valuable enough in its own right, the copy in Whitney's collection originally belonged to the Russian artist and scenic designer Alexander Benois (1870-1960), who penciled in on virtually every page of text his own comments, annotations, and corrections! Other sections of the library include the categories: books about books, history, philosophy and the sciences, stage (containing works on theater, cinema, music, and dance), and reference.


The third and unquestionably most exciting part of the Whitney Russian Collection is the archives which are contained in 400 banker's boxes and which are mostly connected to Russian literature. The manuscripts are often those of unpublished works, or of variant versions of published ones, or correspondence between writers. In these categories are found documents by such notables as Vasily Kandinsky, Boris Pilnyak, Ivan Bunin, Ilya Ehrenburg, Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksei Remizov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, and Marina Tsvetaeva. An especially striking feature of this collection is an archive of manuscripts, writings, and correspondence by Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945). This critic, poet, and thinker was not only one of the most gifted Russian intellectuals; she also corresponded with many of the major talents in exile. Her archive tells us exactly the same lesson as does the entire collection about the Russian expatriate community: What it was like to be intensely engaged in Russian politics, culture, literature, and art but simultaneously excommunicated from them. Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris Pasternak is also amply represented in the collection by hand-written drafts of almost a dozen poems as well as several letters of considerable importance. The archives in the collection feature thousands of photographs and an equal number of autographs of prominent, even famous intellectuals in and out of Russia, and not of  Russians exclusively. Contained in this part of the collection is the virtually complete archive of the above-mentioned Novyi zhurnal (The New Review). There are dozens of boxes of unsolicited submissions as well as corrected and revised manuscripts of the hundreds of Russian writers who have published in the journal during most of its almost 50-year history. Additionally, the journal's archive includes the vast correspondence of Roman Goul, an important writer and thinker, and editor of the journal from 1959 to 1986.