From the mundane to the spectacular—from laundry lists to grand works of art—the Amherst Center for Russian Culture highlights nearly every aspect of modern Russian culture, with a particular emphasis on emigration in the 20th century.

History and Overview

Thomas Whitney Thomas P. Whitney (1917-2007)

The Amherst Center for Russian Culture (ACRC) was founded in 1991 by Amherst College alumnus Thomas P. Whitney, class of 1937, a diplomat, journalist, translator, author and collector of Russian manuscripts, rare books, journals, newspapers and art for over 30 years. The ACRC’s operating costs come from Mr. Whitney’s initial endowment and are supplemented by funds donated by generous alumni and friends of Amherst College.

Since 1998 the Center has been located on the second floor of Webster Hall, adjacent to the Amherst College Russian Department. The Center includes a two-floor reading room and an art gallery. Manuscripts (and some books) are largely stored in the Center’s storage facility, located in the basement of Webster Hall.

In 2000 Whitney made an additional gift to Amherst College: his extensive holdings of twentieth-century Russian art. Intended to join the already functioning ACRC (with its substantial library of books on the subject as well as a gallery built to display some portion of these holdings), the art collection is curated and administered by the College’s Mead Art Museum, where it is permanently housed.

Mission and Collection Development

The centerpiece of the ACRC is Whitney’s collection of largely, but by no means exclusively, émigré Russian materials. His intention was that the ACRC preserve and document the Russian heritage contained in these materials and also build the collection along the lines of his specific interests: 20th century Russian literature (especially poetry), history and culture. Recent acquisitions have focused most heavily on the “third and fourth waves” of Russian emigration (beginning in 1970) and include more materials from Russia and the former Soviet Union than had been previously represented in Whitney’s library.

While the collection was envisaged to serve as a rich source of information for domestic and international scholars in the field of Russian studies, Whitney was mindful of the undergraduate setting of the ACRC and hoped that future activities, including new acquisitions, would take into consideration the pedagogical needs of Amherst College and its surrounding four institutions (Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, and UMass-Amherst) of higher learning. All collections of printed materials are processed and made available to enhance the ACRC’s mission to serve the scholarly and research disciplines—of literature, history, art, political science and religion—related to Russia and the former Soviet Union.

The Whitney Gift

Russian Collection

Amherst College acquired in 1991 what has generally been considered the West’s largest private holding of rare Russian books, manuscripts, newspapers and periodicals. Also included are galley proofs, memos, photographs, menus, wallets, leaflets, broadsides, diaries and other personal effects of every conceivable kind. Formerly housed in a three-story converted 19th-century barn in Washington, Connecticut, Whitney’s collection took almost fifty years to assemble and represents the breadth and depth of Russian cultural achievement in modern times. In all, the materials donated by Whitney cover nearly every aspect of modern Russian culture, with a particular emphasis on emigration, and can be categorized into every subject area of the humanities. 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.

Periodicals

The periodicals collection includes 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 in Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australia. The many rare and unique periodicals and newspapers include complete runs of the two most important journals of the Russian emigration: Sovremennye zapiski (Annales contemporaines, published in Paris from 1928-40) 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 1928-29 by some of Russia’s leading emigre intellectuals, which exists in the collection in perfect condition, as well as Zhar-ptitsa, Apollon, Mir iskusstva and Zolotoe runo.

Rare Books

Russian Collection

The rare book 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, art and architecture are featured here, as is the rich literature of the Russian emigration, including 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 émigré—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. The collection includes many first editions, ranging from Sirin (Nabokov) to the very latest works of the avant-garde writers of the “Third Wave,” published in very small editions. Combined with the Ivask Collection of Russian Émigré  Poetry, acquired in 1987, the Tarasenkov Collection makes Amherst College one of the largest repositories of Russian emigre poetry in the United States.

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 and Kruchenykh) whose creations are by design both art and literature. 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, which 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 books about books, history, philosophy and the sciences, stage (containing works on theater, cinema, music and dance), and reference.

Archives

The third and unquestionably most exciting part of the Whitney Russian Collection is the archives, contained in 400 banker’s boxes and 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 one of the most gifted Russian intellectuals and corresponded with many of the major talents in exile. Her archive tells us 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, yet simultaneously excommunicated from them.

Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris Pasternak is also amply represented in the collection, with 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 1959-86.

For more information, contact the director, Professor Catherine Ciepiela. Comments and questions welcome.


Portrait of Stanley Rabinowitz

Related Reading

Professor Stanley Rabinowitz recalls how an unexpected phone call led to Amherst acquiring what is generally considered the West’s largest private collection of rare Russian books and materials.