Russian

"Losing a Country, Finding a Home"

Stanley Rabinowitz is Professor of Russian at Amherst College and director of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture. At its core is what was once the West's largest private collection of Russian books, periodicals, and archives. It encompasses thousands of books, nearly four hundred boxes of manuscripts, letters, and records, and hundreds of drawings and artifacts. Rabinowitz describes it quite simply as something that "mirrors the full scope of Russian intellectual and artistic achievement in modern times." Its periodicals, he says, provide "a running chronicle" of the political, social and cultural history of those blown to far corners of the world in the wake of the revolution of 1917 — the entire Russian diaspora brought together.

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The man who devoted 25 years of his life to gathering together all the pieces of this stunning record of a culture in exile — and to rescuing it from oblivion — is today regarded as something of a legend, a hero, in scholarly circles throughout Russia, Rabinowitz says. The story of how this vast collection found its way to a small, liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts has much to do with that man and his vision — and something to suggest as well about the appeal of the Five College community.

Rabinowitz recalls a day in June, 1989, when he received an unexpected phone call from Thomas P. Whitney inviting him to lunch at his Washington, Connecticut farm. "I had no idea why Mr. Whitney wanted to see me," he says, though Whitney, an Amherst alumnus (class of 1937), had been supportive of Russian Studies in the past, and two years before, Rabinowitz had contacted him when the Department of Russian at Amherst was about to acquire an extensive collection of Russian emigre literature from the estate of former University of Massachusetts faculty member Yuri Ivask, a prominent literary critic, scholar and poet. The heirs wanted the collection to remain in the Valley and Whitney had advised at the time that it was a very fine collection, one he wished he had bought himself.

Whitney has a distinguished reputation as an observer of Russian life and spent many years in Moscow during the 1940s and '50s as an official with the U.S. Embassy and as an Associated Press correspondent. His fascination with Russian culture would subsequently result in a collection known to many as The Whitney Russian Collection.

But that, says Rabinowitz was not on his mind as he drove down to Connecticut on a June day. Just before lunch, Whitney offered Rabinowitz a tour of his collection, then being housed on the grounds of his family homestead in a 19th-century barn restored for this purpose. "I was overwhelmed by what I saw there," Rabinowitz recalls, "so when he asked me, straight out, why it should go to Amherst, I began by giving him all the reasons it shouldn't — an undergraduate institution, lack of sufficient staff, having to re-invent the wheel." But then, he says, "I began to think out loud in a different vein: a strong community of Slavists in the Valley, a vibrant program of Russian Studies at Amherst, the prospect that undergraduates would have access to what's often available only to graduate students and established scholars — and the Five College area, which is an appealing place for scholars to come to work."

Whitney phoned Rabinowitz once again in early July with his decision: "Everything rings the right bells," he said. He had decided that the collection should go to Amherst, he said, because "I've always believed that these things ought to be available for use where they can be appreciated — not just by scholars but by students." While he conceded some sentimental leanings to his alma mater — his father and two of his children had attended Amherst — he was also persuaded, he said, by the fact that the Russian departments at the Five Colleges were of high quality and might "all get together behind the enterprise." Above all, he hoped that the collection might become a magnet for Russian culture through the creation of a center that would be "not a museum, but something vital that will enrich the entire community" and attract scholars from all parts of the world. Although he declined to have it named for him, Whitney was delighted, Rabinowitz says, with the prospect that the collection could, in this context, retain its autonomy and identity.

This extradordinary collection now makes its home in Amherst's Center for Russian Culture. Basically, explains Rabinowitz, it is a library of three kinds of materials: periodicals, books, and archives. The periodical materials he characterizes as "very special," containing "complete or long runs of Soviet publications through the current year, as well as runs of scores of emigre newspapers and journals published not only in Europe and North America, but also in China, Australia, and South America."

The 15,000 books in the collection, he says, represent many different areas of creative output, with particular focus on late 19th-/early 20th-century culture. Especially rich in the literature of the Russian emigration, the library contains hundreds of first editions published in Prague, Paris, Constantinople, Berlin, Shanghai, and other cultural centers as well as some 1,500 books, largely poetry written by emigres and many autographed or inscribed by their authors, who include Nabokov as well as avant-garde writers of the "Third Wave." Rabinowitz calls it simply "one of the largest repositories of Russian emigre poetry in the world." Here, too, are books by early 20th-century Russian avant-garde figures such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Remizov, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh — whose creations are by design both art and literature — a kind of "jewel in the crown" of the Whitney collection. "Many of these were hand-made and published in tiny editions," Rabinowitz explains, "often containing stunning graphics."

The archives are largely concerned with Russian literature. Among the manuscripts are unpublished works and correspondence of such writers as Boris Pilnyak, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, Alexei Remizov, and others.  The key to the meaning of the entire collection, Rabinowitz believes, lies in the writings of one of Russia's most gifted intellectuals, Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), who corresponded with many of the major artists and writers: "They tell us what it was like to be intensely engaged in Russian politics, culture, literature, and art but simultaneously excommunicated from them."

A portion of the endowment provided by Whitney to support the maintenance of the collection also contains funds for programming and acquisitions, both of which he considered vital: "My hope," he told Rabinowitz, "is that the collection will be a living thing — that it will grow in quality and that, as it does, it will draw attention from inside Russia, too."

Collections of this magnitude, says Rabinowitz, often remain inaccessible for many years as they're being catalogued, so there's often a real hiatus after such a donation is made. In this case, however, his intention has been to make it known and used as widely and as quickly as possible. The center was officially opened in September, 1992, launched, fittingly, in conjunction with an international symposium on Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, organized by Amherst Professor of Russian Jane Taubman and Senior Lecturer Viktoria Schweitzer. The first in a series of ongoing exhibits featured selected materials from the collection, including a rare letter (1853) of Tsar Nicholas I, the only known document in the Tsar's hand in this country. In subsequent years, there have been concerts of Russian music and, in the fall of 1994, a major exhibition on "Theater as Spectacle: Early Twentieth-Century Russian Set and Costume Design." 

The establishment of the center came at a critical juncture. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent passing of the Cold War, a great sense of dislocation has taken hold in Russian Studies in this country, Rabinowitz observes. After all, he asks, "How many fields have lost a country?" With this implosion has come a drop-off in interest in Russian nationwide: fewer students taking language classes, less interest in the social sciences and fewer undergraduate majors. Students who go into the field of Russian studies these days, Rabinowitz believes, do so largely because the opportunities for work and travel in Russia are greater now than ever. And those that have access to a collection such as this, he points out, will be far better prepared for that kind of immersion experience.

Russian culture is enjoying a Renaissance among Russians — they are "flocking here to imbibe this collection," says Rabinowitz. In that confluence of conflicting currents, he believes, lies the strongest argument for having a Russian cultural center of this magnitude in our midst, and having it so broadly accessible: "It has the potential to reinvigorate American interest in Russian culture even as it helps Russians discover a rich cultural heritage that's been lost to them for nearly 70 years."

 

Webster Hall