Library and Archives
Library and Archives

Judaica part 1 — Russians, Soviets, and Jews

The Intelligentsia and the Culture of Adversity

Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection

One sizable resource in the archives related to modern Jewish culture is the Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman collection of materials on Russian literature. For many years, the Holtzmans have collected manuscripts, signed first editions, and memorabilia relating to the Russian writers Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel, and Joseph Brodsky, all of whom were of Jewish origin (although Pasternak later converted to the Russian Orthodox faith). At present, the Holtzman collection in the Hoover Institution Archives runs to more than 150 manuscript boxes, and increments continue to be added to the collection.

Although Pasternak, Babel, and Brodsky have always been considered Russian Jewish writers, the Jewish dimension of their work has recently come into focus, especially in the case of Babel, who fought on the Bolshevik side in the Russian Civil War, concealing his Jewish identity while serving in a Cossack unit. Babel became famous for Red Cavalry, his work based on his Civil War experiences, but not until the posthumous publication of his diaries from the same period did the full dimensions of his inner conflicts during the time of his Red Army service become apparent. In the memorable phrase of Alfred Kazin, Babel was a "Jew on horseback," straddling a number of identities as a Jew, a Russian, and ultimately a writer seeking artistic freedom within the stifling confines of Stalin's Soviet Union, where he was executed in 1940.

The scope and depth of the Holtzman collection's Babel materials allow the critical reception of Babel 's work to be examined from the time of his first published stories to the present. The collection shows us changing views of Babel, from his first presentation in the West as a model Soviet writer to his status as a "nonperson" after his arrest and execution during the Stalinist purges and on through to contemporary scholarship, which attempts to situate Babel as being, simultaneously, a Soviet writer, Russian Jew, and victim of Stalinism.

Babel's Jewish identity is perhaps most evident in stories set in his native Odessa featuring a variety of characters, many of which vary from stereotypical notions of Jews. Chief among these is Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster figure who appears in a number of the Odessa stories. As a whole, these stories illumine the richness and variety of Jewish life in Odessa, but they are not filled with only humor or satire. The story My First Dovecot presents a child's eye view of a pogrom before the revolution, a theme made all the more powerful by the innocent perspective of the narrator. In confronting the issue of anti-Semitism, Babel poses the central dilemma for Jews for much of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe: how to survive amid waves of persecution and violence.

Pasternak Family Papers

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Odessa was a vital outpost of Jewish cultural life in the Russian empire and, in addition to Babel, produced a number of important writers, musicians, and artists, including the painter Leonid Pasternak, father of Boris Pasternak. The Pasternak family traced its origins to Sephardic Jews who had settled in Odessa.

The Holtzman collection has important materials relating to the life and works of Boris Pasternak, but the archives also has a separate collection of materials acquired from the Pasternak family itself. The Pasternak family papers contain correspondence, printed matter, and original artwork by Leonid Pasternak, an important Russian impressionist. Along with painting portraits of Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Leonid Pasternak memorialized members of his family, including his son, Boris, and daughter, Josephine.

While he did not generally treat Jewish themes in his art, Leonid Pasternak did make an important trip to Palestine in 1924, sketching scenes of Jewish and Arab life there. Some of his original sketchbooks from this trip, which are in the Pasternak family papers, reveal an artist sensitive to his surroundings, recording his impressions of what was undoubtedly an exotic locale for a Russian visitor.

Leonid Pasternak died in Britain in 1945. In her later years, Josephine Pasternak became a tireless champion of her father's art and was instrumental in securing the publication of an English translation of his memoirs. The collection contains correspondence between Josephine Pasternak and the famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin about Leonid's work. Berlin, born into a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia (then still part of the Russian empire), owned several Pasternak paintings.

Boris Pasternak is perhaps the best known writer of Russian fiction and poetry of the twentieth century. Although Pasternak's relation to Judaism was not straightforward, he did not renounce his Jewish origins. Like Babel—but in a dramatically different way—he embodied several identities at once, just as his literary production encompassed several genres, sometimes within a single work. The Pasternak family papers contain an early manuscript of Doctor Zhivago (typed by Marina K. Baranovich), which includes the famous “Zhivago poems.”

Gleb Struve Papers

We live, deaf to the land beneath us
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
But where there's so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.
               "Stalin," 1934, by Osip Mandel'shtam

Poetry has always been accorded an important status in Russian culture and society, and from the time of Pushkin, Russian poets have suffered for their outspokenness. In addition to Pasternak—whose Doctor Zhivago could not be initially published in the Soviet Union—the archives has documents relating to other Russian dissident poets. The Gleb Struve papers contain important materials on the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandel'shtam and his wife Nadezhda.

Severely critical of Stalin, as evidenced in the lampoon above, Osip Mandel'shtam paid dearly for his candor, perishing in the Soviet gulag in 1938. His widow later wrote an important memoir of the period of Stalinist repression, Hope against Hope. Both Mandel'shtams were close friends of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and their friendship and collaboration in the Acmeist movement and afterward is an example of the many instances in which Jewish and non-Jewish artists were linked together in a common purpose in Russian intellectual life.

Besides Mandel'shtam, the Gleb Struve papers have material on the Russian Jewish writers Isaac Babel, Joseph Brodsky, and Mikhail Kantor, as well as material on a large number of non-Jewish writers.

An interest in nonconformist literature, produced by Jews and non-Jews alike, was an important aspect of the rise of an avowedly dissident movement in the Soviet Union. In the case of the poet Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova, there was personal contact between the younger dissidents in the 1960s and an older generation of writers. Despite hopes raised by the relative liberalization of culture in the Khrushchev years, government repression of dissident voices in the Soviet Union continued. In December 1963, Brodsky was arrested by Soviet authorities; he was then put on trial and eventually convicted of being a “parasite.” He was sentenced to a five year term of labor, but after protests from a number of Russian intellectuals, Brodsky was allowed to return to Leningrad after serving two years of his sentence.

Brodsky's life and work are substantially represented in the Holtzman collection. In fact, Irwin T. Holtzman was one of two people who welcomed Brodsky upon his arrival in the United States in 1972. In exile in the West, Brodsky began to write his poetry directly in English, and achieved considerable renown as both poet and public intellectual, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987. In doing so, he joined his compatriots Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won in 1970, and Pasternak, who had been forced by Soviet authorities in 1958 to decline the honor. Brodsky, however, differed markedly from the two other writers, both in tone and in terms of his politics. As with the case of Babel, the Holtzman collection provides a documentary record of the nuances and differences among members of the Russian intelligentsia, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.

Andrei Siniavskii Papers

A few years after Joseph Brodsky encountered the wrath of the Soviet state, two Russian intellectuals, Iulii Daniel and Andrei Siniavskii, were put on public trial for "anti-Soviet" writings. Their trial in 1966 was a watershed moment in the history of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, marking an end to the thaw in cultural life initiated under Khrushchev. Like Brodsky, Daniel and Siniavskii were also linked to the earlier generation of nonconformist writers: friends of Pasternak's in his final years, they served as pallbearers at Pasternak's funeral. Daniel was Jewish, while Siniavskii, though not being Jewish himself, used a Jewish pseudonym (“Abram Tertz,” the name of a legendary outlaw from Odessa) for his literary writings that were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West. For years the KGB did not know the real identity of Tertz.

The Siniavskii-Daniel case became a cause célèbre in the West. But even with the protests of Western intellectuals, Daniel and Siniaviskii were sentenced to terms of hard labor. In 1973, Siniavskii was allowed to emigrate to the West, settling in Paris, where he lived and wrote until his death in 1996. Daniel, who was both a poet and translator, suffered from ill health in his later years and died in what was still the Soviet Union in 1989.

The Andrei Siniavskii papers contain important materials on the Daniel-Siniavskii trial, Iulii Daniel individually, and Siniavskii's life and work. Among the papers are drafts of Siniavskii's early novel, The Trial Begins, which alludes to the prevailing climate of paranoia and official anti-Semitism in the last period of Stalin's rule. Also included in the papers are Siniavskii's numerous writings on Russian literature, his accounts of his own experience as a dissident, and his many lectures on Soviet culture and society. As a critic, Siniavskii wrote with considerable sensitivity about the history of the often uneasy relationship between Russian Jews and Gentiles.

Olga Carlisle Papers

The Olga Carlisle papers are another important resource on the history of Russian literature and on cultural politics in the Soviet Union and among Soviet writers in exile. Carlisle played an important role in securing the publication in the West of the works of dissident Soviet writers, most famously Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Carlisle herself has written widely on the subjects of Russian literature and politics, including articles on Pasternak and Babel, which are in her collection in the archives. An extensive correspondence series in the collection includes letters to and from many Russian literary personalities, among them Jews. Additionally, there are some letters and photographs relating to Osip Mandel'shtam and his widow, Nadezhda.

The history of Russian Jewish intellectuals in the Soviet period is not only one of persecution and repression, of course. Like other Russians, many Jews served the Stalinist state; even Babel, whose life ended at the hands of a state executioner, can be seen as a victim of his own illusions about the Soviet state. Many other Jews, more lucid perhaps than Babel about the nature of Stalinism, perished in the purge trials of the 1930s and in the Soviet gulag. Perhaps the most vivid account of the gulag experience was written by Eugenia Ginzburg, a Russian Jew whose books Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind predated Solzhenitsyn's account of Soviet repression by decades. Ginzburg survived the gulag, and her son Vassily Aksynov became an important nonconformist writer in the 1960s and 1970s. Materials on Aksynov are in the Gleb Struve papers and Olga Carlise papers.

Important holdings, especially the Archives of the Soviet Communist Party microfilm collection, document many facets of the Stalinist system, including the regime's attitudes toward the so-called Jewish question. The Stalinist party opposed Zionism while promoting the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzan in Soviet Central Asia.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the waning years of Stalin's dictatorship, the Soviet state had become overtly anti-Semitic. A propaganda campaign was launched in 1953, this time involving the so-called Jewish Doctors' Plot, which existed only in Stalin's paranoid mind. Prior to this, a wave of repression had been unleashed against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an organization that until 1948 had been officially promoted by the Soviet government. These measures led to the imprisonment and, in a number of cases, the execution of those arrested. The likelihood of another great purge was averted only by Stalin's death in 1953.

Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky Records

In the late Brezhnev period, many Jewish citizens of the USSR sought to emigrate to the West and to Israel. In most instances, the Soviet state refused such requests, giving rise to a class of people known as refuseniks. The struggle of these people in the face of their loss of Soviet citizenship, and the official limbo in which they existed as a result, became a concern of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and of human rights organizations in the West.

In the archives are the records of one such organization, formed by scientists in the United States, which attempted to support Soviet dissidents and the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate from the USSR. The Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky recordshave extensive materials relating to the treatment of Jews in the USSR and on the dissident movement, which involved non-Jews and Jews alike. Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, herself Jewish, played a prominent role in this movement. When Sakharov was sent into internal exile in the city of Gorky, the movement and its supporters in the West sought his release and that of others who had been imprisoned. The collection contains printed and videotaped speeches by Bonner, as well as photographs of her and Sakharov. Also included are photographs and a videotaped interview with Natan Shcharansky, who eventually was allowed to emigrate to Israel, where he became a government minister.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Records

During the cold war, radio stations funded by the U.S. government reported on the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, broadcasting programs into the USSR and, in some cases, hiring Russian émigrés who had been part of the dissident movement as part of their staff. The voluminous Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast records and corporate records contain materials on all aspects of Soviet cultural life in the 1960s and 1970s, including programs featuring writers such as Vassily Aksynov, Julian Panich, Andrei Siniavskii and the popular poet and singer, Aleksandr Galich.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty reported on the refusenik movement and on the human rights movement identified with Sakharov and Bonner. In addition to those programs, the RFE/RL collections have a number of photographs of dissident Soviet writers and human rights activists, including Jewish ones. There are also materials in this collection concerning the situation of East European Jews in general and on the activities of American Jewish organizations in support of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

For more information about this collection please visit the RFE/RL records web site.

Related slide shows

May 22, 2007

Russians, Soviets, and Jews Collection Highlight

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