Subjects and Objects: Slavic at Yale.

Mike Cummings writes for Yale News about a new exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library; the opening anecdote grabbed me immediately:

In 1940, Vladimir Nabokov moved to New York City from Paris and needed a job. He submitted his curriculum vitae to Yale along with three letters of reference, including one penned by Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivan Bunin.

It seems that Yale didn’t bite.

“I couldn’t find any evidence that the university ever replied,” said Anna Arays, librarian for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian studies at Yale University Library.

I’ll bet they regretted that! (And jeez, how could they ignore a recommendation from Bunin?) Anyway, it continues:

Nabokov’s CV and Bunin’s endorsement are displayed in “Subjects and Objects: Slavic Collections at Yale, 1896-2022,” an exhibit on view in Sterling Memorial Library’s Hanke Exhibition Gallery through Feb. 5, 2023. The exhibit explores how Yale’s Slavic collections — assembled over more than 125 years and housed across the university’s libraries and museums — chronicle the experiences of those who ruled, inhabited, visited, and fled the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

The exhibit also weaves a narrative of how the collections were built, focusing on materials from the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, which were the dominant powers in the Slavic world from the Early Modern period through the 20th century, and the heavy influence this complex imperial history had on the collections’ development. It also raises questions about how best to expand the collections three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. […]

“When academics in the United States began introducing Slavic languages and literatures in the late 1890s into collections and curricula, they sought to acquaint students with the Russian Empire,” Arays said. “Their scholarly collecting was often sourced from Russian government and literary publications and accounts of travelers in the empire, which often applied an exoticized gaze to non-Russian imperial subjects.”

The vast expanse of the Russian and Soviet empires and the enormity of their spheres of influence is reflected in the fact that, today, the Yale Library’s Slavic collection contains materials from 29 countries in more than 35 languages, many of which are not Slavic but were subsumed by Russian and Soviet power.

A Russian-Tatar textbook on display was printed in the early 19th century in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, located in today’s Russian Federation. While the book was widely used by Russian and Tatar people and went through multiple printings, the example on view is the only cataloged copy in the United States, demonstrating the limits of Western collections’ documentation of the periphery of the Russian Empire, Arays said. […]

A copy of the Ostrog Bible of 1581 — the first full printed edition of the Bible in Church Slavonic, a premodern Slavic language — is a centerpiece of a table case devoted to book history. Considered the equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible in Slavic print history, the Bible was made by master printer Ivan Federov, who was driven out of Moscow by scribes and others hostile to printing and reestablished himself in what is now Ukraine. It was there that he printed the Bible.

The exhibit’s final case explores efforts to move the Slavic collections beyond Cold War boundaries and Russia’s sphere of influence by amplifying unique voices, contextualizing recent history through people’s lived experiences, and bringing attention to contemporary literary and artistic works largely unknown in the Unites States, Arays explained.

An English translation of a small volume by Ukrainian writer and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets typifies the library’s efforts to introduce a wider variety of contemporary Slavic literature to readers in the United States by identifying small presses that translate new and interesting Eastern European literature for anglophone audiences.

If I were still living in New Haven, I’d make a beeline for it. (Compare the New York Public Library exhibit I reported on in 2003.)


  1. Still, New Haven is a pretty easy drive from the Pioneer Valley. Shame the train connections aren’t better.

  2. A shame indeed. (And I don’t drive.)

  3. This sounds fantastic, thanks for pointing it out! And it’s only there for another 48 days (until 5 Feb. 2023). Well worth the 94-mile drive (thanks, Google!) from where I am.

  4. Report back if you get there!

  5. >enormity of their spheres of influence

    Snuck that one past the censors!

  6. Every time a conversation turns to Nabokov I feel compelled to point out that the Harvard Museum of Natural History houses his impressive collection of penises.

    (He was a keen lepidopterist and believed that the best way to classify butterflies was by their genitalia.)

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Amtrak’s now running three trains a day (at least weekdays) in both directions between Northampton (or Holyoke, if that’s a better station for you) and New Haven, more southbound in the morning and northbound in the pm. Only $27 each way if you book reasonably well in advance!

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I chanced to be in New Haven yesterday so I visited this exhibition.* It’s not all that large, so arguably not worth the expense of a special trip from a significant distance, but the dozen or so cases/vitrines were pretty heavily-packed with interesting items. In addition to some of those mentioned in the block quote in the original post, ones that caught my eye included an early 20th century edition (in English) of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland said to have belonged to the Holy Passionbearer Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918), with the Tenniel illustrations colored in by hand, possibly by her and/or her siblings, and the original typed-with-emendations MS of Czeslaw Milosz’ late poem titled simply “At Yale,” which begins:

    We were drinking vodka together, Brodsky, Venclova
    With his beautiful Swedish girl, myself, Richard,
    Near the Art Gallery, at the end of the century
    Which woke up as if from a heavy slumber
    And asked, in stupefaction: What was that?

    Brodsky is obviously Joseph; “Venclova” must be the dissident/emigre Lithuanian writer Tomas (born 1937 and apparently still alive), but I have not investigated the identities of the beautiful Swedish girl or “Richard.”

    *I had to ask some helpful young person its location. There wasn’t signage at the front door guiding you or anything, and the little exhibit space it’s in is a recent addition, just to the left of the “high altar” area that used to be the circulation desk but isn’t anymore.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    OK, the Milosz biography by Andrzej Franaszek (which includes the entire text of the poem I quoted the beginning of) says that “Richard” is Richard Lourie, translator of Russian works into English as well as pundit (for American audiences and politicians) on matters Russian.

  10. Thanks for the report, and you’re right, it sounds interesting but not worth a special trip from (relatively) afar. And it would pain me to see how Sterling has changed; I still suffer PTSD from my visit a couple decades ago when I saw the vacancy where the card catalogs used to be.

  11. /how best to expand the collections three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. […]/
    This is a good question indeed

Speak Your Mind