Nicholas Murray Butler Library circa early 1950s

Nicholas Murray Butler Library, c. early 1950s

During World War II, Cornell’s Ernest J. Simmons (d. 1972) and Philip Mosely developed an innovative, “holistic” approach to the study of the Soviet Union, drawing in academics from the diverse fields of sociology, history, language, and culture to develop needed cadres of area specialists. Columbia professor Geroid T. Robinson hired away both Simmons and Mosely to establish the multidisciplinary Russian Institute.

The Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture was founded in 1951 and later renamed for Boris A. Bakhmeteff (d. 1951), the last ambassador of the Russian Provisional Government and Columbia professor.

Robinson and Mosely established the position of Librarian for Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies.  In the decades that followed, geographic responsibilities and linguistic coverage expanded, including the emerging field of nationalities studies.

Success bred other challenges, such as cataloging backlogs that were exacerbated by staff reassignments, and the need for preservation due to heavy use of materials.  Inflation ate into budgets, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact upended the book market, leading to a major disruption of supply chains.

For almost two decades the Slavic and East European Librarian was Nina A. Lenček (d. 2014), a philologist and Slovenian émigré.  Reflecting on her years with the Columbia Libraries, she expressed the hope that the collections retain their “strength and reputation and remain one of the national centers for the study and research of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the years to come.”

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: Visionary Founder, First Director, and Library Donor

Robinson at the lectern teaching in the late 1940s

Robinson at the lectern, late l940s. His successor as Institute Director, Phillip E.Mosely (d.l972), top right. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Geroid Tanquary Robinson founded the Russian Institute at Columbia University in 1946 and served as its first director until 1951. A fervent supporter of the Columbia University Libraries, he bequeathed not only a substantial personal library but also an endowment which continues to fund Slavic acquisitions to this day.

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: Émigré Bookman Extraordinaire

Bolan working in the Russian Department of antiquarian bookseller H.P. Kraus.

Bolan, working in the Russian Department of antiquarian bookseller H.P. Kraus. Reproduced from H.P. Kraus Catalogue No. 38, Sidelights on the Renaissance (New York, [1945])

The Russian Institute’s founders understood the importance of developing library and archival collections, and in 1946 they established (and initially funded) the position now known as the Librarian for Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies, held initially by Russian émigré bookman Simeon Ja. Bolan (d. 1972). He was sent to the Soviet Union by the Russian Institute and the Libraries to reestablish exchange relations and to purchase materials. 

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: The Bakhmeteff Archive: Documenting Russians & Eastern Europeans Abroad

Lev F. Magerovsky, Alexander Dallin, and Karol Maichel

Lev F. Magerovsky (d. 1986), Alexander Dallin (d. 2000) and Karol Maichel (b. 1929). Reproduced from Columbia Library Columns, 8(2): 19 (Feb. 1959). Digital Collections. Columbia University Libraries.

Established in 1951, also with Rockefeller funding, Bakhmeteff is the second largest repository related to the Russian and East European emigre communities in North America. The Archive includes 1,500 processed collections with more than 1,680,000 million individual items, including letters, documents, manuscripts, photographs, prints, clippings and artworks.

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: Cold War Collecting Gambit

One of the Lenin Letters, originally in the Aleksinskii Papers, Box 2. Reproduced in Columbia Library Columns, 2(2): [22] (Feb. 1953). Digital Collections. Columbia University Libraries.

Painted portrait of Varvara A. Bakhmeteva, 1830

Varvara A. Bakhmeteva (d.1851), Lermontov album (ca.1830). Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Columbia University Libraries

In January 1956 Simeon Bolan made a bold proposal: Columbia would turn over to the Soviets four original letters from Lenin in exchange for some 15,000 retrospective titles and serial issues supplied by the Marx-Lenin Institute.  The letters were purchased by Bakhmeteff as part of the papers of Social Democrat Grigorii Aleksinskii (d. 1967) who had broken with Lenin and resided in exile in Paris.

Also contemplated for a trade was a collection of three albums containing poetry and drawings, many by the Russian poet Mikhail Iur’evich Lermontov.  Ultimately, the Lenin letters were exchanged with the Soviets; the albums were not, and remain at Columbia in the Bakhmeteff Archive.

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: Bridging Asia and The Heights

Allworth in 1966, near his home in Washington Heights. Courtesy of Clark Allworth.

Professor of Turko-Soviet Studies Edward Allworth (d. 2016) played a vital role as a builder of Turkic vernacular-language collections. Together with his wife Janet (d. 2014), over the course of his long career Professor Allworth devoted considerable energy and attention to the status of vernacular-language library resources in North America at a time when few others were doing so.

The War Years to the Post-Soviet World: From Diarchy to Reform

Nina Lenček in her Lehman office, 1977

Nina Lenček in her Lehman Office, 1977. Courtesy of Professor Lena Lenček

1970 Illinois Summer Institute for Slavic Librarians

1970 Illinois Summer Institute for Slavic Librarians. Courtesy of Professor Emeritus Larry H. Miller

Beginning in 1968, until re-unification in 1972, responsibilities for building Columbia’s collections were split between bibliographers for East Slavic, and East Central Europe. In 1970, support staff of the Slavic and East European acquisitions and cataloguing team were reassigned to general technical processing units.

Columbia and Cornell librarians engaged with the broader Slavic & East European library community: Eleanor Buist (d. 2002), Gail Persky, Leonarda Wielawski (d. 2011), and Cornell’s Slavic bibliographer Anna K. Stuliglowa, and work-study student Edward Kasinec all attended the 1970 Illinois Summer Institute for Slavic Librarians.