An-sky’s Lost Archives

by Alexander Ivanov

The Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society (JHES) played a key role in the creation of modern Jewish culture and scholarship in Russia and other countries in the 20th century. It was the first to systematically document Jewish life in the Russian empire. The value of the JHES archives and collections for scholars as well as the general public can hardly be over-estimated. Yet, the material is scattered in archives throughout Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Israel and the US and a comprehensive catalogue is still to be authored. The Yerusha project could be instrumental in bringing this significant collection closer to the public.

The Archive is born …

The Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society (JHES) was founded in St. Petersburg in November 1908. The following year, the Russian-Yiddish writer Semen An-sky (real name Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, 1863–1920) began an ambitious research project of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian empire. An expedition set out to collect historical materials and objects and to take photographs of people, places and buildings. The result was impressive – in three years the expedition collected and purchased thousands of old manuscripts, pinkasim, ceremonial objects and pieces of Jewish folk art as well as hundreds of folk tales and recordings of folk music. The expedition photographer Solomon Iudovin took more than 2000 photographs of people, synagogues and daily life. An-sky hoped that these materials would become the basis of Russia’s first Jewish Museum. They were first exhibited in St. Petersburg in 1914 and formed the core holdings of the newly created Jewish Museum.

and destroyed

The museum and the JHES were closed by the Soviet authorities in 1929 and its objects and archives distributed amongst various institutions in the USSR. Subsequently, some of this material disappeared entirely (often lost during the Second World War), with the remainder scattered throughout depositories and private collections in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Israel and the United States. The destiny of the JHES archives and collections remained virtually unknown for decades.

In search for a lost collection

After Perestroika, when the gradual opening of Russian society meant better access for researcher to archival information, particularly to Jewish materials, the JHES archives and collections attracted the attention of scholars from around the world. While there have been numerous published studies about the history of the JHES and An-sky’s expeditions, there is much that remains unexplored in the JHES materials and they are often virtually inaccessible to researchers. The situation is beginning to improve thanks to the research project of the Jewish Theological Seminary titled “Jewish documentary sources in archives of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus” which is partially supported by Yerusha. Relevant sources have already been described in guides to holdings in St. Petersburg and Kiev, and more guides will follow.

The future

In addition to the collections in various institutions in St. Petersburg and Kiev already described in the guides mentioned, there is material to be found elsewhere, some of which is currently unavailable for scholarly or public use. A preliminary survey found items from the JHES archive in places as far afield as the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk, the Central Archive of the History of the Jewish People and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Further research on these could result in the long-awaited publication of a complete annotated catalogue of all JHES material as well as an interactive database that could include textual and visual material such as manuscripts, drawings, photos and other digitised artifacts.


Alexander Ivanov is Lecturer at the Center “Petersburg Judaica” at the European University of St. Petersburg


Selected publications

  • Benjamin Lukin, Otnarodnichestva k narodu (S.A. An-skiy – etnografvostochnoyevropeyskogoevreystva), in Evrei v Rossii. Istoriyaietnografiya. Vol. 3. D. Eljashevich, ed.  (St. Petersburg: Petersburgskiieveriskiiuniversitet, 1995), 125–161; “…Akademiya, gdebudutizuchat’ fol’klor” (An-sky – ideologyevreyskogomuzeynogodela), in Yevreyskiymuzey. Collected articles.V. Kelner& V. Dymshits, eds.  (St. Petersburg: “Simpozium”, 2004), 57–94.
  • Photoarchive of An-sky’s expeditions (St. Petersburg, European University at St. Petersburg Publishing, 2005–2008. Set of exhibitions catalogues: Alexander Ivanov, Experiences of “the young man for photographic works.” Solomon Yudovin and Russian Pictorialism; Valery Dymshits, “Brothers and sisters in work and need!” Jewish artisans and workers before revolution; Alexander Lvov, Jewish Nursery Room. Muzeeficationofreligions for education of people; AllaSokolova, Photographs into the “Album of Jewish Artistic Antiquities” (in 2 parts and CD ROM); Valery Dymshits, The First Jewish Museum in Russia.
  • EfimMelamed, Mark Kupovetsky, Jewish Documentary Sources in Kiev Archives. (Kyiv: “DukhiLitera”, 2006).
  • Photographing the Jewish Nation; Pictures from S. An-sky’s Ethnographic Expeditions.Eu. Avrutin, V. Dymshits, A. Ivanov, A. Lvov, H. Murav, A. Sokolova, eds. (Waltham MA, Hanover & London: Brandies University Press, 2009);
  • Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010);
  • Alexander Ivanov, Mark Kupovetsky, Jewish Documentary Sources in Saint Petersburg Archives. Vol. 2. – Regional archives (St. Petersburg: “MIR” 2013).
Exhibition of artifacts collected by An-sky’s expeditions. St. Petersburg, May 1914. From left to right: Abram Rechtman, Solomon Iudovin, Semen An-sky, Sholem Aleichem, Olga Rabinovich, and Moisei Ginsburg. (Center Petersburg Judaica)

Exhibition of artifacts collected by An-sky’s expeditions. St. Petersburg, May 1914. From left to right: Abram Rechtman, Solomon Iudovin, Semen An-sky, Sholem Aleichem, Olga Rabinovich, and Moisei Ginsburg. (Center Petersburg Judaica)