The Extraordinary Adventures of a First-time Researcher in the Land of Russian Archives

Jianing Zhao (‘20), Slavic major and member of Princeton’s Slavic DH Working Group writes about a recent archival trip to Russia with CDH Assistant Director Natalia Ermolaev. Jianing and Natalia are working on a digital humanities project about the Turgenev Library , the Russian library in Paris. The project is inspired in part by the Shakespeare and Co. Project , a collaboration between Joshua Kotin (English) and the CDH. Jianing’s DH work will be part of her senior thesis.

A reader card from the Turgenev Library in Paris (State Archive of the Russian Federation, Fond P-6848, box 125)

“We aren’t open yet,” barked the babushka in the registration office, before shutting the window with one brusque motion. Frozen in place, physically and figuratively, my gaze shifted from the wooden panel of the closed window to the wall populated by announcements from various offices – whose working hours seemed to differ not only by office but also by day (and by the officers’ mood, as I later discovered) – and eventually to the face of my advisor, Natalia Ermolaev, who stared back at me with the same “oh well” expression. I shook off the snow on my coat, and we started waiting.

Some background on my project: Having written my first Junior Paper on Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry, I became interested in her exile experience in Paris. Coincidentally, I learned about one of CDH’s projects by Professor Joshua Kotin on the American émigré community in Paris at the time, centered around the Shakespeare & Co. Library. After finding out that a similar Russian library existed (and still exists!) in Paris during the same interwar period, I hope to do a parallel project. The first step is to obtain information about the readership of the Turgenev Library, through reader cards, catalogues, letter correspondences, etc., most of which are housed in GARF (Russian State Archive). Hence I find myself in the registration office of the Archive in Moscow on this 5°F morning on the first day of the winter break, nervously holding my documents and excited to be join the ranks of a “real” researcher.

The day could have started better, but in a couple hours, I have completed my registration and obtained a small piece of white paper - a first-time propusk – which would be upgraded into a blue one the next day for frequent visitors, and which I would need to guard with my life. Despite having ordered the materials in advance, it turned out that most of them cannot be removed from their storing unit, and so Natalia and I embarked on a quest in search of building #5, hidden amidst a dozen of similar-looking old, unnumbered buildings. As I quickly noticed, the attitude of most of the GARF staff toward patrons harkened back to Soviet-style customer-service (there was none). Throughout the week, however, we had also encountered personnel who defy this assumption – Alexey who worked at the photocopy desk, for example, as well as the stolovaya (lunch counter) lady whose name I never learned, but whose kind smile warmed my heart even before her borscht did.

Having finally laid our hands on the archive material – piles upon piles of dilapidated yellow sheets, enveloped into thick bundles that look about to fall apart if they were to be flipped through one more time - I suddenly felt a sense of mission. By taking photographs of these pages and making them publicly accessible, we not only save time and trouble for future researchers interested in working with the same materials, but also help save these materials themselves – which had already traveled from Paris to Berlin and then to Moscow under less than favorable wartime conditions - from further damage.

The goal of our project is to learn more about the Russian community in Paris by seeing who the Turgenev Library readers were, what they read, when they took books out, and where they lived. Many of the approximately 800 Turgenev reader cards do not indicate year (only month and day), but we were able to deduce that most of them range from 1910-1936. The trickier problem was that books borrowed are not listed by title, but by a four- or five- digit catalog call numbers. GARF, which holds only a fraction of the books held by the original Turgenev Library, holds only a few of these book title catalogs - we only found “Sociology” and “Philosophy”. Since most items listed on the archive’s website have minimal descriptions, we had no idea that the catalog wasn’t complete. It was a moment when I idealistically wished that all information could be freely and openly made available to avoid such misconceptions, while also taking into account the lack of human and financial resources required to achieve that. I suppose we will look for the remaining catalogs in other archives. (which might be the subject of the next research trip!)

We also looked at other materials – postcard and letters as well as annual reports – to better understand how the Turgenev Library functioned over time, its relationship with the readership, with the broader Russian émigré community, and with other literary or cultural organizations in Paris. Most of the correspondence is, frankly, boring – where the library politely reminds the readers to return books they borrowed – but there were some memorable ones, such as a particularly long letter where a Russian in Warsaw (who did not seem to have much connections with the library) pleaded the library for financial assistance, at a time when the library itself was undergoing financial hardship and soliciting donations through its connections. We don’t have record of how the library replied to that person, but it’s not too hard to guess.

As we delved into the material and busied ourselves with taking notes and photos, the bureaucratic routines imposed by the archive began to feel less troublesome. Perhaps it was because I got used to it; perhaps it was because I realized that people who work here do not intend to be discouraging, but are just trying to do their complicated (underpaid) job. In all cases, when I gave Alexey a box of chocolate from Natalia on my last day at the archive, he returned a surprised look, followed by a rare smile and – if I dare say – even blushed. Leaving the archive and walking towards the metro station, even the cold felt more bearable now, and I started to notice how the sparkling lights decorating the trees shine gorgeously through the snow. I’ll come back, I thought.

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