Bygone times are passing
in front of me…

Memories of eighties
Part 1

by Nataliya Yukhneva

Professor Nataliya Vasilyevna Yukhneva, Ph. D. of History,
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera)
of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

A Lecture at the Geographic Society That Did Not Take Place. 1984.

The conference that did not take place had been organized by Georgii Vladimirovich Piontek. This amazing man, whose fate was tragic, passed away in the spring of 2005. Being an architect, he devoted his whole life to the efforts of creating an open-space museum in the suburbs of Leningrad. He planned to preserve remnants of everyday life of different ethnic groups of our country there, mainly of St. Petersburg and the North West. He did not succeed in realizing his idea, even though up to his very last day he continued to put incredible effort to this cause, his enthusiasm never slackening.

In the seventies and early eighties G.V. Piontek used to come to our Institute, to the management and to our East Slavonic department quite frequently, to discuss his project, in the hope to secure the Institute's support for it. One day Georgii Vladimirovich entered our room when I was alone there. Among the books on my desk he saw several issues of "Judaica Bohemia" (published by the State Jewish Museum in Prague), which I had brought from Czechoslovakia. He got interested in this subject and we started talking about it and mentioned the fact that the Jewish theme was closed for public discussion.

– I would like so much to speak about the Prague Jewish Museum in public, but I don't know where and how to do it…

- Let's try, - said Piontek, Let's try to arrange a conference on this subject.

Not long before that Georgii Vladimirovich had organized a Committee for Open-Space Museums in the Geographic Society – mainly, in order to attain a certain status for the group of supporters of his idea of an open-space museum in Leningrad. We defined the subject matter of my future presentation as "The Former Prague Ghetto – an Open-Space Museum".

The preliminary preparation period in the Geographic Society lasted several months. As Piontek later told me, the subject matter had caused doubts and the "coordination" took up a lot of energy. Meanwhile, the following things happened.

I invited Mikhail Anatolyevich Chlenov, a colleague from the Moscow department of our Institute, to participate in the conference. He was a specialist on Indonesia, but he also participated in expeditions to ethnic communities of the North and wrote about them. Since the early seventies Mikhail Anatolyevich was active in Jewish movement; besides "politics", he also did some cultural work teaching Hebrew. Today M.A. Chlenov is Dean of the Faculty of Philology of State Maimonides Academy (in Moscow) and a prominent public figure: he is head of the Russian Jewish organization called Vaad, president of the Federal Jewish National Autonomy of Russia and General Secretary of the Eurasian Jewish Congress. Back in 1984, I only knew about Chlenov's scholarly interests, but I had no notion of his role in the Jewish movement. He had once come to Leningrad to work at the Jewish collections of GME (State Museum of Ethnography, now REM). This opportunity was granted him in order to make use of his knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew for putting in order and describing the museum's Jewish collection. Mikhail Anatolyevich hoped to publish the results of his studies. We were having an informal chat while drinking tea with a group of orientalists at our Institute when I said that I would like to give a lecture or a presentation on the Prague Jewish Museum. Mikhail Anatolyevich chuckled:

- You won't succeed.

- And you, - I retorted, - will you succeed in publishing your materials?

This talk had taken place long before that meeting with Piontek, but I recalled it and wrote to Chlenov, inviting him to come; he agreed. In the months before the planned conference I visited Moscow with a scholarly mission, and we talked it all over: Mikhail Anatolyevich would present a paper called "Early Middle Ages Jewish Settlements in Czechia and Kiev Russia". Piontek did not object, even though the subject did not fit into the framework of open-space museums discussion.

When in Moscow, I also met Igor Ilyich Krupnik, who was working at the anthropology of ethnic groups of the North at our Institute. In addition, he presided over the anthropological committee of the Moscow branch of the Geographic Society where he organized interesting series of lectures, including presentations on Jewish Studies: the Geographic Society provided certain opportunities for this, for it still enjoyed some freedom of style and spirit. Krupnik is presently living in the USA, still studying ethnic groups of the North.

Igor was sitting at a typewriter in an empty room in his department and typing an article about the Lakhlukhs (Kurdish Jews), which he had written together with M. Kupovetsky (who was then a postgraduate at our Institute, and now he is a researcher and Jewish history lecturer in Moscow). I asked to have a look.

- Are you interested in it?

Of course I was!

I wonder how much our feelings were mixed with – shall I call it politics? No, that would be wrong… May be – resistance?

- Have a look, - Igor was saying, - you have "Jews" in every sentence here. The editor will get cold feet!

I don't know if the editor got cold feet, but the article was published in the magazine "Soviet Ethnography" [Social Anthropology].

I told Igor about the would-be conference at the Geographic Society and read out loud an excerpt from an article by V.V. Stasov about the Jewish museum at the World's Fair (Exposition Universelle) in Paris in 1878 (I intended to use it in my lecture).

- At the end of the 19th century a periodical called "Jewish Library" was being published in St. Peterburg; its goal was to let Russians and Russian-speaking Jews get acquainted with Jewish history, culture and literature. V.V. Stasov, a well-known critic, was a regular contributor. In 1879 his article "After the World Fair" was published in this magazine (v.7). The words that Stasov had written more than a hundred years before sounded as if they belonged to our day.

"A short time ago, just some decades ago, a collection of Jewish objects like the one that was exhibited in 1878 in a special hall of the Trocadéro Palace would be simply unthinkable: only Jews would get interested, no one else. No one else would pay attention to it, and even if they did notice it, they would probably scorn it. And now, what a striking difference! International crowds, lots more enlightened than in old times, which also means more intelligent and less prejudiced, were looking at this hall's exhibits with the same benevolent curiosity and attention as they had surveyed… other sections, like the African, Oceanic, Egyptian or Cambodian, Spanish or Norwegian, Persian or Finnish, Turkish or Polish…, Ancient Greek or French, Spanish and Medieval German. The last decades saw so much of the large-scale and benevolent efforts made by scholars of various European nations to research and study, at last, the ancient Jewish art of Palestine, in all its wideness, grace and variety, that no one would find it ridiculous to study and get to know the Jewish art on our European soil as well, of the Middle Ages and the following centuries". "It would be unnatural if this was not followed by an equal benevolence and interest to the fate of the Jewish national art during the centuries that swept over the Jewish people after the fall of the ancient world as well. The results of this interest were for the first time revealed to the public, in great glamour, at the World Fair of 1878, in the shape of the Jewish museum".

In Leningrad I got acquainted with Mikhail Beizer, a refusenik who was guiding tours of "Jewish Leningrad" and running a home-based historical seminar which he had organized. I was asked to meet him by an Institute colleague, Emil Yevseyevich Fradkin, an archeologist [that was my father – E.R.]. He was seriously ill at that time and did not come to the Institute (he died two months later). We talked on the telephone.

- I have a young friend who is interested in the history of Peterburg Jews and would like to meet you. You study Peterburg's ethnic minorities, so you may find this acquaintance interesting for yourself as well. And he added: Misha's views are quite a bit nationalistic, but I hope you will forgive him this.

This last remark was probably intended to prepare me for meeting the up to then unknown to me world of refuseniks and Zionists.

Misha came to see me at the Institute on May 15. For some reason, he did not mention the fact that he was collecting memoirs; I would have certainly got very interested. The problem probably was that the memoirs were about the Soviet period, he was not processing them then, his main work at that time (he was guiding tours of Jewish Peterburg) was referring to the 19th century. My own research was also confined to the same chronological period, and Misha knew it. He asked if he could be of any help. I enquired:

- Do you know languages?

- English. – That was not what I needed.

- What about Jewish languages, Hebrew, Yiddish?

- No…

Our conversation was constantly interrupted by somebody, besides. I had my lecture at the Geographic Society on my mind. I promised to talk to him some time later and invited him to my presentation at the Geographic Society.

This invitation, I suspect, played a certain role in putting a ban on my lecture. For two days the KGB people were hearing on the telephones that they were bugging: Geographic Society, presentation on the Jewish Museum. No secrecy was observed, for this was a lecture in an official institution, not a clandestine meeting which could only be mentioned when talking in person.

I invited some acquaintances of mine to my presentation, mainly colleagues from the Institute, but not only them. A man from Oriental Studies Institute, whom I knew since we had been students, said:

- Don't you realize, Natasha, that it's a put-up job to hurt you? You don't know what can be at stake? Stop it if it is not too late.

He did not come to the Geographic Society.

A former classmate eagerly accepted my invitation; she did come to the lecture.

On the appointed day, May 18, the three of us set off for the Geographic Society: my daughter Katya (my son came by himself), my Institute colleague Yelena Vladimirovna Ivanova and myself. Katya was carrying a big bag with pictures – slides, albums.

Piontek was waiting for me in the street outside the Geographic Society building; he said nervously:

- I have to speak with you.

He took me to the next door gateway and for some reason made me lean against a wall (probably in case I fainted!). He looked pale and dismayed.

- The conference has been banned. There was a call from the KGB. Nothing can be done. You can leave right now. I will settle things with the public by myself.

- Oh no, - I protested. - Let's see what will follow.

The wide staircase to the conference hall was crammed with people. Some were going upstairs, some were going downstairs and leaving. Among those who were leaving was Isidor Geimovich Levin, Doctor of Philology, who was well known in Leningrad scholarly circles. He said firmly:

- Natalya Vasilyevna! You must immediately leave this place.

In his usual caustic manner he started saying that I was doing something that wasn't my business, that I didn't know the museum's real history, I didn't know the truth about Slansky's case...

- Even the little I know…- I said to keep the peace.

The hall was crowded and it was puzzling, how those who had been standing outside found room inside later on. There were my colleagues there – six or seven people, people from other academic institutes, members of the committee and some Geographic Society regulars. But the majority of those present were people whom Chlenov called the Jewish public. Many were wearing scull-caps (which, as I learned later, were then called kipas) – that was something you couldn't see in a public place then (except in the synagogue, of course).

Piontek climbed the podium. He said what he was told to say.

- The conference has been cancelled for technical reasons – there is no electricity in the building.

Indeed, some repair work was under way!

The hall was buzzing. Georgii Vladimirovich managed to speak for quite some time, but he didn't add anything new. No one was going to leave. It was about seven in the evening, and it is still daylight at this time in May (the peak of the white nights). I got up from my seat in the first row and said:

- I can give my presentation without electricity. I only won't be able to show the slides, which is a pity, but you will have to put up with it.

Galina Vasilyevna Starovoitova (she worked at our Institute then, in the group of urban anthropology, the work of which I was supervising) and Igor Grigoryevich Ilyin (member of the Anthropologic Committee of the Geographic Society) went to the academic secretary B.I. Koshechkin (there was somebody else with them, from the audience) to talk him into allowing the lectures. Naturally, this delegation achieved nothing. Neither did I – I had started with going to Koshechkin, at the very beginning. But no one of those present left the hall. Piontek, Chlenov and I were already sitting at the desk on the podium. A young man rushed to the podium and addressed us and the audience:

- If we have already assembled here, let us not waste this opportunity, let us ask the speakers to tell us in short what they were going to speak about, even ten minutes for each speaker.

I rose to the platform. The hall was absolutely silent. For the first time in my life I understood what the expression "you could hear a fly's flight" meant. I had to say something important, to use the time before I was interrupted. Marina Kogan (she also was in my group, she lives in the USA now) said to me later: "I have never seen you tensed like this…".

I can't reproduce exactly what I said then, but the contents of my speech can be made more or less clear from some fragmentary notes that have been preserved.

- There is a museum in Prague that is visited by thousands of people from all over the world, but is never shown to Soviet tourists…

I visited Prague twice – only twice, but I didn't go on organized trips, I went there on a scholarly mission and I also stayed with a Czech colleague. I was there less than a month, all in all. This is not enough to get to know Prague, but sufficient to get the feeling of it, get to love it and remember it forever.

I visited the Jewish museum several times and met some people who work there, I also saw some items of their collections that are not exhibited. I went to Staronová Synagogue / Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue) for one of the autumn holidays. That is why, even though my narration is based on bookish knowledge, it is also supported by personal impressions and feelings. A visit to the Prague Jewish Museum leaves an especially deep impression because it is a monument to a culture that has become extinct in our day, within our memory, as a result of the Nazis' horrible crimes.
I sat down amid applause.

M.A. Chlenov spoke after me; he related the contents of his paper in short.

People were leaving in groups, some – with an intention to get together in private apartments. Chlenov invited me to join one of such groups. I asked: "Are you sure that there won't be any undesirable people there?" and he answered "I'm not". Afterwards I never asked such tactless (and silly) questions, I really didn't care.

At Piontek's request Yevgenii Lazarevich Blumkin, an artist, made a draft of an invitation card for the Geographic Society conference (with a picture of Staronová Synagogue), which was never duplicated, and the idea of an invitation card was never realized. I have two prints of it. After my presentation that did not take place Blumkin handed me a print of another of his works inscribed "With gratitude". Many said "thank you" when leaving.

Two days after that, on Sunday, we got together at my place - to discuss what had happened. "We" included G.B. Piontek, M.A. Chlenov, G.V. Starovoitova, her husband Mikhail Veniaminovich Borshchevsky, a sociologist (during our conference he was presenting a paper of his own in another Geographic Society room), my colleagues Ye.V. Ivanova and Ye.V. Revunenkova who had been present at the Geographic Society, and two more colleagues who had not. My children, Katya and Andrei, also participated in the "meeting".

My presentation did not take place, but what happened was an event that evoked a certain response, mainly among the Jewish public, but also partly in scholarly circles. About 150 people were present, about a thousand may have heard about it, that is certainly not many, but this event opened the gate to the Jewish movement for me.

The conference had taken place on Friday. On the nearest work day our director Rudolf Ferdinandovich Its called me to his room. He spoke with everyone in a casual, hail-fellow-well-met manner, called people by their first names if they were of the same age as himself (without patronymics, which was not as wide-spread then as it is today) and used the informal second person singular "ty" [instead of the formal second person plural "vy"] even if he had got acquainted with those people at a fairly mature age.

The conversation was like this:

- I was told a strange thing about you – that you gave a lecture in which you suggested that a foreign state should open some sort of a museum…

- Well, this is all mixed up. My lecture, although it had been scheduled, did not take place, while the museum has been existing for a long time, irrespective of my "recommendations".

- Doesn't matter, these are insignificant details, but how could you? – roared Rudolf Ferdinandovich waiving his arms in puzzlement, - I wouldn't expect it from you, I really wouldn't…

The message had been undoubtedly received from the KGB, but our director didn't mention this fact. A year later I had a closer acquaintance with the KGB.

In the spring of the same year, 1984, at a conference on anthropology in Chernovtsy we were discussing everything that had then happened with M.A. Chlenov, I.I. Krupnik an M.E. Kogan in a hotel room where G.V. Starovoitova and I were staying. Krupnik said to me later: "Natalya Vasilyevna! You must realize that from this moment you are joining the Jewish cultural movement. With all the possible consequences…".

Translated by Ilana (Elena) Romanovsky

Part 2==>