Relics of empire: New exhibit shares story behind Yale’s Slavic collections

“Subjects and Objects” explores how Yale has chronicled the Slavic world through its collections — from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union and beyond.
Display case of books, photographs, and other objects from Yale’s Slavic collections.

Subjects and Objects: Slavic Collections at Yale, 1896-2022,” an exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library, explores how Yale’s Slavic collections were built. The case pictured here features materials the governments of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union used to consolidate their power over vast land areas. (Photos by Andrew Hurley)

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.

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.

We tell the story of how Yale has represented the Slavic world in our collections over many decades,” said Arays, who curated the exhibit with Liliya Dashevski, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. “That story focuses on the Russian and Soviet empires, which for many years guided the decisions of the scholars who built these collections. But we also envision a new approach that looks beyond the imperial history and highlights the cultural richness and diversity of the entire Slavic world.”

Exhibition cases in a gallery
The exhibit is on view in Sterling Memorial Library’s Hanke Exhibition Gallery, which opened in the library’s nave earlier this year.

The exhibit begins with a wall case, located to the left of the gallery’s entrance, which contains objects that represent the power the governments of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union wielded over their vast domains.

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.

An 18th-century Slavic copy of the Book of Revelation
The exhibit features a section on book history in the Slavic World, including this 18th-century copy of the Book of Revelation.

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.

The next wall case highlights the use of posters to convey government messaging, including examples from both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. One etching, whose message reverberates today, features three healthy young women, who had been vaccinated against cowpox, mocking a sickly, pock-marked young man.

Another wall case highlights a group that played a significant role in the collections’ development: those Americans who visited the Soviet Union during its early period. Objects on view include mementos from trips by Harlem Renaissance figures Langston Hughes and Claude McKay from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay’s Soviet Communist Party membership card
Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, visited the Soviet Union in 1922. The show features several of his mementos, including his Soviet Communist Party membership card.

The final wall case explores the role of emigres to the United States from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, another crucial source of 20th-century collection materials. Nabokov’s ill-fated job application, which Arays discovered in the Yale College dean’s records in the Manuscripts and Archives Department, is displayed here.

These materials speak to the human struggle of this period,” Arays said. “These were intellectuals who produced genius works, but they were also simply trying to survive in a very turbulent time.”

A table case focuses on the private world and public image of the Romanovs, the doomed imperial family whose execution by the Bolsheviks in 1918 still fascinates people. One of six Romanov family photo albums held at the Beinecke Library is displayed alongside other family mementos. Taken between 1906 and 1917, the photographs capture private moments, such as sightseeing trips and tennis matches, of a very public family.

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.

These translations along with contemporary zines and materials from former dissidents invite researchers to think about what it means to preserve the present while considering the humanity of the individuals who created the works in our collections,” Arays said. “Alongside the other materials on display, these objects illuminate the ways that curatorship is shaped by personal and institutional bias, opportunity, and happenstance.”

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