Jews in the Archives: A Conversation with Gennady Estraikh

Sarah Ellen Zarrow


After the breakup of the Soviet Union, scholars gained unprecedented access to documents from former Soviet archives, allowing for a fuller picture of Eastern European Jewish life to be written. However, barriers to access still remain in the successor states, and it is unclear just how much material exists in archives. A new effort led by Gennady Estraikh, Rauch Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University, will document, in print and online, the history of Jews in the Soviet Union and will create a comprehensive overview of materials in the archives. Sarah Ellen Zarrow sat down to talk with Estraikh about the state of the archives and the possibilities of digital collaborative work.

SEZ: We were so excited to hear about this project, especially the open-access and digital aspects, and hoped you could give us an overview of how the project got started and came together?

GE: We received a substantial amount of money for this. The project will have two elements. One will be a scholarly series of monographs—which will also be ebooks. At the moment they will come out in English, but we are thinking that it would be logical to have a Russian edition as well. It will be seven monographs, six of which will be chronologically divided. And one volume will be on non-Ashkenazi Jews. The second aspect of the project is archival. We want to use the opportunity presented by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. As a result, archives became more accessible. On the one hand, we want to use the new archival material to write the volumes. On the other, we want to create an opportunity for further research, and to make it publicly accessible. It’s like building a subway—we will have to see the results of the first stage, and then move forward. The first step is an internet-based bibliography of published archival materials, in any form—a newspaper, a journal, a website.

We have about twelve people involved at this stage of the archival project. Some of the material was not originally in Russian, or appeared in non-Russian sources, and some of the publications came out in a variety of languages. So we have people in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, also in the three Baltic countries, in Moldova, also in Poland, and in Israel and here in the United States. So it will be in Russian, English, and the original language if it’s not in Russian originally.

SEZ: That’s already quite a lot!

GE: We hope to have it done by the end of this year.

SEZ: Yeah, what are we talking about? How much is out there?

GE: Well there’s also the difficult question: What to include? In terms of archival material. We had a meeting, and Skype conversations, and more Skype conversations. I realized that there is no answer. Our solution is that we are employing scholars, who can analyze the material and assess its value, not just students. Should we include something that is published only in part, one page, two pages? We cannot have a universal criteria, we’ll have the scholars on the project assess.

SEZ: My head is already spinning. Another question for me is, what does Jewish mean in this context?

GE: It’s also a question. If it’s a long document and there’s one line about the number of Jews in this enterprise, five Jews, is it Jewish source? Should we include it? A significant part of the clearly Jewish collections—from Jewish organizations, institutions, whatever—is already available somewhere outside the Former Soviet Union. In the late Soviet period, quite a number of archives—Israeli and American—managed to find a way to make copies of materials. At the same time, there are many millions of pages of documents that are extremely interesting, but aren’t from “Jewish” sources—they’re about Jews, though. For example, recently I had a conversation about this—in Leningrad, before the Second World War, there was an institute for study of national ethnic groups. The institute doesn’t exist now, but its archive still exists. The materials aren’t just about Jews, but I believe that the material can be very useful. I am at the moment interested in Jewish enterprises— factories, coops— that were not [explicitly] Jewish but clearly some of them were comprised entirely of Jews. So it makes no sense to look exclusively for specifically Jewish collections, but rather to go to archives about enterprises, industrial structure, and so on. Luckily, there will usually be a page or some pages of ethnic description about the workers. Or if someone is called Rabinovitch, with the patronymic Moiseievich, then that’s all you need to know.

SEZ: Do you expect there to be many Yiddish sources?

GE: Sure, sure. I just finished writing a chapter for a volume about the period from 1953-1967. The draft is about repatriation of Jews to Poland in the 1950s. Of course there is a lot in Polish, but also a lot in Yiddish, mainly from newspapers—Polish Yiddish newspapers, American Yiddish newspapers. They provide, in my view, the richest material, because they were really focused on recent developments. Of course there are also memoirs. As far as archives for this period of time, I’m not sure about Yiddish. Certainly the Soviet archives of this time would be in Russian, Belarusian, or Ukrainian.

SEZ: Will you speak about the importance of having this online?

GE: This is very important. I believe it will give a real boost to scholarship, to have it on the internet; it will have no borders. I hope it will be a boost to scholars not only in the United States, but also in Novosibirsk, or God knows where. Because now the idea itself of open archives is wonderful, but when you think, okay, the archive is open somewhere five thousand miles from you, and you have to go there … there is a sadistic element. And the expense, and the time, and how many days you can spend there. In Russia, I know from my experience, you have to pre-order, ten days to a couple of weeks earlier. And then you arrive, and you realize you need more material, and you have to come ten days later… . The question is, what we will show. It’s very tempting to think that we will show documents, but it will be millions of pages. It’s especially important to get access to archives not in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. At the end of the day, there are flights to Moscow, there is infrastructure there. And quite often such archives have catalogues or guides. But somewhere beyond the pale, in a local archive … it’s very difficult. So I think we will have the scholars write overviews—with major figures, organizations, et cetera, that the archives contain. Then it is already something you can refer to.

SEZ: Do you need a lot of cooperation from archives? Do you expect problems? I don’t know what the state of access to archives is in Russia.

GE: Yesterday, I read a decision from the Supreme Court of Russia. On the twenty-ninth of April, the Supreme Court of Russia came to a decision. One of the scholars faced this issue. Anyone is allowed to use a camera and make copies in the archive.

SEZ: That’s HUGE!

GE: Yes, well. It’s written in a very interesting way. [Reading and translating:] “For any lawful purposes and by any lawful means.” What does it mean? What’s a lawful purpose?

SEZ: Maybe you can’t take photos in order to write a history of homosexuality.

GE: I guess that might be it—you can’t write anything contravening Russian laws. So maybe we’ll encounter some problems. There is also paranoia. Especially if the material is in a language that the archivists can’t read, such a secret language as Yiddish … you never know. And it’s 500 rubles, about seven dollars, to photograph one page! So there will still be problems. When we think about the overviews, as well, we have to consider this—spending dollars per page for a document that only mentions Jews a few times might not make sense.

SEZ: I can imagine these overviews being so helpful for conceptualizing a research project. Even if you were going to make a trip to the archive, just to be able to lay the groundwork and get the most out of your time. To go from St. Petersburg even to Moscow is far. Especially for archives that have no catalogue.

GE: Yes—and there are already volumes put together by David Fishman and his team, on Ukraine—on Minsk I believe—on Moscow, and that’s been very helpful. But again, these are usually central archives.

SEZ: We have one final question, about something we think about a lot at In geveb. Your team is from all over, you yourself are in two countries, and then Russia, Israel, and so on … how will this project work from an organizational standpoint? How will collaboration work?

GE: Well, we have some in-person meetings: we had one here in New York of the writers, and in Berlin a meeting of the archival team. Travel and accommodations are enormously expensive, and we have teaching obligations. But when I go to various conferences, I see basically everyone on the team. Next month I’ll see some of the scholars in Moscow, and in April I saw some of the scholars at Brandeis University. So from time to time, maybe not all of us, but we come together. But in general, writing is a lonely activity, you have to sit and write. Of course, it is challenging to write a book on a time period. It’s a different challenge than writing about a topic; in a book on an era, you have to discuss various topics, and maybe a chapter is on something you’ve never done before. You have to start not from square one but maybe from square five. It’s challenging, but also very interesting. I believe that this will be one of the main results of this project; there are hardly any volumes on Soviet Jewish history as time periods.

Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “Jews in the Archives: A Conversation with Gennady Estraikh.” In geveb, May 2016:
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “Jews in the Archives: A Conversation with Gennady Estraikh.” In geveb (May 2016): Accessed Dec 15, 2018.


Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Sarah Zarrow is on the editorial board of In geveb. She is the Jaffe Professor of Jewish History at Western Washington University, where she teaches courses in Jewish history and the Holocaust.