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Jewish Studies Program Inaugurated by Moscow Institute, JTS and Yivo

The first Jewish studies program in more than 50 years was established at a Moscow school of higher learning Wednesday. But following the storming of the Moscow writers’ union by Pamyat in January, it is unclear what reception it will receive.

“I am convinced that the best representatives of the Russian intelligentsia will support our institution even if there are public insults and attacks,” said Natalya Basovskaya, vice president for curriculum at the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives.

Basovskaya was in New York for the formal signing of the joint program in Jewish studies by the Moscow State Institute, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research.

According to Basovskaya, some academics at the Moscow State Institute are distrustful of the innovative program. “You can hear an ironic comment or someone scribbling a piece of graffiti,” she said through an interpreter.

“My hope is that gradually our action and activity will change their minds. I consider them enslaved to old conceptions and susceptible to political blind spots in our history.”

The Moscow State Institute, a university with 5,000 students that specializes in the teaching of archival skills and the identifying and cataloging of historical documents, will be the first joint degree-granting program between an American and Soviet university.

FIGHT AGAINST NATIONALISM

“Nothing less than the process of perestroika in the Soviet Union is the basis for what we are undertaking,” said Victor Mouraviev, vice president for academic affairs at the institution.

Long known for its progressive liberal political leanings, the Moscow Institute has been in the forefront of the fight against the rising forces of nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

Its president, Dr. Yuri Afanasyev, is a leader of the Democratic faction of the Supreme Soviet, and many of its faculty members took part in the Feb. 4 demonstration against Pamyat and the storming of the writers’ union at Manzeh Square.

“Starting this program is one way to conquer these forces, overcome this fear and act on our consciences,” said Basovskaya.

Between 1920 and the mid-1950s, the Stalinist government gradually destroyed Jewish life and culture in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, the Zionist movement was liquidated; in the 1940s and ’50s, Jewish writers and scholars were arrested, papers seized and what remained of Yiddish culture banned.

“We are trying to retrieve the pieces that are left and restore them to the Jewish people,” said David Fishman, a professor of Jewish history affiliated with JTS and YIVO, and the originator of the program.

Every other semester, one or two professors from JTS and YIVO will teach in Moscow. The Moscow Institute’s faculty will complement their courses with lectures in history and archival skills.

The Soviet students will also spend one year of the four-year program studying in New York at JTS and YIVO. The program is slated to begin in the fall of 1991.

The purpose of the undertaking, said Fishman, is to train Soviet students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the skills necessary to digest and catalogue the vast quantity of Jewish manuscripts now surfacing in the Soviet Union.

In March 1989, approximately 40,000 pages of YIVO archival material was discovered at the Lithuanian Book Chamber, the Lithuanian equivalent of the Library of Congress.

And in January, 16,000 folders of Jewish archival material containing records from Lithuanian yeshivas, schools and credit unions and the manuscripts of Yiddish authors were discovered in the Central State Archives in Vilna.

“This was proof to us that the documents that we thought had been destroyed after the Second World War had survived, and seemed to be centered around Vilna,” said Samuel Norich, executive director of YIVO.

“And this is not an exception,” said Fishman. “There are many archives in Russia that have been closed to scholars and have been neglected.”

These “treasure-troves of documents and artifacts will someday enable scholars to rewrite the history of Jews in Eastern Europe,” said Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of JTS.

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