A scholarly institution attached to the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and specializing in Jewish studies, the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture (Rus., Institut Evreiskoi Proletarskoi Kul’tury; IEPK) was founded in 1929 as a reorganization of the academy’s Chair (Department) of Jewish Culture. The initiative for the creation of the chair had come from high party circles and was supported by UkrNauka, the government department that supervised the work of scholarly institutions in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s.
The chair and then the institute were charged with the task of conducting a “struggle with bourgeois Jewish nationalist ideology and science.” A similar Jewish research center already existed and had been operating successfully since 1924 in Minsk, attached to the Belorussian Academy of Sciences. Since this institution was the only one of its kind in the USSR, it was thought appropriate to create another in Ukraine, where the largest Jewish population was concentrated. Yoysef Liberberg (1898–1937), a young, energetic, and ambitious professor of history, was the organizer and first director.
Creation of the new Jewish research center required archival, library, museum, and other resources. These did not exist in Ukraine and could only be found in Moscow and Leningrad. However, the older Minsk center claimed the right to these materials. Understanding their importance for the success of his new institution, Liberberg launched a struggle to have the historical resources transferred to Kiev. He obtained the support of the Ministry of Education and succeeded in gaining possession of the most valuable Jewish historical and ethnographic materials. Among these were the archives and library of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), consisting of 50,000 volumes and 10,000 manuscripts in Hebrew and Arabic, and 4,000 volumes from the library of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society. Of special importance were the S. An-ski archives of ethnographic and musical materials. The Jewish Section of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences acquired only a small part of this historical legacy.
Award issued by the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture to visiting scholar Kalman Marmor "for exceeding the production plan," Kiev, 1930s. (YIVO)
The ambitious Liberberg strove to acquire all-Union status for his institution (i.e., that it would be recognized as the principal Jewish research center of the entire Soviet Union, not just in Ukraine). One obstacle in his path was the Jewish Historical and Archaeographic Commission, which also operated under the auspices of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and surpassed the Chair of Jewish Culture in its professionalism. However, the Evsektsiia supported the chair, whose staff members were chosen on the basis of party recommendations. Liberberg launched a campaign against the commission, which was subsequently closed down in 1929. Its property was handed over to the chair’s successor, the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture (IEPK). As the only Jewish research center in Ukraine and the largest such center in the USSR, the institute obtained excellent financial backing, significantly more than similar Ukrainian academic institutions. During the 15 years of its existence, IEPK became a first-rate center of Jewish cultural activity, bringing together linguists, poets, and writers from Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, and L’viv and establishing extensive contacts with various Jewish studies centers throughout the world.
Six departments operated within IEPK: history, philology, ethnography, literature, society and economics, and pedagogy. In addition, the institute encompassed several subsidiary institutions, including the Central Archive of the Jewish Press, which received publications on Jewish topics from Europe and the United States, and the Jewish Scientific Library. A branch of IEPK operated in Odessa. Toward the mid-1930s, IEPK had a staff of about 100. Its director was Nokhem Shtif, a well-known Jewish philologist and a founder of YIVO. IEPK published the Yiddish-language scholarly journals Di yidishe shprakh and Visnshaft un revolutsye.
In early 1936, IEPK was closed down. Some of its staff members were arrested on charges of Trotskyism. A new, much smaller scholarly institution was created on its ruins, the Office for the Study of Soviet Jewish Literature, Language, and Folklore. Its staff and its scope were significantly curtailed. Elye Spivak, a prominent Jewish philologist and corresponding member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, became director. Right up until the office was closed down, its researchers published studies, including monographs on linguistics and the history of literature. They also prepared Sbornik evreiskikh narodnykh pesen (Collection of Jewish Folk Songs) and the most complete Russian–Yiddish dictionary to date (Russko-evreiskii [idish] slovar’, edited by Spivak and Moyshe Shapiro), which was published only in 1984.
In 1941, the office was evacuated to Ufa in the Urals with the rest of the Academy of Sciences, remaining there until 1944. Its scholarly archive was evacuated along with the staff. From 1941 to 1944, about 20 scholarly works were prepared. At the end of World War II, the office was, in effect, the sole Jewish scholarly institution remaining in the USSR. Subsequently, in the postwar period, its staff concentrated its efforts on popularizing the heritage of Yiddish classics; developing the Yiddish language, literature, and theater; collecting and studying Jewish folklore; and translating Yiddish literature into Ukrainian and Russian. The writers Matvei (Mote) Talalaevskii, Grigorii (Gershl) Poliakner, Rive Baliasnaia, Nosn Zabara, Ayzik Guberman, and others published works under the office’s aegis. It also initiated numerous scholarly conferences and meetings of the Jewish artistic intelligentsia with the public.
The postwar antisemitic campaign completed the destruction of Soviet Jewish culture. Accusations of bourgeois nationalism and cosmopolitanism rained down on the researchers at the office. The accusers recalled meetings that had taken place under the auspices of the office with Ben-Zion Goldberg, editor of the American Yiddish newspaper Der tog, and the fact that office staff members had published works in American publications. The research institute was liquidated by a decree of the presidium of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in January 1949; its files may have been destroyed. Almost all the staff members suffered repression and died in prison or the camps. Director Spivak was killed while under interrogation.
Avraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship and Scholarly Institutions in Soviet Russia, 1918–1953 (Jerusalem, 1978); Ivan Fedorovich Kuras, N. F. Horovs’ka, and Iurii Ivanovych Shapoval, eds., Pam’iataty zaradi zhittia (Kiev, 1993), pp. 83–88, contributions in Ukrainian or Russian, summaries and table of contents in English; Z arkhiviv VUChK HPU NKVD KHB 3–4 (1998): 21–29, 84–146.
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson