Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry will preserve history of Soviet Jewish experience
By Bridgette M. Redman
Museums help to protect history from being lost. In Culver City, the Wende Museum is opening the Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry in an effort to preserve the history of the Soviet Jewish experience, particularly those who applied for exit visas and subsequently faced discrimination or were disciplined when their visas were refused.
They became known as “Refuseniks” and they founded a movement of protest and culture that lasted from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Underwritten by Edward and Peggy Robin, two Wende Museum Board and Committee members, the Robin Center was started pre-pandemic and has been in the works since then. In addition to being a home for archival materials, the Center will offer ongoing programming to interact with the material.
The first exhibition related to the Center will be “Soviet Jewish Life: Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks.” It will be on display from Nov. 14 through March 20. The Wende Museum focuses on collecting, preserving and providing access to a wide range of media having to do with socialism during the Cold War era (1945-1991). Also opening at the same time is an exhibition called “Questionable History.”
“I was involved in the Soviet Jewry, which was a major international, human rights movement,” said Edward Robin. “A photographer friend of mine, Bill Aron, was an important figure because he went to Russia, then the Soviet Union, and took memorable photographs of refuseniks, the Jews who applied to emigrate and were refused permission and often lost their jobs.”
Creating the Robin Center
Robin said they reached out to the Russian-speaking Jewish community in the U.S., Israel and Russia. In doing so, they discovered that there is a real interest in this history now that it is 30 years old. As they reached out, they had people start to donate materials that have never been seen in public before. These included things like a daily bulletin circulated among the members of the protest movement, an underground newspaper, and pamphlets that the Soviet Jewry made to communicate with each other.
They hope in the future to do such activities as having someone come in to teach children and young adults how to create their own underground pamphlets and magazines.
“There is more coming in on a regular basis,” Robin said. “We know we have what has already become a world-class historical archive from that period from the participants — not just from American observers of what was going on. Much of it is for scholars, most of it is in Russian. Some Russian-speaking academics have glanced at it and think it is a treasure trove.”
The Wende Museum, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, has always been interested in overlooked and underappreciated stories of people who experienced something in life that will resonate with others, said the museum’s founder.
“I certainly think right now with immigration and protests and opposition and dissidents — these are all of the things that this movement entailed,” said Justinian Jampol, executive director and founder of the museum. “The Wende is always trying to find the connective tissue between the there and the here and the then and the now.”
Jampol pointed out that Russian-speaking Jews are an important community in LA that has been here for decades. He also acknowledges that the work the museum does isn’t always easy to digest. People can’t consume it in an hour and leave with selfies.
“Our mission is almost like an onion where you have to unpeel the layers,” Jampol said. “I think ultimately healing is deeply rewarding and memorable and important. Sometimes what that means in practice is that our exhibitions have to do a lot of informing and providing context as a way to engage people. We’re always trying to look for those on-ramps to the freeway for people, whether design or history or fashion or politics.”
Robin insisted that because of the topics and themes and the amount of time that has gone by, people are ready to re-engage in this part of history. Jampol said that upon releasing the news, they had immediate interest in the project.
“In almost 20 years, I don’t think there has been as much interest in any project that we’ve done as much as this one,” Jampol said. “It’s exactly what we should be doing.”
He stressed that this exhibition is just the launch of the Robin Center and they are engaging in a multi-year initiative and beyond that involves digitizing the archives and making them accessible for free online.
“Usually we exhibit and we move on,” Jampol said. “This is something different in that it is just the start of a long and more robust project that we’re going to be working on for the next many, many years.”
Opening exhibition features two artists
The “Soviet Jewish Life” exhibition features 27 of Aron’s photographic images from 1981. In a press release from the Wende, it was said that Soviet customs officers attempted to confiscate his negatives when he was leaving. However, he had packed a bag of decoy film which saved the originals from being taken.
Fiks left Moscow in 1994 at age 22 and creates multimedia projects about Soviet history. These projects will also be on display as part of the exhibit.
“As a result of Bill’s efforts, we were able to put a face on the people he advocated for. It added a human touch,” Robin said. “I referred him to Justin. They met and Bill became a fan of the museum.”
Jampol pointed out that it is one thing to talk about or read about a community in need, it is another to be able to see human faces and how people are suffering or responding to the realities around them. That, he says, is what Aron did with his photographs.
“What he captures is a real spirit of the sense of desire to express a cultural as well as a religious identity — which were both suppressed,” Jampol said. “They would have underground Hebrew lessons which were not allowed. They would worship outside the synagogue and in people’s homes because there was a stigma attached and risk to being religious in the USSR. Bill captured these moments that give future generations the implicit message that they’re going to have to face this harsh reality without some kind of intervention or help.”
Exhibition questions history
The other exhibition, “Questionable History,” delves into symbols and what they have to say about history. It is designed to ask questions about the character of historical knowledge and the stories we tell about the past.
At the center of the exhibition is Vladimir Lenin and how his reputation and representation has evolved over time. There are presentations of historical lenses from such people as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. It also has contemporary work from modern artists who challenge the iconography surrounding Lenin.
Wende Museum focuses on its specialty
The Wende Museum, which is underwritten by the Arcadia Fund, specializes in at-risk and endangered collections. Their funders are the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
“You can’t write histories about people where there is no evidence,” Jampol said. “It’s been a way that people have systemically been removed from historical records, by destroying evidence. It is why the team and myself are so passionate about what we do. If we weren’t there, a lot of these things would slip through our collective fingers and be lost forever.”
“This collection has been under beds and in closets at a time where representation is so important,” Jampol continued. “The Soviet Jewry movement has only been told from the American side and while incredibly effective and successful — thank goodness for Ed and people like him — we also need the people who are the subject, the Russian Jews themselves, to tell their stories. What is surprising is how little information has been preserved about their experience. It is an opportunity for the Wende to save the historical record and to make sure they have a voice.”
What: The Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry
Where: The Wende Museum, 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday