Rare Photos Teach About Soviet History

Posted on October 31, 2013 by

Photograph collections are an incredibly valuable tool for researchers. The photographs range from professional photos to snapshots taken by amateurs, sometimes with heads cut off. Sometimes the reasons why the photo was taken or who owned it is just as important as the photo’s subject. During my time at JMM, I have had the opportunity to handle a lot of interesting photos that tell a side of history that regular print media doesn’t always capture.

Fabian Kolker, 2001.013.023

Fabian Kolker, 2001.013.023

Earlier this year, I processed an archive and photograph collection donated by the estate of Fabian Kolker. Kolker was a human rights activist from Baltimore who worked on behalf of Jews in the Soviet Union. Much of Kolker’s effort was directed at convincing the Soviet Union to release refuseniks. Refuseniks were Soviet citizens who applied for exit visas but were denied. Many individuals, after being denied, lost their jobs or were imprisoned. Most refuseniks were Jews, who wanted to leave because of widespread anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.


Valery and Galina Panov, 2001.013.075

One famous refusenik was Valery Panov, a lead dancer with the Kirov Ballet. After applying for an exit visa to Israel in 1972 and being denied, he was dismissed from his position at the ballet company and briefly imprisoned. After a great deal of international protest, Panov and his wife, Galina, were allowed to leave for Israel. Within the Kolker photograph collection is a photo of Valery and Galina dancing together. I love this photo for the high contrast that creates drama, but most especially for the beauty and grace of the dancers. Since this photo came from Kolker’s personal collection, we can guess that Kolker was interested in the Panovs as more than part of a political cause, but as artists and people who were being terribly mistreated by their country.

Fabian Kolker visiting Ida Nudel in Odessa, Ukraine, 2001.013.234

Fabian Kolker visiting Ida Nudel in Odessa, Ukraine, 2001.013.234

Kolker visited the Soviet Union several times. During a visit to Odessa, Ukraine, Kolker met with refusenik Ida Nudel, only a few months before Nudel was granted an exit visa to Israel. The collection has several photos from this visit. Most obviously, to me, these photos show Kolker taking the effort to get to visit the people he advocated for. These photos also give us a glimpse of what life was like in the Soviet Union. We see the interior of a home (take a look at that wallpaper!), how the people are dressed, and how they interact with one another.

Working with the Fabian Kolker collection has really pressed upon me the importance of preserving historical documents. These photos would be difficult to find outside the JMM collection, if they exist at all. Pairing these photos with the archive collection puts them in a context that says a lot more about who Fabian Kolker was and what he accomplished.


A blog post by Collections Volunteer Dana Willan. To read more collections related posts, click here.

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