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From Russia With Love

‘This institute builds bridges across cultures,’ said USC College Dean Howard Gillman during the Institute of Modern Russian Culture opening ceremony April 10.

Jeri Chase Ferris and Oleg Minine stand next to a handmade hooked rug of poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, which Ferris and her late husband bought from an elderly woman standing in the snow in Izmailova. Photo credit Taylor Foust.
Jeri Chase Ferris and Oleg Minine stand next to a handmade hooked rug of poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, which Ferris and her late husband bought from an elderly woman standing in the snow in Izmailova. Photo credit Taylor Foust.

Opening in 1926, the historic Shrine Auditorium Building with its Moroccan architecture and golden dome cupolas has been most famously a venue for the Oscars.

Now it's a venue for scholarly research. The Institute of Modern Russian Culture (IMRC) formally opened in the Shrine near University Park Campus April 10.

Part of USC College, the research facility promotes the cultural history of the world's largest country. It is home to extensive collections of rare books, catalogs, periodicals, archives, photographs, phonograph records and memorabilia from Russia.

"This new space will be an opportunity to take this collection and make it available to everybody at USC and in the broader community," USC College Dean Howard Gillman said during the opening ceremony.

"The work of this institute is central not only to our fundamental scholarly mission of teaching great world literature, languages and cultures, and the contributions of Russian culture, but is also central to USC's mission as a great global university. This institute builds bridges across cultures."

The celebration included tours of the Shrine - notably its massive auditorium where Bob Marley once played - and the IMRC, where an institute highlight, the Ferris Collection of Sovietica, was on display. The more than 8,000 items, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, publications, banners and toys are among its collections unique to the Western world.

"Mr. Ferris' primary mission was that the collection be studied and researched in an open and accessible manner," said Thomas Seifrid, chair of the closely affiliated Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. "We're very pleased that the IMRC is now able to provide this service."

John Bowlt, IMRC director, launched the private, nonprofit organization 30 years ago at the University of Texas. The professor of Slavic languages and literatures brought the institute with him when he joined the College in 1988. It has had various temporary homes on campus until it moved to the Shrine in 2007.

The institute's resources involve the cultural history of Russia, particularly the visual arts and literatures during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other exceptional features include Russian book illustrations beginning in the 20th century, a history of book designs (for example, the collection of artist Marc Chagall's book designs), satirical journals, a phonograph collection and original sound recordings of music and historic voices of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leo Tolstoy.

Last year, the family of Lev Ladyzhensky donated to the IMRC an expansive collection of poet and Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak materials spanning more than a half-century.

The institute is a rich resource for faculty, graduate and undergraduate students.

Oleg Minine, who arrived at the College as a Ph.D. student in 2001, found his dissertation topic while browsing through boxes being unpacked at the institute. He was studying Russian avant-garde when several satirical journals piqued his interest.

"The more I talked to John (Bowlt) about it, the more fascinated I became," Minine said. "He thought it was a ripe subject for research."

Through the institute, Minine received a grant from the Borchard Foundation enabling him to conduct research in Russia for his dissertation, which probes the satirical press of the First Russian Revolution. He earned his doctorate last year and will take his graduation walk in May.

Minine was unofficial curator of the Ferris collection while it moved to the Shrine. He, along with Mark Konecny, IMRC's associate director, gave tours of the collection and the entire institute during the opening celebration.

During the ceremony, Jeri Chase Ferris, Tom Ferris' widow, spoke of her late husband's penchant for collecting all things Russian and his love for the country itself.

Tom Ferris began collecting at age 4, but started focusing on Russia in 1970. A Russian studies teacher at Beverly Hills High School, Ferris took his students on a winter vacation to the then-Soviet Union.

"It changed Tom's life and mine, forever," Ferris told the crowd. "The moment we stepped onto Russian soil, a magnetic, almost spiritual attraction pulled us into Mother Russia."

Beginning in 1970, the couple took more than 30 trips to Russia acquiring items expressing the spirit and achievement of Soviet culture, whether a coffee-table album celebrating Stalin, a survey of the Moscow metro, a cigarette-case, an abacus, a school uniform, a portrait of a Party leader, a porcelain figurine or a money-box in the shape of Mikhail Gorbachev.

"One wintry Sunday at Izmailova under a brilliant blue sky," Ferris said, "we saw an elderly woman standing in the snow beside a small bonfire, holding up a handmade hooked rug depicting (poet and playwright) Vladimir Mayakovsky. Of course Tom bought it immediately, happy to pay what she asked, happy to have one more item for the collection."

Later, Ferris examined the handmade hooked rug now hanging on a wall in the IMRC, remembering clearly the old Russian woman who had crafted it keeping warm beside the bonfire.

"Tom's dream was that his collection of Russian memorabilia be preserved, kept safe and made available for study so people could understand how Stalin came to be," Ferris said. "So Soviet history would be real, not abstract; so future generations would appreciate the history and sacrifices of Soviet citizens."


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.