With a merci to the Weatherspoons, the André Savine collection comes to Carolina
By Chrys Bullard
In old Paris, Nadia Zilper stood in a dimly lit stairwell and looked up: a spiral staircase curled to an attic seven stories above her. Inside the attic were boxes of rare Russian books, serials, manuscripts and photographs belonging to André Savine, one of the most reputable dealers of antiquarian Russian books in the world. When counted, the materials from the attic; Savine's apartment; the shelves of his bookstore, Le Bibliophile Russe; and a sister-in-law's basement would total more than 60,000 items -- one of the largest private collections of Russian émigré materials in the world. And it would follow Zilper, curator of Slavic and East European Collections, back across the Atlantic to a new home at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What brought Zilper to the attic was a series of events as full of twists and turns as the Parisian staircase.
"I first knew André Savine as a book dealer," Zilper said. "He was a member of the prestigious Syndicat National de la Libraire Ancienne et Moderne and earned the title of Libraire Expert, giving him the right to appraise books. His catalogs provided wonderful annotations, so I decided to pay him a visit in Paris in 1986. I always make it a point to get to know my vendors, to learn about their operations -- it helps me know what they're capable of."
In getting to know Savine, Zilper discovered they shared a common Russian heritage.
Beginning with the fall of Czar Nicholas II in 1917 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, thousands of renowned writers, philosophers, scholars and political figures whose ideas were not acceptable to the Soviets settled outside of Russia where they continued to work and publish. These émigrés preserved and documented their Russian culture as it began to deteriorate inside the tightly controlled Soviet Union. Savine was born in Paris to parents who were part of the first wave of Russian emigration, the son of a White Army soldier who evacuated with the defeated Russian Imperial Army. A second wave followed World War II. Zilper fled Russia with the third wave of emigrants, who left in the early '70s. She settled in Chapel Hill and earned a library science degree from Carolina to complement her Russian degree in history.
In her 22 years as curator at Carolina, Zilper created an in-depth collection of various materials from the third wave of the emigration -- much of which was purchased from Savine. Their mutual respect grew into a professional relationship that lasted for 20 years.
"When André became ill, he asked me to come to Paris for a visit," Zilper said.
Savine died a year later in 1999, leaving his wife, Svetlana, at a complete loss.
"Madame Savine wanted to keep the business going on her own but realized she didn't have the knowledge to do so," said Zilper. "She approached three libraries to buy the collection in part: The British Museum Library, the National German Library in Berlin and the University Library at UNC-Chapel Hill. I rejected the notion of buying only part of the collection. It would be all or nothing and at that time, we had no money."
But the University did have an interest. Zilper was sent to Paris to meet with Mme. Savine. Their conversations quickly revealed a double entendre.
"When Mme. Savine talked about the collection, I thought she was referring to the stock on the shelves of Le Bibliophile Russe. This was not the case," Zilper said.
Mme. Savine took Zilper to her apartment and showed her André's private collection, amassed over 30 years -- rare editions, archival materials and documents from 1917 to the present. "It took my breath away," Zilper said. "It was amazing what they had in there -- and more was stored around Paris. I came back to the states determined to bring the entire collection to Carolina, and if not, to find a good home for it. As a curator, I couldn't let it disappear."
According to Zilper, the value of the Savine collection lies in the assembling of so many items in one library. "Moreover, it contains a significant number of monographic and serial titles not held by any institution in the world -- particularly full runs of serials," she said.
Sub-collections include "Militaria," hand-written and illustrated journals, memoirs and documents of Russian White Army regiments exiled to Gallipoli, including orders, photographs and archival materials of General Vrangel, Commander in Chief of the White Army. Journals published by veterans associations -- many in full runs -- also document the life of Russian soldiers and officers after Gallipoli and are preserved in this collection.
In addition to "Militaria," more than 15,000 books feature poetry, fiction, history, memoirs, philosophy, religious studies, politics and children's literature written by Russian émigrés. First editions are autographed by prominent Russians such as Nabokov, Shaliapin, Tsvetaeva, Berberova and Yusupov. Also included is the 10-volume, handwritten diary of N.V. Savich, a respected politician and long-term member of the Russian State Duma (parliament). A third sub-collection features archives, including those of Russian émigré publishing houses and materials from the Union of Russian Taxi Drivers in Paris, the Paris Union of Russian Nurses and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kay and Van Weatherspoon and the breakfast of champions
As Nadia Zilper was getting to know the Savine collection, Kay and Van Weatherspoon of Charlotte were getting to know Nadia. Kay Weatherspoon was a long-time member of the Friends of the Library board and her husband, Van, an avid supporter. Although the Weatherspoons attended many Friends lectures and presentations over the years, a speech given by Zilper on her experiences in the Soviet Union really attracted their attention.
"It intrigued me that she was working for Carolina and traveling back to Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart to buy books at pennies on the dollar," Van Weatherspoon said. "It was farsighted on her part -- and on the University's part."
Joe Hewitt, director of the University Library, calls Zilper's trips a "margin of excellence activity."
"Endowment income gave us the flexibility to send Nadia to Moscow and Paris where she could get better deals on books. And it facilitated her relationship with the Savines," he said. "But just as important was the relationship she developed with the Weatherspoons."
The Weatherspoons began to make unrestricted donations to be used at the behest of the University Library. Because of their interest in Nadia's work, the library designated those funds to Slavic resources. Van Weatherspoon also asked Zilper to let him know if she had any special projects. "He and Kay started to monitor our activities in the best sense of the word," she said.
When the Savine collection was offered to UNC-Chapel Hill, Zilper let the Weatherspoons know. She and Michele Fletcher, director of development for the University Library, went to Charlotte as guests of the Weatherspoons to share the information they had gathered.
"We had fundraising in mind," Fletcher said, "but Van said they weren't ready to give again to Carolina; however, he did invite us to come visit them and discuss fund-raising strategy."
Around the dinner table, Fletcher, Zilper and the Weatherspoons discussed the value of the collection to students and researchers interested in 20th century Russian history and Russian emigration. The next morning, Nadia set up a PowerPoint presentation she had put together. According to Fletcher, all didn't go as planned.
"As we were getting started, Van said, 'How long is the PowerPoint going to take? Nadia said she didn't know and I had a sinking feeling that Van needed to run off to a meeting. Nadia rushed through her presentation showing some of the highlights. Then, in an off-hand manner, Van said 'Kay and I already decided last night that the Savine collection needs to come to Chapel Hill. And we will make it happen.'"
The Weatherspoons wanted to position Carolina as one of the world's top sites for research in the field of 20th century Russian history and emigration. "Anyone with a UNC degree has the obligation to do what he or she can do in order to maintain and hopefully improve the competitive position of the University," Weatherspoon said. "Obtaining the Savine collection places Carolina -- by far -- in the number one position for research on this topic. Since no new materials of the same magnitude are likely to be discovered in the future, Carolina will continue to maintain this top position. In short, we didn't want to see the University pass up this wonderful opportunity."
Filling "the black hole"
Thanks to the gift from the Weatherspoons, more than 30,000 pounds of rare Russian émigré books, serials, manuscripts, artwork and photographs were packed, crated and shipped from Paris to Chapel Hill -- the largest single collection ever purchased by the University Library. It is estimated that the collection will be fully catalogued by 2006, at which time it will move to its new home in the Rare Book Collection of Wilson Library.
"The unique materials in the Savine collection will raise the visibility of UNC-Chapel Hill in the international scholarly community," Hewitt said. "It is the kind of quality collection that will be imperative for scholars to use if they're doing research in the field."
Zilper agrees. "Twentieth century Russian emigration has had almost no study and no in-depth research, mostly for lack of material," she said. "Some is scattered around the world in various library collections, but only in bits and pieces. The seven decades of totalitarian Soviet regime left an intellectual and spiritual 'black hole' in the Soviet Union. The André Savine collection fills in this hole with the voice of the Russian emigration -- the voice of free and true expression."