The Boris Souvarine Collection, 1917-2017

The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom-Davis Library holds a large number of documents collected by Boris Souvarine over his life. In this post, Svetlana Yakimovich tells you what you need to know about him and what the Souvarine collection contains.

Who was Boris Souvarine?

A founder of the French Communist party (1920) and a member of the Comintern Executive Committee (1921-1924), Souvarine was expelled from the USSR for criticizing the party line. Upon his return to France, he became a correspondent of the Marx and Engels Institute, and later founded the Institute of Social History in Paris in 1935 as a French branch of the International Institute for Social History of Amsterdam. He carefully developed its library, often at his own expense, preserving documents and correspondence concerning the Comintern and rare published materials, such as first Soviet editions and press clippings.

After his return from the American refuge in 1948, Boris Souvarine recreated the Paris Institute and ran it single-handedly until his retirement in 1976, continuing the publication of the journal Le Contrat social and willingly sharing his experience, knowledge, and library with hundreds of people who were seeking advice in the field.

The Boris Souvarine Library is a true reflection of his intellectual itinerary during the long years of his active life. The wide range of the books and periodicals shows the development of his political views, but the main subject of the library was determined by the area of his particular interest and the name of the Institute he directed – social and historical studies of contemporary politics.

How did the Souvarine collection end up at the Institute?

At the end of the 1950s, Souvarine’s failing health and ever-increasing financial burden brought about a critical situation requiring the sale of the collection. At that time it was considered to be the fourth most important library in the field in Europe, after the Moscow Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the one at the Amsterdam Institute, and the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Library in Milan.

Boris Souvarine considered several ways of saving his collection from dispersal or falling into communist hands and finally proposed it to the Library of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He explained his choice in a letter of 1 February 1960 to the Director of the Geneva Institute at that time, Professor Jacques Freymond, in the following words:

“Geneva is a center of international meetings and has long been an academic center for students and professors of all nationalities […]. Also Geneva is a haven of peace, neutrality, stability. Geneva precisely combines the advantages of being a Swiss city and a global crossroads”

In a letter of 30 March 1971 to the Institute, he added:

“in spite of the most tempting propositions that were coming from America I have always wanted all my collection to remain in Europe, and Geneva seemed to be the most suitable place for different reasons, as well as being the most available”.

Souvarine was also interested in the short distance between Paris and Geneva, which would have made it possible for him to spend some time in Geneva continuing his work and acting as an advisor on the collection’s organization.

Jacques Freymond was enthusiastic about the idea. At the time, the Institute already had a library of about 30’000 volumes but it did not possess a section on the history of socialism and communism. Adding Souvarine’s collection would expand the Institute’s ability to specialize on such subjects, and Jacques Freymond himself was doing scholarly research on the history of the First International.

Between spring 1961 and until Boris Souvarine’s death almost a quarter of a century later, books arrived in a series of boxes. The Institute’s librarians catalogued the books upon their arrival, starting with the most precious editions and collections of surveys. Some of Souvarine’s letters of this period describe the content of the boxes sent to Geneva in simple handwritten lists. The last packages of his personal archives and books, carefully prepared and sent by his widow, Mme Francoise Souvarine, arrived in Geneva in September 1985 after his death.

Yves Collart, the Secretary-General of the Graduate Institute, mentioned the importance of “Operation Souvarine” in a letter of 22 February 1961 to Alfred Borel, Geneva State Counselor, head of the Department of Public Instruction and head of the Institute Foundation Board:

“A project, which not only enriches our library with collections of great value but opens new opportunities of great interest for our future research”.

What’s in this collection?

According to Souvarine’s Memorandum of 4 December 1959, the Paris Institute library consisted of approximately 12 000 volumes on the history of socialism and communism among which there were valuable collections of newspapers and magazines related to revolutions, economic doctrines and social movements. In addition to this, there were several thousand pamphlets of great importance in these fields.

There were also a number of documentary files such as the documents which Boris Souvarine kept at the time when he was the Secretary of the Third International, documents covering the negotiations between France and the Soviet Union about the settlement of tsarist regime debts, as well as some personal files of Sergey Prokopovich, who was a Minister under Alexander Kerensky in the Provisional Russian government that succeeded the fall of tsarism and was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Boris Souvarine Archive at IHEID now comprises several sections:

  • Souvarine’s personal documents, vast correspondence, press clippings and historical photographs, dating from 1917-1960, before the time of his Comintern activity to the period of  Khrushchev’s leadership;
  • the archive of Anatole de Monzie, a French political figure and scholar;
  • various donators’ folders
  • a significant part of the collection is represented by a life-time archive of the family of Sergey Prokopovich, Russian economist, sociologist, liberal politician, Minister in the Provisional (Kerensky) Government (1917), and his wife, Yekaterina Kuskova, a politician, advocate of social reformism, economist and journalist writing on economics, history and political matters, founder of the “Public Committee for Famine Relief” in 1921 and, a year later expelled with her husband from Soviet Russia for their anti-Bolshevik activity. The family lived in Geneva from 1939 up to their deaths, leaving numerous folders of archive material, containing rare original correspondence, manuscripts and press clippings dated 1900-1954, to Boris Souvarine.

The collection was highly valued by its holder himself:

“As fragmentary, as insufficient as my collection may be, it still represents a real interest in various fields. It denies well-established legends concerning the life of the Comintern, its terms of deliberation and action, its relations with national sections, the “money question”, Soviet espionage, etc. It illuminates the Executive Committee’s relations with the PCF [French Communist Party], but some aspects of these relationships also apply to the other sections of the Comintern. It contains texts and papers concerning different Communist Parties, various poorly known episodes of international communism. It preserves the letters of Zinoviev, Boukharine, Trotsky, Kuusinen, Lozovsky, Manouilsky, Rosmer, Sadoul, Bordiga, Roland-Holst, Rutgers and the others, which contribute to the comprehension of the people and of the facts. It provides all necessary materials on the PCF for a future true history of this party “in the making”, of its crisis, of its transformation into the instrument of the Soviet state. Due to these diverse titles, the collection is irreplaceable and it  is worth a publication…”
(from B.Souvarine’s letter to J.Freymond of 30 March 1971).

How can the Souvarine collection be accessed?

Western books from the Souvarine collection were integrated into the Institute’s general collections, while books in Russian, mostly published in the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s, are kept under call number HEISOU in the Compactus room.

A selection of photographs was published on the Graduate Institute Library’s Flickr account: “Soviet Russia photos“. An e-book titled From communism to anti-communism: Photographs from the Boris Souvarine Collection at the Graduate Institute, Geneva was also edited by prof. André Liebich and Svetlana Yakimovich.

The inventory of the Souvarine papers is available online, and the papers can be digitized on demand. They can also be accessed for research purposes upon appointment with Svetlana Yakimovich.


Photograph: “Décoration de la Bibliothèque populaire le 1er mai” – May 1st at Petrograd

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