Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Boris Sapir papers, 1898-1992

Summary Information

At a Glance

Call No.: Ms Coll/[BAR] Sapir, Boris
Bib ID 5802117 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Sapir, Boris
Title Boris Sapir papers, 1898-1992
Physical Description 31 linear feet (73 boxes)
Language(s) English , Russian .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

Boxes 72 and 73 are off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.



This collection is arranged into 20 series.


Scope and Content

This collection of papers thoroughly documents most aspects of the life and work of Boris Sapir, particularly his activities as a Menshevik leader and writer in the Russian emigration, and as an historian of Russian populism and socialism. Materials on his work as a Menshevik include correspondence with his colleagues, significant files on the "Foreign Delegation" in Germany in the 1920s-30s, and on its "New York Center" in the 1940s-50s, an extensive collection of photographs of his fellow Mensheviks, and files and manuscripts relating to the Inter-University Project on the History of Menshevism from the 1960's. Concerning Sapir's career as an historian and archivist, there is material he used for his many publications in the field, correspondence with scholars and students (mostly asking his guidance, or thanking him for it), and some of his own manuscripts. There is a great deal of material on his personal life as well, in particular in his correspondence, in files on his biography, bibliography, and posthumous "rehabilitation, " and in his manuscript and photograph collections. Less well documented are his two decades of work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Besides the importance of the papers generated by Sapir himself, this collection is an excellent source for work on the Mensheviks because he was entrusted by his friends and colleagues with their own papers. These materials help to document the history of Menshevism particularly from the still hopeful years of the "Foreign Delegation" in Germany in the 1920s, to the last years of the "New York Center, " including its internal disputes in the 1950s, soon followed by the deaths of those Mensheviks who had survived the many years of wars and persecutions. Some of the materials go back to the pre-revolutionary era, through memoirs on the early years of Russian Marxism (1890s-1917). The entire collection consists of approximately 24, 000 items, spanning 1898-1992. Most of it consists of Sapir's own papers.

Series I includes extensive correspondence (chiefly post-1945); manuscripts by Sapir and others (many on the history of Menshevism); Sapir's research notes; several subseries of subject files, among which are copies of papers of P.B. Aksel'rod at the International Institute for Social History, biographical files on Mensheviks and others, the "History of Menshevism project, Petr Lavrov and Russian Populism, and Sapir's own life and career; an extensive collection of photographs, many documenting the history of Menshevism; and printed materials. While most of the correspondence consists of letters from Sapir's friends, family, and Menshevik colleagues (with carbon copies of many of Sapir's letters), there are also letters by P.B. Aksel'rod, Isaiah Berlin, Willy Brandt, F. Dan, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Michael Karpovich, Victor Serge, and George Vernadsky. This series includes approximately two-thirds of the total collection. The file of correspondence from Boris Sapir to Marc Raeff was a gift of Marc Raeff in 1995.

Series 2 includes two boxes of papers of Raphael A. Abramovitch (1880-1963), Menshevik and Yiddish and Russian journalist. Much of the collection concerns the mysterious murder of his son, Mark Rein, who was evidently killed by communist agents in Spain in 1937. Abramovitch corresponded with many socialist colleagues in an attempt to ascertain the circumstances of his son's death, including Abraham Cahan, Emma Goldmann, Karl Kautsky, and Norman Thomas.

Series 3 consists of four boxes of the papers of Gregor Aronson (1887-1968), also a Menshevik and journalist. There are chiefly manuscripts, notes, and subject files, from the post-1945 period, but also Aronson's correspondence with prominent Russian émigrés such as Mark Aldanov, Michael Karpovich, and Gleb Struve, as well as his fellow Mensheviks, and photocopies of letters from Marc Chagall.

Series 4 has six boxes of the papers of Fedor Dan (1871-1947), and of his wife, Lidiia Dan (1878-1963). Cataloged correspondence consists of letters by Leon Blum and Fedor Dan himself. Most of this series is made up of materials from the 1940s-60s, including correspondence, Lidiia Dan's diaries and notebooks, files of Fedor Dan's journal, Novyi Put', and subject files and printed materials.

Series 5 is made up of three boxes of papers of another Menshevik couple, Petr (1881-1944) and Sofiia (1885-1958) Garvi (or Garvy). Besides a limited amount of correspondence, this series chiefly consists of drafts of Petr Garvi's memoirs, which were published in 1964 as Vospominaniia sotsialdemokrata (Memoirs of a Social Democrat).

Series 6 is papers of Boris Gurevich (alias Dvinov, 1886-1968), another Menshevik and writer. There are two boxes of mostly post-1945 files, including correspondence, manuscripts, and subject files on right wing Russian émigré political groups.

Series 7 consists of one box of papers of Abram Lazarevich Vigderzon (d. 1984). It has Vigderzon's correspondence in the 1970s-80s with Sapir, and manuscripts, including one concerning the Zionists imprisoned at Solovki in the 1920s.

Series 8 includes four boxes of records of the Zagranichnaia Delegatsiia RSDRP. These records include correspondence of the 1920s (among them letters from Mensheviks in internal exile in the Soviet Union in the 1920s); notebooks and transcripts of the minutes of the Delegation's meetings in the 1920s-50s; files on the "Berlinskii klub im. Martova" (1920s-30s) and the "New York Center" (1940s-50s); Sapir's notebooks from the 1920s-30s; and files on the conferences of the Socialist Youth International, in which he participated as a representative of the Delegation in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Series 9 was the gift of Mrs. Leon Shapiro to the Bakhmeteff Archive in 1985. It consists of one box of letters from Boris Sapir to Leon Shapiro covering the period 1974 through 1984. The correspondence deals primarily with contemporary political events in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. It also contains extensive critical commentary on a wide range of publications including the Russian émigré press, world literature and the social sciences. Of special interest are Sapir's discussion of his own works and the events leading up to their publication.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

Boxes 72 and 73 are off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Permission to publish materials must also be obtained in writing from the Director of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.


Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source of acquisition--The Boris Sapir Collection was given to the Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University in 1990 by Dr. Sapir's family. Special thanks are due to Mrs. Boris Sapir and Dr. Anna Sapir Abulafia for making this gift possible. Prof. Marc Raeff must also be acknowledged for the important role he played in helping to bring the Collection to Columbia University. The detailed cataloging and description of the Collection was made possible thanks to a grant from the Leo Lande Foundation in 1992. Method of acquisition--Gift; Date of acquisition--1992.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Papers processed Ellen Scaruffi 1992.

Revision Description

2010-01-21 Legacy finding aid created from Pro Cite.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

History / Biographical Note

Biographical / Historical

The life of Boris Sapir (1902-1989) spanned most of the twentieth century and was touched by some of its most tumultuous and important events. In the obituaries written about him, he was often termed the last Menshevik. This refers to the fact that he joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party Mensheviks in 1919 at the age of seventeen and far outlived all other party leaders most of whom were a generation older. But he was also an historian and archivist and editor or author of several important works on the history of Russian radical populism and socialism.

Boris Moiseevich Sapir was born on February 24 1902 in the city of Lodz then part of the Russian Empire's Polish provinces. His father Moses Sapir was a Jewish businessman in that rapidly growing industrial city. At home the family spoke Russian but the young Sapir acquired some knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish as well. Boris Sapir attended the Vitanovskii Gymnasium in Lodz until 1914. After the occupation of Lodz by the Central Powers in December 1914 the Sapirs settled in Moscow and Boris continued his education at the gymnasium division of the Lazarevskii Institute of Oriental Languages. After the February 1917 Revolution the young Sapir became more and more politically involved. By mid-1918 he had come to sympathize with the Mensheviks. He formally joined the party in November 1919. He served in a noncombatant role.

Following the line of its leaders at that point in the Russian civil war when the White armies seemed close to victory and to restoration of the old order he joined the Red Army. He served from November 1919 to January 1921 by which time the Bolsheviks were sure of victory and were beginning to move ruthlessly against their erstwhile socialist allies. Many Mensheviks Socialist Revolutionaries and others were exiled imprisoned or killed. Sapir spent most of the period from February 1921 to December 1925 in prisons concentration camps including the notorious Solovki complex in the far north and Siberian exile because of his Menshevik affiliation and activities. He finally escaped abroad in 1926.

Sapir then settled in Germany. He remained an active Menshevik working in the Foreign Delegation of the party Zagranichnaia Delegatsiia RSDRP and representing it at the conferences of the Socialist Youth International in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was also a regular contributor to the party's journal Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik Socialist Herald He attended Heidelberg University graduating with a degree in law Dr. juris utriusque in 1932. His thesis Dostojewsky und Tolstoi über Probleme des Rechts Dostoevskii and Tolstoi on Problems of Law was published in Tübingen in 1932 and republished in 1977.

In 1933 when the Nazis came to power in Germany he left the country. By the end of 1935 he had settled in Amsterdam. There he began his many years of work with the International Institute of Social History. Together with Boris I. Nicolaevsky director of the Institute's branch in Paris he organized its work collecting and preserving, materials on the history of Russian socialism and populism.

The outbreak of World War II, and the German occupation of the Netherlands started Sapir moving westwards again beginning an important new phase in his professional and political life. In 1942 he reached Cuba where he found himself again working as an historian. This time however his topic was Jewish history specifically the development of the Jewish community of Cuba. The results of his work appeared in articles in several languages German Yiddish and English. In English the result was The Jewish Community of Cuba Settlement and Growth New York 1948.

In 1944 Sapir entered the United States. He settled in New York where he became an active member of the sole surviving significant group of exiled Mensheviks. Led by such party veterans as Fedor and Lidiia Dan Raphael, Abramovitch, Gregor Aronson Boris Nicolaevsky and others they continued to publish Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik until 1965 and to discuss the present and future of Russia. At the end of the forties a dispute arose among the Mensheviks about the question whether political cooperation with the Russians who had fought on the German side against the Soviet Union in World War II was permissible.

Sapir and some others denied this and went into the opposition. Sapir became an American citizen and in 1948 he married Berti Willikes-MacDonald a Dutch citizen. They had two children Leo Alexander born in 1949 and Anna Brechta born in 1952 He remained active in historical research as the Director of the Research Department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He was also one of the initiators of the Inter-University Project on the History of the Menshevik Movement. He was one of the authors of The Mensheviks From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War Chicago and London 1974 contributing its thoughtful concluding section Notes and Reflections on the History of Menshevism.

In 1967 on his retirement from the Joint Distribution Committee Sapir returned with his family to Amsterdam. There he took up once more the work he had left a quarter of a century before. He remained for the rest of his life at the International Institute of Social History collecting and editing archival materials advising scholars and students and publishing several important works on the history of Russian populism and socialism. These were Vpered 1873-1877 Materialy iz arkhiva Valeriana Nikolaevicha Smirnova Vpered 1873-1877 Materials from the Archive of V. N. Smirnov 2 vols. Dordrecht 1970, Lavrov, gody emigratsii Arkhivnye materialy v dvukh tomakh Lavrov the Years of Emigration Archival Material in Two Volumes Dordrecht 1974, Fedor Il'ich Dan: Pis'ma, 1899-1946 F. I. Dan Letters 1899-1946 Amsterdam 1985, and, Iz arkhiva L. O. Dan From the Archive of L. O. Dan Amsterdam 1987.

He also wrote numerous shorter essays book reviews and introductions to others' books. His professional, bibliography, as both an historian and a socialist covers seven decades 1926-1989 and includes materials published not only in Russian and English but in German Yiddish Dutch and Hebrew as well. In 1985 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Amsterdam. Just before his death on December 11 1989 he completed an introduction to a collection of the letters and writings of Menshevik leader L. Martov. He was also working on a history of Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik including the decipherment of the many pseudonyms used by its authors. The index was published posthumously in 1992.

Just as his adult life had commenced in the years of the Russian revolutions and civil war he died as communist power was rapidly declining in the Soviet Union and indeed already collapsing in many countries. In an announcement of Sapir's death his family noted We are grateful that he was able to experience the beginning of the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe.

On December 6 1991 on the eve of the dissolution of the, USSR, Soviet legal authorities officially recognized that Sapir's arrests and convictions in 1921-25 were illegal and he was rehabilitated along with many other former political prisoners. Sapir's family in the West was notified, and of this a few months later by which time the USSR had ceased to exist. The relevant documents, listing his alleged crimes and resulting punishments can perhaps serve as a coda to the history of Russian Menshevism and its apparent complete defeat by the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state but then the subsequent collapse of that state itself as the century neared its close.