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(JULY 24th – AUGUST 2nd 2016)

Between July 24th and August 2nd field school-expedition in Bryansk was organized by Sefer Center together with the Institute of Slavonic Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) and supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, UJA Federation of NY and Russian Science Foundation. 


The expedition's main goals were to research history and traditional culture of the Jewish population in former provinces of the Russian empire (for example the towns of Surazh, Mglin, Unecha); to catalogize Jewish cemeteries; to collect video and audio interviews about oral history, folklore and traditional culture; to search for archive materials.

25 people from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Minsk, Riga and Kazan participated in the expedition: professor Mikhail Chlenov and 8 students in the ethnographic group (led by Maria Kaspina and Svetlana Amosova), 14 people in the epigraphic group (led by Tamara Solomatina and Morl Gordon), photographer Mikhail Heifets and coordinator Anna Shayevich. 

School program in Russian (click on the image) 

During the expedition the ethnographic group worked in three towns of Bryansk district: Bryansk, Surazh and Unecha. 47 interviews were taken and recorded on video. The participants communicated with the oldest representatives from Jewish communities of Surazh and Unecha; they recorded memories about the pre-war Jewish life, evacuation, life in ghettoes, Jewish traditions which were preserved in families during the Soviet time. 

The contemporary situation of Jewish life in Bryansk was also researched. Participants of the expedition attended Shabbat in the local community. There was a funeral during the expedition, so participants could also observe some elements of funeral tradition in Surach. 

There were also interviews with non-Jews about the common life before and after WWII in this district and about Holocaust recorded. 

The epigraphic group succeded to catalogize completely Jewish cemetery in Surazh, the remains of Jewish cemetery in Mglin and especially interesting old part of Jewish cemetery in Unecha (where even five wooden matsevot were preserved). 1000 epitaphies were recorded in total. Each matseva was read, cleaned, photographied, measured and put on the map (there were also professional geodesists in the group). On the old parts of actual cemetry in Surazh monuments from the 1880s were found, with beauriful decoration and fonts. The matsevot on Mglin cemetery were also were interesting by decoration and shape - most of them were made from millstones. 

Every working day ended by a seminar-discussion (separate for ethnographs and epigraphists). The results of the day were analyzed there, collected files were united into common database, the plans were discussed the the tactics for the following working day was determined. 

There was also a cultural-educational program. Participants had an opportunity to listen a series of plenary lectures by Mikhail Chlenov "Jewish Etnical Groups: Contemporary Ways to Study". 

And another lectures:

  • "Soviet and Kosher / Russian and Jewish in Contemporary Traditional Culture of the Russian Jews" by Maria Kaspina and Svetlana Amosova. 
  • "The History of Eastern-European Jewry in the Photos by S. Yudovin, R. Vishnyak and D. Goberman" by Mikhail Heifets
On Saturday the tour to Mglin, Unecha and Lyalichi was organized. This tour was led by Natalia Golik, the director of the Unecha Ethnographic Museum. In Lyalichi there is an old mansion built by the project of a famous Italian architec Giacomo Quarenghi. Now it turned into picturesgue ruins. 


Paticipants could see the millstones-matsevot on the Jewish cemetery in Mglin, and in Unecha visited the ethnographic museum.


Jewish community of Surazh significantly helped to the work of the expedition. The website of Surazh administration published an article about the field school and local radio took an interview (from August 1st) with expedition's coordinator and group's leaders. 

Now the participants have to procede the collected materials, to make a catalogue and maps of cemeteries, to analyze the development and transformation of Jewish tradition on the base of collected materials. Bryansk district is unique becuase of its border placement - here the borders of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian lands were connected. Sefer Center plans to publish materials of this expedition as a book.