What can obituaries do for you and how do you find them? Well, obituaries can be extremely brief summaries of a individual’s life and significance or they can be very long articles packed with seemingly insignificant details and topped off with bibliographical references. Depending on how much information you need on a person, they can be the beginning of your search or the end of it. Janny Scott, in an article in the New York Times (July 8, 2001, sect.4, p.4) calls an obituary a “first draft of history. It is a miniature biography, a culture’s recognition of a well-lived life. It can inform everything written from there on out.”
Obituaries in the Slavic world, as in the rest of the world, appear in several places. Newspapers carry obituaries of famous people usually within a week of the date of death. Journals to which an individual contributed often carry obituaries or memorial articles written by colleagues of the deceased within a year of the date of death. Obituaries also can appear as part of volumes published as a memorial to the deceased. See also Festschriften . Keep in mind the source of the obituary when judging the quality of the piece. Newspapers often make factual mistakes, but are good for briefly summing up the historical significance of a person’s life. Tributes written by friends and colleagues can be loaded with detail, but also with sentimentality.
Jubilees are important in the world of Slavic research, for scholars and institutions often publish memorial articles and volumes about an individual on some significant anniversary date, e.g.100 years from the date of birth, 50 years from the date of death, someone’s eightieth birthday, etc. Jubilees are similar to obituaries because they try to sum up the contributions of a particular individual to his or her field of endeavor. They are similar for the researcher because they are locatable by date of publication.
For example, if you know that the composer, Sergei Prokofiev, was born in 1891, then you can bet that in the year 1991 numerous publications devoted to him and his music were produced. You can even wager a guess that a postage stamp to honor Prokofiev was issued in Russia in 1991, which indeed it was. There was also a stamp issued in 1981 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of his death. So if you have no idea when to start searching Letopis’ zhurnal’nykh statei for articles on Prokofiev, maybe you should start in 1991 when you will be sure to find something.
Some of the countries of Eastern Europe even publish books that are calendars of jubilee dates. They list all of the jubilees occurring in a particular year or significant events that took place on particular days of the year so you can anticipate upcoming jubilees. See the Russian Ezhegodnik pamiati muzykal’nykh dat i sobytii 1991 as an example.
In addition to giving you a starting place for research, jubilee dates can be helpful (just as with obituaries) if, for example, you are searching for information about an emigre in emigre publications that have no indexes to their contents. We know that the emigre writer, Boris Zaitsev, died in Paris on January 28, 1972. With this information you can find an obituary and several memorial articles and probably some day in the future even memorial articles written many years after his death on the date of a significant jubilee. How? Well, Zaitsev was a Russian emigre writer living in Paris. What newspapers might cover his death? You can try the New York Times or the London Times, but he may not have been well-known to the English language readership. But he was certainly important to Russian emigre readers. Try searching the big Russian emigre newspapers for January 28, 1972 and a week or two beyond that. In fact, there were numerous articles about this time on Zaitsev, including an obituary, coverage of the funeral, memorials by friends, etc. in Russkaia mysl’ , the Parisian Russian newspaper, and in Novoe russkoe slovo , the New York Russian newspaper. For more detailed information on obituaries see the section.