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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2005
Number 62
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Great Russian-Jewish Historians

Evrei V Rossiliskoi Imperil xviiixix: Sbornik Trudov Evreiskikh Istorikov (Jews in the Russian Empire Xviii-Xix Century: A Volume of Works of Jewish Historians, edited by A. Lokshin.
Moscow-Jerusalem: Jewish University in Moscow Press.

A Review Essay by Brian Horowitz

The editor, A. Lokshin, opens this edition of essays by the most important Rusian-Jewish historians of the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century this way: “For the Jewish intelligentsia in Russia, the beginning [of work] in national history was an important signpost for the development of Jewish selfconsciousness in Russia” (5). The idea that the essential requirement for national identity is the creation of a national past is obvious today. Yet how did the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia invent their history?

The writers featured in the volume come from the period 1890-1920, during which national consciousness suddenly erupts and flashes in a marvelous burst, only to be forcibly extinguished by the late 1920s. Recall the years after the pogroms of 1881- 82 and the establishment of the “temporary” May Laws with their suffocating legal restrictions. But one also found the development of a Jewish workers movement (Bund), an increased interest in Zionism, and the rise of a broad, acculturated intelligentsia, composed of both university graduates and businessmen. The works here by Semyon Dubnov, Maksim Vinaver, Saul Ginzburg, Izrael Tsinberg, Pesakh Marek, Iulii Gessen, and Semyon Ansky reflect the vitality of Jewish consciousness at this time.

And they were explosive pyrotechnics! These were the years when Jewish historiography fully matured, when one after another there appeared brilliant editions of materials, memoirs, letters, and volumes of scholarly research: Registers and Inscriptions (regesty I nadpisi) (2 vols [1899]), Our Experience (Perezhitoe) (4 vols. [1910-1913]), 25 volumes of the journal, Jewish Past (Evreiskaia starina) (4 vols. [1910-1925) and Jewish Encyclopedia (16 volumes [1906-1913]). For a short time, historical endeavors towered over the other arts, over music, literature, poetry, and even, if only momentarily, over painting.

Rarely are historical articles worthy of reading 100 years later, factual knowledge and scholarly method are superseded, ideological positions become dated. But the works in this volume remain vital today for two reasons. Since the Soviet government prohibited independent research on Russian Jewry, non-ideological scholarship was blocked during the 70 years of Bolshevik rule. Because of a lack of competition, these essays retain much of their importance in the Russian language. Secondly — and this regards scholars in English — the historians articulate a particular Russian-Jewish consciousness, which itself deserves careful interpretation.

Although their political views are not exposed here, it is not difficult to connect the historical work with political advocacy. In his politics, Semyon Dubnov, a leader of the Folksparei, articulated the necessity for Jewish autonomy and nationhood. His historical writings serve as it were to summarize the reasons for Jewish political independence. Writing about Jewish economic life under Nicholas I, Dubnov describes what occurred when the Jews lacked control of their fate. “The economic life of the Jews was completely shattered by the system of cruel guardianship which lasted a quarter of a century. With this system the government wanted to ‘transform’ their life. All these police activities — the hurling of people from country to city, from the border zone to within the Pale, the repression of some professions and the artificial encouragement of others — could create no economic reform, rather destruction” (p. 381).

Or take, for example, the work on the early Jewish workers’ movement by Boris Frumkin, who was one of the leaders of the Bund and an editor of many Bundist publications. Despite the inability to organize a successful Jewish worker’s movement in the 1870s, socialist ideals were already receiving form in the realm of the Hebrew language. In the monthly journal, Assefat Chachamim (Meeting of Wiseman), were printed ideas which would inspire later Bundists. For example, in “Visions of a Madman” (1878), the early socialist Moris Vinchevsky (pseudonym) writes: “Go and tell them that all people are brothers, that in nature there are no great and no little people, lords and slaves, rich and poor, that there is not a person in the world who could say, ‘I have the right to use the fruits of your work, the labors of other people’s hands’” (p. 634).

This volume also offers key pieces on the history of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, its cultural organizations and groups. The editor includes Semyon Dubnov’s appeal for the creation of a Russian-Jewish historical society, a fragment from Maxim Vinaver’s memoirs, detailing his experiences in the Historical Division of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment and Semyon’s Ansky famous appeal of 1909 for a Jewish ethnography in the introduction to his article, “Jewish Folk Art.” In that article, Ansky calls for the creation of a Jewish ethnography to save the artifacts of “our people.” He urges: “Each year, each day, marvelous pearls of folk art die, disappear. Dying, the old generation, predecessors of a cultural break, carry the heritage of a thousand-year-old folk art to the grave … At present an urgent task stands before us: to organize a systematic and broad collection of works in all the fields of folk art monuments of the Jewish past, descriptions of all the aspects of old Jewish life” (p. 643).

Looking at the choice of essays, one is urged to ask: do these essays offer a coherent and united historiography? I do not believe so. Despite the apparent unity of theme, the authors treat very different subjects. More importantly, these historians do not share any methodological or ideological approach. While Dubnov asserts the primacy of the unified experience of the Jewish people, Pesakh Marek focuses on the fissures within Russian Jewry. The question of the Russian government’s attitudes interests Iulii Gessen, while the fusion of ideas and individuals attracts Israel Tsinberg.

Nevertheless, the issue of power in the diaspora, which has become so important in today’s Jewish historiography, is present here. In fact, in these essays one can see the origins of our contemporary problematics. In over half the essays, the authors deal with the problem of political power, taking as their premise the view that the Jews were not entirely powerless and that the disappearance of overt political independence led to the construction of other centers of political, economic, and religious control. For example, in his article, “The Crisis of Jewish Self-Rule and Chasidism,” Pesakh Marek connects the rise of Chasidism to the weakening of the Kehilla. Similarly, in his “Predecessors of the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia,” Israel Tsinberg shows how the struggle against Chasidism enlivened traditional rabbinical power by making it open to Western knowledge. In this way, rigorous rabbinicalism was a force of intellectual control, particularly in the Northeast, balancing the Jewish community between the extremes of mysticism and secular enlightenment.

Interestingly, Professor Lokshin features those historians who envisioned a vibrant Jewish life in Russia, as opposed to emigration and Zionism. This is clearly a political decision. This volume with its emphasis on Jewish history in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its neglect of the Soviet period, appears to be in tune with the resurrection of Jewish culture going on in today’s Russia. Instead of looking for predecessors in other countries, or in their own recent past, today’s Jewish intellectuals are reaching to the years just before the Bolshevik revolution when Jewish historians were engaged in creating a modern Russian-Jewish history. Ironically, is this multivalent past on which, so it seems, they have placed their unambiguous hopes for vigorous future for Jewish life in Russia.

Brian Horowitz is Associate Professor, Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, Sizeler Family Chairholder in Judaic Studies at Tulane University, and a contributing editor.

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