1.

At the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of Europe’s Jews (5.2 million out of 8.7 million) lived in the Russian Empire. Subject to a comprehensive range of legal disabilities and discrimination, the Tsar’s Jews were forbidden to own land, to enter the Civil Service, or to serve as officers in the army; there were strict quotas on Jewish admissions into higher schools and universities; and with a few exceptions they were forced by law to live in the fifteen provinces of western Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Poland which made up the Pale of Settlement. The Jews were “middlemen between the overwhelmingly agricultural Christian population and various urban markets,” Yuri Slezkine writes in his bold interpretative history:

Most of the Jewish middlemen bought, shipped, and resold local produce; provided credit on the security of standing crops and other items; leased and managed estates and various processing facilities (such as tanneries, distilleries, and sugar mills); kept taverns and inns; supplied manufactured goods (as peddlers, shopkeepers, or wholesale importers); provided professional services (most commonly as doctors or pharmacists), and served as artisans (from rural blacksmiths, tailors, and shoemakers to highly specialized jewelers and watchmakers).

And then there was Tevye the Dairyman. Slezkine says that his main purpose is to “describe what happened to Tevye’s children.” As readers will recall, Tevye is the hero of Sholom Aleichem’s stories, which were adapted for the Western stage and screen as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye has four daughters who break from patriarchal tradition: Tsaytl falls in love with a poor tailor and rejects the marriage that her father has arranged; Hodl marries a revolutionary and follows him into exile in Siberia; Beilke (who does not feature in the film) marries a shady businessman and runs away to America; and Chava elopes with a Russian peasant boy who shares her love of books. Fiddler on the Roof ends with Tevye, his wife Golde, and their two remaining daughters packing up their bags and emigrating to America. They are leaving with the rest of their village, following the pogroms of 1905–1906.

Imagining the destinies of Tevye’s children, Slezkine charts the three main paths of Jewish emigration—geographical and intellectual—from the shtetl and its traditions. Many Jews followed Beilke to America, a journey Slezkine links to their adoption of liberal and capitalist views (as well as to the spread of Freudianism). A much smaller number emigrated to Palestine (less than half of 1 percent, even at the height of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land).1 But Slezkine contrives to send Chava there (on the fanciful assumption that her repentant return to her Jewish home at the end of Tevye the Dairyman “stands for her emigration to the Land of Israel”); this allows him to place the emigration to Palestine in the context of a nationalism—Zionism—which developed from the persecution of the Jews. Finally, there were Jews like Hodl, the main subjects of The Jewish Century, who migrated from the Pale of Settlement to the major cities of Russia, where they aligned themselves, for the most part, with the socialist movement, and became prominent in the Soviet government and intelligentsia.

In this way, Slezkine links the emigration of the Jews with the dissemination of the twentieth century’s three main ideologies: liberalism, nationalism, and communism. But this is only part of Slezkine’s reasoning for calling the twentieth century the “Jewish century”—a provocative description that is bound to cause offense to those for whom the Jewish Holocaust was the defining event of the century. Slezkine argues that “the modern age is the Jewish age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century,” because

modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds. It is about pursuing wealth for the sake of learning, learning for the sake of wealth, and both wealth and learning for their own sake. It is about transforming peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige, and dismantling social estates for the benefit of individuals, nuclear families, and book-reading tribes (nations). Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish.

Modern life, for Slezkine, is all about the transformation of settled agricultural (“Apollonian”) societies into mobile urban (“Mercurian”) societies, where everyone becomes a stranger and the most successful people are the followers of Hermes, above all the Jews, who get on through their cleverness and their ability to act as go-betweens.

Many historians have documented the prominent position of the European Jews in business and banking, in the liberal professions and the arts, and in the socialist movement. Slezkine is a historian of Russia (a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, he made his reputation with a splendid earlier book, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North, which was published in 1994). He charts in great detail the contribution of the Jews to the economy and cultural life of late tsarist Russia, in particular. Russia’s Jews were dominant in banking; they financed much of the country’s railroad construction, its gold mining, oil production, river transportation, and commercial fishing; they were prominent in its timber and sugar industries; and for a long time they controlled most of its grain trade. Slezkine explains the Jews’ predominance in Russian commerce not just by the tsarist prohibitions against their involvement in other economic activities, as most historians would be inclined to stress, but also by their attributes as ethnic Jews:

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The Jews owed their economic success to strangeness, specialized training, and the kind of intragroup trust that assured the relative reliability of business partners, loan clients, and subcontractors. And like all Mercurians, they tended to think of themselves as a chosen tribe consisting of chosen clans—and to act accordingly.

The Jews in business, concludes Slezkine, “were—as elsewhere—better at being ‘Jewish’ than most of their… competitors.”

Slezkine writes with irony and wit. His book is full of bold and sweeping statements and flashes of brilliance. It will challenge and surprise and infuriate the holders of received opinion. On the jacket, Slezkine’s publishers are careful to remind us that the author’s opening declaration that “the Modern Age is the Jewish Age” (and that “we are all, to varying degrees, Jews”) “is, of course, metaphorical.” Metaphors can illuminate “symbolic truths” (i.e., truths which are not supported by historical facts), but to do that they must be based on meaningful historical categories. Slezkine’s categories collapse under scrutiny.

Slezkine is at his most controversial in assigning “Jewish” attributes to an ethnic group, which he calls “Jews” just by virtue of their birth:

“Jews,” for the purposes of this story, are the members of traditional Jewish communities (Jews by birth, faith, name, language, occupation, self-description, and formal ascription) and their children and grandchildren (whatever their faith, name, language, occupation, self-description, or formal ascription).

This is an enormously inclusive group. By these criteria, I am certainly a Jew (although I have never been to a religious service in a synagogue and do not think of myself as a Jew); my daughters are both Jews (although they have been christened and brought up in an atheist household); nearly all my friends are no doubt Jews; and probably most of my readers too. Using these criteria of ethnic selection, Slezkine presents comprehensive lists and statistics to illustrate the success (the “Jewishness”) of Jews in various “Mercurial” activities. Thus we learn that “in 1912, 20 percent of all millionaires in Britain and Prussia…were Jews”; that in “turn-of-the-century Vienna, 62 percent of the lawyers, half the doctors and dentists, 45 percent of the medical faculty, and one-fourth of the total faculty were Jews”; that “Jews constituted 49 percent of all lawyers in the city of Odessa (1886), and 68 percent of all apprentice lawyers in the Odessa judicial circuit (1890)”; and so on.

This approach reminds me of The Jewish Chronicle, the British newspaper, which is well known and fondly teased for writing articles about the achievements of successful Jews in the community and claiming them as “Jews,” whether they identify themselves as Jews or not. But what use can such statistics have as an explanation of historical phenomena? Are we to suppose (as Slezkine clearly does) that it is possible to attach “Jewish” attributes to a group of people who happen to be Jews (or were born to Jews), even if they have no real connection to the Jewish religion, to Jewish culture or communal life (and indeed might consciously reject all forms of Jewish identification)? Is it sensible or acceptable to ascribe common features to an ethnic group at all? Unless we believe that values and ideas are carried in the blood, Slezkine’s supposition is dubious at best.

2.

Of the three different routes of emigration from the Pale of Settlement, Slezkine devotes most attention to those Jews who migrated within Russia and embraced the Revolution of October 1917. The Jewish emigration to America and Israel are sketched around the edges of The Jewish Century, whose last two chapters, “Babel’s First Love” (on the Jews and the Russian Revolution) and “Hodl’s Choice” (on the Jews in the Soviet Union), make up over two thirds of the book.

According to Slezkine, historians have tended to neglect the story of Hodl because she does not fit into the “canonical Jewish history of the twentieth century”: she was not martyred in the Holocaust; she did not emigrate to America or Israel; and as a Soviet citizen, she did not even have a Jewish religious or cultural identity, or so Slezkine claims. But whereas others might thus disregard her as a proper subject of Jewish history, Slezkine argues, on the contrary, that Hodl’s own negation of her Jewishness is itself a “Jewish” attribute (indeed, he argues, for the Soviet Jews, in general, nothing was more “Jewish” than their effort to escape their Jewishness).

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The trick here is to analyze the Jews not as Jews but as Mercurians, people with a talent for making connections and dealing with new situations. Slezkine’s “Jews” are not defined by the Jewish customs, habits, and beliefs of their families; as businessmen and bankers, scientists and artists, professionals and revolutionaries, they are instead defined by their ability to realize their inner (“Jewish”) nature as the makers of the modern world.

On the eve of World War I, Moscow had just 15,000 Jews; St. Petersburg about 35,000. The German invasion of Russia’s western borderlands in 1914– 1915, followed by the collapse of the tsarist monarchy in March 1917, allowed the Russian Jews to migrate north and east to the big cities, where, once they had been freed from persecution, they soon began to shine in schools and universities. The Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet professions and cultural elites; they thrived in science, industry, and trades (when these were allowed in the 1920s); and thousands of them rose to senior positions in the Soviet government, the Red Army, and the political police (the NKVD). By 1939, Moscow’s Jewish population had risen to a quarter of a million (the city’s second- largest ethnic group), while Leningrad had 200,000 Jews. Within a generation of 1917, the Russian Jews became an urban people, as the population of the rural shtetls emigrated or died out: 86 percent of Soviet Jews lived in urban areas, half of them in the eleven largest cities of the USSR, by the start of World War II.

According to Slezkine, the Jews who embraced the Russian Revolution were in rebellion against the Jewish patriarchal culture of their ancestors:

Most Jewish rebels did not fight the state in order to become free Jews; they fought the state in order to become free from Jewishness—and thus Free.

Slezkine links this “Jewish Revolution against Jewishness” with Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” (1844), in which Marx had argued that the “social emancipation of the Jews” was synonymous with “the emancipation of society from Judaism” (on the reasoning, as Marx had put it, that “practical, real Judaism” made “haggling” its “worldly cult” and “money” its “worldly god”).2 Thus Slezkine claims that the Jews who joined the Revolution were in fact engaged at a deeper level in a “patricidal revolution” against the Jewish capitalism of their fathers.

Liberation from the patriarchalism and parochialism of the shtetl was no doubt important to many Jewish socialists. The reading circles and political activities of the revolutionary intelligentsia provided them with “little islands of freedom,” in Slezkine’s phrase, where they identified with the universal culture and ideas of Russian literature. For the Jews, Russian culture was a means of entry to the wider civilization of Europe. Immersed in the values of the West, they ceased to think of themselves as Jews, but tended rather to identify themselves as members of the Russian intelligentsia (a sort of meta-nation based on the democratic values and ideas of Russian literature). Belonging to the intelligentsia, they became Europeans and citizens of the world.

According to Slezkine, it was natural for the Jews to identify with Soviet communism. They were eager to exchange their “chimerical nationality” for the internationalism of the world revolution (Leon Trotsky declared that his nationality was “Social Democratic”). Until the 1940s, the Jews flourished in the Soviet Union, where, officially at least, there was no anti-Semitism or discrimination against them. As Slezkine notes, it is striking that

virtually all memoirists writing about Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia life in the 1930s seem to agree that there was no anti-Jewish hostility and generally very few manifestations of ethnic ranking or labeling.

He also makes the point that the Jews suffered in large numbers in the Great Terror of the 1930s, not because they were Jews but because they were heavily represented in the Soviet leadership and professional elites, who were the main victims of the purges.

Another aspect of the Soviet system which attracted many Jews was the prominence it gave to Russian culture as a universal and unifying structure of values and beliefs. This is a subject on which Slezkine is extremely good:

In the 1930s, all college-educated Soviets—and especially Hodl’s children—lived with Pushkin, Herzen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and an assortment of Western classics as much as they lived with industrialization, collectivization, and cultural revolution. Samuil Agursky, a top official in the Party’s Jewish Section and the greatest Soviet enemy of the Hebrew language and Zionism, raised his son Melib (who did not speak Yiddish) on “Heine, Diderot, Shakespeare, Schiller, Plautus, Goethe, Cervantes, Thackeray, Swift, Beranger, and much else.”

Slezkine argues that for Hodl’s children (i.e., the first generation of Jews born in the Soviet Union) this affinity for Russian-Soviet and world culture took the place of any lingering identification with the culture or religion of the Jews. Indeed he argues that the Russian language of “international Communism, Soviet patriotism, and world culture” was consciously used by this generation to set themselves apart from their Jewishness. There is a sizable memoir literature to support this argument, and Slezkine has a masterful command of it. He also uses liberal quotations from Soviet poetry and literature to illustrate his point, which is of course more open to question, because Soviet fiction was essentially about the creation of ideal types, which were set by ideology (the journey from the darkness of an old religious-patriarchal culture to the light of a new Soviet identity was a common “master plot” for peasant sons as well as Jews).

How true was it in fact that the Jews of this first Soviet generation denied their own Jewishness? Slezkine does not have much to say about the Jews (the majority of Russia’s Jews) who, during 1917, voted for the Zionists or the Jewish Bund (a mass-based Marxist party which campaigned for Jewish national autonomy, with Yiddish as the official language, within a Russian federation) either in the elections to the All-Jewish Congress or to the Constituent Assembly. Forced underground in the early 1920s, the left-wing Bundists and the Zionists continued to exert an influence through the many Jews who left their ranks to join the Bolsheviks but who remained active, for example, in the defense of Yiddish language rights (a contentious issue for the Soviet government in Belarus in the 1920s), or in the campaign for a Jewish homeland in the Crimea (a Jewish National Region was eventually established, in 1930, in the far-eastern Siberian region of Birobidzhan). There was a thriving secular Yiddish culture, with hundreds of Yiddish-language schools, Yiddish cinema, and Yiddish theaters, including the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, under the direction of Solomon Mikhoels, which became a center for many Bolsheviks and left-wing Jewish intellectuals.3

Slezkine suggests that “Soviet” and “Jewish” were mutually exclusive identities. By immersing themselves in the Russian-Soviet culture of the Revolution, Hodl’s children “consigned to oblivion” their consciousness as Jews. This perhaps is too simple. There were many Jews who were able to retain a multiple identity—Jewish-Russian-Soviet; they were able to present a Soviet or a Russian public face when ideology demanded it, and yet revert, perhaps unconsciously, to Jewish customs and habits and beliefs at certain moments of their private life.

These buried traces of nationality are not easy to find in the memoirs of the time, which naturally tend to reflect the writer’s preferences on matters of memory and ideology, but they can be in some cases recovered by oral history, which may differ from written recollections. In his account of assimilated Russian Jews, Slezkine, for example, draws extensively on the memoirs of Inna Gaister, which have little to say about Jewishness.4 If he talked to her, however, he never says so. Inna Shikheeva (her married name) was born in 1925 to the family of a prominent Jewish Bolshevik, Aaron Gaister, who came to Moscow from the Pale of Settlement, became a senior economist, and, in 1935, was appointed deputy commissar of agriculture. In 1937, he was arrested and shot. Inna’s mother, Rakhil Kaplan, was sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. Inna and her sister were arrested, at the height of the Stalinist campaign against the Jews (the “struggle against cosmopolitans”), in 1949. They were sent into exile in Kazakhstan, where they were joined by their mother, and returned to Moscow in 1953. Since Shikheeva plays down her Jewishness in her memoir, Slezkine portrays the Gaisters as an archetype of those Soviet Jews who immersed themselves in Russian ways—spending summers at the dacha, their noses deep in Russian books, while waxing lyrical about the pine forests; in short becoming more Russian than the Russians.

Inna Shikheeva still lives in Moscow. During the past eighteen months, she has given a series of extended interviews to Irina Flige, the head of the Memorial Society in St. Petersburg, as part of an oral history and archival project, under my direction, about private life in Russia in the Stalin period.5 Here too, in these interviews, at first, Shikheeva insisted that there had been nothing Jewish in her upbringing. But through skillful and patient questioning it gradually emerged that there had in fact been a great deal of Jewish culture in her home—from the food the family ate to their rituals on Soviet holidays and the tales of pogroms told by her grandmother—only she had “never stopped to think about these things,” and had not included them in her memoirs, because they were not part of her preferred image of herself as an “educated Soviet person.” From the interviews, it also came to light that Shikheeva had lived since 1953 in almost constant fear of rearrest. She was still afraid of being persecuted as a Jew when she published her memoirs in 1998.

3.

World War II changed everything for the Soviet Jews. However much they had been able to submerge their Jewishness in Soviet internationalism, the Holocaust compelled them to see themselves as Jews again. In the Soviet Union the war gave rise to a popular anti-Semitism, which many Jews encountered in evacuation centers remote from the major Soviet cities, and after 1945 this was encouraged by the Stalinist regime, which adopted Great Russian Nationalism as its ruling ideology. Between 1948 and 1953, the government arrested, expelled from their homes in the cities, and dismissed from work many Jewish “cosmopolitans,” who were accused of working for Israel and the United States.

This is where the Soviet Jews rejoined the mainstream of “canonical Jewish history,” as Slezkine puts it. A persecuted people, they left for Israel and the United States in ever-growing waves of emigration between the 1960s and the 1990s. Hodl’s grandchildren were at last reunited with the descendants of Beilke and Chava.

Although Slezkine does not discuss this exodus in detail, he has some perceptive things to say about the Soviet Jews and these two promised lands. His book contains brilliant, witty passages about the striking similarities between the Bolsheviks and the Zionist pioneers in Palestine—ascetic, messianic, military movements establishing New Worlds:

Both Zionism and Bolshevism exalted well-tanned muscular masculinity and either despised old age or willed it out of existence. The most valued qualities were Apollonian (proletarian or Sabra) solidity, firmness, toughness, decisiveness, earnestness, simplicity, inarticulateness, and courage; the most scorned were Mercurian (bourgeois or diaspora) restlessness, changeability, doubt, self-reflexivity, irony, cleverness, eloquence, and cowardice. “Stalin,” “Molotov,” and “Kamenev” stood for “steel,” “hammer,” and “rock.” Among the most popular names created by early Zionists were Peled (“steel”), Tzur (“rock”), Even/Avni (“stone”), Allon (“oak”), and Eyal (“ram,” “strength”).

Slezkine also writes about the Jews who made it to America: Jews with big suburban houses such as Tevye had imagined in Fiddler on the Roof when he dreamed of being rich; Jews who had their own nostalgic dreams of the old shtetl (“a shtetl embodying the piety and community of the ancestral home; a shtetl all the more radiant for having been extinguished”); Jews who found a home in Freudianism as a “course of treatment” for the human condition of loneliness and alienation which the Jews had diagnosed and adopted as their own.

But the final pages of The Jewish Century are dominated by those Jews who stayed behind in Hodl’s Promised Land, until it disappeared in 1991. “The death of communism proved the undoing of Hodl’s life,” writes Slezkine. There were some “Old Bolsheviks” who clung on to her dream of international brotherhood and equality. But most of Hodl’s grandchildren had learned from experience what it really meant to be a Jew in the Soviet Union. Many of them joined the liberal dissidents, or moved within the broader circles that sympathized with them, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, there are just 230,000 Jews remaining in the Russian Federation—about one eighth of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union in 1968 and less than 3 percent of the Jewish population in the Russian Empire before 1917. The legacy of anti-Semitism continues to be felt, not least because the Jews are blamed by Russian nationalists for their prominent position in the Bolshevik regime (in his most recent book, Two Hundred Years Together, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called upon the Jews to accept “moral responsibility” and “repent” for “the sin” of their fellow Jews in the Revolution and the Stalinist Terror6 ). Whatever name we choose to give to it, the twentieth century was a tragedy for the Jews of the Soviet Union, just as much as it was a tragedy for the Jews of Europe as a whole. In the century to come, the question is whether Jews will be able to live, as Jews, together with the Russians in a genuinely modern and democratic state.

This Issue

June 9, 2005

  1. 1

    Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, translated by Haim Watzman (Metropolitan, 2000), p. 225.  

  2. 2

    Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), p. 170. 

  3. 3

    See Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Indiana University Press, 2000).  

  4. 4

    Inna Shikheeva-Gaister, Semeinaia khronika vremen kul’ta lichnosti: 1925–1953 (Moscow: N’iudiamed-AO, 1998).  

  5. 5

    Memorial Archive (St. Petersburg), f. 3, op. 37, d. 2 (transcripts in Russian available from the author).  

  6. 6

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dvesti let vmeste, 2 vols. (Moscow: Russkii put’, 2002), pp. 445, 467.