I sailed away with a mighty push, never to return

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine
    Princeton, 438 pp, £18.95, October 2004, ISBN 0 691 11995 3

This book changed my sense of the big story of Soviet history as well as the big story of the Jews in the modern world.[*] Chapter 4, in particular, the interpretative history of Jews in the Soviet Union (and the United States and Israel), which takes up almost half the book, should be compulsory reading for everyone who has ever expressed an opinion on the subject.

Yuri Slezkine dedicates the book to his grandmother: not the Russian noblewoman who, despite having ‘lost everything she owned in the Revolution’, ‘at the end of her life … was a loyal Soviet citizen at peace with her past and at home in her country’, but the other grandmother, Berta (Brokhe) Iosifovna Kostrinskaia, born in the Pale of Settlement, who ‘went to prison as a Communist, emigrated to Argentina, and returned in 1931 to take part in the building of socialism. In her old age, she took great pride in her Jewish ancestors and considered most of her life to have been a mistake.’ The Jewish Century is an exploration of that ‘mistake’: the love affair of Russian Jews with the Russian Revolution. Slezkine probably shares her final view of the cause to which she devoted her life, but the dedication implies more than sympathy. Soviet history has generally left out its Jewish component (except for the anti-semitic campaign of the late Stalin period), just as 20th-century Jewish history has left out its Soviet component (with the same exception). This book is an act of historical recovery.

It starts by creating a category, ‘Mercurians’, the purpose of which is simultaneously to explain the singularity of the Jews and to diminish it by making them part of a larger group. Mercurians are ‘the descendants … of Hermes, the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft and art’. They are diasporic ‘service nomads’, in Slezkine’s term, who provide various services and skills to the natives they live among, whom Slezkine calls ‘Apollonians’. Mercurians were

transients and wanderers – from fully nomadic Gypsy groups, to mostly commercial communities divided into fixed brokers and travelling agents, to permanently settled populations who thought of themselves as exiles. Whether they knew no homeland, like the Irish travellers or the Sheikh Mohammadi, or had lost it, like the Armenians and the Jews, or had no political ties to it, like the Overseas Indians or Lebanese, they were perpetual resident aliens and vocational foreigners.

Mercurians were ‘admired but also feared and despised’ by Apollonians, and these feelings – at least the last two – were mutual. The Mercurians, embodied in classical mythology by Odysseus, ‘possess a quality that the Greeks called metis, or “cunning intelligence” (with an emphasis on either “cunning” or “intelligence”, depending on who does the labelling)’; and they tended to take a dim view of slow-witted Apollonian Ivans. For much of human history, Slezkine concludes, Apollonians and Mercurians ‘have lived next to each other in mutual scorn and suspicion – not because of ignorant superstition but because they have had the chance to get to know each other’.

Suspicion increased with the advent of capitalism and modern state nationalisms, which, on the one hand, required Mercurian rather than Apollonian skills and, on the other, marginalised Jews and other diasporic (non-national) peoples. Ever greater Jewish business and professional success was accompanied by growing anti-semitism in the increasingly nationalist nation-states of Europe and – by way of revolt against Jewish parents as well as anti-Jewish discrimination – the growing involvement of young Jews in socialist and revolutionary movements. When a son was born in 1889 to Alexander Helphand (Parvus), ‘world revolutionary, international financier and future German government agent’, he announced ‘the birth of a healthy, cheerful enemy of the state’.

It is often suggested that Jewish advancement in Russia was blocked by the quotas introduced in the 1880s. But Slezkine, following Benjamin Nathans’s lead in Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (2002), shows that the quotas ‘succeeded in slowing down the Jewish advance in the professions but failed to halt it’. By 1913, a majority of dentists in St Petersburg were Jewish, as were almost a fifth of its doctors and a large contingent of lawyers. These were Jews who had left the Pale, sometimes formal converts to Christianity. However, the two really important Jewish ‘conversions’ in Slezkine’s argument were not to Christianity but to revolutionary socialism and Russian literature, both of which drove a wedge between generations in many Jewish families. ‘I sailed away with a mighty push, never to return,’ Trotsky wrote. Despising his family’s ‘instinct of acquisitiveness’ and ‘petit-bourgeois outlook’, he too had fallen in love with Russian literature as well as revolution. ‘Many, too many of us, children of the Jewish intelligentsia, are madly, shamefully in love with Russian culture,’ the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky lamented in 1903. Paradoxically, their eager embrace of ‘the Pushkin faith’ (as Slezkine calls it) made Jewish intellectuals co-creators of the icons of cultural nationalism that emerged in most Central and East European states and would-be states at the turn of the century: it wasn’t a matter just of Pushkin in Russia but of Goethe and Schiller in Germany, Petöfi in Hungary, and Mickiewicz in Polish lands.

The steady but relatively small stream of departures from the Pale to major cities of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries turned into a flood with the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War that followed. The Jewish population of Moscow, Russia’s new capital, grew by a factor of almost ten between 1912 and 1926, and continued to grow until by 1939 it had reached 250,000, making Jews the second largest ethnic group in the city. More than a million first-generation emigrants from the Pale were living elsewhere in the Soviet Union, mainly the big cities, at the outbreak of the Second World War. This demographic shift, which warrants further study, was of enormous significance, not just for the history of Russia’s Jews but also for the social and cultural history of Russia.

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[*] I should say straightaway that Slezkine was a PhD student of mine in the 1980s – his subject was the ‘small peoples of the Siberian north’ – and that more recently we edited together a collection of interviews with Soviet women, In the Shadow of Revolution (2000). I also read an early draft of The Jewish Century.

[†] See Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, translated by Laura Esther Wolfson (2001).