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.

We come now to the crux of Slezkine’s narrative: Jewish identification with the Revolution and its success in the new Soviet state. The more familiar story of Jews in the Soviet Union is a story of victimisation (which Slezkine also tells); while the success story, or propaganda versions of it, was appropriated by the Nazis and subsequently by other anti-semites, and has tended to be shunned as a result. But avoiding certain questions because one may not like the answers is a kind of intellectual dishonesty, no matter how virtuous the motives (my comment, not Slezkine’s: his work, for all its potential for controversy, is free of polemics). It is, in fact, impossible to understand the victimisation of Jews of the late Stalin period, and its weaker versions thereafter, without understanding the achievements and standing of the group being victimised.

Many Jews of the younger generation joined the Revolutionary movement in Russia, most often the Menshevik Party or the Bund in the pre-Revolutionary period, but many also joined the Bolshevik Party. They embraced the October Revolution and quickly became, as Slezkine shows, ‘the backbone of the new Soviet bureaucracy’. In the top Party leadership of the 1920s, Jews were the largest single ethnic group (though secular atheists whose parents and shtetl background had been left behind in Trotsky’s ‘mighty push’); they included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov and Kaganovich – though only Kaganovich remained at Politburo level through the 1930s and beyond. As it turned out, even Lenin, who fully appreciated the Jewish contribution to the Revolution, had a Jewish maternal grandfather, though he probably didn’t know it. Within the Party leadership’s relatively small contingent of ethnic Russians in the prewar period, a remarkably large number were married to Jewish women, among them the Politburo members Molotov, Voroshilov, Andreev, Bukharin, Rykov and Kirov.

Jews were an important presence not only in the Soviet political elite but also among the intelligentsia. This was a continuation of late imperial tendencies, but mass emigration from the Pale had brought about a dramatic increase in scale. By 1939, Jews were by far the most educated national group in the Soviet population: under 2 per cent of the total population, they constituted a seventh of all Soviet citizens with higher education, second only to Russians in absolute numbers. In that same year, a third of young Jewish men and women in the 19-24 age group were college students compared to one in 20 of the age group as a whole; while in Leningrad (Moscow figures were roughly similar) around 70 per cent of dentists, 40 per cent of doctors, 30 per cent of writers, journalists and editors, and almost 20 per cent of scientists and university professors were Jews. In other words, Jewish upward mobility needs to be added to the upward mobility of Russian workers and peasants and culturally ‘backward’ Central Asians as a key process in the formation of a new Soviet elite, even though Jews, unlike the other groups, were not the subject of formal state ‘affirmative action’ programmes.

As Slezkine points out, the Jewish contingent in the Soviet intelligentsia, secularised and assimilated, was notable for its Soviet and Communist orientation, comparable in this respect only to the vydvizhentsy, but surpassing them in cultural confidence and educational level. Slezkine calls them ‘the most important and most influential generation in the history of the Soviet cultural elite’. Many had severed ties with their parents, whom they often despised for their backwardness and commercialism, as in this chilling repudiation by the popular Komsomol poet Eduard Bagritsky:

Their love?
But what about their lice-eaten braids,
Their crooked, jutting-out collar bones,
Their pimples, their herring-smeared mouths,
The curve of their horselike necks.
My parents?

But this kind of anti-semitism was the prerogative of Jews writing autobiographically. The Party’s policies in the interwar period were strongly opposed to ethnic or racial discrimination, and teaching people not to be anti-semitic was a major aspect of Soviet propaganda. Potential resentment of Jewish success was no doubt defused by affirmative action programmes for other groups and the huge overall expansion of educational and employment opportunities that came at the end of the 1920s with the First Five-Year Plan. The ‘new-minted, self-confident, optimistic and passionately patriotic’ Soviet intelligentsia of the 1930s, Slezkine concludes, showed ‘no anti-Jewish hostility and generally very few manifestations of ethnic ranking or labelling’.

The Great Purges of the late 1930s were a milestone but not yet a turning point in the history of Soviet Jews. Most of the victims of the Great Purges were members of an elite (especially the political elite), some minority nationalities, or those on the margins of society (tramps, beggars, runaways from the Gulag, habitual criminals). As a minority nationality, and one disproportionately represented in the Soviet elites, Jews look like prime potential targets, but the reality was more complicated. As Slezkine shows, using data collected in post-Soviet archives by Russian historians, Jews from the political elite indeed suffered heavily (among the victims was Parvus’s son Evgeny Gnedin, sometime head of the press department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, dedicated by his father from birth to the revolutionary struggle). But this was because they were members of the elite, not because they were Jews: non-Jewish elite members suffered equally.

As for minority nationalities, those targeted were the ‘diaspora’ nationalities like Poles, Finns and Koreans who had a nation-state outside the Soviet Union but, in most cases, no autonomous national territory within it; and Jews were not on this list. In fact, ‘Jews were the only large Soviet nationality without its own “native” territory that was not targeted for a purge during the Great Terror,’ which could mean that their exclusion was a matter of policy. Overall – and this is a somewhat surprising finding, reminding us that we tend to overestimate elite victims just because we know more about them – Jews were not over-represented among Great Purge victims, because of their under-representation in targeted non-elite groups.

Jews in the Soviet cultural and intellectual elite – among them the writers Isaac Babel and Eduard Bagritsky, and Meyerhold, the great theatre director – suffered along with non-Jews during the Great Purges, especially if they had close personal ties to purged Communist leaders. And no doubt many of them, like Babel, were interrogated by Jewish members of the security police, one of the Soviet institutions with a particularly high proportion of Jewish officers (almost 40 per cent of the NKVD’s top officials at the beginning of 1937). Although Slezkine does not provide data on the post-Purge leadership of the NKVD, very few of this group can have survived the purging of the purgers instituted by the new head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria. In the wake of the Great Purges, newly-promoted vydvizhentsy of working-class and peasant origin swept into top positions throughout the Soviet administration. Comparatively few of them were Jews; and the Jewish share in the post-Purge political elite dropped accordingly. But that was not the case with regard to the intelligentsia, where Jews were still strongly over-represented and notable for their Soviet loyalties and high rate of Party membership at the outbreak of the Second World War.

It was in the postwar period that everything started to go wrong: a story that Russian scholars like Gennady Kostyrchenko and Israeli scholars like Mordechai Altshuler, whose work Slezkine draws on, have been researching in newly opened archives over the past decade. On the one hand, the Nazi example of mistreatment of Jews seems to have reawakened popular anti-semitism among Ukrainians and Russians both in the occupied territories and in the Soviet army, and perhaps had the same effect on Stalin. On the other hand, the Nazi destruction of European Jewry shook up Russia’s Jews, including the secularised Communists who, for the first time in decades, suddenly felt the need to proclaim their Jewishness. As Kostyrchenko was the first to show (in his book published in English in 1995 as Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia), this groundswell of support created an extraordinary situation for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a ‘voluntary organisation’ set up during the war which was supposed, like all other Soviet voluntary organisations, to mobilise a particular popular constituency, not to be mobilised by it. The JAFC started pressing the Party leadership to revive the long-dormant project for a Jewish autonomous territory in the Crimea (partly depopulated by the deportation of Crimean Turks during the war, and much more attractive than the struggling and distant Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan in the Far East). On top of this, the creation of the state of Israel changed the status of Jews in the Soviet Union: they were now a ‘diaspora’ nationality with a nation-state outside the USSR to which they might conceivably feel a primary loyalty; their ecstatic reception of Golda Meir on her visit to Moscow in 1948 drove this point home.

The predictable happened: the JAFC was dissolved and its leaders put on secret trial before being executed for treason. This was a tragic hour for Soviet Jews but also a fine one, mainly because of the comportment of Solomon Lozovsky, the Old Bolshevik who headed the JAFC: in contrast to the Bukharin/ Darkness at Noon model of confessing everything, no matter how bizarre the accusations, ‘for the good of the cause’, Lozovsky was unintimidated and pointed out the absurdity of the charges against him, thus emboldening his fellow defendants and even shaking the presiding judge’s belief in his guilt. Pace Slezkine, who incorrectly writes that Lozovsky’s ‘eloquence’ was ‘wasted on his hanging judges’, the presiding judge was so impressed by his testimony and the lack of material evidence against the defendants that he put up an unprecedented, though ultimately unsuccessful, struggle against the death sentence behind the scenes.[†]

The postwar anti-semitic campaign reached its apogee early in 1953 with the announcement of the discovery of the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ against the Soviet state and its leaders. The defendants were almost all Jewish physicians from the upper echelons of the profession. Rumours flew round Moscow to the effect that the entire Jewish population was to be deported, though whether the leadership actually had such plans remains unclear, despite diligent searching of the archives. On Stalin’s death in March 1953, the case was abruptly closed, the doctors released, and the anti-semitic campaign of Stalin’s last years halted. It was too late, however, to prevent enormous damage being done not only to Soviet Jews but to the Soviet intelligentsia and the regime itself. As Slezkine says, that campaign ‘was directed at some of the most vital and articulate elements of the Soviet state – and it contradicted some of that state’s most fundamental official values.’ There would be a big price to pay in the future. Before the late Stalinist anti-semitic campaign, Jews formed the core of intelligentsia support for the regime, and arguably of the Soviet intelligentsia itself; after it, not only were Jews alienated and disoriented but so, if to a lesser degree, was the intelligentsia as a whole. Though Slezkine does not push his argument that far, it is tempting to see this as a turning-point on the road that ended in the Soviet collapse of 1991: the first stage in the regime’s progressive and ultimately fatal loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the educated elite.

The story of postwar anti-semitism is the ‘victim story’ that so many commentators have taken to be the whole story of the Jews in the Soviet Union. What happened, as Slezkine makes clear, is not that Jews were expelled from the elite or subjected to out and out persecution, but rather that they descended to a second-level elite status which was particularly painful both because of their past successes and Soviet loyalty, and because, for the first time, everyday anti-semitism became permissible in at least some quarters of the intelligentsia. Jews ‘remained by far the most successful and the most modern – occupationally and demographically – of all Soviet nationalities’, with the proportion of Jewish wage and salary earners who were college graduates five times as high as among Russians. The attempt to limit Jewish access to higher education and top jobs in the Khrushchev period was both ‘relatively small-scale’ and ‘not very successful’, in Slezkine’s judgment, but its ‘secrecy, inconsistency and concentration on elite positions made it all the more frustrating’.

The Jewish reaction, however, was one of outrage. Slezkine quotes the claim of Mikhail Agursky, a Soviet dissident who emigrated to Israel in 1975, that

the Jews had been converted into an estate of slaves. Could one really expect that a nation that had given the Soviet state political leaders, diplomats, generals, and top economic managers would agree to become an estate whose boldest dream would be a position as head of a lab at the Experimental Machine-Tool Research Institute or senior researcher at the Automatics and Telemechanics Institute?

As Slezkine remarks, Agursky’s assertion that ‘the Jews were oppressed and humiliated to a much greater degree than the rest of the population’ may ‘on the face of it … appear patently untrue and perhaps morally questionable’, given the oppressions visited on (for example) deported Crimean Tatars or even ordinary Russian peasants who, unlike city-dwellers, were not yet routinely issued with internal passports that allowed them to move freely about the country. However, he charitably interprets this as a requirement of the genre: Agursky was not writing history, ‘he was writing a memoir about the making of a rebel, and what made Jewish rebels was the perception of unrelieved humiliation.’ Jewish intellectuals – among them Parvus’s son Evgeny Gnedin, who survived his imprisonment – were as prominent in the dissident movement that emerged in the 1960s as they had earlier been in the Revolutionary one.

With dissidence came the demand to emigrate, taken up with Cold War enthusiasm by the United States Congress and leading to a remarkable situation in the 1970s whereby emigration – a privilege unavailable to almost all the rest of the population – became possible for Jews, arousing a resentment among Russians that only increased the feelings of formerly assimilated Soviet Jews that they should leave. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s was ipso facto the end of the story of Jews in the Soviet Union; it was followed by a much larger wave of Jewish emigration. Yet not all Jews emigrated. In a striking throwback to the situation in the 1920s, when the short-lived business class of Soviet ‘Nepmen’ was predominantly Jewish, Jews like Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were prominent not just among the so-called ‘oligarchs’ but also in the wider class of New Russians, whose ethnic composition was sufficiently non-Russian to give the term a tinge of irony. Once again, Mercurians seized opportunities while slower-witted Apollonians hung back.

Slezkine’s narrative isn’t confined to the history of Jews in Russia. The Soviet Union was only one of the ‘three Promised Lands’ beckoning to Jews in the Pale. The others were the United States and Palestine (Israel), and each had its own distinctive ideology and promises. To tell this story, Slezkine introduces a new metaphor – that of Tevye’s daughters (after Sholem Aleichem and Fiddler on the Roof) and their different, interlocking fates. Beilke went to America; Chava (as Slezkine parses Aleichem’s story) ended up in Israel; while Hodl married a Revolutionary and, Slezkine proposes, became a member of the Soviet secular metropolitan elite like his own grandmother, Brokhe. The Jewish Century is mainly about Hodl, but Beilke and Chava are nevertheless important presences.

In Slezkine’s typology of Mercurians and Apollonians, ‘the United States stood for unabashed Mercurianism,’ while in Palestine/Israel, by contrast, ‘the world’s most proficient service nomads’ were doing their best to turn themselves into nation-building Apollonians. The similarity of ethos between Zionist settlers and Soviet Revolutionaries, both sharing ‘a messianic promise of imminent collective redemption and more or less miraculous collective transfiguration’, does not escape Slezkine: ‘Chava’s children were living a revolution of their own – building, consistently and unapologetically, socialism in one country.’ But he is most intrigued by the comparison between the fate of Jews in the Soviet Union and in the United States.

In both countries, ‘the children of Jewish immigrants were going to school at about the same time and with the same degree of eagerness and excellence. In both places, the dramatic expansion of the educational systems coincided with the Jewish influx and helped accommodate it. And in both places, there arose – eventually – “the Jewish problem” of excessive success,’ leading to attempts to limit Jewish upward mobility. In the 1930s, in a paradoxical development noted by Slezkine, both Soviet and American institutions of higher education were producing a generation of Jewish Communists contemptuous of their parents and eager to forget the shtetl. In the 1940s and early 1950s, as the Soviet Union was conducting its anti-Jewish campaign, so ‘the United States Congress was conducting its own purge. In scale and severity it was not comparable to the Stalinist version, but the targets came from similar backgrounds and had similar convictions – except that in the Soviet Union they were persecuted as Jews, and in the United States as Communists.’ As in the Soviet Union, this led to a rediscovery of Jewishness, both in the sense of nostalgia for the shtetl and the embrace of Zionism by the new generation.

Thus, Hodl’s choice of promised land, once envied by Beilke’s children and admired by Chava’s, now ceded place to Chava’s choice – Israel. Moreover, all three sets of Tevye’s grandchildren – children of Hodl, Beilke and Chava – roundly condemned Hodl’s choice; and even Hodl herself, Slezkine’s grandmother, Brokhe, who came back from Argentina to join the Revolution, repented of it. Samuil Agursky came back from America after the Revolution and named his son Melib, for Marx-Engels-Liebknecht. On her deathbed, his wife told their son (now innocuously renamed Mikhail) that ‘I should have lived my life very differently,’ to which he replied that he had always told her so. Slezkine’s book is not an ‘I told you so’ to his grandmother: rather, it is an exploration of what her life and that of her generation meant. There are shafts of pathos, indignation and contempt in his narrative (the last usually associated with something Soviet), as well as a pervasive irony and love of paradox familiar to readers of his earlier work. It is Slezkine’s great merit to have found a way of writing passionately while maintaining balance and a certain detachment. The Jewish Century – like Peter Novick’s different but equally remarkable The Holocaust in American Life (1999) – is an opinionated, idiosyncratic and exciting book that achieves fairmindedness so casually it seems like an accident.

[*] 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).