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From Russia with hate.

Leonid Livak's The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature

(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). 498 pp. $60.


The focus of Leonid Livak's new volume is the image of the Jew in the Russian literary canon. Although The Jewish Persona refers to Western European literature, specifically, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past--among others--no Western work receives the close, detailed, and sustained readings that the author provides for Russian literature. Christian theology, to which Livak devotes his first chapter, is the common basis for both the "European imagination" referred to in the title and the specific works of Russian fiction that receive lengthy discussion in the subsequent chapters. This is a book about the image of the Jew as Other in Russian literature.

Livak's analysis rests on a complex paradigm, or, as he puts it, a "generative model" that is derived from a number of sources (1-2). The theoretical point of departure weaves together Algirdas Greimas's view of the structure of narrative, Jungian archetypes, and Jean-Francois Lyotard's use of the term "the jew." Greimas, relying on the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, isolates the following key functions of narrative: the subject/ object, the sender/receiver, and the helper/opponent. Livak argues that Greimas helps reveal the basic structure of Christian narrative as one in which Jesus is the subject, sent by God to redeem humankind, who is both helped and hindered by "the jews" (29). Livak's appropriation of Lyotard's use of the lower case helps distinguish actual, historical Jews, living in a concrete time and place, from the imaginary negative construct of "the jews," who are literal-minded, fleshly, parasitic, greedy, physically weak, effeminate, clannish, both over- and undersexed, both obsolete and hyper-modern, money-obsessed, incapable of cultural creativity, and yet also linguistically polyglot. The first part of the book establishes the basic building blocks of the analysis, including Christian narrative and theology, Russian and Slavic folklore, and a brief section on the "jewish body." Part II focuses on Gogol's "Taras Bulba," which, as Livak argues, provides the basic template for the image of the Jew for Russian literature as a whole. According to Livak, the "jews" play the role of both helper and opponent in this key story. Part III turns to the nineteenth-century liberal period, and discusses Turgenev and Chekhov in light of Gogol's fundamental text; Part IV addresses two twentieth-century figures, Isaac Babel and Iurii Fel'zen, the emigre writer about whom Livak also wrote in a previous work, How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature and French Modernism (2003).

The argument about the "generative model" is key to the book as a whole, and it would be misleading to suggest that Livak's approach is purely narratological. Psychoanalysis also plays a role. The way authors use the generative model of "the jews" depends on their "personal and professional dilemmas" (164). For example, Livak maintains that the real-life failure of courage Turgenev experienced during an emergency (the event took place in 1838) was projected onto the collective figure of "the jews" in the story "Zhid" (Yid) that Turgenev published in 1847. This story and the subsequent work, "Neschastnaia," help the author resolve in fantasy form his anxiety about Pauline Viardot's alleged Jewish background. Livak argues that a fleeting remark Turgenev made about wanting to flog the French-Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt for the "crime" of cheapening her talent suggests a fantasy shared by liberal Russian writers who proclaim their pity for the suffering of the Jews of the Russian Empire, and yet would also make them the target of their sadomasochistic fantasy. Livak writes: "Sadomasochistic indulgence, with the 'jews' as its sexualized object, becomes a compensatory mechanism for and a reflection of the violence Russian writers inflict on their art and their beliefs when they bow to the ideological and moral pressure of the liberal opinion" (221).

This characterization of Russian writers of the second half of the nineteenth century could benefit from more historical evidence. Livak seems to be saying that Russian writers such as Turgenev and Chekhov were actually deeply committed to antisemitism, but distorted their hatred of Jews under the pressure of the dominant liberal opinion of the time. He does not, how ever, offer support for the claim that liberalism controlled the press in late-19th- and early 20th-century Russia. This is the time period that brought the 1881 and 1903 pogroms and a series of blood libel trials. The argument leads to a further question: if there were no weight of liberal opinion, and therefore no need for compensatory mechanisms, would Jews fulfill a different role in the Russian literary imagination? Livak's own argument suggests that the image of "the jews" remains a constant, even through the 1920s, when Babel was writing and publishing his works. Were Soviet cultural politics regarding Jews the same as the prevalent liberal opinions of late-19th-century Russia? Again, historical evidence could be useful here.

Livak's framework consists of few invariable factors: the legacy of Christianity, the Jews' unchanging role in Christian narrative, and the individual writer's psychosocial history. The problem with semiotic/archetypal models is that they tend to reduce both diachronic change and synchronic variation. Figures as diverse as Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and even Vasilii Rozanov, who actually argued that Jews commit ritual murder--would all seem more or less the same when it comes to Jews. There is another limitation to this sort of approach: the Jews themselves remain out of the discussion. This is a book about the construction and operation of Jewish difference in Russian literature, not a book about the Jews in Russia. The argument about the unchanging features of the image of the Jew would have been strengthened, however, if readers could learn at least the broad outlines of Russian-Jewish history and culture. If Livak had showed how Jews attained to the level of "subjects," to use Greimas's terminology, the ways in which they were reduced to objects would have emerged even more starkly. This time period saw the flowering of Yiddish literature, the rise of Zionism and the Bund, the development of the Russian-Jewish press, and waves of immigration. It is impossible to ask that a single volume cover every aspect of the topic under discussion; I wonder, however, whether the use of the archetypal paradigm leads to certain blind spots.

One example concerns Livak's discussion of the Jewish reaction to the civil war pogroms. He mentions that Simon Petliura was the "victim of vigilante justice for his role in the civil war pogroms" (218). Readers might have been interested to know that Petliura was assassinated in Paris by a Ukrainian Jew, Shlomo Shvartsbard, and that a French jury acquitted the murderer. When the historical account is limited to the generative model of "the jews," Jews--real-life, actual individuals enmeshed in particular, and in this case rather extraordinary, historical circumstances--get left out of the narrative. Livak asserts that "emigre artists--Russian and Russian-Jewish--fail to address civil war pogroms" (294). Viktor Shklovsky wrote about anti-Jewish violence in Sentimental Journey, published in Berlin in 1923. Russian Jewish emigres who wrote in Yiddish, of course, produced numerous works about the violence; among the key figures are Perets Markish and David Bergelson. Bergelson's story "Among Immigrants," for example, provides a fascinating portrait of a "would-be Jewish terrorist" who planned to kill Petliura. Whether Bergelson was referring to Shvartsbard is unclear. Livak's discussion of Petliura's death reveals the shortcomings of the exclusive focus on "the jews."

Livak's interpretation of Babel's need to overcome "the jews" as part of his formation as a writer is a fascinating argument (319). His characterization, however, of Babel as "a classic without a literature or a soloist without an orchestra" requires further discussion (364-365). Livak's argument is that Babel had no audience; he worked without the benefit of a "Russian-Jewish literary process" (364). Not only did Babel fly solo, he could not have done otherwise, because there was no Russian-Jewish interpretative community, and therefore no Russian-Jewish literature. The argument can be made, however, that Babel, Shklovsky, Semen Gekht, Eduard Bagritskii, Il'ia Ilf, and others were part of the same artistic milieu and part of a larger Russian-Jewish literary process that did not end in 1940. Consider the question of Babel's influence. Babel directly influenced Gekht, who directly refers to Babel in memoiristic writings and in a story published in 1963, in a cycle called Dolgi serdtsa (Duties of the Heart). Gekht quotes a few lines from Babel's Red Cavalry story "The Road to Brody." Gekht's friendship with Babel and his staunch defense of him were among the reasons for Gekht's incarceration in the Gulag.

The articulation of the "generative model" of "the jews" and the discovery of its persistence from early Christianity through Gogol, Mandelshtam, and Babel are the major contributions of this volume. The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature offers a provocative analysis of the Russian-Jewish encounter in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a welcome addition to the growing field of Russian-Jewish studies.


Caron, Vicki. "Catholic Political Mobilization and Antisemitic Violence in Fin-de-Siecle France: The Case of the Union Nationale," Journal of Modern History 81 (2009): 294-347.

Klier, John. Russia lacked the popular identification of the Jews with the Devil. John Klier, "Traditional Russian Religious Anti-Semitism," Jewish Quarterly 174 (1999): 29-34.

Revel-Neher, Elizabeth. The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992: 107-108.


* Harriet Murav is professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (1992), Russia's Legal Fictions (1998), Identity Theft: The Jew in Imperial Russia and the Case of Avraam Uri Kovner (2003), and Music from a Speeding Train: Jewish Literature in Post-Revolution Russia (2011), and is currently working on a study of David Bergelson.
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Title Annotation:The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature
Author:Murav, Harriet
Publication:Journal for the Study of Antisemitism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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