Verena Dohrn, Jewish Elites in the Russian Empire/Judische Eliten im Russichen Reich.
Jonathan Frankel, Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews. 324 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0521513647. $85.00.
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity. 307 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-1521515733. $95.00.
The three books under review draw our attention to a number of approaches to writing the history of the Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jonathan Frankel's features a conception of modern Jewish history that puts "crisis" at the center, while Petrovsky-Shtern and Dohrn seem to imitate the approach pioneered by Michael Stanislawski and John Klier, who showed an infinitely more complicated relationship between Jews and the Russian government than had been recognized before. (1) Just as did Stanislawski and Klier, so too Petrovsky-Shtern and Dohrn inevitably interface with the so-called Lachrymose School of history, especially as practiced by Simon Dubnov, who still casts a shadow over the historiography of Jews in the Russian Empire. (2) As is well known, Salo Baron formulated the term to refer to historical studies that emphasize the persecutions endured by East European Jews)
In Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews the highly influential and deeply mourned Professor Jonathan Frankel affirms the centrality of crisis as the motor of human history. That idea formed the basis for Frankel's two masterful monographs, Prophesy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 and The Damascus Affair: "Ritual Murder, "Politics, and the Jews in 1840. (4) In the book's introduction he reveals the biographical foundation for his lifelong approach:
That I emphasize the importance of crises in [Russian-Jewish] history seems to me natural enough given the times and the places that shaped my formative years. Even though I personally came through totally unscathed, it is nevertheless true that I grew to adulthood and maturity during a period when danger and drama were part of the woof and weave of history. As a child I lived through the Second World War in Britain; I reached my thirteenth birthday in July 1948, when the new state of Israel was fighting its war of independence; and since I moved to that country in 1964, it has experienced no less than six major armed conflicts, as well as two prolonged Palestinian uprisings.... However, it was the June (or Six-Day) War of 1967 that first brought home to me the idea that crises, however short-lived, could actually serve as turning points in the course of history. (9)
The essays in this volume, published posthumously by his wife, the esteemed scholar Edith Frankel, embody the "crisis" approach, which emphasizes the play of external factors in history--unexpected events, the actions of the Russian state regarding its Jewish subjects, and suprapersonal ideology (the various ideas of intellectuals about how to improve society). (5) This volume opens with Frankel's famous article, "Crisis as a Factor in Modern Jewish Politics," in which he argues that the pogroms of 1881-82 transformed East European Jewry by ushering in awareness of the need for drastic change. In the decades following the pogroms two million would emigrate to the United States, and a small but highly tenacious group would form the physical and ideological basis for a national home in Palestine.
In the volume, Frankel also grapples with tensions that emerge from the "crisis" focus. In a number of articles he deals directly with biography, treating the relationship between the individual and the "crisis period" through which he/she was living. Frankel shows how individuals struggle with external factors, how they try to shape their reality in spite of strong countervailing forces. For example, in the article on the formative Hebrew author Yosef Hayim Brenner, Frankel traces the writer's ideological development from General Zionist to Revolutionary Bundist and Revolutionary Zionist. In that context, Frankel depicts Brenner's travels from Russia to England and then to Eretz Israel, his constant vacillations and rapid change of party affiliation. Noting a tension between "crisis" and personal character, Frankel writes about Brenner: "He was too much of an individualist, too skeptical and too pessimistic to identify with any form of group thinking. The dialogic and, often, polyphonic character of Brenner's fiction has thus to be seen as not only a literary device but, rather, as reflecting the temperament of a lonely figure unwilling to be tied down by doctrinal formulae" (128).
A similar treatment of the individual who struggles with powerful external events can be seen in his articles on the revolutionary writer Shimon An-sky and the historian Simon Dubnov. According to Frankel, events at the turn of the 20th century, such as the struggle for liberation and the tragic violence of pogroms, imprinted upon Dubnov a paradoxical duality in which liberal dreams of a march toward inevitable progress stack up against fears that the regressive patterns of government oppression may be too powerful to overcome. In the case of An-sky, Frankel perceives the writer as a mirror of and participant in the 1905 revolution, simultaneously reflecting and shaping events (75). Demonstrating tensions in his "crisis" approach, Frankel portrays individuals at odds with their time, aggrieved by events, and battling against historical necessity. Crisis may engulf the individual, but the individual is hardly a powerless victim of external circumstances.
After reading Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews, one feels that Jonathan Frankel deserves his one-in-a-century reputation. An expert in the intricate histories of the Bund, Zionism, and liberalism in Eastern Europe, he has added to that base a knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. The complexities that he handles so effortlessly make this reader want to qualify the author's confession de foi regarding crisis in his introduction. Although he was strongly influenced by catastrophic change, his life reveals a powerful inner will. He chose to leave England to live in Israel and made his intellectual home among the radicals and nationalists in the Jewry of the Russian fin de siecle. In any case, for students of Russian-Jewish history this tome is not a mere collection of scholarly articles but an essential shelf book. The index will prove especially useful, and the footnotes and bibliography provide much needed information about Hebrew-language scholarship that oftentimes does not make its way into Anglo-American scholarship.
Jews in the Russian Army and Judische Eliten zur Russischen Reich are very different from Frankel, and not only because they attempt to encompass the entire 19th century. These two books more closely resemble writing that we often meet in today's academic market in which authors are encouraged to reexamine a historical issue to show how earlier historians were wrong and how prejudice and myopia have buried the "truth." In the case of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern the issue is Jewish participation in the Russian military, while Verena Dohrn has chosen as her focus the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia.
Using materials from the Russian State Historical Archive and other archival and special holdings, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern traces the history of Jews in the Russian army from its beginnings under Nicholas I through the end of tsarism. His chapters take as their focus the treatment of Jews in the different periods in the evolution of the Russian army in the century before the fall of the empire. However, the chapter titles reflect the thrust of the author's argument: "The Empire Reforms, the Community Responds," "Militarizing the Jew, Judaizing the Military," "Let the Children Come to Me': Jewish Minors in the Cantonist Battalions," "The Revolutionary Draft," "Banished from Modernity."
Petrovsky-Shtern wants to overthrow a number of conventional myths. The recruitment of Jews in the Russian Empire (at least until the military reforms of 1874) has been viewed exclusively as a "tragedy" for the Jews themselves. The military draft introduced by Nicholas I was greeted with horror by the empire's Jewish community, a fact that has been shown by Olga Litvak in her excellent monograph Conscription and Modern Russian Jewry. (6) Having become accustomed over centuries in Poland to a relationship in which the government preserved Jewish political autonomy, including the right to pay a tax in lieu of military service, Jews found conscription particularly painful. One needs to recall, however, that before the 18th century no group was subject to a modern draft and that both the absence of Jews from military service and their recruitment in the 19th century did not differ enormously from the experiences in that regard of other groups in Europe. However, since the kahal, the self-administration of Jewish communities (abolished officially in 1844 but de facto still functioning after), was entrusted with meeting recruitment demands, an internecine war took place in Jewish communities, which led in the reign of Nicholas I to untold horrors, including the conscription of underage boys, the so-called cantonists. Stories about khappers (recruitment kidnappers) have received detailed treatment in Litvak's and Michael Stanislawski's books. (7) In songs and stories Nicholas I's Russia was portrayed as a new Egypt and its tsar as a pharaoh. (8)
Because the memories of Jewish service in the Russian army are so uniformly nightmarish, it would seem that conscription could not lend itself to a fresh treatment. Nonetheless, by peeling memory away from history, Petrovsky-Shtern capably discovers historical truths that have been ignored. For example, he shows that forced baptism was far from widespread and that mass suicides of Jewish recruits to avoid conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity never happened. (9) At the same time, he recounts that some Russian officers designed regulations giving Jews time off and a room for prayer. Such officers also allowed Jewish soldiers to keep a scroll, books, and prayer shawls. It sometimes happened that groups of Jewish soldiers could come together to hold religious services on the Sabbath and holidays either on the base or in a local synagogue. According to Petrovsky-Shtern, commanders often ignored directives aimed at converting Jews, shunning coercion in the hope of instilling respect for the army. While not denying that Jews had reason to feel threatened by Nicholas I's conscription policies, Petrovsky-Shtern points out that Jews were not treated differently from Catholic Poles and Lithuanians or Protestant Latvians and Estonians. He claims, too, that since Nicholas I's overall goal was to integrate the national minorities, it was not in the government's interest to pursue a policy of persecution for its own sake.
In my view, Petrovsky-Shtern's most contentious assertion is his overall thesis that the military was an institution involved with Jewish modernization, enabling Jews to develop a dual self-awareness--Russian and Jewish. One concentrated formulation of this thesis can be found in a quotation from the Guardians of Faith Society, a group dedicated to preserving records of Jewish service in the military in the second half of the 19th century. According to Petrovsky-Shtern, the activities of the society can be viewed as a "litmus test" for Russian-Jewish consciousness, and the soldiers were "the first Russian and perhaps the first modern East European Jews to preserve Jewish self-awareness" (85). He concludes, "In a way, Jews in the army underwent a process of acculturation similar to that of eighteenth-century Anglo Jewry and unlike that of the first enlightened Russian Jews, who converted to Christianity" (85).
This argument about the role of the army as a catalyst of a dual Russian-Jewish identity is open to question. It seems to me essential to note that this identity was forced, that the majority of these individuals did not wish to serve and painfully struggled to preserve a Jewish identity. The comparison to Anglo-Jewry is not entirely appropriate. The "radical assimilation" of Jewish Englishmen succeeded precisely because Jewish individuals voluntarily downplayed religious difference; theirs was not a struggle. Thus Jewish soldiers in Russia look less like positive examples of a Russian-Jewish identity and more like survivors of an inhospitable and remarkably insensitive government.
Certainly the situation of the Jewish soldier and every other soldier in the Russian army improved after the military reforms of 1874 (only to worsen once again during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I). (10) According to the reforms of 1874, service terms were drastically reduced and attempts made to link individual talents to military needs. Petrovsky-Shtern is right to see important improvements in the lives of Jewish soldiers, although he notes that leading officials never stopped claiming that Jews evaded military service. Petrovsky-Shtern proves that such assertions were patently untrue, since statistics show that Jews continued to provide recruits according to their percentage of the population. Misunderstandings apparently occurred in most cases as a result of mistakes in the metric books. Jews who moved or died were often not removed from the books, and thus an impression was produced that there were more Jews than was actually the case. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that only an infinitesimal number of Jews were ever permitted to become officers (7), and only one individual actually rose to the officer corps through service in the ranks (158).
Verena Dohrn's book also has the goal of disposing of myths, but in contrast to Petrovsky-Shtern she ends up defending rather than attacking a number of conventional positions. Using materials primarily from the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg but also from archives in Moscow and Kiev, she organizes her work according to a main theme: Russian-Jewish relations in the 19th century. Therefore, she discusses the role of Jewish institutions in the empire--the Jewish community (kehillah, kahal), rabbinical seminaries, Jewish schools--and attitudes held by Jews about Russians and Russians about Jews. The chapter titles indicate her vision: "Centers of Jewish Enlightenment," "An Educational Canon for Integration into the State and Society," and "New Jewish Elites in the Russian Empire." The main subjects of her study are the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, so-called state rabbis (kazennye ravviny), teachers, activist lawyers, and journalists.
Dohrn argues against the standard view found, for example, in David Biale's Power and Pawerlessness in Jewish History. Biale argues that the Russian maskilim (adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment) in the first half of the 19th century were historically insignificant because of their small number and the marginality of their position in Jewish society. (11) Furthermore, the way the maskilim adored the tsar and identified with the tsarist state supposedly undermined any respect one could have for them in our day. Against this viewpoint, Dohrn claims that the first graduates of tsarist schools and state Jewish rabbinical seminaries had a significant effect, facilitating a new identity, Russian-Jewish, that transformed the Jews of Russia positively.
Regarding the Jewish question in Russia, Dohrn takes issue with monochromatic criticism of the tsarist government. In contrast to the view that the government wanted to stymie Jewish cultural progress and hinder integration, she argues that by creating special schools for Jewish boys, officials such as Sergei Uvarov desired to make Jews good subjects of the state. In many senses the schools provided tangible advantages, since for many Jewish men the schools served as jumping-off points for entrance to a Russian university and for the acquisition of special privileges, such as the right to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg. According to Dohrn, the government expended a great deal of effort to create serious institutions that offered a curriculum that was nontendentious and of high intellectual quality. Tsar Nicholas I in particular believed that well-educated rabbis could provide compliant leadership to modernize the Jewish communities. The hope, too, among the maskilim was that, endowed with authority, reformed rabbis could win the struggle against the Orthodox leadership.
The teaching of religious subjects in the state-run Jewish schools was also surprisingly good. The curriculum was comprised originally of works from the German haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) with German as the language of instruction in the seminaries until 1866, and thereafter Russian. The curriculum even featured Hebrew and instruction in Jewish literature and history. In time, Russian Jews wrote works that were used in schools; and a number of well-known maskilim became teachers, including Isaac Bet Levinsohn, Samuil Finn, Kalman Shulman, and Avraam Gotlober. Dohrn also demonstrates that the seminaries were effective in ways that the government did not anticipate. Many of their teachers and graduates became intellectuals, journalists, and ultimately leaders in the Jewish national movement. Avram Drabkin, Jacob Halperin, Lev Levanda, Osip Levanda, Aaron Liberman, and Avraam Paperna are good examples. (12) The author argues that the government helped give birth to a secular intelligentsia among Jews that became involved in philanthropic and educational institutions, social welfare, and the administration of their communities. (13) In this way, the government helped cultivate civil society among Jews.
Not all of Dohrn's insights, however, exonerate the government. In fact, tsarist officials dispelled the good will that it had painstakingly cultivated among seminary graduates because, with the exception of a few years in which Jews could gain a livelihood in the civil service, the government restricted employment in the government sector, the primary employer of educated professionals. In addition, the so-called May Laws of 1882 had a deleterious effect on the economic position of most Jews in the country. The seminaries, which were turned into teacher academies in 1873, ultimately became locations of revolutionary discontent.
This is clearly the book for students seeking knowledge about the maskilim as the core of a future Russian-Jewish intelligentsia. Dohrn provides biographies of many of the figures, tracing their origins in Lithuanian shtetlach and their transformations through nonreligious education. She also provides a list of all the graduates of the seminaries, a list that extends to many pages and reflects the schools' role as the source for the leaders of Jewish intellectual, political, and cultural life in Russia.
Although research by the big three--Steven Zipperstein, Michael Stanislawski, and John Klier--has dispelled many falsehoods, a danger exists that historians may go too far in debunking the Lachrymose School of history. At times it has seemed that good historiography necessitates a downplaying of Jewish suffering. It may be high time for us to analyze ourselves and define our attitude to the Lachrymose School. I do not mean the study of history for its use in a national political movement but rather the degree to which the historian should take the part of the victim, the Jewish masses, and identify with the downtrodden. Along with that question, we should also continue to ask whether memory and history should always be separate. Finally we will want to speculate whether or not a third way could be found that bypasses these intractable issues I have found a good deal of common sense in the writings of Salo Baron, who attempts to ground Jewish history in the discourses and methods of general history. (14) When we decide it is time to debate these issues thoroughly, these three books will likely be a part of this worthy conversation.
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(1) Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825-1855 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983). Until his recent death, John Klier was perhaps the central representative of the revisionist school. Among his best works in this vein are Russia Gathers Her Jews: The Origins of the "Jewish Question" in Russia, 1772-1825 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986); and Imperial Russia's Jewish Question, 1855-1881 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
(2) There is an enormous scholarly production on the life and work of Simon Dubnov. Two recent works that contribute to a discussion of Dubnov as a historian include V. E. Kel'ner, Missioner istorii: Zhizn' i trudy Semena Markovicha Dubnova (St. Petersburg: Mir, 2008); and Brian Horowitz, "Dialogue with Heinrich Graetz, Polemic with Avram Harkavy: Simon Dubnov's Struggle for the Domination of Russian-Jewish Historiography, 1883-93," in his Empire Jews: Jewish Nationalism and Acculturation in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Russia (Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2009), 97-113. The most famous work on Dubnov is still his daughter's biography: Sofiia Dubnova-Erlikh, The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnov: Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). Incidentally, Jonathan Frankel wrote the introduction to Dubnova-Erlikh's book, and a reprint of this article appears in Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews, 239-75.
(3) Salo W. Baron coined the term "Lachrymose Historiography" in his essay "Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?" Menorah Journal 14 (June 1928): 515-26.
(4) Jonathan Frankel, Prophesy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Frankel, The Damascus Affair: "Ritual Murder, "Politics, and the Jews in 1840 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
(5) Frankel uses "intellectual" in the sense of a person who lives according to his ideas and has political principles that define how he should live.
(6) Olga Litvak, Conscription and the Search for Russian Jewry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
(7) Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews, 29-31.
(8) To view some of these songs, see Dov Noy's republication of Saul Ginsburg and Pavel Marek, Yidische Folkslider in Russland (St. Petersburg, 1901 ; repr. Ramat Gan: Farlag fun Bar-Ilan Universitet, 1991).
(9) See Simon Dubnov, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 3 vols., trans. Israel Friedlaender (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946), 2:145-49.
(10) See Semen Gol'din, "Russkoe komandirovanie i evrei vo vremia Pervoi mirovoi voiny: Prichiny formirovaniia negativnogo stereotipa," in Mirovoi krizis 1914-1920 godov i sud 'ba vostochnoevropeiskogo evreistva, ed. Oleg Budnitskii (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2005), 29-46.
(11) David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).
(12) Brian Horowitz, "A Jewish Russifier in Despair: Lev Levanda's 'Polish Question,'" Polin: A Journal Devoted to Polish-Jewish Relations, no. 17 (2004): 279-98, repr. in Horowitz, Empire Jews, 13-35.
(13) On subsequent development along those lines, see Brian Horowitz, Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009).
(14) Salo Baron's historiographical ideas can be found in his The Contemporary Relevance of History: A Study in Approaches and Methods (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); and History and Jewish Historians: Essays and Addresses, comp. with a foreword by Arthur Herzberg and Leon A. Feldman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964).
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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