Beyond the Pale: the Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia




The Russian-Jewish Encounter

Take me back with you, history has left me out. . . .
I have no business being your future.
Cynthia Ozick, "Envy; or, Yiddish in America"

"When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one's father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one's mother and grandmother and grownup aunts cried at the railroad station, and one was expected to be sad and quiet for the rest of the day, when the father departed for Russia." So begins "Within the Pale," Chapter 1 of Mashke (later Mary) Antin's celebrated autobiography, The Promised Land. With time, Antin learned that Polotzk had much in common with the nearby town of Vitebsk, that Vitebsk was in turn linked to the city of Vilna, and that all three were parts of a larger whole known as the Pale of Permanent Jewish Settlement, which defined the boundaries of Jewish residence in the empire of the tsars and, in her mind, the invisible line separating Jews and Gentiles. And yet, Antin recalled, "How I wanted to see Russia!''1

Beyond the Pale is about the crossing of visible and invisible boundaries in the Russian Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its subject is the encounter between Jews and Russians, the dynamics of Jewish integration into Russian society, and the various roles played in this process by individuals, social groups, and the imperial state.

We are accustomed to thinking of Jews in imperial Russia as the least integrated of all the European Jewish communities, as quintessential outsiders and scapegoats for a regime that eventually collapsed in 1917 under the weight of its own backwardness. It is a view powerfully reinforced by the memories of more than two million emigrants fleeing pogroms and poverty, canonized in the paintings of Marc Chagall and the popular stories of Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem.2 More often than not, we picture nineteenth-century Russian Jews as residents of hermetically Jewish shtetls, small hamlets saturated with tradition and authenticity, where people and livestock freely mingled. Those who broke out of this world seemed to face the stark choice of revolution or exodus: either join the struggle to overthrow the oppressive regime of the Romanovs or abandon Russia and the Old World altogether, to settle in the New World or in the ancient homeland, the land of Israel.

After the Revolution of 1917 perceptions dramatically reversed, as Jews suddenly appeared as consummate insiders in the young Soviet state. They were extraordinarily visible in the upper echelons of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the Cheka (the security apparatus that eventually became the KGB), achieving a level of integration within institutions of state power unmatched in any country at any time before or since (apart, of course, from ancient and modern Israel). In fact, Jewish visibility in the young Soviet state was even broader. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were a much-noted presence across virtually the entire white-collar sector of Soviet society, as journalists, physicians, scientists, academics, writers, engineers, economists, NEPmen, entertainers, and more.3

How are we to make sense of these disparate impressions, stemming from two adjacent historical periods that together barely encompass a single human life span? Was the Russian Revolution responsible for transforming the Jews, overnight as it were, from quintessential outsiders to consummate insiders? One cannot escape the problem merely by pointing out that "outsiders" and "insiders" refer to different subgroups within the Jewish population, or, as a Soviet-era comedian once put it, that "the Trotskys make the revolution and the Bronshteins pay for it" (Bronshtein being Trotsky's original surname). Instead, the goal of my book is to demonstrate that Jewish integration into Russian society began long before the Revolution of 1917, that its origins lie not so much in revolutionary rupture as in the particular strategies of reform practiced by both the Old Regime and new Jewish elites, and that its profound consequences—for Russians as well as Jews—were already apparent well before the Bolsheviks changed the course of Russian history.

The Russian-Jewish encounter is an essential part of the story of how and why the largest Jewish community in the world began its complex passage to modernity not in any of the various new worlds—the Soviet Union, the United States, or the Jewish settlements in Palestine—but in the old, under an old regime, and in the peculiar circumstances of a relatively backward but dynamic empire. The Russian-Jewish encounter was in fact emblematic of Russia's imperial dilemma, an abiding concern not just for the tsarist state, straining to maintain its grip on a kalaidoscopically diverse country, but for society as well, and more precisely for the civil society that was emerging, hesitantly, under the last three tsars.

Although the encounter between Russians and Jews formally began with St. Petersburg's annexation of eastern Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, as a result of which the Romanovs unintentionally acquired some half a million Jewish subjects, this event marked the beginning only of tsarist administration of the Jews. As they had done previously in the Polish Commonwealth, the Jews continued for a time to maintain a relatively high degree of communal autonomy, living as a distinct estate among Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Lithuanians, in what was now the western borderland of the Russian Empire. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century, in the wake of growing centrifugal pressures within the Jewish world as well as significant shifts in official policy, did Jews in noticeable numbers begin to speak and read Russian, to migrate to the empire's Russian heartland, and to seek out a place in Russia's social order. Only in the 1860s did the now familiar term "Russian Jew" (russkii evrei) gain popular currency.4

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, social and geographic mobility among significant portions of the Jewish population transformed the Jews' relationship to Russian society and the imperial state. Jews became an unmistakable feature of Russia's fin-de-siecle social landscape and of public and official discourse about social change. In the words of a leading study of Russia as a multinational empire, "By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish Question stood at the center of discussion [about nationality], and the Jews became the most important object . . . of nationalities policy."5


1 Mary Antin, The Promised Land (New York, 1 997), pp. 5-7. Antin's memoir was first published in 1912.
2 On popular images of prerevolutionary Russian Jewry see Steven J. Zipperstein, Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity (Seattle, 1999).
3 Salo W. Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets (New York, 1987), pp. 213-18. "NEPmen" refers to capitalist middlemen whom the Bolsheviks reluctantly allowed to operate under the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the l920S.
4 The earliest usage of the term I have been able to find occurred in an 1856 petition to the government from Evzel Gintsburg and other Jewish merchants; see RGIA, f. 1269, op. 1, d. 61,1. 4. By 1860 the term "Russian Jews" was part of the masthead of the Odessa newspaper Razsuet.
5 Andreas Kappeler, Ruffland als Vielvolkerreich: Entstehung, C~eschichte, Zerfall (Munich, 1992), p. 220.

Excerpted from BEYOND THE PALE by Benjamin Nathans. Copyright (c) 2002 by Benjamin Nathans
Published by the University of California Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.