A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

Synopsis

A century ago the Russian Empire contained the largest Jewish community in the world, numbering about 5 million people. Today, the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union has dwindled to half a million, but remains probably the third largest Jewish community in the world. In the intervening century the Jews of that area have been at the centre of some of the most dramatic events of modern history - two world wars, revolutions, pogroms, political liberation, repression, and the collapse of the USSR. They have gone through dizzyingly rapid upward and downward economic and social mobility and experienced great enthusiasms and profound disappointments. In startling photographs and lively narrative, A Century of Ambivalence traces the historical experience of Jews in Russia from a period of creativity and repression in the second half of the 19th century through the paradoxes posed by the post-Soviet era.

Excerpt

A century ago the Russian Empire contained the largest Jewish community tn the world, numbering about five million people. Today the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union has dwindled to perhaps half a million, but they still constitute perhaps the third-largest Jewish community in the world. In the intervening century the Jews of that area have been at the center of some of the most dramatic events of modern history—two world wars, revolutions, pogroms, political liberation, repression, and the collapse of the USSR. They have gone through dizzyingly rapid upward and downward economic and social mobility. In only one century Russian and Soviet Jews have expanded the literatures of Hebrew and Yiddish and made major contributions to Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian literatures, as well as to some of the other cultures of the area. When given the chance, they have contributed greatly to science and technology, scholarship and arts, industry, and popular culture. For these achievements they have been applauded and cursed, praised and envied. The Jews themselves have disagreed profoundly about where and how to make their contributions. Some dedicated their lives to the country of their birth, while others ultimately rejected it and sought to build up other lands.

This has been a century of great enthusiasms and profound disappointments. Jews have eagerly embraced programs to reform Russia or to leave it; to lose themselves within the larger population or to develop a distinctive culture of their own; to preserve traditional Jewish culture or to root it out completely. Probably most Jews throughout the period lived their lives without embracing any of the ideologies that competed for their allegiance. They settled for living their family and professional lives as best they could, just like most people in any society. But many wrestled with larger, more abstract questions. Throughout most of the period Jews felt that their situation was abnormal, in need of improvement. While some believed that this condition could not be changed, others were determined to find ways of improving their situation. For a long time Israeli political parties and movements could trace their ancestry directly back to . . .

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