Jews and the State in the Russian Empire

By Steinwedel, Charles | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Jews and the State in the Russian Empire


Steinwedel, Charles, Kritika


Eugene Avrutin, Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia. 216 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-080144862. $42.95.

Ol'ga Iu. Minkina, "Syny Rakhili": Evreiskie deputaty v Rossiiskoi imperii, 1772-1825 (Sons of Rachel: Jewish Deputies in the Russian Empire, 1772-1825). 344 pp. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011. ISBN-13 978-5867939014.

Starting only three decades after Empress Elizabeth had expelled the Jews, the partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) and the addition of hundreds of thousands of Jewish subjects to the empire marked a dramatic turn of events. Imperial administrators confronted the question of how Jews would fit into the empire administratively, socially, and economically. The answers to the question in turn helped shape the formulation of other national and religious "questions" within the empire thereafter.

Over the last quarter-century, Jewish history has increasingly become part of the history of the Russian Empire. Of course, it always had been crucial to understanding the empire and the place of national and religious groups within it. Jewish subjects of the emperor wrote many of the early works of Jewish scholarship. (1) Not surprisingly, the historical context of such authors powerfully shaped their perspectives. Their work became part of a national struggle for emancipation against a hostile tsarist state. (2) With a few exceptions, insights drawn from Jewish history addressed primarily the fate of the Jewish community itself. Tsarist officials' particular hostility toward the Jewish community was assumed, and the relationship between official attitudes and policy shifts was not usually interrogated. Members of the Jewish community itself were typically labeled nationalists if they sought to preserve the integrity and piety of the community or assimilationists if they sought to make a place for Jewish culture in the Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian worlds. As Michael Stanislawski has observed, however, most Jews in Russia and Poland "never became Zionists or Bundists or Automists or any other 'ists,'" but instead sought "to reconcile the ways of life of their parents with the attractions and challenges of modern existence." (3) Like most of the tsar's subjects, Jews' interactions with state authority were complex and their relationships with those outside their faith diverse. As the national struggle with the tsarist state has receded farther in the past, and as the nationalist/assimilationist dichotomy has come to seem too stark, Jewish history has become more like other histories of people in the empire, and its insights inform--or should inform--the scholarship on the empire as a whole to a greater degree.

The two works under review here are clear evidence of this trend. Eugene Avrutin's Jews and the Imperial State and Ol'ga Minkina's Syny Rakhili provide insight into crucial dimensions of the Jewish engagement with the imperial state in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They move issues that often lie on the margins of earlier histories of the empire's Jewish community to the center. In doing so, they provide a fresh perspective on the Russian-Jewish experience and the nature of the empire as a whole. Minkina examines the appointment or election of Jewish deputies to mediate Jewish relations with imperial authorities in St. Petersburg, while Avrutin analyzes state strategies of documenting Jewish identity. More broadly, both historians address the important problematic of how imperial officials sought to extend the reach of the state into the lives of the large Jewish community it had acquired, through Jewish elites, documents such as passports and residence permits, and naming practices.

Minkina focuses fairly tightly on the period from the partitions of Poland until 1830. Her subject is the institution of Jewish deputies, "official representatives of the Jewish population before the authorities" (6). …

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