Biblical and Hebraic Influences
The Jewish impact on Russian literature may be traced back 900 years to the period when that body of writing was still the common patrimony of a people that was to emerge later as three distinct East Slavic ethnic groups: the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Belorussians, each with its separate language and, ultimately, its own literature. The 11th-century "Primary Chronicle," of which 13th-century transcriptions are extant, begins with an account of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Equally ancient is the 11th-century translation of *Josephus' Jewish War into East Slavic, although the original translation was later supplemented by newer versions. Not only was Josephus' work extremely popular in Russia throughout the Middle Ages, but for several centuries his style and imagery continued to exert a powerful influence on original Russian literary works, particularly martial tales. In 1106–08 the abbot Daniel made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his account of the journey, extant in 15th-century transcriptions, contains a number of interesting descriptions of Jerusalem and its surroundings.
Polemical attacks on Judaism as a creed antedate the appearance in Russia of any sizable Jewish population. Thus the metropolitan Ilarion, in his Slovo o zakone i blagodati ("Sermon on Law and Grace," written 1037–50), attacks Judaism for its alleged lack of Divine grace, a stock claim of Christian theologians over the centuries. It is likely that the metropolitan's attack was prompted by fear of the *Khazars, then Kiev's neighbors and rivals, among whose ruling class Judaism was widely professed. In a popular 12th-century tale, "The Virgin's Road Through Torments," Mary intercedes on behalf of various sinners whom she encounters on her journey through Hell. Only for the Jews can she find no compassion, since they are the alleged murderers of her son. In this doctrine, too, Russian Orthodoxy did not differ from Western European Christianity.
Judaism's theological threat to Russian Christianity became somewhat more real in the 15th century, with the appearance in the cities of Novgorod and Moscow of a heresy whose adherents were dubbed "*Judaizers" (Zhidovstvuyushchiye). Because most of their works were destroyed by the Church, little is known about these heretics other than their skepticism with regard to several articles of Christian faith, including the Trinity and Virgin Birth, and their high regard for the Old Testament, the importance of which Russian Orthodoxy has traditionally minimized. Russia's "Judaizers" translated anew from Hebrew sources (and not, as had been customary, from existing Greek translations) a number of biblical texts, particularly the Psalms and the books of Daniel and Esther. They were also the first to translate a treatise on logic by *Maimonides. Some Russian church historians maintain rather unconvincingly that these translations were made by Jews such as Feodor the Jew for coreligionists who no longer knew Hebrew. Among the best-known works of apocryphal literature was the "Tale of the Centaur," extant in a 15th-century text, which was based on an ancient Jewish story about Solomon building the Temple without recourse to iron.
During the 16th century certain Western European anti-Jewish philippics were translated from Latin into Russian, notably works by *Nicholas de Lyre and by an apostate known as Samuel the Jew. In the following century Old Testament authority and biblical imagery were frequently invoked by opponents of the official Church. An outstanding example was the archpriest Avvakuma (1621–1682), founder of the Old Believers' sect, whose autobiography, Zhitiye protopopa Avvakuma (written 1672–75) is a milestone in the development of the modern Russian literary language.
BIBLICAL DRAMA AND POETRY
The first Russian theatrical performance, which took place in Moscow in 1672, was a German stage adaptation of the Book of Esther. Early plays on biblical themes for the Moscow repertories were written by Semyon Polotski and a German Lutheran pastor, Johann Gottfried Grigori, the author of a morality play on Adam and Eve, and there were also adaptations of the stories of Judith, Daniel, and David and Goliath. Conventional imagery and allusions drawn from the Bible are as characteristic of later Russian literature as they are of other literatures, and biblical motifs regularly occurred in the works of Russian authors of the 19th century. Such was the case with the magnificent statement of the poet's mission in "Prorok" ("The Prophet," 1826) by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Among later, prerevolutionary writers, Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (1871–1919) wrote a drama about Samson (Samson v okovakh, 1925; Samson in Chains, 1923), and Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin (1870–1938) published Sulamif (1908; Eng. tr. Sulamith, 1923), a stylized romance about Solomon. Their Jewish contemporary, Akim Lvovich *Volynski, wrote a critical study of the Bible in Russian poetry.
The last prerevolutionary decade was marked by an upsurge of interest in both biblical and modern Hebrew literature. Interest in the latter was heightened by the fact that many of the founding fathers of the new Hebrew writing, preeminently *Bialik, were Russian Jews then still living in Russia. V. *Jabotinsky translated Bialik into Russian, and Bialik thus gained wide appreciation both among writers (e.g., Gorki) and among the public. Among the translators and popularizers of modern Hebrew verse at the turn of the century were such eminent Russian symbolist poets as Valeri Bryusov (1873–1924) and Feodor Sologub (1863–1927); of a slightly later vintage was the émigré poet, the half-Jew Vladislav *Khodasevich. A journey to Palestine inspired some poetry by another émigré, Ivan Bunin (1870–1953).
After the Bolshevik Revolution biblical works naturally fell into disfavor, but it is significant that two Jewish writers
The Image of the Jew
Although one of the stock characters of the Vertep puppet show – Russia's oldest form of theater – was a grotesque caricature of a greedy and cowardly Jew, there were very few Jewish motifs in Russian literature during the 18th century. One reason for this may be the fact that the Jews lived in areas to the west with which Russian writers, mostly from central Russia, were unfamiliar. Another is that Russian writing of the period rarely featured anyone who was not an aristocrat. To a lesser extent this was also true of Russian literature of the first half of the 19th century, despite the sudden increase in Russia's Jewish population after the annexation of former Polish territories following that country's partitions at the end of the 18th century.
THE ANTISEMITIC STEREOTYPE
Biblical portraits gradually gave way to a stylized, romantic portrayal of the Jew reminiscent of the Jews in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, but familiar since *Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. An antisemitic stereotype tempered by courtly gallantry, the Russian figure was normally an incongruous combination of an ugly and repugnant Jewish father (more often than not a greedy usurer and hater of Christians) and his beautiful daughter. A noteworthy example may be found in Ispantsy ("The Spaniards," 1830), an early drama by Russia's foremost Byronic poet, Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), which portrays hapless lovers against the background of the Inquisition. Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) was no romantic, but his realistic short story Zhid (1847; The Jew…, 1899) exudes the familiar blend of human compassion and aristocratic disgust with a Jew about to be executed on suspicion of espionage. Turgenev's portrayal of the Jew, which sharply contrasts with his humane understanding of the plight of the Russian peasant, is not unlike that found in Taras Bulba (1842), a novella by Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), who both as a man and a writer was otherwise very different from the Westernized and liberal Turgenev. In Gogol's short novel, set during the 17th-century Polish-Cossack wars, a Jewish innkeeper, also suspected of espionage, is described as shifty, mercenary, and treacherous, in many respects far more despicable than the Polish enemy. Curiously enough, this motif of a Jew suspected of spying for the Poles (who are themselves shown to be antisemitic) reappeared nearly a century later in a short story by the Soviet-Jewish writer Isaac *Babel ("Berestechko," in Red Cavalry, 1926), in which a Communist soldier calmly slits the throat of an old Jew.
Hostile portrayals of Jews are scattered throughout the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821–1881). A noteworthy instance is the criminal who remains faithful to the practices of Judaism in Zapiski iz mertvogo doma ("Memoirs from the House of the Dead," 1861–62). The works of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) display an ambivalence characteristic of his attitude toward other ethnic minorities, such as the Poles. On the one hand Tolstoy, particularly in his later years, condemned antisemitism as inconsistent with the commandment to love one's neighbor; on the other, he showed in his own few literary references to Jews the disdainful attitude of a haughty seigneur toward pitiful but despicable creatures.
In the mid-19th century the unfriendly depiction of the Jew underwent yet another shift. Aristocratic contempt for the Jew had largely disappeared, but it was replaced by the hostile references of plebeian writers. Some of these, driven by chauvinism and religious intolerance, accused the Jews of plotting against Russia's traditional values and institutions, identifying them with revolutionary terrorists. Representative of this tendency were Vsevolod Krestovski's (1840–1895) Tma Yegipetskaya ("Egyptian Darkness," 1889) and the "anti-Nihilist" writings of Alexey Pisemski (1821–1881). Simultaneously, however, anti-Jewish notes could be discerned in the works of such Populists and radical sympathizers as the poet Nikolai Nekrasov (1821–1878), the novelist Feodor Reshetnikov (1841–1871), and Russia's foremost satirist, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826–1889). The latter's attitude toward the Jews was, however, like Tolstoy's, inconsistent and contradictory. In the works of these writers (as in the pronouncements of some revolutionary parties of the period, notably Narodnaya Volya) the Jew was often abused as the merciless exploiter of Russia's downtrodden and impoverished masses.
During the second half of the 19th century other writers began to defend the Jews from their numerous enemies and to attack all forms of antisemitic persecution and discrimination. Some of these champions of the Jews were politically and religiously moderate conservatives. Outstanding among these was Nikolay *Leskov, some of whose tales contain traditional antisemitic stereotypes, but whose overall output constitutes a clever attack on Russian antisemitism. Leskov, a prolific writer on the Jewish question, also published anonymously a pamphlet entitled Yevrei v Rossii ("The Jews in Russia," 1884), undoubtedly the most impassioned defense of Russian Jews ever written by a Russian author. Most of their defenders were, however, moderates, liberals, and leftists. There are sympathetic portrayals in works by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), such as in the short story Skripka Rotshilda ("Rothschild's Violin," 1894), and Ivanov (1887), one of his early serious plays. In this, a Jewish woman forsakes her faith and her family in order to marry the man she loves, but he ultimately insults her by calling her a despicable Jewess. Chekhov also distinguished himself as an ardent defender of Alfred *Dreyfus, losing many of his friends as a result. Alexander Kuprin portrayed a Jewish fiddler
During the latter part of the 19th century Jews themselves began to write on Jewish themes. Before 1917, however, they were never fully accepted as Russian writers and none of them achieved literary stature. Russian Jewry was, in any case, only superficially secularized and its artistic energies were canalized into the literary realms of Hebrew and Yiddish. Three pioneer authors were Osip *Rabinovich, Grigori Bogrov, and Lev *Levanda, whose descriptions of Jewish life were intended to demonstrate the brutal oppression of an inoffensive minority, and to gain the sympathy of all decent and fair-minded Russian Christians. A more militant note was sounded in the poetry of Shimon Shmuel (Semyon) *Frug, who at first linked his hopes for the salvation of Russia's Jews with the triumph of the revolutionary cause, but who later became more attracted to Zionism. Two writers whose reputation has proved more lasting were Andrey *Sobol and Semyon *Yushkevich. In his novel Pyl ("Dust," 1915), Sobol expressed the Jewish revolutionary's disenchantment with socialism as a solution of the Jewish problem, a feeling reflected in another semi-autobiographical work, Oblomki ("The Wreckage," 1923), a collection of stories published after the Bolshevik triumph.
The Soviet Position
The distinction between portrayals of Jews in Russian literature by writers who were themselves Jews and those who were not loses much of its validity during the Soviet period. In the first place, Jewish writers in the U.S.S.R. were, for the most part, culturally assimilated; many of them wrote under Slavic-sounding names which concealed their origin. Secondly, the everpresent threat of an accusation of "Jewish nationalism" caused many of them – either out of genuine Communist conviction or from ordinary fear – to shy away from excessive preoccupation with Jewish subjects. And last but not least, the many levels of ideological control over Soviet literature, operative from the early days of the regime, have to a greater or lesser extent – depending on the period – prevented the appearance of works too much at variance with the official party position on the subject; and these controls have been roughly applicable to all Soviet writers, regardless of their ethnic background. The periodical shifts in the portrayal of Jews in Soviet literature have thus been more closely tied to fluctuations in official policy and to the stringency of literary censorship than to the preferences of the authors themselves or, more important still, to the social conditions which their works purported to reflect in a realistic manner.
The official Soviet position may be reduced to the following essentials. The Jews, like all other ethnic groups, are really divided, as Lenin stated, into two warring nations in one – the exploiters and the exploited. The exploited and the poor of all nations are natural allies, as are the rich exploiters of the various ethnic groups. The former are to be portrayed with compassion and sympathy, and the latter are to be shown as their villainous foes. There can be no recognition of an ethnic group that might transcend class antagonisms. This article of faith was to be observed with particular stringency in Soviet literature's treatment of Jewish themes, and it has resulted in some grotesque descriptions of manifestations of antisemitism and other phenomena which, in one way or another, affect all Jews, regardless of their religious ties, economic status, or political allegiance.
In the distorting mirror of Soviet literature, where ideology takes precedence over historical or artistic truth, there are few exceptions to the rule that only the Jewish poor are shown to be victims of antisemitism, whereas the bourgeoisie are somehow unaffected by it. In fact, Jewish capitalists – who, as a rule, are also portrayed as the only Jews infected with the dual poison of religious faith and Zionism – are shown making common cause with antisemites, provided that the latter are their class allies – fellow capitalists and enemies of the working class. This tendency can be discerned in Soviet literature from the earliest years of the Soviet regime and is not, as is commonly thought, a phenomenon of Stalin's last years. However, since antisemitism as such was condemned during the early years of Soviet rule, and because antisemitic policies were in the 1920s associated with the ancien régime, Soviet books describing poor Jews in czarist Russia portrayed them in a sympathetic light as victims of persecution.
A documentary of unusual interest and importance that was unearthed some 45 years after its publication is the poem "Yevrey" ("The Jew") by the otherwise conformist Soviet writer Vladimir Mayakovski, a leader of the Futurist movement. Here Mayakovski, a friend of Bialik (to whom he dedicated another of his poems), vigorously attacked Russian antisemitism and championed the victims of its constant slanders. The poem, first read to a meeting in favor of Jewish economic rehabilitation which he had himself helped to organize in November 1926, subsequently appeared in Izvestiya; but it has been carefully omitted from Mayakovski's collected works. Another poem, "Zhid" ("Jew"), written in May 1928 as a protest against the resurgence of antisemitism, appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda (June 15, 1928).
Subsequently, in the 1930s, as glorification of Russia's past became more fashionable, czarist antisemitism tended to be avoided, although the familiar attitude continued to be maintained in works describing Jews still living in capitalist countries. This, too, became muted in the early 1940s and was almost entirely suppressed after World War II, perhaps in order to avoid undesirable parallels with the Soviet Union's own brand of antisemitism, which began in the late 1940s with Stalin's virulently antisemitic purges of *"cosmopolitans." These
THE JEW THROUGH SOVIET EYES
Early Soviet literature portrayed two types of "sympathetic" Jews: the victims of prerevolutionary persecution, and the fighters for the Communist cause and, occasionally, the passive victims who were transformed into active fighters. It is interesting that the victims were usually endowed with various ethnic traits, such as observance of Jewish tradition, attachment to Jewish culture, and even loyalty to the Yiddish language; but these they would discard in the process of transformation into good Communists. At the same time, Jewish villains, usually "class enemies" from the past such as rich merchants and rabbis, were depicted as "socially alien elements" who had somehow succeeded in worming their way into the Communist Party. The fact that Jewish heroes outnumbered Jewish villains in early Soviet fiction reflects Soviet literature's general predilection for "positive" characters as well as the undeniable fact that the impoverished Jewish masses were sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause, many Jews having fought in the civil war on the Communist side.
The most celebrated portraits of "positive" fighting Jews are to be found in works such as Alexander Fadeyev's (1901–1956) novel Razgrom (1927; The Nineteen, 1929) and Eduard *Bagritski's Duma pro Opanasa ("The Lay of Opanas," 1926). A middle-class Jew who hates the Soviet regime is depicted in Yuri *Libedinski's Nedelya (1923; A Week, 1923), while an obnoxious, pushy young Jew nicknamed "little Trotsky" appears in Sergey Malashkin's (1890–?) collection of stories Luna s pravoy storony ("The Moon on the Right," 1927). Small-town Jews, reminiscent of those found in Yiddish literature, were portrayed in scores of works, including Ilya *Ehrenburg's Burnaya zhizn Lazika Roytshvantsa (1928; The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, 1960). Joseph *Utkin described the sudden metamorphosis of a humble tailor steeped in Jewish tradition into an emancipated and internationalist Bolshevik in his Povest o ryzhem Motele… ("The Tale of Motele the Redhead…," 1926). The fullest and most sophisticated portrait of Russian Jewry during the last decade of czarist Russia, at the time of the Revolution and the civil war, and in its first years under Soviet rule is found in the works of Isaac *Babel.
During the 1930s the manner in which Jews were portrayed in Soviet fiction, poetry, and drama underwent a significant change. Not only heroes, but also villains and even marginal characters were no longer, as a rule, described as Jews – persons with specifically Jewish problems, hopes, and aspirations – but rather as Soviet men and women whose Jewish origin could only be guessed from their names, or from fleeting references to their family backgrounds. This can only partly reflect the changes that actually took place in Soviet Jewry. Much of the explanation must be sought in the already stringent political controls imposed on Soviet literature. Two examples of such literary characterization are the enthusiastic engineer Margulis in Valentin Katayev's (1897–1986) "production novel" Vremya, vperyod! ("Time, Forward!," 1932), and Davydov, the organizer of a collective farm, in Podnyataya tselina ("Virgin Soil Upturned," 1932–59) by the Nobel Prizewinning novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984). The latter case is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that, in the novel, Davydov's Jewish background is almost imperceptible, despite the fact that he was partly modeled on a real-life Jewish Communist.
The artificiality and insincerity in Soviet literature's portrayal of Jews during the 1940s is particularly striking in works dealing with World War II. At a time when the Nazi extermination of Jewish civilians and prisoners of war must already have been common knowledge, these continued to portray Soviet people of Jewish birth as almost completely unaware of their Jewishness. This fact, and the enforced tendency to avoid Jewish subjects altogether, is corroborated by the memoirs of Ehrenburg, which were published during the relatively liberal years following Stalin's death. The contrived nature of the portrayal of Jews in Soviet literature during the late 1940s and early 1950s is further evident from the fact that the few "positive" Jewish heroes found in Soviet writings of the period – such as the engineers Liberman and Zalkind in Vasili Azhayev's (1915–1968) novel Daleko ot Moskvy ("Far from Moscow," 1948) – display no awareness of the existence of antisemitism in the U.S.S.R. itself. Confirmation of this assumption may again be found in the memoirs of Soviet writers, notably Ehrenburg and Samuel *Marshak.
The most important distortion, however, took the innocuous form of silence. At a time when Jewish and non-Jewish writers throughout the world were shaken and inspired by the two most important events in the past 2,000 years of Jewish history – the Nazi massacre of 6,000,000 Jews and the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state – Soviet literature affected a pose of indifference and apathy. Nor, understandably, was there any reaction in Soviet literature to the wave of officially inspired antisemitism then sweeping the U.S.S.R. Very muted echoes of this can be found in Soviet writing of the post-Stalin era, such as Ehrenburg's novella Ottepel (1954; The Thaw, 1955) and Yevtushenko's poetry. By 1970, problems such as Soviet antisemitism and Jewish identity were dealt with only in underground literature circulating illegally in the U.S.S.R., much of it actually published in the West. The most notable writer in this category was the non-Jew Andrey Sinyavski (1915–1997), whose works appeared under the Jewish-sounding
The Jewish Contribution
Since the late 19th century, hundreds of Jews have played an active, and often major role in Russian literary affairs. As in Germany, there was at first a tendency for Russian Jewish writers to accelerate their assimilation through baptism: the poet and essayist Nikolai *Minski and his brother-in-law, the literary scholar Semyon *Wengeroff, were two such converts. The feuilletonist Miron (Meyer) Davidovich Ryvkin (1869–1915), who wrote for Jewish and liberal journals, successfully conveyed the atmosphere of the *shtetl. His historical novel Navet (1912; Yid. tr., Der Velizher Blut-Bilbl, 1913) dealt with a blood libel. After the Bolshevik Revolution a number of Jewish writers left Russia. They included the critic Yuli *Aikhenvald (who was expelled in 1922); the novelist Mark *Aldanov; the poets Sasha *Cherni and V.F. Khodasevich; and the playwright Lev Natanovich *Lunts. Another émigré, Mikhail Osipovich Zetlin (1882–1945), was the author of Dekabristy – Sudba odnogo pokoleniya (1933; The Decembrists, 1958) on the 1825 insurrection. Among those who remained in the U.S.S.R. were David *Aizman; Mikhail *Gershenzon, who promoted Hebrew culture but fought Zionism; and Ilya Ehrenburg.
Despite the pressures of Soviet life, Russian Jewish writers were as active in the "liberal" camp as among the conformists. Rejection of or indifference to the Jewish heritage characterized the first post-revolutionary generation of Jewish authors, which included the Komsomol poet Alexander Bezymenski (1898–1973); the humorist Ilya *Ilf; the eminent poet Osip *Mandelshtam, who had an obsessive dislike of everything Jewish; the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris *Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago (1957; Eng, tr., 1959); the half-Jewish author and critic Victor Shklovski (1893–1984); and the novelist and literary scholar Yuri *Tynyanov. The critic Abram Zakharovich Lezhnev (1893–1938) wrote Sovremenniki ("Contemporaries," 1927), which contains three chapters on Babel, Pasternak, Selvinski, and Utkin, and Proza Pushkina (1937). The philosophy of Jewish assimilation under the Soviet regime suffered a setback with the great purges of the 1930s, when Leopold *Averbach and Vladimir *Kirshon disappeared, and many other Jewish writers, notably the poet Joseph Utkin, were exposed to severe criticism. The problem of reconciling their Jewish identity with their Soviet allegiances preoccupied Isaac Babel (who was liquidated by the regime), Ilya Ehrenburg, Ilya Selvinski, and Mikhail *Svetlov. Like Ehrenburg, Emmanuil *Kazakevich, a former Yiddish writer from Birobidzhan, escaped the antisemitic excesses of the Stalin era and was a prominent "liberal" during the post-Stalin thaw; while Samuel Marshak, the poet and translator, also survived, despite his evident "cosmopolitanism." A decade or more after Stalin's death many Jewish writers in the U.S.S.R. still felt the weight of Soviet oppression. Vladimir *Admoni was a defense witness at the 1964 Brodski trial; Vasili *Grossman courageously attempted to document Nazi crimes against the Jews in the face of official displeasure; Lev Kopelev (1912–1997), an ally of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918– ), was a dissident literary scholar.
There are relatively few translations from Hebrew literature into Russian, although translations from Yiddish literature are quite numerous, some of them – above all those of *Shalom Aleichem – among the most effective in any language. This is due partly to the traditional excellence of the art of literary translation in Russia, and partly to the fact that the Yiddish language lends itself well to translation into Russian, since both have two distinct lexical components: the lofty with religious overtones (Hebraisms in Yiddish and Church Slavonicisms in Russian), and the informal vernacular (Germanic in Yiddish, and common speech in Russian). There are numerous successful translations of Russian literature into Hebrew. The most noteworthy are *Shlonsky's poetic version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1937, 19534) and Lea *Goldberg's translations from several Russian authors.
V. Aleksandrova, in: Ya. G. Frumkin et al. (eds.), Kniga o russkom yevreystve 1917–1967, 2 (1968); E.J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (1969); B.J. Chaseed, in: E.J. Simmons (ed.), Through the Glass of Soviet Literature: Views of Russian Society (1953), 110–58; D.I. Čiževskij, History of Russian Literature from the Eleventh Century to the End of the Baroque (1962); J. Kunitz, Russian Literature and the Jew: a Sociological Inquiry… (1929); D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (1949), incl. bibl.; G.P. Struve, Russkaya literatura v izgnanii (1956); idem, Soviet Russian Literature 1917–1950 (1951).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.