Two Russian-Jewish Women of Distinction, and Their Distinctive Diaries

The women’s self-recorded experiences are utterly disparate, but both offer a potent antidote to any sentimental nostalgia for life in the age of Sholom Aleichem.

From the cover of Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva.

From the cover of Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva.

Feb. 25 2020
About the author

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

“I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” said the essayist and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her 2015 Nobel Prize lecture. Born in 1948 in Soviet Belarus, Alexievich is fascinated by the way in which ordinary individuals speak about the horrendous suffering that has historically characterized ordinary Russian life:

When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! . . . I love the lone human voice.

Aliexievich is hardly alone among the distinguished breed of Russian observers and chroniclers of this kind. From Alexander Herzen’s brilliant autobiography My Past and Thoughts and Prince Peter Kropotkin’s dramatic Memoirs of a Revolutionist in the 19th century to Evgeniya Ginzburg’s harrowing Journey into the Whirlwind and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s piercing Hope against Hope in the 20th, Russian writers have transformed the rehearsal of distressing facts into high literary art.

Ordinary Russians, too, have written memoirs and diaries in the hope that their sufferings would not fade into oblivion but instead become an intrinsic part of the world’s conscience. In the best of these accounts, the “lone human voice” sounds with special power.

Not surprisingly, ordinary Russian Jews have also appreciated the importance of recording, and so memorializing, their lives. Which brings us to two recently published works in English translation: the memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (1892-1976) and the diaries of Zinaida Poliakova (1863-1953). Neither aspires to literary status, but both capture the texture of Jewish life in the last decades of tsarist rule before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 through the early and middle decades of the Soviet Union. In their own very distinctive—indeed, divergent—ways, they also betray more than their authors may have intended about their own sense of right and wrong and their occasionally unsettling view of life.


In 1939, at age forty-seven, Doba-Mera Medvedeva started to record her tumultuous life. “I decided a long time ago to write a memoir for my children,” she explains in Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva, “I am not very old, but I have seen much grief, and almost every day my life has been filled with so many interesting events and thoughts and feelings that I often go over them in my mind.”

That phrase, “so many interesting events and thoughts and feelings,” may be the only moderately cheerful note struck in this volume. As a child and young adult growing up in a shtetl in eastern Belarus, Doba-Mera experienced extreme privation and lived through revolutionary strikes, pogroms, and war. The worst horrors, the ones that would occur under the Soviet Communist regime, it would become too dangerous to record. The Great Terror of 1936-8 evidently prompted her to destroy what she had written about the previous two decades lest it fall into the hands of the NKVD, the Stalinist precursor of the KGB. All that remains are two crossed-out but still legible sentences that nevertheless manage to render her suppressed words more evocative than written ones:

At this point I became convinced that our life had just entered a period of calm, but that the slightest disturbance would make it erupt like a volcano. That period of calm was because there were no causes or instigators, but if there were any, the trouble would come back at us with great severity.

Actually, in looking back on her “not very old” life, Doba-Mera can recall nothing but unjust suffering:

Other people parade their youth, but I soaked every step in bitter tears. . . I am overwhelmed by my past—that is, all my sufferings nobody cared about, how I was unneeded by anyone.

She had, she explains, no childhood, only years when her age happened to be that of a child. After the death of her mother in 1903, when she was eleven, Doba-Mera was repeatedly abandoned or left in the care of cruel people. Her father, a poor melamed (children’s teacher), remarried, but her wicked new stepmother at first prevented him from continuing to educate her and then prevailed upon him to move away, leaving her in the care of unfeeling tenants.

Still, she idolized her father, a proud descendant of prominent rabbis. He did manage to teach her a bit, and she displayed remarkable abilities and was desperately desirous of more. But there was there was no money to educate a girl, who would have no way of making use of what she had learned. Instead, as a youth, she was apprenticed to a seamstress who exploited her for household chores and never taught her the trade. Joining a workers’ strike, she witnessed Cossacks attacking a crowd and offers a harrowing description of a pogrom conducted by the ultra-nationalist Black Hundreds.

Through all of this, she cherished her father. To understand her feelings toward him as well as toward humanity as a whole, one must grasp her division of people into two, and only two, types.

Most, she writes, resemble her uncle Alter, a sadistic yeshiva student. “He was like everybody who lived and studied at someone else’s expense. People like that were deadbeats and slackers.” Even more than the average learned slacker, Alter “lived the life in which he never gave anybody a glass of water. . . . People like that age well,” she concluded, since the world is so arranged that the Alters prosper.

Doba-Mera’s parents exemplify the other type: good people, but impotent. To her, human goodness consists of unrewarded kindness, selfless generosity, and above all meekness. Being averse to conflict, the good are incapable of resisting the evil done to them by others. They are thus always taken advantage of, and so die young. That is how her father lets Alter first steal his seat in the synagogue and then drive him out of his own house; it is also why her father yields to his wife’s demands that he abandon his beloved daughter.

When Doba-Mera marries, her in-laws, who hate her for bringing no dowry, induce her weak husband to mistreat her. “The only person who understood me and took pity on me was my husband’s sister Eidlia,” she recalls. Like one of Dostoevsky’s saintly heroines, Eidlia has been at best neglected “because she was quiet, meek, and inoffensive” and at worst hated “because of her [very] goodness.” Eidlia takes care of others when they fall ill from typhus, but when she catches it, the family sends her away to die.

Implicitly, Doba-Mera is always asking herself: can goodness really be so good if it is so helpless? Does non-resistance to evil, rather than deflecting it, actually promote it? Should we not seek some sort of tougher goodness, which would allow people to defend themselves and others?

This question haunts much of modern Russian literature; Doba-Mera could have arrived at it with the help of ideas that were in the air at the time, or entirely on her own.

Her memoirs also illustrate how people come to embrace misanthropy—as, understandably enough, does Doba-Mera herself. “Nobody had ever been genuinely kind to me, and so I never felt affection toward anybody,” she observes candidly. “Life had taught me to fear everybody.” Forever cursing the day she was born, she arrives at the conclusion that “only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them, and the children also suffer.”

Much as she hates the rich, moreover, Doba-Mera knows that poor people are no less cruel, just less capable of wreaking commensurate amounts of harm. She offers devastating portraits of Russian non-Jews, but, all in all, they come off no worse, and perhaps a bit better, than the Jews she describes. As for men, all of them “are egoists and despots with respect to their wives,” because “that is essentially the character of a man, even a man we consider to be a good husband.” To round out the list, her portraits of women show them to be just as selfish if given the chance.

To be sure, sometimes people do change. Doba-Mera’s aunt Geisa, for instance, is transformed overnight from evil to good thanks to her marriage to a kind man “who liked to help people and in addition was well-to-do.” Doba-Mera had to see the transformation as total, from one extreme to the other, because for her people come in only two extreme kinds.


Alice Nakhimovsky, the translator and co-editor with the historian Michael Beizer of this gripping memoir, and a fine scholar herself, contributes an introduction to the book marked by many splendid observations. But I think she gets one thing wrong.

In a particularly memorable scene, Doba-Mera and her little brothers arrive at their uncle’s house, uninvited and with nowhere else to go. When the uncle refuses to take them in, the Russian peasant driver who has brought the children rebukes him: “Fear God! Tomorrow is your big Jewish fast, the Day of Judgment. How are you going to fast before God if you chase away these little orphans, your sister’s children?” When this appeal proves futile, the peasant driver comforts the children, assumes responsibility for them so long as they have no place to go, and transports them to their Aunt Geisa, who takes them in.

For Nakhimovsky, this vignette testifies to Doba-Mera’s “absorption of the Russian idea of the downtrodden peasant as morally noble.” But, in light of Doba-Mera’s other portraits of Russian peasants as cruel anti-Semitic drunks, this doesn’t ring quite right. Here I think that Nakhimovsky, like many academics habituated to prefer explanations in terms of broad social forces or intellectual trends, looks to ideology when another explanation is readily available.

Above all, what disturbs Doba-Mera is constant abandonment, including emotional abandonment; what distresses her most is not poverty but lack of sympathy, the sufferings that “nobody cared about.” Reflecting on her own disastrous marriage, she observes, “I was lonely. Whom did I have to complain to? . . . To the whole world I was an unwanted stranger.” She loves Eidlia, whose only merit—but a sufficient one—lies in listening to her with sympathy and understanding. And always she seeks someone who will speak for her, justify her, and reproach those who abandon her. That, precisely, is what the peasant driver does. Doba-Mera is not idolizing the Russian-peasant type but using the incident to express her deepest wish, her yearning for an understanding advocate.

Serendipitously, this peasant is also the farthest thing from an anti-Semite in an age when anti-Semites were common and increasingly dangerous. Growing up in a revolutionary era, the youthful Doba-Mera encountered a variety of them. Tellingly, she reports on one pre-revolutionary debate between Zionists and Marxists in which the Marxists contend there is no need to emigrate to Palestine because anti-Semitism will end, once and for all, with the coming of the revolution. Although she offers no further comment on that debate, she has already observed just a few pages earlier, from the vantage point of her subsequent experience under Communist oppression, that anti-Semitism has in fact continued to thrive in the Soviet Union.

“Apparently anti-Semitism won’t be rooted out any time soon,” she wisely remarks. Nor would any other kind of evil. She herself would survive the hell of World War II, during which, as the editors tell us, she would “learn about the death of everyone she knew”: proof positive, as if she would ever need it, of the relentless and ineradicable persistence of human evil.


This takes us in turn to the second book, A Jewish Woman of Distinction: The Life and Diaries of Zinaida Poliakova, edited by ChaeRan Freeze and translated by Gregory Freeze—and into a world almost diametrically opposite to that of Doba-Mera Medvedeva.

Born in 1863, Zinaida was the eldest daughter of Lazar Solomonovich Poliakov. Lazar and his two brothers were known as “the Russian Rothschilds.” About them, ChaeRan Freeze in her introduction cites a line from Sholom Aleichem: “Why, look at the Poliakovs in Moscow. . . . Who could resist becoming a Poliakov quicker than one can say one’s bedtime prayers?”

Lazar and his brothers built a quarter of the empire’s railroad lines and dominated Russian finance. They maintained a close friendship with Vladimir Dolgorukov, the governor-general of Moscow, who protected Jews until he was dismissed from his post in 1891. Rumor had it that Tsar Alexander III once asked Dolgorukov: “Tell me, who is governor-general in Moscow: you, or Poliakov?”

The brothers were early supporters of the Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum) and engaged in numerous charitable works. They knew the royal family and participated in the highest social circles, all the while remaining observant Jews. They even remained friends with notorious anti-Semites like Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, whose reactionary journal The Citizen they supported financially despite its claim that all of Russia’s financial woes were the fault of the Jews whose “satanic” cabal, Meshchersky wrote, ““flies under a false flag to conceal its main intention . . . to destroy the Orthodox Church, the autocracy, . . . in a word, Russia.”

The Poliakovs also maintained close ties to the reactionary and anti-Semitic Konstantin Pobedonostev, the head of the Orthodox church and for many years the second most powerful figure in the empire. In a crowning act, Lazar managed to have the rank of hereditary nobleman conferred on him: the only Jew I know of to have achieved that honor. Indeed, until I read these memoirs, I had no idea that such a life was possible for Jews who did not convert.

Understandably enough, many Russian Jews found the Poliakovs repellent, not least for maintaining connections with leading anti-Semites.

Although earlier generations of Poliakov women had helped manage the family business, Zinaida was raised to be above all that. Without neglecting her Jewish learning, her parents educated her and her sisters to fit in with Russian aristocratic society, which entailed acquiring excellent French along with passable German and English.

As a young woman, Zinaida traveled abroad frequently and participated in European high culture, both Jewish and Christian. In 1891 she married Reuben Gubbay—the grandson of the British Iraqi tycoon Sir Albert Sassoon—and settled in Paris, where for decades she ran a fashionable salon and made a display of her wealth. We can judge the nature of her marital relations by her Uncle Iakov’s comment on the birth of her daughter Annette five years later: “Zina Gubbay gave birth to a daughter. Nobody expected this.”

Even when, a half-century later, the Nazis ruled France, Zinaida and a few other well-connected Jewish families were treated indulgently. A number of prominent members of the group managed the local Jewish community’s affairs for the occupying forces: a form of collaboration similar to, but morally much worse than, the Poliakovs’ closeness to tsarist officials. Zinaida, left without access to her remaining wealth, earned money by translating documents for the Nazis, while Annette was sent to a special prison camp for persons who could be exchanged for German prisoners held by the Allies. It resembled, as Freeze explains, a resort surrounded by barbed wire: “the prisoners lived in luxurious hotel rooms . . . and received proper rations . . . as well as mail and packages of food from the Red Cross and family members.” They also had access to excellent medical care.

By the time they were repatriated to England, Zinaida was already in her eighties. There, Annette took advantage of a power of attorney to put Zinaida’s wealth in her own name. Moving back to Paris, her mother complained that “I live alone, without servants, and my daughter does not acknowledge me.” She would die a few years later at ninety.


So much by way of background. The present volume comprises only Zinaida’s early diaries, written while she was still living in Russia. Later volumes focus “primarily on her travels in Europe and ostentatious consumption,” Freeze observes, and are less interesting; Freeze offers a sample entry that includes a long list of art works and beautiful objects for sale and ends: “I want to purchase a great deal.” But it must be said that ostentatious consumption is no less prevalent in these earlier diaries, whose author comes across as a remarkably empty-headed, egotistical person with no interests beyond day-to-day amusements.

Although her family hosted many of Russia’s leading businessmen, politicians, intellectuals, and artists, Zinaida never—ever—reports a single interesting thing any of them has said. One close family friend, for example, was Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the journal that serially published the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and others, and who was himself a leading figure in Russian intellectual life. “So intimate was their friendship with the Katkovs that the latter even inquired if they could attend synagogue with the Poliakovs,” Freeze notes. But we learn absolutely nothing about Katkov’s conversation.

Day after tedious day, Zinaida writes about pleasure trips, croquet, concerts, engagements, horseback rides, receptions, balls, travels abroad, and the inspection of estates, some of them available for purchase. “In general it is possible to buy everything,” this mercantile princess observes, “but one should not spread oneself too thin on a lot of estates.”

Zinaida does no work, needless to say, but even amusements so tire her that she frequently has to take a break. “Today,” she writes, “I went to town and spent the entire time going around to the stores. Tomorrow I am planning to rest from the daily excursion and just do nothing.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suggests that boredom is a sure sign of a life lived badly. As if to illustrate what he has in mind, Zinaida constantly complains of it. (Recall by contrast the much more sentient and observant comment by Doba-Mera about the “many interesting events and thoughts and feelings” that occupy her mind.) Indeed, it is boredom that prompts Zinaida to keep a diary in the first place. “For nothing to do, and almost for the hundredth time, I have started to write a diary and have not had the patience to finish this,” reads the initial entry. Needless to add, there are long gaps between entries.

True, Zinaida does occasionally dream of accomplishing something: “Yesterday evening, while lying in bed, I thought about how I should work on geometry and French.” Although we hear nothing more about this particular ambition, we do learn about her haphazard mode of reading. According to one entry: “I can now read L. Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace with a clear conscience. I have an original edition with the French phrases. I intend to acquire all of his works.” Not to read, to acquire. And acquire them she does, writing eight days later: “I began to cut the pages of the Complete Collection of Works given me by Countess Tolstoy. . . . Mr. Uvarov wrote her on my behalf.”

As for the approximately 1,400 pages of War and Peace itself, she plans to proceed at the rate of one chapter, or about five pages, a day, and at one point writes of becoming so engrossed that “whole days pass unnoticed for me.” But she cannot keep to so rigorous a program; the unaccustomed activity prompts her to reflect that she is thinking too much. After all, “a strong mind means a weak body,” and so it is necessary “to give a rest to thinking and the mind, which are consuming all my strength.”

If Zinaida has almost nothing to say about the substance or the significance of the literature she is reading, equally remarkable is what she fails to say about the events occurring all around her. The years in which she wrote these diaries witnessed the rise of Russian populism, pan-Slavism, and terrorism. Mussorgsky had just composed his greatest works, the Itinerants were producing their best paintings, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and the young Anton Chekhov were writing some of the world’s greatest fiction. Apart from her struggles with War and Peace, Zinaida mentions none of this.

Ironically enough, this was also a period of “the repentant nobleman,” a term used to describe the enormous guilt expressed by many Russians—not just noblemen—over the dependence of high culture on wealth extracted from impoverished peasants. For this reason, Prince Kropotkin gave up his spectacular career as a naturalist and geographer to become a revolutionary. “Science is an excellent thing. I knew its joys and valued them,” he explained:

But what right had I to these highest joys, when all around me was nothing but misery and struggle for a moldy bit of bread; when whatsoever I should spend to enable me to live in that world of higher emotions must needs be taken from the very mouths of those who grew the wheat and had not bread enough for their children?

Not a trace of such thoughts, which obsessed educated Russians, appears in these diaries. Zinaida’s own consciousness of justice and injustice takes a rather different form. Despite her father’s promise that her younger sister Khaia will not be given a hat similar to Zinaida’s, their mother, out of sheer spite, has bought Khaia just such a hat. This outrage prompts Zinaida to reflect that one must not submit passively to one’s fate. “To live means to fight. And so long as struggle is possible and I am alive, then I shall not bow down to higher injustice.”


In her introduction, which makes up just under half of this 385-page volume, ChaeRan Freeze calls Zinaida’s diaries “a treasure trove for historians.” Although the diaries do exert a certain perverse fascination, they strike me overall as providing more useful material for satirists. They also elicit sympathy with Doba-Mera’s resentment of the rich.

From a literary and psychological perspective, the discrepant recollections of these two Jewish women, taken together and side by side, provide another demonstration of the way in which personal diaries and memoirs can reveal, along with precious insights, deep-seated blindnesses. Perhaps most of all, however, in representing two largely contemporaneous if utterly disparate cases of human experience, their testimony supplies a potent antidote to any sentimental nostalgia one might harbor for Russian Jewish life in the age of Sholom Aleichem.

More about: History & Ideas, Memoir, Russian Jewry, Women in Judaism