Yuri Slezkine’s Undiscriminating Eye

How a much-lauded historian with a genius for identifying similarities—but no eye for differences—misreads Jewish history.

Princeton University Press.

Princeton University Press.

Observation
Nov. 12 2020
About the author

Andrew N. Koss, an associate editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.


Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three are likely to hold a more positive opinion of socialism than of capitalism, according to one recent survey. This statistic tracks with the enthusiasm for self-identified socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or her fellow travelers of “the Squad.” Unsurprisingly, sizable numbers of young Jews have also joined the parade. Some have looked back to the high point of Jewish socialism in the form of the Bund: a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking socialist party in early-20th-century Poland and Russia whose annals included moments of heroism, tragedy, and, most appealingly to today’s leftists, anti-Zionism.

Today’s Jewish socialists can indulge this highly romanticized image of the past only with the aid of ignorance, not only about the Bund itself but also about two other projects in which Jews participated during the heyday of socialist zeal. One, an unqualified success, was the creation of the modern state of Israel. The other, a catastrophe, saw the ushering into being of the murderous totalitarian regime known as the Soviet Union. The shining record of the former is something that young Jewish socialists today either ignore or abhor; the brutal record of the latter is something that few seem eager to acknowledge, let alone reclaim.

Yuri Slezkine, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is free of such qualms. A prominent historian of the USSR whose 1994 essay on Soviet nationalities’ policy is (for good reason) the most downloaded article in the field of Slavic studies, Slezkine has been keen to tell the story of forgotten Jewish Communists, and to seek explanations for what he sees as nothing less than an ingrained modern Jewish enthusiasm for Communism itself. He did so first in The Jewish Century, published in 2004—when it received a number of awards—and recently reissued; and he returned to the subject in 2018 with The House of Government, a perhaps even more lauded book that is less about Jews per se than about the Communist-party elite in which so many Jews found a home.

Let’s take them one by one.

 

Sweeping through the expanse of modern Jewish history, The Jewish Century culminates in the story of those Jews who played a leading role in the Soviet experiment. The book begins, however, by dividing all of humanity into two groups: Apollonians, who cultivate the soil and admire physical skill, and Mercurians, who are nomadic, adept at commerce, and driven to distinguish themselves from the people among whom they live. In this scheme, history’s archetypal Mercurians are the Jews, though Slezkine also adduces such other groups as the Roma, the Irish Travellers, and the Chinese of Southeast Asia.

With the advent of modernity, Slezkine argues, Apollonians learned to read and write, to trade and bargain, and to forsake their farms for the cities. In this new world, Mercurian skills became ever more valuable; Jews excelled because their culture had endowed them with the Mercurian competences that modernity requires. Thus, after the French Revolution, West European Jews, newly permitted to enter Gentile society, often achieved remarkable success. This trend became most pronounced in the 20th century—the “Jewish Century,” as the book’s title proclaims.

In the third of his four chapters, Slezkine narrows the focus to chronicle Russian Jewry’s adoption of, and adaptation to, Russian culture in ways that paralleled the successes of West European Jewry. Only in the final chapter, titled “Hodl’s Choice” after one of the daughters of Tevye the Dairyman in Sholem Aleichem’s short stories, does he come around to the Soviet Union and to those Jews who, thanks to their Mercurian abilities, made their way into the ranks of the Communist party. For Slezkine, Hodl and three of her sisters illustrate the four distinctive paths followed by Russian Jewry in the 20th century; to his portrait of each, he devises his own ending. First there is Beilke, who leaves Russia for America. Second is Tsaytl, who stays in Ukraine and later dies in the Holocaust. Third is Chava, who marries a peasant and whom Slezkine turns into a Zionist and sends to Israel. Finally comes Hodl, who follows her Communist husband into exile in Siberia and, in Slezkine’s telling, remains in the Soviet Union after the Revolution.

“Canonical Jewish history,” writes Slezkine, has tended to focus on Beilke the American and Chava the Zionist while neglecting everything about Tsaytl save her death and completely forgetting Hodl and her children in the Soviet Union. He then proceeds, at length, to redress this omission with an exploration of the Soviet Jewish experience, filled with some fascinating detail.

 

Given its far-reaching claims about the Jews and their history, the publication of Slezkine’s The Jewish Century naturally provoked strong reactions pro and con, often in response to different aspects of his argument. Thus, some criticized the author for elevating only those Jews who forsook Jewish particularism for Communist-style universalism, or for ignoring Sephardi and Mizraḥi Jews in favor of Ashkenazim. On the positive side, others were intrigued by Slezkine’s claim that some Jews joined the Bolsheviks out of a desire to wreak vengeance on anti-Communist forces that had persecuted Jews during the Russian Civil War. (The American psychologist and alt-right hero Kevin Macdonald made much of the last point in his lengthy, approving review of the book.) Most reviewers praised Slezkine for his erudition, took mild issue with his overgeneralizations, and expressed awe at the confidence of his prose and his evident ability to bring together so many diverse strands into a coherent argument.

In fact, that coherence is an illusion, powered mainly by the author’s misapprehension of both Jewish and non-Jewish history.

To begin with, are Jews “Mercurians”? Certainly a fruitful comparison could be drawn between Jews and other groups of “service nomads” who have occupied similar economic niches and suffered from similar prejudice. But Slezkine ignores everything that differentiates the Jews from other Mercurians—or indeed each of these groups from the others.

First, and most importantly: Jews can hardly be described as nomadic. Second: segments of most Jewish communities were historically able to amass impressive wealth, whereas the Roma, for instance, have continued to be defined by their poverty. Third: Jewish distinctiveness, even in societies where Jews were not persecuted, cannot be separated from Judaism; unlike, say, the case of the Chinese of Malaysia, what historically kept Diaspora Jews apart from their neighbors were laws and customs that followed from a set of beliefs.

To see Slezkine’s ignorance of Jewish practice and even of Jewish demography in action, take his analysis of the eruv as a means for, in his words, converting “an entire shtetl into one home for the purpose of Sabbath purity” and thereby demarcating “the Jew-Gentile border.” In fact, an eruv is an elaborate halakhic loophole that distinguishes not between Jewish and Gentile but between permitted and forbidden (to Jews alone). As a means of allowing Jews to carry objects from one house to another on the Sabbath (an otherwise proscribed activity), an eruv can and almost always does include both Jewish and Gentile houses in its fictive enclosure, and would certainly do so if, as Slezkine fancies, it encircled an “entire shtetl,” since every shtetl had a sizable non-Jewish population.

While it may be easy to misconstrue this somewhat arcane point of Jewish law, Slezkine is a professional historian writing a book on Jewish history, and the error puts paid to his claim that Judaism is itself solely and permanently subordinate to Jews’ identity as “service nomads.” One cannot help wondering whether his knowledge of various other groups is no less superficial.

A similar point can be made about Slezkine’s multiple leaps of logic, which are masked by his fluid and engaging prose style. The book’s second chapter, on Jewish achievements in the modern West, treats every distinguished European of Jewish ancestry as equally shaped by his Jewishness. But might not Jewish identity and cultural traditions have had a very different impact on Karl Marx, whose father baptized him, than on Sigmund Freud, whose father (probably) taught him Hebrew? And what about the German philosopher Solomon Maimon, who spent his childhood wholly within the confines of traditional Jewish society?

Just as Mercurianism serves Slezkine as a catchall explanation for all Jewish activity, any idea ever thought by a Jew is regarded as somehow Jewish if it’s convenient to his argument. But not every idea: although he has much to say about Jewish thinkers, writers, and activists, he has nothing at all to say about the richness of both rabbinic and anti-rabbinic thought, or about the origins of distinctly Jewish political movements, of which Zionism was one among many. Even in repeatedly quoting Sholem Aleichem, or the radical Hebrew writer Y.H. Brenner, he disregards the phenomenon they were part of: the emergence of a Jewish literary culture in Hebrew and Yiddish.

The last chapter, on Soviet Jewry, is by far the best, no doubt because its subject matter lies closest to the author’s academic specialty; even so, it contributes little that is new to experts. Citing extensively from the diaries and memoirs of Soviet Jews, Slezkine recounts their hope and idealism during the 1920s and 1930s when belief in the promise of a better future was still widespread. Some of this enthusiasm was surely genuine, yet he seems to forget that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state where all writings, even private diaries and letters, were subject to strict scrutiny by the political police. Perhaps some of these Jews were less enthusiastic about the Soviet experiment than they seemed?

The real problem, however, is found in the chapter’s title: “Hodl’s Choice.” Exactly what “choice” did Tevye’s revolutionist daughter have? Sholem Aleichem’s Hodl went to Siberia at least as much out of love for her idealistic shlimazel husband as out of devotion to his revolutionary cause. Nor were the millions of Jews who woke up in November 1917 to find themselves in a Soviet state given any say in the matter. Certainly many more would have chosen to leave than did, but most couldn’t: by the 1920s, the Soviet borders were closed to emigration (and the gates of Western countries were also barred to Jews).

As for those Jews who joined the party after the revolution and rose to prominence in it, Slezkine points to, but fails to address, a very important question: did they join the party out of conviction, or because they saw party membership (including the mouthing of party slogans) as the only way to take advantage of new opportunities suddenly offered to them?

No doubt some Jewish Bolsheviks were true believers, and many were probably some combination of believer and opportunist. But if their success can be attributed to their Mercurianism, it would seem that they rose through the ranks of the party because of their desire and ability to succeed, not because of their political convictions. In neglecting even to ask such questions, Slezkine sweeps aside major and minor distinctions alike.

Meanwhile, he has almost nothing to say about the Jewish multitudes not enamored of Bolshevism. Unlike in Central and Western Europe, where many Jewish parents, once granted civil rights, chose not to send their children to religious schools, in the USSR the government shut those schools down. From its earliest days, indeed, the regime embarked on the most highly organized and ferocious campaign against Judaism and traditional Jewish life since 1492—without, unlike Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, giving those Jews who wanted to maintain their faith the option of exile.

At first, this campaign wasn’t specifically anti-Semitic: the Bolsheviks were bent on uprooting all religion equally and revolutionizing every aspect of society. (Even Bundism was considered an unacceptable deviation.) Many younger Jews were happy about the opportunity to break away from tradition. But, again, Sovietization was not a choice; it was imposed from above.

As for those Soviet-born Jews who did make other choices—to learn Hebrew, or move to Israel, or observe Passover—they have no place in Slezkine’s story. Nor does The Jewish Century pay attention to the true anti-Semitism that by the 1960s had set into the Soviet system, throwing up countless barriers to the hundreds of Jews who—in classic Mercurian fashion—sought to advance in science, in the professions, or in the Communist party apparatus.

 

This brings us to Slezkine’s more recent book, The House of Government, which returns to the rarified group of Jewish Bolsheviks who rose to prominence in the party during the early years of the Soviet Union, or were prominent in the party before the Revolution and remained so afterward.

This sprawling volume presents itself as the story of a correlatively sprawling edifice: the apartment building in central Moscow, completed in 1931, that housed the upper echelons of the party. A sort of family history, it describes the lives and activities of the members of this group (both Jewish and Gentile) from 1917 to 1941, emphasizing not just their ideas and political activities but the web of romances, marriages, divorces, affairs, friendships, and rivalries that connected them.

The emphasis on family life is not accidental: one of the book’s two theses is that the Revolution failed in part because of the Bolsheviks’ inability or unwillingness to come to terms with the natural human drive toward family life. The other thesis is that Bolshevism ought to be seen as a millenarian cult. The first of these theses is compelling but inadequately developed. The second is hardly novel and is pursued in a tiresome way, with nearly every chapter introducing some ostensibly millenarian aspect of Bolshevism and treating it in broad, grandiose statements that jump gingerly from 19th-century China to early Christianity without ever demonstrating what can be learned from such comparisons.

The book’s real strength lies not in these overarching arguments but in its telling of the story of the Soviet ruling class at once in intimate detail and on a vast scale. It is a window into the soul of the Revolution—and the souls of the starry-eyed idealists and bookish intellectuals, filled with a genuine desire to help humanity, who eventually participated in some of the 20th century’s most horrific crimes before becoming victims themselves in the Great Purge of the late 1930s. For our purposes here, three specifically Jewish threads emerge from Slezkine’s telling.

First, the number of Jews inhabiting the House of the Government, either as members of the party elite or as their spouses, was indeed sizable. Time and again Slezkine reminds us of this fact, without drawing any broad conclusions from it.

The second thread concerns the Jewish religion, which to Slezkine is like all other religions, Bolshevism included. Thus we encounter such (tacitly snide) proclamations as, “Some tribal gods are universal creators; the Hebrew God was the first universal autocrat” and also, “by virtue of His chronic theodicy problem, the world’s first Underground Man (or Adolescent).” As in The Jewish Century, so again in The House of Government, the putative commonalities between Soviet Communism and apocalyptic religious movements are far less interesting than the very real differences between them: a subject, and a truth, that eludes Slezkine entirely.

The third thread is socialist anti-Semitism, expressed most explicitly by Marx himself in his essay “On the Jewish Question.” Here, comparing Bolshevism with Nazism, Slezkine has something significant to say:

Like the Bolsheviks (but unlike most millenarians), Hitler was in a position to bring about what he had prophesied. Like the Bolsheviks (and many other millenarians), he led his people against an enemy [the Jews] whose power was largely esoteric. It was the same enemy—but whereas the Bolsheviks thought of it as a class, the Nazis thought of it as a tribe. Each considered the other a blind instrument in the service of Babylon. Both followed Marx, but Hitler did not know it. . . . The final battle—the Endkampf, or the “final and decisive battle” of the Internationale—would reveal who was the beast and who treaded on the winepress of divine wrath.

Amidst this overwrought prose, Slezkine gets to the very nub of the evils of Communism. The point isn’t original—the Soviet-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman made it, too—but is often overlooked: like anti-Semitism, Communism is a conspiracy theory that blames all of the world’s woes on a specific group of people, and sees redemption only in that group’s defeat.

And yet Slezkine in this passage evidently cannot help linking the eliminationist attitude to millenarianism in general—and finally, through an insinuating reference, to the Hebrew Bible. Surely there were apocalyptic religious groups that identified the “Sons of Darkness” (another phrase Slezkine is fond of) and other classes of evil people as worthy of being wiped out. But, more often than not, they hoped God or the gods would take care of that matter. Twentieth-century totalitarians, by contrast, trusted no gods, and set about creating the mechanisms of annihilation themselves. Not only does Slezkine gloss over this distinction, but he also conflates millenarianism with religion in general, as he again does in the paragraph immediately preceding the one just quoted:

Fascism, long seen by the Bolsheviks as the ultimate expression of capitalist aggression, was a modern version of nativist ressentiment of the Old Testament variety. . . . What Edom and the “tall Sabeans” had been to the biblical Hebrews and what white people had been to Enoch Mgijima’s and Ras Tafari’s Israelites, international Jewry was to the German Führer.

Leave aside the Rastafarians and the “Israelite” church of the South African Christian evangelist Mgijima. What about those “tall Sabeans”? The phrase comes from Isaiah 45:14, cited by Slezkine some 600 pages earlier:

Thus saith the LORD, The labor of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and those tall Sabeans shall come over to you, and they shall be yours: they will trudge behind you, coming over to you in chains. They will bow down before you and plead before you saying, “Surely God is with you; and there is no other god.”

Sabea (most likely located in what is now Yemen) is mentioned a half-dozen or so times in the Hebrew Bible. But whatever threat it may have represented never merited anything like the Nazis’ all-consuming demonization of the Jews, or the Communists’ of the bourgeoisie. Isaiah mentions faraway Sabea only because he is prophesying about the extent of Israelite political power, not the defeat of an obsessively hated eternal enemy. Although Slezkine has turned the “tall Sabeans” into the primary object of biblical demonization, there is in truth no group that the Hebrew Bible sees as the ultimate enduring threat that must be extirpated to achieve salvation, the way Jews are seen fanatically by anti-Semites, capitalists by Communists, “mediocre white men” and “millionaires and billionaires” by some on today’s American left, or “globalist elites” by some on the right. It is nonsensical to speak of “nativist ressentiment of the Old Testament variety,” a clever but insidious comparison that sheds no light on either religion or Communism.

How, finally, does The House of Government stack up against The Jewish Century? Taken together, both display a genius for identifying similarities untempered by an eye for differences, combined with a superficial understanding of Judaism and of religion in general, marked by the absence of any very profound insight into either the appeal of Communism to Jews or the Jewish experience under Communism.

On balance, however, The House of Government is much the better book—not a traditional work of historical scholarship but a sort of Tolstoyan telling of the Soviet Union’s first 22 years that delves into the inner workings of Stalinism in a way unexplored by any other work I know of, with much to teach specialists and general readers alike. As for The Jewish Century, although it contains insights and continues to be read and cited, not least by anti-Semites, one can only hope that in the fullness of time it will be succeeded by more worthy studies.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait for others to explain why Jews proved so susceptible to the millenarian allure of socialism. And that brings us back to today’s young socialists, Jewish and otherwise, who have made clear that they have no intention of fading away. Many might be starry-eyed idealists themselves, swept up by what Vivian Gornick, in another recently reissued book, calls—without a hint of irony—the romance of American Communism. Others, stirred by the romance of American wokeness, clearly thirst to impose their will: to denounce, to proclaim anathema, to cancel and lay waste.

All the greater reason, then, to recall what happened to those earlier starry-eyed idealists who became caught up in the socialist experiment, willingly or unwillingly, and what became of them. That, too, is part of Jewish history.

More about: Communism, Eastern Europe, History & Ideas, Russia, USSR