Jews in Russia - Jews in Russian Literature and Criticism

Jews in Russian Literature and Criticism

Jewish participation in Russian literature right up to the revolution was minimal, but not because the works of Jewish authors were not printed or that there were some special governmental restrictions in this respect, or that readers were negatively biased against Jewish authors; quite the contrary, attitudes were courteously lenient towards the works of the few Jewish authors writing in Russian, even though these were less than mediocre.

Neither among the Russian classics of the turn of the century nor among the second-rate writer (if it is possible to categorize them) do we see Jewish authors. Only among third rate writers, who left little trace in Russian literature, do we encounter a few Jews: for example, Simen Ushkevich, Sholom-Alaikhem, Blialika, Chernikhovsky, Rathousz, and Braitman.

The Russian element was alien and incomprehensible to them, thus they limited themselves almost exclusively to fiction and poetry on Jewish themes and the Jewish mode of life. But they were hardly able to bear the criticism that came from Russians, even though it was a mild and well-wishing one. They took such criticism almost as personal insults or as "anti-Semitism and black-hundredism", although they themselves strove to appear at Russian literary gatherings and on the pages of the Russian press.

The matter stood quite differently in the sphere of literary criticism, reviews and "press comments". Here, Jewish journalists a most completely formed the literary attitudes of a wide circle of readers. But these journalists, when rating works of Russian authors, could not give up their own specifically Jewish approach. Only such big connoisseurs of literature as Vengerov, Aikhenwald and Gershenzon (all three Jews) were above purely subjective Jewish emotions and with their literary-critical works brought a valuable contribution into this sphere of Russian cultural life.

This applied to the author's personality, as well as the theme of his work, and to his "purity of vestry", in a reactionary sense. But the overwhelming majority writing reviews, literary as well as theatrical, synchronized their reviews with the existing opinion in the circles of the "foremost society".

The question of who was writing or where his work was printed earlier not only influenced but also determined the success or failure of the literary work of an author.

Russian writers were quite conscious about this and used to take this into consideration when choosing themes and depicting individual characters.

This was the "invisible and secret preliminary censorship" which was difficult to ignore if someone whished his works to appeal to readers.

For an author to publish his works in one of these organs of the press that was considered "reactionary" would automatically close possibilities for him to publish in all the rest of the newspapers and journals throughout Russia which were reputed to be "democratic", "foremost" and "progressive". In Russia periodicals of this sort were considerably more in number than the ones belonging to the "right" press, and their circulation greatly outnumbered those belonging to the latter.

Perhaps, mainly in this, one ought to look for an explanation of the phenomenon that in Russian fiction of the quarter century immediately preceding the revolution of 1917, one seldom encounters "positive heroes" among the patriotically inclined (in the finest sense of the word) conservative persons. An irreproachably honest policeman or a state official nor an ideological struggle against anti-patriotic or anti–state currents will be encountered in Russian fiction of that time. However, in real life such persons existed! And there were many of them; quite a few of them paid with their lives for loyalty to their duty, and to the oath which they made...

For each profession, class post or social group there existed certain firmly established patterns which it was not advisable to circumvent or to disregard if an author wanted his works to be published.

Without getting too deeply into this question, and without expanding it, let us glance at how in Russian literature, as in any other verisimilitudinous literature, the "Jewish question" and individual Jewish characters are represented. From an immoral viewpoint, we would be looking in vain for a common, negative Jewish character of the Shylock type or even an ordinary swindler in the Russian fiction of that time. But such types did exist among the six million Jewish masses in Russia, needless to say. To see them, one only has to be serious and objective in investigating this question.

Was this not the result of that "invisible and secret censorship" which used to oppress Russian literature during the last quarter century before the revolution in Russia?

This "censorship" exerted its influence not only contemporarily, but also extended into the past; appraising the great Russian writers, long since dead, putting them on the list of" Judaeophobes" (the term "anti-Semitism" did not exist at that time). Gogol, Pisemsky, Dostoevsky, Leskov were not "in good repute" among those who passed judgment about Russian literature.

You see, Gogol gave a true character of Yankel (in "Taras Bulba") and an accurate description of the Jewish pogrom. Pisemsky gave in “Turbulent Sea” a striking image of the Jewish tax-collector, Galkin, ("who diligently and precisely used to cross himself") and his sons. Dostoevsky foresaw the role of Jews in Russia and with this provoked the hatred of all of Jewry. Leskov made the Russian clergy positive types.

Lev Tolstoy also gave image of the nouveau-rich Jew – the contractor in his novel "Anna Karenina" – the well-known Moscow millionaire contractor, Poliakov, naming him "Bolgarinov". A patron of art, in the finest sense of the word and a great landlord, Bolgarinov receives Stive Oblonsky with impeccable manners, who arrives asking for a position. The reader will not find the slightest negative trace in the "gentleman" Bolgarinov; however, to make up for this, scarcely anyone would consider Oblonsky and his conversation with Bolgarinov an attractive or rousing tribute to Russian ancestral nobility.