Benjamin Nathans. Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2002. xvii + 424 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-24232-6; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-20830-8.
Reviewed by Willard Sunderland (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2004)
"The European Jews," wrote Isaiah Berlin, "were the last community to emerge from the Middle Ages; the last to be carried into statehood by a national and cultural Risorgimento." This includes all the European Jews, that is, except the Jews of the Russian Empire. For Berlin and for numerous intellectuals before and after his time, the Russian Jews seemed the exception that proved the rule. The Jews of the West were "emancipated" to varying degrees beginning in the late eighteenth century and became integrated, again to varying degrees, within the gentile societies that surrounded them. The Jews of tsarist Russia, by contrast, were restricted to a Pale of Settlement, shackled with abiding poverty, and demeaned by, as Berlin put it, "the most violent economic and political discrimination." Western Jews became citizens, even if half-accepted ones. Russian Jews were simply oppressed and locked out. This almost mythic over-simplification of Western Jewish assimilation and Russian Jewish isolation has been undone over the last generation of scholarship, but on the Russian side at least historians have lacked a broad reinterpretation of the position of the Jews within tsarist society, in particular during the dynamic period between the era of the Great Reforms and the revolutions of 1917. Benjamin Nathans' masterful book is this reinterpretation. It is a study that provides a new, summarizing perspective on the "Russian-Jewish encounter" and on how and where Jews fit within the late Russian empire. As Nathans makes clear, the encounter was complicated and the fit was awkward, but Russian Jews were indeed part of imperial society. The most extreme Russian anti-Semites may have hoped to lock them out, but the door to integration never completely closed. In fact, it opened wider than ever before for a time in the second half of the nineteenth century due to the combined effects of government reform, socioeconomic modernization, and integrationist initiatives from among the Jews themselves. The Jews of the late imperial period thus found themselves facing both familiar prejudices and novel opportunities. They were at once victims of persistent official and popular Judeophobia and willing participants within a government-directed policy of integration that had its exceptional aspects but nonetheless echoed rather than contradicted the broader European norm.
To present this elaborate picture, Nathans organizes his book into four parts: an initial section that reviews the place of the Jews in Russian society prior to the Great Reforms of the 1860s-1870s and provides an examination of the pathways of "selective integration" offered by the reforms themselves; a section on the Jews of St. Petersburg that explores the imperial capital as a setting for the diverse politics of the Jewish community; and then two final sections that chart "the Russian-Jewish encounter" within two distinct social venues--the university and the Russian legal profession. In each of the four sections, Nathans expertly assesses both the obstacles that faced Jewish integration (legal, spatial, religious, cultural, linguistic) and the nature and consequences (positive, negative, and ambiguous) of integration itself. The heart of Nathans' argument is that this integration was "selective" as a state-sponsored program and varied as a social process. Late imperial authorities were interested in opening Russian society to no more than a subset of Jews (those with the capital and education to appear "useful"--mostly well-to-do merchants and professionals).
For their part, only certain groups of Jews (not surprisingly, the same ones) were interested in the proposition, and when they did choose to leave the Pale, enter Russian institutions, and "merge" with Russian norms, they did so in splendid variation. The result was the creation of deep divisions within late imperial Jewry. One was between the Jews of the shtetlach, many of whom remained far removed from Russian society, and Jews "beyond the Pale," such as the Jews of St. Petersburg, who gravitated towards it. Yet another division--or in fact, sets of divisions--ran through the "integrated" community itself, which Nathans presents as an entangled array of conservatives and reformers, plutocrats and plebeians, Yiddish-speakers and Russophiles, so diverse it barely seemed a community at all. These differences created predictable difficulties for Jewish leaders in St. Petersburg aiming to maximize the returns of "selective integration" for themselves and the broader "Jewish people" they sought to represent. But these intra-Jewish divisions, for all the trouble they caused, also reflected the "extraordinary ferment" of Russian-Jewish society in the late imperial decades (p. 378). They fractured the Jewish community but they were also an indication of its impressive vibrancy and possibility.
In addition to describing and explaining the diversities of late imperial Jewry, Nathans also analyzes the contrasting consequences of "selective integration." On the one hand, the policy produced obvious, striking successes, at least for "a slender but highly visible minority of Jews" (p. 377). Imperial reforms in the 1860s and 1870s led to a rapid infusion of Jewish men into Russian universities, Jewish women into "higher courses," Jewish lawyers into the bar, and Jews in general to St. Petersburg where the wealthiest Jewish merchants and most prominent professionals ended up forming a kind of "Jewish aristocracy." The achievements of integration allowed men like the liberal attorney Genrikh Sliozberg to become members of imperial civil society and to proclaim themselves "Russian Jews," a new term that captured some of the integrationist promise of the reform era (p. 334). At the same time, the very success of Jewish integration spurred a backlash by the 1880s, both within the Russian public and the government, that ultimately led to quotas and restrictions against Jews in the universities and the legal profession. These developments in turn produced wrenching conflicts for integrated Jews that led some (in the intelligentsia especially) to pine for the supposed purity and authenticity of the Pale and others, like the lawyer and civic leader Alexander Passover, to renounce their positions. Yet loyalty to the idea (if not the direction) of the Russian state and to the goal of Russian integration nonetheless endured. In fact, Nathans' portraits of the men and women who thought of themselves as "Russian Jews" underscores how attached they were to this identity, despite the emotional contradictions and practical problems that it often entailed.
More than anything, it is this nuanced attention to the complexity of Russian-Jewish life that makes Beyond the Pale such an accomplishment. As Michael Stanislawski has recently suggested, the experience of European Jews in the fin de siècle resembled "a complex and often semi-conscious web of action and inaction, beliefs and feelings, embarrassment and pride, always conditioned and complicated by familial, political, and social realities that varied from one individual to the next and from one society to the other." To untangle the web, historians need "a subtle understanding of both individual and collective lives" and an approach that avoids confusing "the prescriptive and the descriptive. Nathans has done this here for the world of late imperial Russian Jewry and its central protagonists. And he has done it with an expert touch, providing the kind of insights that help not only to inform the history of Russian Jews but also Russia's broader history as a multinational empire. The detailed portrait of St. Petersburg's Jewish society, with its rich attention both to intramural Jewish politics and to the relationship between the Jews and the gentile city around them, is a wonderful case in point. Nathans' distinctions between assimilation, acculturation, and integration are precise and valuable as are his careful explications of the meanings of emancipation in Jewish history and his recurrent comparisons between the Russian case and the wider European frame. The range of sources is broad and suggestive.
Finally, the book is simply a pleasure to read. While it is overly long and occasionally repetitive, there is no real wordiness here, just the author's enthusiasm for sharing the full color and intricacy of the subject. I finished the book wishing that there was more to go, which is not what you usually wish for when you reach the last page of an academic monograph. This is scholarship to be pondered, savored, and emulated.
. Isaiah Berlin. The Power of Ideas. Edited by Henry Hardy, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. p.164.
. Michael Stanislawski, Zionism and the Fin de Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2001. p. 9.
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Willard Sunderland. Review of Nathans, Benjamin, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.