Vladimir Levin

Doctoral Candidate/The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Scholarship within the framework of the IQN-Program funded by the DAAD

Research Stay: 1 to 31 October 2003

Research Project:

Russian Jewry in the Period of Reaction (1907–1914): Politics and the Politics of Culture

The period of 1907–1914 differs significantly from the other periods in the history of Russian Jewry. During the revolutionary crisis of 1905–1907, Russian Jewry underwent a process of rapid political mobilization. The hopes of the imminent collapse of the Tsarist regime made possible elaborate plans for a broad reorganization of Jewish life on the basis of equal civil and national rights. The general disorder, the weakness of the state and the election campaigns made dissemination of political ideas easier among the Jewish population and encouraged its foray into political activities. However, the revolution was ended by the coup d'etat of 3 June 1907; public order was reestablished and the life in the Empire returned to its usual ways.

Two features characterized the period of reaction. On one hand, the anti-governmental activities were suppressed, sometimes almost totally. On the other hand, as a result of the Manifesto of 17 October, the possibilities for establishing voluntary non-political societies were broadened and censorship became less restrictive. As a result, many public societies were opened and open discussions appeared in the newspapers. The elected parliament – the State Duma – became the center of political life and the main forum of Russia.

The political reaction strongly changed the situation of Jewish politics. General apathy towards pure political activity affected all strata of Jewish population. Governmental repression almost destroyed the Jewish socialist parties and paralyzed the political activity of Jewish liberal parties. The only arena of political life remained the State Duma, where the main task of Jewish politicians was to respond to anti-Jewish attacks. In contrast, the Jewish Orthodoxy in this period could establish its own organizations. The first question addressed in this proposed research is: what changes in Jewish politics occurred in the period of reaction? It looks at the internal re-structuring of the parties and their changing tactics and even strategies as they moved towards more realistic goals; at the adaptation to the half-parliamentary and increasingly anti-Semitic regime with its existing legal opportunities; at the attempts at influencing the Duma politics; and at the return to pre-revolutionary means and methods in achieving realistic results.

The restrictions on the political activities and the lack of chances for general improvement in the situation of the Jews, redirected the energy of Jewish activists in all the camps to »organic work,« i.e. to the problems, which could and should be resolved without changes in the regime. The main issues discussed at the time were the establishment of an official Jewish community, the improvement of the economic situation of the Jewish masses, and assistance to the emigrants. The approach to resolving these issues not only depended on ideological and political affiliations but also caused clashes inside distinctive camps. The nature of social politics in their diversity, their goals and practical implementations is the second issue addressed in this research.

Cultural activities were another field to which the attention of the activists was turned. Culture is an integral part of any national policy, especially when it is deprived of its pure political goals and turns into »organic work.« The same reasons that caused the enlargement of social activities affected the development of cultural activities. This was the case in the field of scholarship (history, folklore etc.), in the field of disseminating culture to the broad spectrum of the people and in education. Cultural issues were also affected by ideological approaches, but the development of culture itself affected the ideologies. Jewish cultural enterprises, their content and form, as well as their implementation and reception in the society is the third question addressed in this research.

For a full understanding of processes undergone by Russian Jewry between the First Revolution and the First World War, one needs to compare them to developments in similar situations among other national minorities of the Russian Empire and of Eastern Europe. Such a comparison, which is an integral part of the research, will show both common and unique features of the development of Jewish politics in the period of reaction.

To summarize, the research of the political development of Russian Jewry in the period of 1907–1914, which has never been researched in its complexity, will – it is hoped - not only close a lacuna in the historiography. It aims to show the continuity and change in the behavior of the Jewish elite and of different strata of society at the time of reaction. It completes the historic picture of Jewish parties and organizations – Liberal, Zionist, Socialist, and Orthodox, especially with regard to the implementation of their ideologies and principles in the new reality of a simultaneously half-constitutional, reactionary and anti-Semitic regime. It shows the mutual influence and interconnections between political, social and cultural activities in the shaping/re-shaping of Jewish national identity.

The understanding of the period of 1907–1914 will also serve to clarify Jewish reactions during World War I, the Revolution of 1917, and the period of the establishment of independent states in Eastern Europe. This research aims to contribute to the deeper understanding of history of the late Tsarist Empire, seen through the eyes of a national minority. In addition, it will shed light on the history of other Jewish communities and other national minorities in Russia and Eastern Europe, which similarly had to cope with political reaction.