For more than 1,000 years only limited numbers of Jews lived in Russia. Than territorial conquests beginning in the late 18th century gave Russia the world’s largest Jewish population. These Jews were an unwelcome burden the imperialist czars accepted as the price of annexing Ukraine, Belorussia, and Poland. According to historian Michael Stanislawski, the czars regarded the Jews as an “anarchic, cowardly, parasitic people, damned perpetually because of their deicide and heresy [who were] best dealt with by repression.” In the 1880s the Russian statesman Pobedonostsev suggested to the czar that one-third of the empire’s five million Jews be converted to Christianity, one-third forced to emigrate, and one-third killed. The Orthodox Christian Russian people shared their rulers’ disdain.
A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, an exhibit of hundreds of archival photographs at the Harold Washington Library, was culled from 10,000 photographs the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research gathered in Russia, Israel, and the United States, many of them from families in Chicago. It is a startling document of the Jewish reaction to Russian oppression.
The “century of ambivalence” began March 1, 1881, when Czar Alexander II was killed in Saint Petersburg by a bomb-carrying member of People’s Will, a revolutionary group committed to popular government. The assailant wounded himself and was caught. He subsequently named his comrades, one of whom was a Jew named Gesia Gelfman, who had recently fled her village to escape an arranged marriage. Though all of the conspirators were found guilty, the murder was regarded as a Jewish plot, and the reign of Alexander III began with a campaign of terror against Jews throughout the empire. The next hundred years brought cycles of repression and hope for liberation.
Though the exhibit spans a wide range of subjects, dates, and locales, it seems to be divided between images of Jews doing distinctively Jewish things and images of Jews trying to assimilate into a cosmopolitan culture. Typical of the first group is a photograph of a gathering of men in prayer shawls outside a synagogue in Dubrovna, Belorussia, circling around a dancer who is celebrating the completion of a Torah scroll by a scribe. Here are Jews steadfastly observant in their ornate house of worship, but their celebration seems overcast with caution, perhaps a function of photography at the turn of the century, perhaps because it was better for outcasts not to appear too happy.
In the dozens of images of Jews in traditional religious clothes, at weddings, and at other family occasions, there’s not one smile, not one twinkle in the eye. Shining through the hardships in the literature of Shalom Aleichem (stern-faced here in an 1889 family New Year’s card) and Isaac Bashevis Singer are faith, joy, and humor. Jewish writers were rarely as harsh about the Russian and Polish past as this group of photographs.
Some of the faces of Jews trying to assimilate in more cosmopolitan settings are less severe. These portraits were taken shortly after the Russian Revolution, when many Russian Jews thought a new internationalism would end their repression. Lenin publicly praised Jews for saving the revolution by “filling the vacuum created by deserters and saboteurs of the old regime,” and under his rule they were permitted to hold official posts unattainable before 1917. A 1918 photograph of Jewish commissars shows men and women in military uniforms and fashionable city clothes. Many grin. None wears a beard or traditional Jewish garments. One of the subjects, Samuil Agursky, typified the struggle of Jewish activists to find a home in the new world order. Agursky, who here looks confidently at peace in a suit and tie, was earlier active in the Bund, a Jewish socialist political movement, and then in the anarchist movement. He came to America to avoid the czarist police, but returned to Russia when revolution broke out and volunteered his services to the Bolsheviks. By the time of this group portrait he had gained prominence in cultural and political circles, though he was later displaced by Bundists more willing to accommodate the Communist party’s designs for Jews and was ultimately purged from the party.
The anti-Jewish message of the 1920s was too often carried by communist Jews. Sadly, the only photograph in the show that captures the Jewish gift for self-ridicule also burns with self-hate. It is of a cartoonish scene from an antireligious play, Kheyder, performed at the Belorussian State Yiddish Theater, in which three Jews bend over on their knees, the Hebrew letters for kosher stitched across their rear ends. Stalin’s propaganda mills never came up with a more damning portrait of traditional Jewish life.
The Jewish romance with Russian proletarianism died when state-sanctioned anti-Jewish campaigns were stepped up in the 1920s. Joy again disappears from the photographic record. Even Marc Chagall, shown here in Moscow in 1922, adopts the grim expressions of the group of teachers gathered around him. (Chagall’s work had a severe, fearsome quality while he worked in Russia; most of his more whimsical celebrations of Jewish life and mysticism were painted in France.) Dozens of photos of different gatherings–of Bundists, Zionists, messianic cults, emigrating families–show a people groping for a sense of place.
The best response to the continuing cycles of persecution and reluctant tolerance seemed to be emigration, mostly to the United States or Israel. The exhibition does not follow these Jews to their new homes, but by portraying the social groups they came from it helps explain the influence they would have on their adopted homes. Bundists and Jewish communists would became labor organizers in the U.S. Russian Jews would displace German Jews as the dominant force in American Jewish religious life. Yiddish theater performers would become prominent in American entertainment; others would run film studios. Russian Zionists would be instrumental in creating and governing Israel (the recently reinstalled Labor party is a descendant of Russian Jewish socialist groups).
As if to round off the century of ambivalence, the exhibit catalog describes Mikhail Agursky, the son of the purged Samuil, who emerged in the 1960s as an outspoken Soviet dissident but finally emigrated to Israel, unable to find a place in Russia. Today the Jewish population in the former Russian empire is less than half what it was a century ago and continues to shrink. A 50-nation study conducted recently by the London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs reports that Russia today “has probably the most dynamic anti-Semitic movement in the world.”
A Century of Ambivalence will be in the main exhibit hall of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, through September 12. Hours are 9 to 7 Monday through Thursday, 9 to 5 Friday and Saturday; call 747-4876.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Berta Rostinina.