Jews and Ukrainians in Russia's Literary Borderlands: From the Shtetl Fair to the Petersburg Bookshop

Jews and Ukrainians in Russia's Literary Borderlands: From the Shtetl Fair to the Petersburg Bookshop

by Amelia M. Glaser


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, December 19

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810134867
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 05/15/2016
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Amelia Glaser is Assistant Professor of Russian Literature in the Department of Literature at UC – San Diego.

Read an Excerpt

Jews and Ukrainians in Russia's Literary Borderlands

By Amelia M. Glaser


Copyright © 2012 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2796-8

Chapter One

From Enlightenment to Revolution: A Century of Cultural Transformation

A CURIOUS RENDITION of Jesus's expulsion of the moneychangers borders the entrance to the Trinity Church in the Kiev Cave Monastery. The monastery's icon school painted this fresco in the 1730s and '40s, and it is positioned in such a way as to suggest that Jesus is driving a group of merchants and moneychangers out the actual church door. Jesus shows a full face, reminiscent of the holy figures of Orthodox icons; most of the moneychangers and sellers of doves, depicted in profile as they bend toward their spilling wares, show only one eye, an iconographic representation of evil. Unlike their counterparts in expulsion scenes by Rembrandt and El Greco, these merchants and moneychangers are made to resemble Jewish merchants of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe: at least two wear yarmulkes, and the others have beards and hats characteristic of Jews of the Ukrainian territory. Beyond the theological relationship between Jesus and the moneychangers, the fresco suggests a conflict between the Christian Slavs and the Jews of this region, as well as between official Christian culture and market commerce in eighteenth-century Kiev. As concern over issues of cultural coexistence in the Ukrainian territories increased in the Tsarist Empire in the nineteenth century, images of market vendors and market products became increasingly important to the art and literature of these territories.

The historical backdrop for this study of literary exchange is a century of profound transformation in demographics, politics, and culture, a century bracketed by the Russian-language writings of a Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol, and a Jew, Isaac Babel. Gogol wrote "The Sorochintsy Fair," the first of his stories based in the Ukrainian territories, in 1829, and Babel wrote his stories about Stalin's agricultural collectivization in Ukraine in 1930. Gogol, Babel, and a great many writers who came between them evoke a commercial landscape as a means of describing the cultural exchange constantly taking place in the Ukrainian territories. The popularity of the commercial landscape as a literary device reflects three historical developments. First, Catherine II had annexed these regions into the Tsarist Empire in the late eighteenth century, bringing in new European ethnic groups. Second, political institutions responded to this newfound diversity by gradually seeking to dominate and modernize ethnic minorities. Finally, and most important for our purposes, these demographic and political trends spurred artists' and writers' preoccupation with the conflicts and intersections among Russia's many ethnicities.

The century covered in this book coincides with the duration of the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The borders of this region were expanded for the last time in 1835; restrictions on Jewish residence were not lifted until 1917. Within the greater Pale of Settlement, which extended beyond Vilna and Vitebsk in the north, Warsaw in the west, and the Crimean Peninsula in the south, the Russian-ruled Ukrainian territories known as Malorossiia, or "Little Russia," offer a remarkable case study in literary and artistic cross-fertilization. The commercial landscapes depicted in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish texts in this study were modeled on actual fairs and markets within these Ukrainian borderlands, but all were written for a broader readership throughout the Tsarist Empire and beyond.

Before the partitions of Poland (1772–95) that divided the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Jews played an integral role in an economic system dominated by the Polish magnates. These nobles in turn granted the Jews freedom and protection. Tsarist Russia had no ready infrastructure to similarly integrate the hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews it absorbed. Accordingly, the tsarist government attempted to remake the economic configuration of the region, weakening business bonds among Jews, Polish lords, and peasants. The Russian majority viewed Jews as outsiders, untrustworthy because of their religious differences and their historical link to the Polish overlords and not easily integrated into Russian conceptions of a nation and its people.

By contrast, Ukrainians' fraught relationship with Russia has constituted what Orest Subtelny has called a "together-separate-together-separate sequence," from the end of Kievan Rus' in the thirteenth century to territorial reunifications in 1654, 1795, 1935, and 1944, and, most significantly, with Ukrainian independence in 1991.5 A series of Cossack rebellions in the eighteenth century led Catherine II to dismantle the Zaporozhian Sich, the center of the Cossack infrastructure, and to revoke Cossack rights. In the nineteenth century the Tsarist Empire increasingly subordinated Ukrainians as a native community, limiting their self-determinacy for fear of rebellion and secession. At the same time Russians often exalted Ukrainians for their perceived folk authenticity.

As the empire absorbed Jewish and Ukrainian populations, at the same time suppressing the Polish uprising of 1830–31, Russian policy, and by extension Russian culture, was increasingly defensive. "By 1830, when [Russia] had consolidated its hegemony, it could no longer afford to take risks," writes John LeDonne. Tsar Nicholas's decision to protect his ruling classes rather than expand the imperial economy through industrialization and a stable trade policy meant maintaining its control over the south and west through restrictions, rather than through economic incentives. However, unlike the fortress empire, which aims to limit access from the outside, the commercial landscape facilitates the entrance of outsiders, and thus often serves in literary texts as either a reflection or a critique of Russia's defensive anxieties.

Ethnic and political conflict in the 1830s and '40s motivated later institutional reforms under Alexander II, most significantly the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Another Polish uprising in 1863–64 further destabilized the cultural and economic hierarchy in Russia's western territories. This prompted new cultural strictures against Ukrainians who, the government feared, might now unite and secede. In 1863, all Ukrainian-language publications except belletristic literature were banned in the Tsarist Empire; in 1876, literary texts in Ukrainian were banned as well. Although many Ukrainian-language writers published their work across the border in the Habsburg Empire, these developments limited the Ukrainian voice in the imperial Russian literary forum. Ukrainian-born Russian-language writers, however, like Vladimir Korolenko, while writing in the language of the empire, nonetheless focused on multiethnic content, making the Ukrainian territories into a stage to present the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Tsarist Empire.

Whereas the tsarist government aimed to connect Ukrainians (whom they viewed as "Little Russians") to Russians on the basis of Orthodoxy, it approached Jews as potentially dangerous religious outsiders. Tsar Nicholas I, in an effort to break down Jewish insularity, mounted a project of "enforced Enlightenment." This project coincided in certain ways with the project of Jewish Enlightenment thinkers (in Hebrew and Yiddish, maskilim), while working in direct opposition to it in other ways. Although the government prevented the publication of much Yiddish Enlightenment literature, the imperial minister of education Count Sergei Uvarov called upon Jewish enlighteners to consult on tsarist policy and to teach in schools. New laws abolished the system of Jewish self-governance, known as the Kahal, in 1844, and limited dissemination of religious material through temporary closures of many Jewish printers. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern writes, in his study of Jewish conscripts into the tsarist army, that Nicholas II "planned to draft Jews into the empire, making them useful, loyal, and assimilated with the rest of the population." The conscription of young Jewish boys, along with Russia's other subjects, into the tsarist army (beginning in 1827), and the founding of government schools for Jews, were further efforts to compel Jewish allegiance to the government. Alexander II, as part of his own liberalizing measures of the 1860s and '70s, gradually allowed greater numbers of Jews to live outside the Pale of Settlement. It is, however, important to note that these government efforts toward Jewish Enlightenment were different from the restrictions placed on Ukrainian cultural independence that accompanied the liberation of the serfs. Whereas the government viewed Ukrainians as similar in culture and religion to Russians, it continued to view Jews overall as outsiders and aimed less at assimilating them than at creating order within the multiethnic empire.

In the 1880s Russian and Ukrainian anxieties over Jewish entry into Russian society and culture devolved into blatant and violent antisemitism, and this inevitably penetrated the consciousness of Russian-Jewish writers. Members of the People's Will, a militant revolutionary movement frustrated by the tsar's reluctance to adopt a new constitutional policy, assassinated Alexander II in 1881, which paradoxically led to an immediate reversal of progress toward social equality. This reactionary social climate bred a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms throughout the Pale of Settlement. Two decades later, Russian citizens demanded increased rights for all, including Jews, in what became known as the failed Revolution of 1905. These steps toward increased rights, however, accompanied a new wave of pogroms in Ukraine. Jews were still widely perceived as outsiders in Russia, and they found themselves in increasing physical danger. Although the Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Revolution declared national minorities, including Jews and Ukrainians, equal in the Soviet Union, the variable Soviet nationalities policy would continue to reinforce differences, sometimes generating, as Yuri Slezkine has put it, "a curiously solemn parade of old-fashioned romantic nationalisms."

World War I (1914–18), the Ukrainian Civil War (1918–20), and the Polish Campaign (1920) left the Ukrainian borderlands war-torn and impoverished. Stalin's rise to power in the mid-1920s brought the onset of state-implemented industrialization. In 1929, exactly a century after Gogol wrote his "Sorochintsy Fair," Stalin instituted collectivization, in which the state took control over peasant agriculture and tied millions of peasants to the land, where they were now forced to raise crops that would help to fuel industrialization. The process led to the 1932–33 famine in Ukraine. Although fairs and markets (albeit in drastically altered form) existed during the Soviet period, open exchange, which provided a model for the relationship between communities, ended within the decade following the Revolution. At least temporarily, the commercial landscape ceased to be a site for the critique of contemporary society, becoming instead a window into the past.


To the extent that the Ukrainian commercial landscape was a shared literary topos, this landscape includes markets and fairs in widely differing morphologies, so long as these sites evoke the material and social exchanges deemed characteristic of the borderlands in Ukrainian, Jewish, or Russian literature. These exchanges include commercial interactions between coexisting ethnic groups as well as encounters between imperial Russian authorities and the provinces, the latter taking place either during Russians' visits to the borderlands or in Russia proper, where the commercial landscape could be reminiscent of the provinces.

In the words of a Russian folk saying, "Where there are two there is a market, where there are three is a bazaar, and where there are seven is a fair." Although these gatherings are as interchangeable as the saying implies, it is worth differentiating for the sake of clarity. The most generically used term for a marketplace, rynok (Russian and Ukrainian) or mark (Yiddish), usually refers to an open space that has been divided into either rows of lavki (market stalls) or into makeshift rows of individual vendors who have laid their wares on the ground or on a table. The marketplace offers basic food products—locally grown vegetables, meat, dairy products, baked breads, bread flour, and fresh fish. The term bazar (bazaar), a word with Persian roots that entered Slavic languages through the Tatar-Mongols, is used in Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian but is most often used in discussing Ukrainian markets to describe the location where trade takes place. Taken out of context or in its Russian adjectival form (bazarnyi), the word can also imply chaos, a riot, or a loud noise. The words iarmarka (Russian) and iarmarok (Ukrainian) derive from the German Jahrmarkt, literally "yearly market." (The phonetically similar yarid [Yiddish] derives from the Hebrew.) The iarmarka (sometimes, colloquially, iarmonka) is a fair occurring at set weekly, monthly, or yearly intervals and usually involves the selling of livestock, grain, and manufactured items like furniture and dishware, in addition to dry goods. Whereas the rynok serves the local community, merchants often travel great distances to attend the iarmarka. For the present study, the functional differences among bazaars, markets, and fairs are less crucial than their common characteristics as sites of interethnic commercial exchange.

By the early nineteenth century the commercial landscape was undergoing a significant change in the greater Tsarist Empire. Traditional fairs were rapidly giving way to permanent markets, where factories sold goods directly to buyers. According to Michael Stanislawski, this caused "the near-disappearance of the old-fashioned itinerant trader, both Jewish and gentile. Only in the Ukraine did the fairs grow during this period, but there, too, the wholesale merchant played a steadily declining role, losing ground to industrialists distributing their own products." Markets and fairs remained central to the livelihood of many Jews and Ukrainians living in Ukraine. However, for those Ukrainians whose livelihood depended on farming, the commercial landscape was a pseudo-urban space, which they visited in order to sell their goods and buy household products. Jews, by contrast, were more often artisans, peddlers, common laborers, distillers of alcohol, and industrial workers, and their trades necessitated proximity to a commercial center.

The most common location for a regular market was a Jewish shtetl (mestechko in Russian, mistechko in Ukrainian, and miasteczko in Polish). What defined a shtetl in imperial Russia ranged from the size of the town, to its ethnic breakdown, the presence of a church, the presence of a market, or the presence of Jews. However, shtetls were often redefined as villages, and vice versa, based on political and proprietary interests. An 1887 petition from the small town of Sarazhinka, in the Balta district, attempts to recategorize the village as a shtetl by stating that it has always had a market:

In our village from time immemorial there has been a bazaar every Tuesday at which local products are sold. According to old residents the village of Sarazhinka was until 1830 referred to as a shtetl [imenovalos' mestechkom] and, presumably, was officially redesignated as a village [pereimenovano v selo] because of a landowner's petition, though de facto it remained a market center [torgovym mestom].

This document illustrates the tendency, in the nineteenth century, to define a shtetl [mestechko] as a small town where markets and fairs take place. By the nineteenth century, the village [selo] tended to be dominated by Ukrainians, and had few Jewish residents. A village would not usually have a market, though it often had a church. Although villages were, generally speaking, smaller than shtetls, Ukrainian villages often constituted large communities, with populations of several thousand.


Excerpted from Jews and Ukrainians in Russia's Literary Borderlands by Amelia M. Glaser Copyright © 2012 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

A Note on Transliteration and Place Names xi

Preface: The Commercial Landscape xiii

Acknowledgments xix

Chapter 1 From Enlightenment to Revolution: A Century of Cultural Transformation 3

Chapter 2 Nikolai Gogol's Commercial Landscape (1829-1852) 24

Chapter 3 Apelles's Gallery: Kvitka-Osnov'ianenko and the Critics (1833-1843) 57

Chapter 4 The Marketplace Origins of Modern Yiddish Literature (1842-1916) 79

Chapter 5 The Market Crucified: Peretz Markish's Civil War (1917-1921) 111

Chapter 6 Isaac Babel and the End of the Bazaar (1914-1929) 141

Afterword From the Fair 170

Notes 177

Works Consulted 235

Index 269

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews