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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A Russian writer and the Jewish question

27 February, 2007 - 00:00

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1885) was an outstanding Russian writer, who had an excellent knowledge of the everyday life of the various nationalities and social strata in the Russian Empire. He is the author of many realistic novels, short stories, and essays that enjoyed great success, for they showed his brilliant, unconventional talent and unsurpassed knowledge of the Russian language.

The only exception is a brief essay entitled The Jew in Russia: A Few Comments on the Jewish Question, which Leskov wrote in 1883. The work has a special history. At first only 50 copies, not intended for sale, were printed for the tsarist Special Commission that had undertaken a study of the causes of the Jewish pogroms in southern Russia in 1881-82. Leskov, an expert on the Jewish question, became involved in the commission’s work.

It is not clear whether the commission made use of Leskov’s essay, but it was never published during the writer’s life or after his death. It was finally published in a negligible print run only after the revolution, in 1919. Then silence descended again. The Jew in Russia was censored by the Bolshevik government, was not included in any Soviet-era publications by Leskov, and not even mentioned in his bibliographies. It was impossible to publish The Jew in Russia even in the years of perestroika. It was not until 1990 that the Moscow-based Kniga Publishers printed some fragments of this brochure.

Leskov’s essay may interest Ukrainians for at least two reasons. First, it is a civilized and dignified examination of the Jewish problem in Russia, which can be a model for many contemporary politicians, journalists, and sociologists in Ukraine (the Russians can look into this on their own). Second, this brochure contains extremely witty comparisons of the national characters of the “Little” and “Great Russians,” which demonstrate, in spite of the author’s ironic tone, his complete impartiality and freedom from all complexes.

Further on I cite some parts of Leskov’s brilliant work, which still has relevance today even though it was written almost 125 years ago. It should be recalled that the vast majority of Russian Jews lived within “the Pale of Settlement” in the empire’s southern and western parts, including “Little Russia” (Ukraine). Therefore, all Jewish-related conflicts mostly involved the Ukrainians, while the Russians relished “spiritual” anti-Semitism from a distance.

Leskov’s primary goal was to confirm or disprove the “fatal” influence of Jews on the life of Russian Slavs. Leskov first compares the life of Ukrainians, allegedly robbed by the Jews, to the living standards of the Russians whom the Jews cannot influence directly (because of the Pale) and brilliantly explodes several widespread anti-Semitic myths. Leskov’s method is based on a comparison of Little Russian and Great Russian villages. For example, he opposes the horrible, bare “chicken coop” hut of an Orel or Kursk peasant to a Little Russian hamlet, creating the image of a blackened, dirty, and ramshackle house on the one hand, and flowers and a cherry orchard next to a house thatched with “a snug layer of fancifully laid straw,” on the other.

Leskov is convinced that Ukrainian peasants eat and dress better than Great Russians. For instance, Little Russians do not know what lapti (bast shoes — Ed.) are: they wear high leather boots and harness two or three oxen to a plow, not one “hack,” as the Russians do. Furthermore, the Ukrainian peasant has “spiritual requirements”: he cannot do without a “club” in a tavern, where he sips nothing but “plum brandy.”

“To tell the truth,” Leskov says, “one does not have to be much of an observer to see that the Little Russian peasant of average means lives better, richer, and more decently than the residents of most Great Russian gubernias. Other Ukrainian estates, such as burghers and clergymen, also live better than in Russia.” And the Jews, “dangerous” or not, by no means hindered the well-being of the Little Russians, which one could see with the naked eye.

Leskov also analyzes another widespread anti-Semitic myth: the harm that the Jew does to his “honest Christian neighbor” by being a liar and a fraud. Leskov says that this stereotype occurs even in serious Russian “scholarly” dictionaries. However, popular wisdom set the record straight long ago, as far as the art of lying is concerned. A proverb says, “A gypsy will cheat a peasant, a Jew will cheat a gypsy, an Armenian will cheat a Jew, a Greek will cheat an Armenian, and only the devil can cheat a Greek if God lets him.” Leskov concludes, “The sweeping indictment of all Jewry is more than questionable.” What is incredible is the widespread opinion that Jews deceptively “recruit Christians to their own faith and spoil their Orthodoxy. This never even occurs to Jews!”

Here is another of Leskov’s comparative observations. In Russian gubernias, he writes, where it is forbidden for Jews to reside, let alone keep taverns, the number of people convicted for drunkenness or crimes, including murders, resulting from alcohol abuse, is much larger than outside the Pale. The righteous have always complained that “people squander their lives on drinking and their souls perish,” but, in Leskov’s view, the Jews are not to blame for this. (He adds sarcastically, “No matter how terrible this may be.”)

Leskov writes that drunkenness flourished even in Russian monasteries, including those in the north, where Jews had never lived. Accordingly, he comes to the following conclusion: “Rus’ has sunk into drunkenness and thievery” without any involvement of the Jews. The blame lies with Russia’s rulers, who failed to find a better source of revenue than the “tsar’s tavern” borrowed from the Tatars.

To justify his viewpoint, Leskov makes a penetrating analysis of Jewish tavern-keeping, for it was Jews who were usually blamed for “spoiling” the Orthodox people. Meanwhile, it is quite easy to find out that there are no more than five or six tavern-keepers in any small town within the Pale. The rest of the Jews do woodwork, install chimneys, plaster walls, make shoes, keep mills, shoe horses, catch fish, and, of course, engage in trade. But Leskov says that, to be fair, we must take into account the fact that the Jews were forcibly concentrated within the Pale, and they most often have no choice.

Leskov says in conclusion, “What has been happening to Jewry in the past few years is the outright abuse of people — ‘the Hellenes and the Jews.’”

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day