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A la recherche de Russian Jew

The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.
Genesis 27:22


1. Introduction Do the Russian Jews exist?
Existence in the shadow of consciousness
2. The Russian Jews and the Soviet intelligentsia Existence in the opposition to the being
Other-being of the Russian Jews in the mirror of the Russian press
The Soviet past as the spiritual Motherland of the Russian Jews
3. Portrait of the Russian Jew How to paint the portrait
From the diary of David Samoilov
The National and the Cultural
Assimilationism a hundred years later
De religione of the Russian Jew
Active passiveness and self-realization
The 'Converts' and the Sacred Things of the Russian Jew
4. The Russian Jew and the World Jewry

1. Introduction

Do the Russian Jews exist?

The question seems senseless. No matter how we estimate the number of Jews in Russia - it can be estimated differently, from several hundreds of thousands up to 11 million - their number is great. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that only an insignificant part from this number reveals itself in a way, which can be observed and calculated - visits synagogues, clubs, lecture halls, sends children to Jewish schools, etc. According to different estimations, from 3 to 7% of Jews of St. Petersburg have some connection with what can be called the Jewish life of the city. The other 93-97% have nothing in common with it. Approximately the same is the situation in other cities. In small towns, and especially in the Ukraine, the part of people participating in Jewish life reaches 30-40%, but the majority of them are simply receiving humanitarian aid. Of course, these estimations are rather approximate and subjective1 because of great vagueness of such notions as "Jewish life" and "Jew", but Jewish activists now cannot but see "them"- a huge inert mass looking at "our" efforts with indifference (or maybe even with censure? with hostility?)

Of course, Jewish leaders in Russia would like to consider themselves to be the real leaders of the Russian Jewry. But in the current situation this appears to be hardly possible, and, to put a good show and not to let this scandalous situation to become a common fact, the leaders seek for those to be blamed - either themselves ("we" are not enough attractive to "them", not enough strong, work not well enough...), or "them" ("they" have deliberately chosen assimilation and refused from their Jewishness, having not come to "us") or the external circumstances (if all nations unite within the limits of their confessions and communities, then the anti-Semitism increases and "they" will have nowhere to go except to "us")2. All these thoughts (maybe even true) have the common shortcoming - they are too emotional, the desire to explain the situation before accepting and realising it is too obvious. And also we can hear from abroad, from our former compatriots, the same - very hasty - words:

The past cannot be returned, the black decades, which have turned the Russian Jewry into a spiritual corpse, cannot be crossed off the history. The corpse can - by means of financial infusions from the West and from Israel - be only galvanised, but not revived.3

It can be said even in a more strong, more hopeless way: if the Russian Jewry has survived and overlived both Hitler and Stalin, it means only that it survived biologically - that is all; if today one can hear about "the revival of the Soviet Jewry", the only people who speak about it are financially interested people. <...> It is obvious, that such amorphous, vague Jewry (maybe it would be better to say "Jewry" in inverted commas?) is not able to create its own specific literature.4

Let the hints on financial interest be on the author's and Jewish activists' conscience and let's try to find more solid ground. We can understand Shimon Markish who knows what the Soviet Jewry was. We can also understand a Jewish leader, who knows very well what it must be. But isn't it high time now to have a look at the Soviet Jewry and to try to see it as it is? Maybe we will find more suitable metaphors for its description than "galvanised corpse" or "the field studded with bones"?5

Existence in the shadow of consciousness

To see the reality, a simple desire is not enough. We approach to the reality with our own system of notions and ideas, we already - beforehand - know what the Jews must be, and that is why the imperceptible existence of the Russian Jews, their reality, which is not similar to anything else, escapes from our notice. They appear unnoticeable - not only for an observer from the outside but even for themselves.

In summer 1993 at the seminar in St. Petersburg6 Natalya Ukhneva made a report "Russian Jews as a sub-ethnical group. Formulation of the question". The simple, as it was, mentioning of this question caused a storm. I remember 2 speeches - one made by an Israelite ("There are no Russian Jews. Their literature is untalented and unliveable") and the second made by a Jew who found himself in the hall by chance ("Why do you say we all have assimilated? We are Jewish!").... It is obvious that the report touched some painful points. It was an attempt to name something that cannot be named.

In summer 1997 Michael Chlenov's report seemed to be the brightest event at the conference7. He gave a system of notions enabling to describe the different types of Jewish self-identification. The system was so flexible that it gave - at last! - a place even for the Russian Jews with all their differences from Jews of, say, the USA. M. Chlenov stated 3 most important features of this type of identification:

  1. Separation from the religion. Judaism for a Russian Jew is only one of the religions and is related to him not more (though not less) than Christianity, Buddhism, etc.

  2. Passiveness. The term, to my mind, is not very apt, but its purpose is to stress the difference from the American active type of identification, which requires efforts from a Jew for acquisition and maintaining his identity. For a Russian Jew his Jewishness is a fact of his biography, something not dependent on him. He won't ask as an American would do - "Do I need it?", his question will be different - "What shall I do with it?".

  3. Aiming at social characteristics and the value system of the Soviet intelligentsia. This aiming includes, for example, the well-known yearning for education.

Let us note that the last point contains something positive, while the first two describe mainly the Russian Jews' lack of properties, which all the other Jews have; these first 2 points enable us to explain their non-participation in the Jewish movement. But fortunately the only positive one is, to my mind, a breakthrough, for it enables us to leave the vicious circle of tautological definitions (like "the Russian Jew is a Russian-speaking Jew") and positivist ones (like "the Russian Jew is a Russian who answers this certain way to these certain questions when filling out a form"). But this paradoxical definition of the Russian Jew by means of a completely alien notion "Soviet intelligentsia", which is located in a completely different plane of being, seems very fruitful to me. M. Chlenov finally introduced to scholaric usage something, which has long been suspected and implied by many, something which had previously been used only8 as a witticism, as a reductio ad absurdum, as a vivid poetical image - a paradoxical identity of the two incompatible notions - "Russian Jew" and "Soviet intelligent".

2. The Russian Jews and the Soviet intelligentsia

Existence in the opposition to the being

Anyway the Soviet intelligent is an equally enigmatic figure as a Russian Jew. In Soviet times he was sure that his sources, his real spiritual motherland is somewhere behind the iron curtain, which cuts all the existing reality - space, time and culture - into 2 isolated parts - the permitted and the forbidden, the available and the unavailable. But now the curtain has been lifted and it turned out to be that it is the Soviet Union, the state hated and despised by any intelligent, that is - no, was - his motherland, his nourishing soil... Well, again we have a situation, which is both scandalous, painful and preventing from a normal serious investigation. But some attempts have already been made to turn from castigating vices of the Soviet past to raising the questions. Sometimes there appear - not for purpose, but in line with some other things - such, for instance, beautiful and deep definitions:

...in the country of professional philosophers (or poetry lovers) nobody would ask what philosophy is; its notion is a language universalia of our culture area meaning such a metaposition in respect of life, which simultaneously gives the opportunity to be in the opposition to all existing, possessing, nevertheless all its presuppositions. Our alibi in existence is based on substitution of a deed by its philosophy; we philosophise, hence we exist9

(The Soviet Union is a country of philosophers and poetry lovers... It sounds unusually, doesn't it? It's more common to speak about dropping from the civilised world, about absence of elementary rights... But the Greeks once sometimes named the Jews a people of philosophers, sometimes considered them to be fanatic and pushy barbarians.... )

But let us look again at the main formula of this strange definition: "to be in the opposition to all the being, possessing, however, all its presuppositions". Isn't the key to the main enigma of Russian Jew here: how is it possible to remain Jewish without having any positive Jewish contents?.

Yes, the Russian Jews have nothing positive; they are only "disabled of the 5th group" (as Zvi Gitelman quoted an old Soviet joke). Then he asks a question: "What will the general Jewish culture, able to change this definition for a new one, be like?"10 That is, something positive has to appear at last, this must happen for sure, for the only alternative to positive content is "Jewish identity as accident, a burden which one has to get rid of as soon as possible"11 But the Russian Jews are still indifferent en masse to all the variants of positive content proposed to them (are in the opposition to all the being) but meanwhile, seemingly, are not going to assimilate12 (have all the presuppositions of it). It is impossible, but it is true. It cannot yet be understood, but it can and should be accepted as a fact.

This study would have finished with establishing this paradox if the strange existence of the Russian Jews did not create any material traces (the opinion of D. Elyashevich):

In the after-war period the forms of existence of Russian-Jewish (Soviet-Jewish) culture - and it undoubtedly remained though having changed into rather a pure psychological, non-materialised phenomenon - have changed13

But the forms of existence of the Russian Jews, having undergone changes , do not coincide with pure non-being, it is more of an other-being which manifests itself in the material plane, but in some other place, not in the one where such manifestations can be expected.

Other-being of the Russian Jews in the mirror of the Russian press

The reluctance of the Russian Jews to manifest themselves, their passiveness, which was treated above, concerns only the social and economic manifestations. In the other ways, we should think, they are normal people, Russian citizens, Russian intelligents, and therefore they think of their fate, try to understand themselves and (among the other problems) the mystery of their Jewish identity which is either a gift or a damnation for them, but in the first place - a riddle which was not, to some reason, asked to some lawful Jews who definitely know the right answer, but to them, to most ordinary people, to Russian intelligents. And they discuss these problems by their usual way of discussing - in thick fiction magazines and theoretical journals, not asking for help from special Jewish editions and institutions.

The first search, which didn't pretend to be careful, revealed more than 70 publications in magazines for the last 3-4 years directly dedicated to the Jewish question. These publications contain neither gross anti-Semitism and meaningless controversy on it14, nor apologetics. What they contain is thoughts different in their quality and competence, attempts to understand oneself through answering painful questions - or only by raising them.

For example, historian Dmitry Furman comments the results of his sociological researches:

The most surprising thing, to my mind, which attracts attention when we regard our data <..> is the discrepancy between the very insignificant differences of real content of the culture of Jews from the culture of the ethnical majority and the considerably greater differences is psychology and value orientation<...> Jews have a greater real interest towards the Russian culture than Russians do. ...Thus, Jews more often than Russians name as their favourite writer Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Bunin, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and even, in spite of certain tendencies regarded in Jewish society as anti-Semitic, Alexander Solzhenitsin and Valentin Rasputin <...> An astonishing (but corresponding to my personal impressions) result of our poll appeared that only 3 people from 40 identified themselves as Judaists, while 10 - as Christians, 2 from them identifying themselves as Russian Orthodox Christians and others - as "Christians in general" without confessional specification<...> Such a situation of prevailing of Christianity over Judaism cannot be observed in any other Jewish community... We can see a very strange picture: In the situation of general loss of Jewish culture, the belonging to Jews has become to a great extent formal. It comes to such things as a record in passport, surname, appearance (it is also a formal "exterior" sign). But nevertheless the psychological significance of such formal belonging is very great. What makes this psychological significance?15

Unfortunately, Furman's answer which explains this all with the primordial Jewish fear of real or imagined anti-Semitism is not as interesting as the question itself, for it is but a new wording of the same question. In fact, the fear and perception of any milieu as "potentially hostile"16 looks in Furman's explanations not like an everyday occurrence, but like an irrational universal law, a kind of doom over the Jews which makes them to be an "opposition to all the being" and to seek salvation from themselves and from their fear. And it is still not clear where this fear comes from - is it caused by enduring one's appearance? or name? or passport record?

The article caused polemics and "became a point of discussion in a Moscow elite club"17. Lev Anninsky, a literary critic, shares his ideas on the same question (Who are the Russian Jews?) in his response to Furman's article.

I had to write about the principal impossibility to solve the problem of the Russian-Jewish self-identification in Russia, about the soul being pressed between the ideas of assimilation and disappearance - and dissimilation and setting apart: they are both dangerous. The Jews' reaction to these speculations was a shock for me: but we don't want either of these! Neither Russification nor Jewification! We want to be neither "just Russians", nor "Jews in general" - we want to be Russian Jews. We are a very special enclave - not a part of some other people but a PEOPLE with its own fate and its own system of values.

But what are the values?

"Sarafans" and "armyaks" and also old Slavonic values are not included. "Torah", "Wall of Wailing" and "Our lamentations by the rivers of Babylon" - this is all equally unreal for us. But what is left?

Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Rasputin, Solzhenitsin18

So, the Jews immerse themselves in the Russian culture (primarily in belle-lettres), and moreover, they want to see their national identity in this. What's more, they have the right to do this because the Russians do not immerse themselves in their own culture like this, it (the culture) doesn't incite them to do this. But what incites the Jews? Their national self-identification, that is the Russian culture... Ravings of a madman!

The absurdity of this situation was subtly noticed by poet Oleg Yuriev:

"An ideal projection of our notion (Russian Jew) is the "non-Jewish Jew", a person who not only denies all the Jewish in himself, but even treats this denial as a sign of "Jewishness"19.

The paradoxal existence of a Russian Jew develops a taste for paradoxes. That is why I cannot refrain from proceeding with the quotation:

"Under Soviet conditions the main principle of Jewish identification is the "record in the passport". That is why the utmost expression of this principle was for me in the words of one Leningrad woman-painter. These words were uttered with absolute confidence and sincerity and undoubtedly express not only her but also her parents' mind, her parents belonging to the circle of the official liberal intelligentsia of the 60-ies. Here are these words: "The real Jews are the ones who have the record "Russian" or something else. Those who have the record "Jewish" are not Jews but fools, they were not able to fix things the right way. I have the record "Armenian", that is why I am a real Jew!"20

Dear professor Gitelman! Please, don't understand too literally the words about the "disabled of the 5th group"- they can mean anything but "Jewish identity as accident, a burden which one has to get rid of as soon as possible"21 . It is just a joke, a paradox. Besides, the Russian Jew is ready to be in opposition even to his own "disability"- only, of course, to acquire it! You also write "some Jews are real cosmopolitans sincerely believing in the Marxist-Leninist image of the world devoid of nations"22, but I recollect a phrase from a casual talk: "When I was young, I was a real cosmopolitan and divided all the humanity into Jews and fools"23. Why "fools"? Because they are not yet cosmopolitans so they are not Jews.


So, the Jew looks into the mirror and sees an intelligent there. And only having identified himself with this intelligent, he sees that it is a Jew who is behind the looking-glass. In this perpetual motion he is blessed with something he is never able to coincide with - his self-identification.

But is it possible to make any distinction between the notions of "Russian Jews" and "Soviet intelligentsia"? Yes, in a certain way, for not all the intelligents are Jewish, one can find Russians, and russified Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, etc. among them. But the Jews are russified as well, they identify themselves as Russians, therefore they constitute some part of the Soviet intelligentsia. On the other hand, the Soviet intelligentsia's self-identification with Jewry (a more or less metaphoric one) is a key process which plays a role which is completely different from the identification with Georgians, Armenians, etc. That is why the words of Tsvetayeva pronounced in some other time and some other circumstances are quoted so often: "In this most Christian of all the worlds, the poets are Yids". The Russian Jews and the Soviet intelligentsia are in the relationship of doubleness, of identity-negation. It is possible to distinguish them, but impossible to separate.

Isn't it the way God chooses a man among people to be wizened with fear? The experience of the dispersed and as if abandoned Israel is ultimately the same with the experience of a Russian man, a restless soul dispersed in the vast spaces of his Motherland. Only perhaps among the Jews the trend towards earthly organising, to home-sweet-home, to everything arranged in duly fashion is stronger and more patient; while for the Russians a home, a place in this life, etc. are granted, they are at home. But some strange spirit makes us leave our homes, turns us into "wandering stars", into "charmed wanderers" and how close are we in this spirit!24

These are the words by philosopher Anatoly Akhutin.

Of course, Christian thought has always tried to stress the similarity ("For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek"25) while Jews insisted on the difference. That is why the Jewish devotion to the Russian literature can be considered to be a sign of assimilation, and Russian intelligentsia's self-identification with Jews can be considered to be an invitation to such assimilation, Christian fraternisation with Jews. It is true, but I think, the reverse is true too: it is possible to speak of assimilation of Russian intelligentsia (with its by far not orthodox Christianity) by Jews, about some kind of new 'Yid-heresy'.

Two very important peculiarities of this brotherhood of Jews and intelligentsia are grounds for such a point of view: 1) detachment from the mass, from the majority and 2) philologity of this brotherhood, love to literature, even as opposed to the other fields of culture, to other manifestations of the national spirit (like "sarafans" and "armyaks"). These two peculiarities are noted in the Jews by A. Akhutin: "The Jew accumulates in himself and personifies everything alien to the nazi-totalitarian unity"26 and "Who but the Jew, a "philologist" by the grace and commandment of God, can feel a devouring love to the Russian word, speech and literature?"27. Philologists alien to unity - this, to my mind, is a possible, though a little bit idealising, definition of the Jews.

The Soviet past as the spiritual Motherland of the Russian Jews

It seems to be the right time to make all necessary stipulations and specifications and to create a working model, which enables to continue the search single-mindedly. Much of the said below will be based almost exclusively on my own intuition and general reasons, as it is an attempt to comprehend and interpret the empirical material gathered.

The beginning, the starting point for the Russian intelligentsia was literature, and primarily the Russian literature. Its traditions and its texts do create the tension between word and being, which made an intelligent to be in the opposition to the being, to reality - together with the word, with literature.

The beginning, the starting point for Soviet Jews was the only word of the Torah, written in his passport - "Jewish". It is this word that creates tension between the Jew and the being, which pushes him (the Jew) out from the being to the word, from reality to literature.

Here the Soviet Jew and the Russian intelligent have met each other. United by the similarity of fate, they have become brothers and have exchanged adjectives. The Jew has become Russian, while the intelligent - Soviet.

Russian Jews and/or Soviet intelligents form a community opposed to other social groups. The centre, around which this community has grown, is literature and art in general. The main body of this community is constituted by humanitarian intelligentsia - writers and philologists. Adjoining to the main body is scientific and technical intelligentsia, the readers of "thick magazines", amateurs of art and not alien to art themselves - within the limits of their profession and even beyond them. The highest values of this community is creativity, spirituality, refinement, opposed to Philistinism and consumer-style, the latest being understood as the state of complete immersion into being, the full blending with it bought by betrayal of the highest values, refusal from the literary ideals - and there was no other way for self-realisation in the Soviet reality.

The Soviet Union was an ideal nutrient medium for this community. Unbearable falseness and vulgarity of Soviet being made one suspect moral or esthetical deafness in everyone who managed to realise himself in this reality. Moreover, not only the Soviet manifestations (carrier, membership in the Communist party, etc.) caused these suspicions but also the anti-Soviet, dissident ones ("Uprising is the freedom of those who are not free; It is only an outward appearance of freedom. It is usually organised by slaves"28. So the opposition "personality"- "totalitarian state" is not decisive for this community, though is important for it. Having grown in the Soviet Union, the community of intelligents identifying themselves as Jews and Jews identifying themselves as intelligents accepted and personified another, a much more fundamental contradiction, going far beyond the limits of the Soviet specifics - it is the opposition between literature and reality, between word and being, between text and real life.

How can it be possible?

Higher education was an important formal indication of membership in this community (though I remember school disputes "What is to be an intelligent" and "Can an uneducated person be an intelligent?"). This means that the number of this community in the USSR was apparently dozens of million people. Of course, only few of them expressed the opposition to the being through devotion to literature, only a handful of them being able to stand all the tension of this contradiction losing sight neither of the obligations towards the challenging word nor of their love of life, active will to be, to exist. Many chose a compromise ("I will make a carrier, but a scientific, not a Communist one") or uncompromising alcoholism (more often both of them), nevertheless even a complete breaking it off between the individual and the community was being understood in terms of the latter, as a transition from non-realistic bookish conceptions to drastic truth of life.

A special attention should be paid to another way to lower tension, to evade the critical contradiction - it is its objectivation, turning it into a deliberate principle which can be used, for instance, to excuse one's own laziness and impotence ("There are people who can make it in life, I am not of that kind" which means "I am a looser but an intelligent"). By means of objectivation the contradiction itself is reduced to the everyday level, becomes the being, which is, not opposed the word in all its fullness but coincides with it in its tragic decline. The immersement, inclusion in this declining being gives birth to the new Philistinism, which nevertheless doesn't break off with the community, which gave birth to it, but becomes a kind of intelligent Philistinism. It is this intelligent Philistinism that ensures the reproduction of this Jewish-intelligent community and gives it stability, preserving and passing to the future generation the contempt to mass-culture and worship of genuine art, though brings about inevitable confusion because of the impossibility for them to tell art from fake. We have to stress again that this distinction between mass-culture and elite art is here not the lot of single dispersed intellectuals as it happens to be in the West, but a mass phenomenon, the most important characteristic of the intelligent-Jewish mass sub-culture.

So the intelligent Philistinism bears in its body (and, as we have seen, it does have a body) objectivated contradiction between word and being. It was this fact that enabled it to be the nutrient medium for the intellectual elite - a thankful audience and source of replenishment, - and to maintain the high prestige of education.

Does this community exist now? The disintegration of the Soviet Union seems to have undermined the very basis of its existence. Huge masses of formerly inactive people poured into politics, religion, business, emigration through the now opened borders and boundaries. But not all, by far not all, former Soviet intelligents and contemporary Russian Jews have found their place in the centre of this new life, and from those who have remained at the periphery not every single one has become embittered, and it means that they are trying to understand what is happening with them, and as before very great are (for today's Russia) the numbers of copies of thick magazines. And - who knows? - maybe there are several million people in Russia who perceive their keeping away from pushiness and rudeness of the being that have captivated their world as impossibility to admit, in spite of very convincing arguments, that lie is truth and ugliness is beauty, as esthetical rejection of falseness and fake (And let us state once again that we are speaking not of how adequate such perception is, but only of the existence of the community for which such perception is characteristic.)

An indirect proof of the existence of such a community today is mass non-participation of Jews in the Jewish movement.

3. Portrait of the Russian Jew

How to paint the portrait

To see in more detail the features of the face of the Russian Jew, one can act in different ways. One of the possible ways is a sociological investigation, deduction of average characteristics, analysis of mass consciousness. But now, when the Russian Jew has just been discovered, it seems more important for me to make an entire image, to try and see the inner entity of this, in outward appearance very ambiguous, personality. For this purpose it is enough to find a person who embodied in himself the problems of the Russian Jew to the maximal extent.

Of course, such a person should be a bright personality and the imprints of his individuality should lie on everything he touches - otherwise he wouldn't be able to embody all the contradictions. And only in this way, by looking intently at his unique features, do we receive a possibility to see the genuine, live face of the Russian Jew - typical contradictions and problems filled with life by personal pain.

So I'd like to propose to analyse several abstracts from the Common Diary by David Samoilov, a remarkable Russian poet, a Jew and a Soviet intelligent. The abstracts were selected according to their thematic adhering (self-realisation, freedom of choice, Jewishness) and are placed in chronological order. The text obtained as the result of such a montage possesses, to my mind, some inner entity and wholeness, that is why it is cited below followed by an analysis.

From the diary of David Samoilov


I have no direct need to return to my forefathers - neither physical, nor spiritual. What I have is the need to return "to myself". And only to the extent of this need I feel craving for the roots. The soil for me is in the other thing - in what is reached and gained and what is to be reached.

Maybe returning to the forefathers will be the next step for me, when I feel fixed "in myself".


...The biography is given; the fate is to be chosen.


Overcoming one's loneliness by self-extraction from the majority doesn't mean spiritual satiety. Any adherence (to a party, a church, etc.) regarded as the ultimate goal means spiritual corruption and inevitably leads to psychology of consumption.

Self-extraction as adherence is obviously not enough.

Maybe the matter is in coming to the understanding of the law of one's own life as a part of a supreme, heavenly if you wish, law of being (in its pure variant!)


Why should freedom be a person's right? Who and for what virtues has given him this right?

Freedom is a person's obligation.


Jews have one privilege - to select the nation to belong to. <...>

If a choice doesn't mean preponderance of obligations over rights, it is worth nothing. <...>

All the words in favour of defending of the Russian culture said by Jewish emigrants are bluff. <...>

Zionists and cosmopolites with their egocentrism are 100 times more honest than our Jewish dissidents with their pledges of love to Russia and to the Russian culture and with their miserable words that they don't want their children to be abused.

For a Russian Jew the obligation to be Russian is higher than their right for personal freedom.


The last role, which Judaism can play, is to refuse from the idea of national exclusiveness.

It has 2 roads lying in front of it: moral and physical annihilation or joining young nations, assimilation.

Assimilation means primacy of the idea of culture over the idea of nation. The future belongs to this idea. Otherwise the humankind will stiffen and perish in national life. And will lose the universal.


The process of assimilation is inevitably painful. When refusing from the exclusiveness, Jews should accept the lowest, the least glorious role in the society, the role of the lowest caste. By this suffering, this discrimination they would expiate the idea of exclusiveness and prove that belonging to a culture means belonging to a nation.


Though longing for universal, I am, actually, not a cosmopolite, but a soil-oriented person.


One can obtain inner freedom by self-realisation in non-freedom. Independence is not yet freedom. What really matters is how to understand self-realisation. Untalented self-realisation can lead only to independence. From what? From obligations. This is what the ideal of the modern generation is.


The empire cannot already be an empire but can be nothing else than an empire. Both variants - empire and non-empire - smell with blood.

There is no way out.

Taste, as a matter of fact, is a moral category. Many times have I met people who became immoral as a result of the absence of taste.

If I, a Russian poet and a Russian man, am driven to the gas camera, I will keep repeating: "Shma Isroel, adenoi alekhiynu, adenoi akhod". It is the only thing I have remembered from my Jewishness.

One should speak out together with the verse - neither before, nor later.

The National and the Cultural

The notions "Nation" and "Culture" are used here in a rather unusual way. What sense is given to them? In his 'Memorial Notes' David Samoilov links, talking of Jews, the nation and the Pale of settlement: "The statement that Hitler annihilated Russian Jews, is not quite true. What he annihilated was the Pale of Settlement, i.e. the nation"30. Nation is the boundaries, which maybe contain that home cosiness, but as well the danger to "lose the universal" (i.e. "cultural"? or "imperial"?), to "ossify and perish in the national life". The Pale of Settlement serves in the 'Notes' as an analogue of any national boundaries ("The Pale was not worse than other boundaries, not worse than our existing rigid boundaries"31; and the absence of any perspectives in being reserved within these boundaries D. Samoilov sees in the example of Jews: "But Jews having such a boundary for some three hundred years have created nothing essential, neither literature, nor music, nor fine arts, nor philosophy. Nothing"32.

The image of this, for already a long time officially non-existing, Pale is being projected at contemporary narrow-mindedness, at provincial - in the Soviet understanding of this word - Jews: "Somewhere inside this nation there is the desire to cross the boundaries. And when it is impossible, it starts to decay, to grow into just everyday life and giving birth to children - that is into saving the family for the future times. It may be done not consciously, but still it is so. For the future kingdom of spirit do modern Jewish bourgeois and craftsmen propagate. Their main supports are god and philoprogenitiveness"33. Just this way - philoprogenitiveness and god, the small letter being meaningful, the god of "bourgeois and craftsmen", of "everyday life and giving birth to children", to which, according to Samoilov, are reduced all the Jewish national achievements of the Pale of Settlement, lacking "universal" sense and for this reason having nothing to do with culture and God, with the capital letter (in his diary one can meet such writing as well).

Russian Jews persistently associate national with attributes of the already gone or alien lifestyle, with ethnic carnival. Be this national Russian or Jewish, it appears equally alien for the Russian Jew (I have no direct need to return to my forefathers...), who sees his roots only in the Soviet past with its exaggerated role of culture. And that is why, for example, a Russian writer Yu. Karabchievsky cannot be inspired by national heroism and to feel kinship neither with Russian warriors pouring boiling water and tar from city walls, nor with Jewish insurgents defending the fortress from Roman legions:

... And so I was standing on a big rock, vividly imagining those people and, much as I regret it, I didn't feel any kinship to them either. Neither men-at-arms in hauberks, nor those ragged husbandmen with long knives are my people. Neither of them is my friend, neither of them is my relative. What I really belong to is solely the present and the immediate past. And if this belonging disintegrates in the universal Russian chaos, I will remain alone, outside history and geography.34

The reason for such non-acceptance, as it is obvious from the style of description, lies in theatrical unreality of these symbols - " men-at-arms in hauberks", " ragged husbandmen with long knives". A bright visual image lacking inner sense is, maybe, good for political fights and military campaigns, but is absolutely unfit for long sitting in Moscow and St. Petersburg kitchens, for thoughtful talks with friends. Heroes of Chekhov and Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov, these seemingly unremarkable residents of home libraries, are different. It is they who are the real ancestors of the Russian Jew or at least his friends and constant companions, his culture deprived of nation.

The same opposition can be seen in the above quoted words by L. Anninsky, in which "sarafans" (Russian traditional dress), "armyaks" (Russian traditional coat), the Torah and the "Wailing by the rivers of Babylon" - all together - as national attributes are opposed to the Russian literature, that is to the real culture. It is not a surprise that the Torah is included into the category of material symbols of everyday life - in the capacity of the Bible, the Old Testament, it already belongs to the Russian literature, while the Jewish national remainder, which cannot be reduced to literature, does not have greater spirituality for the Russian Jew than a sarafan. And according to the same reason one shouldn't be surprised by the confidence, with which D. Samoilov states, as if looking around in search for cultural achievements of the Pale of Settlement and facing only "sarafans": "Jews .... created nothing serious. Nothing."

Assimilationism a hundred years later

David Samoilov urges the Jews to assimilate. The call to "refuse from the idea of national exclusiveness" has nothing new in itself; it is likely to have been borrowed from somewhere, probably - from the novel by Boris Pasternak35. What is more interesting is what is meant concretely under the notion of assimilation.

Assimilation, according to Samoilov, is "primacy of the idea of culture over the idea of nation", which means, as we have seen, primacy of intelligence over narrow-mindedness, spiritual existence - over material everyday life, literary image - over visible material symbol; of God - over god.

Assimilation is crossing the border of the mythologized Pale of Settlement, the boundary between nation and culture. This crossing had nothing in common with advantages of Christianity over Judaism, as it is according to Pasternak, and isn't forced by outward circumstances -on the contrary, "somewhere inside this nation there is a necessity to cross the boundaries"36. Maybe that is why assimilation is not a right, not a possibility, but exactly "the obligation of being Russian". But this categorical self-addressed claim "to be Russian" in the conditions of the Soviet Union could be understood either literary (as a claim to forgery of documents) or, on the contrary, in a metaphoric sense (for instance, to be a Russian not just remaining being a Jew but realising the covert Jewish necessity).

One can also recall "the role of the lowest caste" which the assimilated Jews are predestined for, and conclude that the matter is not in the refusal from Jewish exclusiveness, but in replacing national exclusiveness by cultural one, in the notion of being chosen which makes the Jews hostages of culture and so makes them carry the burden of being expelled from nation - "to accept the lowest, the least glorious role in the society". Such assimilation has nothing in common with the wish to be like everyone, which, by Samoilov, is more connected with nation ("Everybody who has ambitions should refuse from this role [of the lowest caste] and become a Jew of Israel"37). It is also not dependent on anti-Semitism, which delivered a smashing strike on the ideology of assimilators of the XIX century, because it is ready for it in advance ("Both sincere Russites and soil-oriented people cannot offend a Russian-Jewish intelligent by their non-acceptance, because they just show their low level of thinking and non-belief in selflessness... Because no food for selfishness can be found in being a Russian Jew!38).

And one more thing - in contrast to the assimilators of the past, Samoilov seems not so much to urge, as to assert. His speculations over assimilationism are not a project directed to the future, but an attempt to understand the present: "Russian Jews are a historical reality. This is a psychological type, a branch of the Russian intelligentsia in one of its most selfless variants"39. This formula describes rather not what should be but what does exist.

We have already seen that the sight of this strange status quo of Russian Jews every now and then is lost and Samoilov has nothing to base on in his description. All habitual notions lose their sense when come across this reality and that is why contradictions arise every now and then and there appears a necessity to call a Jew a Russian, and the separation of the intelligentsia into a culturally isolated part of the Soviet society is then to be called the assimilation of Jews. Maybe the reason is that Samoilov has come across the unnameable reality, which existed in the shadow of the official Soviet ideology and had nothing to do with it, which possessed its own structure, yet not realised by anybody. The existence of Jews in this reality is for Samoilov an obvious "historical reality" and he sees his task in realising this reality, its inclusion into a wider perspective, analysing the origin of this Jewry not aware of itself. And that is why everything said about assimilationism is rather an explanation of its origin and only partially - an urge addressed to this silent reality to agree to the explanations proposed by Samoilov, to recognise them as its history, its etiological myth, to obtain its voice in his words.

De religione of the Russian Jew

It's not a secret that the Russian Jew cherishes kind feelings towards Christianity - much greater than towards Judaism. But, in the majority of cases40, these kind feelings are aimed at "Christianity in general", that is don't mean belonging to a certain Church. D. Samoilov is not exclusion to this rule: "The Russian Jew cannot return to the synagogue. And cannot enter the Christian Temple just now. And should he hurry?"41. What does this unhurriedness mean?

Isn't it too rapid a way for the Russian Jews to be dissolved in the Russian nation - to accept Russian Orthodoxy? Shouldn't they first reach the level of rooting into the cultural soil, into the world outlook when the acceptance of baptism is only the last sign of participation, of unification of outward appearance?42

The answer is probably as follows: the cherished desire to become Russian is dear enough for a Russian Jew not to imitate assimilation, not to acquire its outward attributes without having the main, inner, kernel ones, and that is why coming to the church is delayed - to an uncertain term, till the completion of that search for oneself, till the acquisition of soil. What is interesting that a similar condition was put also for "returning to the roots".

Here we again are faced with the opposition nation/culture. The Church world with its ritualised, unified everyday life is felt as a national, outward appearance: "The Church for him [father] was something different from belief, something intimate, something from the tradition - both the family and the national one"43. Culture, on the opposite, is something inner, deep-rooted, filling the empty shell of the nation. And if assimilation was a movement from nation towards culture, here we deal with the backward movement: from culture towards nation.

But there is no movement in the proper sense of the word; more exactly, it doesn't lead to any real shift. Samoilov seems not to believe in the possibility of achievement of the final goal ("Those who have never known the Church, will never get to know it"44), though this doesn't prevent him from longing for it. In the same way his unacceptance of Jewishness wasn't connected for him with leaving it because the whole complex notion had been given to him at his birth; he didn't have to escape from shtetl to city, from yeshiva to a university; from the very beginning he had been a Russian intelligent (and a Jew, of course).

Samoilov speaks about the necessity of deep understanding of Christianity before baptism: "Christianity should be first interiorised and then accepted. We often act in the opposite way: one first accepts it, and then the interiorisation is not reached"45.

But his diaries don't contain any traces of interest towards the Christian teaching itself, all the ideas about it (as well as about Judaism) seem to have been taken by Samoilov from the Russian literature. That is why he is not so eager to come to the Church. The Russian literature already left it in Pushkin times.

Both the synagogue and the church symbolise for Samoilov the nation in all the negative and positive senses, which he puts into this notion. Jewishness and Christianity mean two opposite directions of the same movement from/towards nation. Making this movement, announcing his leaving Jewishness and striving for Christianity, Samoilov in a strange way remains in his place - in the culture, neither approaching nor moving off the nation.

Any step here ends in a sudden turn by 180o. And if Samoilov has already proved to everybody - and to himself - "the primacy of the idea of culture over the idea of nation", it will be followed by "Though longing for global, I am, actually, not a cosmopolite, but a soil-oriented person". And the same Samoilov, "already a Russian poet and only that"46, who has reached, in his and others' eyes, as it seems, his goal, looks attentively into himself - and as if puzzled remarks suddenly: If I, a Russian poet and a Russian man, were driven to the gas camera, I would repeat: "Shma Isroel, adenoi alekhiynu, adenoi akhod". But one shouldn't think that it is his last choice, that in the end of his long road he returned to the abandoned Judaism having refused from the idea of assimilation and baptism as "the last sign of participation". Samoilov did not leave anything and has not come anywhere - he always remains at the same place, being in constant movement, in permanent longing for becoming somebody - and has become the person he was from the very beginning - a Russian Jew.

And if it is possible to find some shift as a result of this strange movement, it can't be measured within the scale "Judaism - Christianity". The shift takes place perpendicularly to this scale and leads from oneself initial, determined by outward circumstances - to oneself chosen freely and paid by the whole life, by all the forces of personality. "The biography is given; the fate is chosen."

Active passiveness and self-realization

In the world of a Soviet intelligent, in his eternal opposition to the being it was self-realisation that was the main thing, which was making this world go round:

The presence of individuality gives us an indication that besides of heredity and environment (which in fact is also a form of heredity) there is something else - the freedom of will. Moreover - the presence of this individuality indicates also that the freedom of will is a value, which is greater than heredity. The difference between these values is talent.47

Nowadays the most important topic of literature is not "eternal" love and death, but the matter of freedom and determinedness of will.48

This world, which only yesterday was alive, only yesterday was seeming so understandable and dull, is lost in conjectures. Indeed, how can we understand it today when we, at last, have got a choice, when every now and then we are proposed hundreds of possibilities, thousands of variants of first-rate self-realisation - how can we understand today that former world in which there were hardly any possibilities, and everybody knew full well that any of those in stock were good for nothing? What could a person feel and understand, who had been given the knowledge of impossibility of self-realisation not as a philosophical abstraction but as ingenious experience? And wasn't it a vague, not fully realised knowledge which had come from that world, that enabled L. Anninsky just let drop without any comments: "... ethnography is accreting with routine, while self-identity doesn't cost any individual effort and so has no personal value"?49

Here it seems natural to return to the beginning because there is a direct call-over with the M. Chlenov's thesis about the "passiveness" of the Russian-Jewish identification, which requires no efforts from Russian Jews. But according to Anninsky, everything is vice versa - in the rest of the world, where "ethnography is accreting with routine" (that is where there is a developed community structure), Jews do not "pay any personal efforts", but as soon as we take Russia...

The whole problem is likely to have arisen from the difference in what the mentioned authors read in the phrases "individual efforts" and "personal value". M. Chlenov speaks rather about the efforts, which are to be undertaken by an individual, and about the price, which a person should pay to acquire, in addition to other identification(s), which he already possesses, a Jewish identification. But the Russian Jew for some strange reason wants to have just one identification and that is why he wants to enter it as a whole, with the whole individuality of his efforts, and pay for the entrance by all his personality, without any remainder. And he won't agree to anything less. Aut Caesar, aut nihil.

Paradoxically, for an assimilated Russian Jew, his Jewishness appears to be much greater than - if we follow M. Chlenov's model - for an American who thoroughly paid for his Jewish identity. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Jewishness in the Soviet Union used to become an integral part of one's personality, like the name, the parents, the place and time of birth, and be it even that the Russian Jew did not bear the sign of Avraam's brith on his body, it was his personality, which bore an indelible, undestroyable imprint of Jewishness.

And that is why any particular definition of his Jewishness, which does not take into account the other aspects of his personality, appears to be impossible for the Russian Jew. And he cannot commit himself completely to any state, any religion, and any community. Only by himself, in his opposition (which, of course, is not bereft of both inclination and denial) to all forms of national, he is able to realise his personality, his freedom of choice.

But it is the possibility of 'not to choose anything', that this freedom of choice is necessary for (here we can see the above mentioned passiveness); to be more precise, it goes like choosing one's own self, having refused from choosing in the plane of existence, from "adherence to a nation". And that is why in 1989 when it had already been said that "biography is given, the fate is to be chosen" and that "inner freedom can be reached by self-realisation in non-freedom", when the perestroyka with all its chances was in full swing, Samoilov suddenly writes (as if having forgotten about grammar and logic): "the worst thing in one's life is the impossibility to make a decision, i.e. absolute dependence from circumstances. This is how a person feels in a prison. The only decision he can make is an uprising, either murder of warders or suicide.... Uprising is the freedom of the non-free"50.

The smell of the uprising could indeed be felt in the habitual Soviet prison. The decision, which used to be in non-alignment, in non-participation, in the "opposition to the being" and which had been so easy-to-live-with before, at a certain moment became almost impossible due to the new necessity to act and, hence, to select something in the world of being: "either murder of warders or suicide". To these two absolutely unacceptable possibilities Samoilov reduces all the variability of the new free world (and maybe he is not that wrong - at least, one can easily put him in the line with quite a few famous predecessors). It is this free world that seems a prison to Samoilov and makes self-realisation almost impossible because it proposes too many possibilities one finds difficult to refuse from. And then inevitable is joining somebody, agreeing with one's partial realisation and national (that is Philistine) smugness - all the bunch of notions which Samoilov unites under the name of "spiritual corruption" and which are opposed by "selflessness - that is the profession of the intelligent"51.

The 'Converts' and the Sacred Things of the Russian Jew

High tension of everyday contradictions of the Russian Jew is by far not for anyone to bear. Those who fail to bear it, join the nation and gain peace of mind. This nation can be the 'mother' nation - Russian-Jewish (the above mentioned intelligent Philistinism), retaining outward attributes and stereotypes of behaviour of Russian Jews - as well as any other religious and social movement. The attitude of Russian Jews to such turncoats resembles traditional attitude towards converts.

Thus, David Samoilov considers that "Any adherence (to a party, a church, etc.) regarded as the ultimate goal means spiritual corruption and inevitably leads to psychology of consumption. But "spiritual corruption", in case it is realised and acknowledged by the turncoat, can be understood and forgiven (to another person, not to yourself). Much worse are the 'converts' who present their weakness as a longed-for decision, as the realisation of the predestination of the Russian Jew: "Zionists and cosmopolites with their egocentrism are 100 times more honest than our Jewish dissidents with their pledges of love to Russia and to the Russian culture and with their miserable words that they don't want their children to be abused". In other words, the "Zionists and cosmopolites", who refused from the Russian culture and thus broke the ties with the Russian Jewry, are "honest" converts who don't try to hide their "egocentrism", and in this way have advantage over those who wish to retain their Russian-Jewish identity, and also to reach its final embodiment52 by joining the Israeli nation, of the "Jews-dissidents" (judging by the context, the refusniks are meant), because "All the words in favour of defending of the Russian culture said by Jewish emigrants are bluff.

Similar thoughts and, more important, a very emotional unacceptance of any possible way of life in case it is presented by a convert as the "final decision", can be found in other sources:

... No forms and variants of cultural leisure - be it fasting, raw-eating, Zen-Buddhism, athletics or aerobics, Russian Orthodox or Judaic neophytism and so on and so forth are not bad in themselves. The matter is in the person's attitude towards them and the level to which he realises (or not realises) the perishability and wretchedness of the spiritual well-being obtained this way ... Examples of attitude towards such things which can be considered healthy and unburdened with falsifications in superstructures, are, unfortunately, very rare...53

Let us note that what matters is not the very actions undertaken by the 'converts' which cause direct damage to the Russian Jew, but just the inner position of these 'converts', their attitude towards their actions. Why do the life positions and attitudes of people so alien to the Russian Jew cause such sharp unacceptance, such explosions of irritation and malice? I think there can be just one answer: such converts offend the religious feelings of the Russian Jew - the feelings deeply covered under a masque of irony, - the 'converts' profane the sacred things, mock at the deepest and the highest in this religion (the religion in itself being enigmatic to the Russian Jew).

The conflict between yes and no, between the "cognition of the laws of one's own life" and the non-acceptance of any ideology - the main conflict of this religion - is solved in its Sancta Sanctorum, in the timid and hidden from strangers' eyes communication of the Russian Jew with the Art:

Literature is aimed at answering the question: is it possible or not for a person to live in this world.... Great writers not only answer this question, but also give examples of how to live or how to leave (or estrange from) this world...

Our literature is a literature of circumstances, not of characters. It doesn't know how to live and how to die. Literature is based on ideas, not on circumstances....

But the mystery of the art is that, despite primacy of ideas, it is not didactic. Its idea is so self-sufficient and aimed inside that it sometimes seems that it is self-targeted, that it is "art for the sake of art".

The mystery is that an idea finds its embodiment in an image, the latter word standing for a notion, the essence of which nobody has so far been able to define properly - only much is spoken about its perceptivity, concreteness, substantiality. But all this names stand for just separate attributes of the image, not the essence of it.

The essence of the image remains an incognizable mystery of art, and so does its major goal, in which we can intuitively guess the presence of God.54

So, through a literary image, through a text connecting a person with God, the Russian Jew wizens and learns how to live and how to die. And that is why every claim for knowing "the law of life" should be certified by the seal of artistic form, should belong to literature - or it would be attributed to the category of no more than national cases, which, for the Russian Jew, are not worth paying attention to. And if such claim is made by a person who has his part in the sacrament of the Russian literature but lacks taste - then there can not be a sin more loathsome, more disgusting for a Russian Jew, for "Taste is, in its essence, a moral category".

4. The Russian Jew and the World Jewry

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the confused Russian Jews were influenced by very different ideologies and social movements, each of which became reinforced on their expense. In this process the Jewish movement plays a significant role - approximately equal to the one played by Christianity.

It is important to note that since the moment of its arising in the Soviet underground, the Jewish movement has been in the process of departure from its own being, the latter seeming amorphous and groundless, in search of the lost Jewishness and "the law of life". As in the Soviet epoch everything lacking here was supposed to be located there, i.e. abroad, the two main ideological forces of the world Jewry - religion and Zionism - came to us in the halo of forbidden authenticity and freedom ("Sweet is the stolen water and pleasant is the hidden bread"55.)

As time passed, material help and then jobs, not only new ideological trends, began to come from the West. This is how, on the periphery of the Russian Jewry, rather a large - not less than several dozens of thousands of people - buffer community linking it with the world Jewry was formed.56

But this community is a buffer phenomenon only for those Russian Jews who are the subject of our research. But it is not only by them that "the former Jewish USSR" is inhabited, and that is why this community is a normal environment for many people. It possesses its own system of education and social security, its own periodicals, its own cultural and religious life with its problems and achievements. It is named buffer here because, on the one hand, the majority of the Russian Jews (that is Jews in the above mentioned sense) does not take part in it, but, on the other hand, it is the nearest place for a Russian Jew where he can meet with other, different from his, ideas about Jewishness.

It is possible to name, very schematically and conventionally, the following variants of cooperation of the Russian Jew with this community:

  1. All the relations with the community are in the material sphere, which doesn't touch ideology and culture. The community may provide occasional or constant earnings without touching the Russian Jew's self-consciousness, if, of course, his work does not belong completely to the field of ideology or propaganda. Such relations are (at least from the point of view of the Russian Jew) very superficial and that is why they create neither essential conflict nor contact.

  2. Polar to this are the cases of full absorption of a Russian Jew by some of the Jewish ideologies - religion, Zionism, etc. Such people are regarded solely as converts and lose any connection with the Russian Jewry - to the extent to which the newly-acquainted ideology possesses them (let us say in brackets that the activists of the Jewish underground, the refusniks, the Prisoners of Zion, whom the West is eager to see as the symbols of the Russian Jewry, have nothing in common with this case, which fact, of course, does not in the least diminish their heroism). Here even if there is a conflict, it is purely superficial and thus does not lead to a dialogue. But even in case of full confluence with some ideology, these people retain some Russian-Jewish base, which doesn't reveal anyhow, which, like a geometrical point, has zero dimensions and which, thus, cannot be destroyed and can wake up at any moment.

  3. Participation in community life as a "kind of cultural leisure" is the third, compromise variant of interaction. In this case the Russian Jew comes to the community as if to his friends' house - neither as to a job place, nor as to his home. But this community is known to the Russian Jew as a place of awful familiarities and lack of good manners (caused by misunderstanding by the community of its real role and place) and that is why this acquaintance isn't prestigious. So, a free-will, not for money reasons, involvement into this community is considered to be a suspicious eccentricity. Having contacted, for this or that reason, with this alien world, the Russian Jew should guard his dignity from possible infringements by emphasising, in all possible ways, his being aside, his objectively scientific or ironically-playful attitude towards this world. Such contacts leads to a dialogue which reminds ceremonious small talk because both partners don't allow themselves to speak about the main things: the community - for the fear of pressing too early and thus offending and alienating the interlocutor; the Jew - for the fear of losing himself having come into the alien world too deeply and personally and becoming a 'convert'.

  4. The forth variant is connected with the attempt to see in the foreign Jewry something close, co-natural to the Russian-Jewish character - not ideology, not nation, but culture. People who have been seriously studying Jewish history, Hebrew literature, etc., can be regarded as the ones who have chosen this variant. But the subjects themselves (history and literature) were born in the collision of Jewry with the outer world, they are deliberately intermediate and compromising, and for this reason very convenient for a safe dialogue, which doesn't touch either the basics of the Russian-Jewish identity or the essence of the foreign Jewry. So, such contacts apply rather to the third and sometimes to the first variant. But there is rather a small group of Russian Jews who, due to some occasion (for example as the result of tshuvah, or, which is still rather rare, at University or school), have gained knowledge and skills which enable them to enter the direct, not mediated or softened, contact with the Torah, but along with this by some miracle (not without the help of the Lord, who resurrects the dead) have retained their Russian-Jewish life. In spite of its small size and obvious marginality (even a double one) of the group, it is interesting as a pure unmingled case, because only here, in the thoughts and fates of these people, is taking place a really non-compromised dialogue between the halves of the bisected personality, the dialogue which is connected with mutual mortal risk. The only chance to survive for them is to construct a cultural bar saving the Russian Jew, who hates ideology, from naked didactics of the Torah, that is, to accomplish a transfer of the whole ideological power of the Torah, which has opened to them, into the sphere of culture, primarily - into the belles-lettres.

It's necessary to say that it was only the emergence of literature embodying (or, better to say, denationalising, making it cultural) the Torah, that could persuade the Russian Jew that the Torah differs from "srafan" and "armyak", that it exists - not only in European, Christian and artistic interpretation, but in all its integrity - in the sphere of culture. But from numerous Jewish publications in Russian, I can reckon to this genre only "Pardes" by Michael Kravtsov57 and maybe a translation of the extract from the Bava Kama in the non-published book by a Moscow philosopher Sergey Dolgopolsky58, the last being in accordance with best traditions of Russian poetic nonsense (I'd prefer to think that other works of such level are just not known to me).

Maybe in future, along with the development of the system of Jewish education, within the frames of interaction of the third type, the Russian Jew will get the possibility to study the Torah as a cultural and not ideological text. But it is not like this today. And who, except a handful of Russian Jews who have betrayed themselves twice, are interested in it now? Does anybody else need the above discussed dialogue?

Russian Jews, as we have already seen, are self-sufficient in their contradictoriness and are in need neither of the Torah, unknown to them, nor of its foreign and domestic preachers.

The world Jewry, in its turn, stubbornly turns to Russia with only its ideological side, as if it has no other side, as if it is interested not in Russian Jews but just in the buffer community created by it.

Indeed, does the Jewish world need this strange Russian Jew? And is he a Jew at all? And does he have anything, which this world lacks, except just being a human unit to reinforce a certain community with?

This is how the Russian Jew lives in his Russian Egypt, separated from the world by a stormy river, which flows not with water but with heavy ideological cobble-stones, petrified remains of Jewish arguments and discussions of the last two centuries. It is too dangerous to cross this river. Wouldn't it be better to search somewhere in Ethiopia? or India? or maybe South America?

Alexander Lvov, 1996-1997
Publised in "Jewish School" #1-2, 1996, St. Petersburg.
Translated by Mikhail Malyshev


1. I received these estimations in private talks with many Jewish activists of Russia and the Ukraine.

2. I heard similar phrases from very different people actively involved in the Jewish movement. Almost always it was said casually, with obvious difficulty. The attempts of direct talk meet the resistance - "We must do our business and not philosophise" or "What can you propose concretely?"

3. Shimon Markish. Babel and others. Kiev, 1996, p. 193

4. Op.cit., p. 204. Let us note that "the specific literature" is regarded here as the evidence of the existence of the Jewry. In the same way "the Russian-Jewish literature as an accumulator of all ideological trends among the Russian Jewry" and the main source for studying Russian-Jewish culture of the past is described by historian Dmitry Elyashevich (see D. Elyashevich, Russian-Jewish press and Russian-Jewish culture // Jews in Russia: History and Culture. St. Petersburg, 1994, p. 57). The topic of the connection between the Russian Jewry and literature is very important and will be discussed further.

5. See Ezekiel 37. This image was used by r. Adin Steinzaltz for characterising the Russian Jewry when he became the spiritual rabbi of Russia.

6. Fifth annual seminar "Jewish civilisation and Jewish thought"(see Jewish school, #3-4, 1993, p. 269-277)

7. International conference "Jews of the former USSR: yesterday, today, tomorrow", St. Petersburg, June, 30- July, 3, 1996

8. See, for example, P.Bail, A Genis. The Last Mystery. Jews // Theatre, 7, 1992, p.197: "Describing an ideal Jew activists of Jewish rebirth have described an ideal person... It is possible even to find out the source, which was used as a prototype. It is a Russian intelligent."

9. Igor Peshkov. (Re)fusion of thought // Lev Vygotsky. Thought and speech. Moskow, 1996, p.377

10. Zvi Gutelman. Choosing Jewish Identities. Constructing Jewish Communities. Report at conference in St.Petersburg (see note 7)

11. Same

12. From 1989 to 1994 the loss at the expense of assimilation does not exist - this is the result of a research made and reported on by Mark Kupovetsky (report made at the conference - see note 7)

13. Dmitry Elyashevich. Russian-Jewish press and Russian-Jewish culture // Jews in Russia. History and culture. SPb, 1994, p.57. italics is mine. The said relates only, as it is obvious from the text, to the Soviet-before-the-perestroyka period, in the end of which the "Post-Soviet Jewish press" appears (see also p.66). But the same words can be said about the Russian Jewry remaining not implicated to this new press

14. That is why Shimon Markish is right in his characteristics of this phenomenon: "The main in these texts and in this polemics is that they lack originality and new thoughts and reasons and they only repeat the set of stock phrases, from blood slander and poisoned wells to the plot of Zion sages, and known for long refutations on these worn-out stock phrases. This polemics is fruitless and sterile..."(see Sh. Markish, p.205) The said relates rather not to purely anti-Semitic editions of low quality and Jewish newspapers arguing with them but to thick magazines. Articles in them, which are regarded anti-Semitic, as, for instance articles by Igor Shapharevich, cannot be reproached for, at least, lack of originality.

15. Dmitry Furman. Mass conscienceless of the Russian Jews and anti-Semitism // Free thought, 1994, 9, p. 37-38

16. Op.cit., p.41

17. Lev Anninsky. Who is more Russian than Russians themselves? // Druzhba narodov 1995, 1, p.189

18. Op.cit., p.190

19. Oleg Yuryev. More or less secret report of proceeding // Theatre, 1992, 7, p.134. (Mind the fact that the familiar wording "to be in the opposition but still to have" is here changed to a stronger one - "to be in the opposition and due to this to have").

20. Op.cit.,

21. Zvi Gitelman, op.cit

22. Op.cit

23. This phrase belongs to my friend Arye Godlin, presently - a Jewish teacher

24. Anatoly Akhutin, A big nation without a small one //Russian Idea and Anti-Semitism, Moskow, 1994, p. 94

25. Romans, 10:12

26. Anatoly Akhutin, op.cit.p.90

27. Op.cit. p. 96

28. David Samoilov. A General Diary // Iskusstvo Kino, 1992, #5, p.119

29. Ibid, pp.104-119

30. David Samoilov. Memorial Notes // Druzhba Narodov, 1993, #10, p. 218

31. Ibid, p. 216

32. Ibid

33. Ibid

34. Cited by: Mikhail Kozakov. The third calling // Znamya, 1996, #6, p. 122

35. "Why didn't the ruling influences of this nation... say: come to your senses! Stop it. Don't call yourselves as before. Don't crowd, break up. Be with everybody". B. Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago. Vol. 1, part 4, chapter 12

36. Samoilov is unlikely to know that the etymology of the Russian word "evrei" (Jew) connects it with Hebrew root "ain-beit-reish" with the meaning of "crossing", "trespass". This unwilling Midrash stresses once again that assimilationism in Samoilov's variant cannot be completed.

37. David Samoilov. A General Diary. P. 110

38. David Samoilov. Memorial Notes, p. 219

39. Ibid

40. See the above-cited article by D. Furman

41. David Samoilov. Memorial Notes, p. 215,

42. Ibid, italics - by the author

43. Ibid, italics - by the author

44. Ibid

45. David Samoilov. General diary, p. 106

46. Shimon Markish. Opp. Cit. P. 202

47. David Samoilov. General diary, p. 108

48. Ibid, p. 115

49. Lev Anninsky. Opp. Cit. P. 190

50. D. Samoilov. General diary. P. 119

51. Iibid, p. 104

52. See footnote 8

53. Mark Freidkin. Experiences. M., 1994, p. 155

54. D. Samoilov. General diary, p. 117

55. Proverbs, 9:17

56. Maybe more powerful but less realised Western influences come to Russia via communities of Russian-Jewish diasporas in Israel, the USA and Germany.

57. Targum. Jewish Heritage in the Context of the World Culture. Issue 1. Moskow, 1990, p. 130-174

58. Now the book is published: Sergey Dolgopolsky. Rhetoric of Talmud. Analysis in post-structural perspective. St. Petersburg, 1998.