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Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia, by Eugene M. Avrutin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. 232 pp. $39.95.
As the midwife of modernity, the Great War also brought about the “Collapse of the Imperial Ghetto,” as Eugene Avrutin subtitled his “Epilogue” to Jews and the Imperial State. The “ghetto,” better known as the Jewish Pale of Settlement, disintegrated with the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Russian interior in 1915. Although perceived by contemporaries as a ghetto-like entity, the Pale was not created for the purpose of keeping Jews and Gentiles apart. As correctly noted by the author, it was “to restrict Jews from migrating into the interior of the empire” (pp. 186–87). Yet, the Pale of Settlement had hardly been created by Catherine II when she granted Jewish notables permission to reside in St. Petersburg in the capacity of merchants and financiers. Thus, from its inception, the Pale was not an insurmountable barrier for Jews to migrate to the Russian heartland.
The story told by Avrutin is not a tale of the imperial state’s unceasing oppression of Russian Jews. His principal aim is to show how within the larger setting of Russian government policies aimed at ruling its multi-ethnic population, tsarist officials faced the challenges of determining “who was Jewish and where Jews were” and how Russian Jews for their part responded to these policies in the context of what were often “contradictory and highly restrictive laws and institutions” (pp. 3–4). In this vein, he addresses chapter by chapter the difficulties the imperial state encountered in identifying individual Jews through the application of modern statistical techniques. How this played itself out is a fascinating narrative where documentary records assumed a pivotal role not only in shaping the lives and identities of Jews, but also in the “eventual unraveling of the empire” (p. 3).
Avrutin’s work is solidly rooted in contemporary sources generated by Russian officialdom and petitions by Jews seeking to ameliorate their conditions. In this, he moves beyond the lachrymose historiography of earlier generations of scholars and, instead, builds on the pioneering research of the likes of Michael Stanislawski, John Klier, Benjamin Nathans, and ChaeRan Freeze. With respect to the latter two, he frames his own objectives in terms of how ordinary Jews participated to their own advantage in a legal-administrative system which, at first sight, appeared to discriminate against them. This signifies a distinct shift from conventional negative perspectives of tsarist Jewish policies to “what the law made possible” for Jews (pp. 13–14). Avrutin’s research demonstrates how the procedures by which successive imperial Russian governments sought to identify and document their Jewish subjects via passports, service and metric records, and other markers of identification, actually involved Jews in the public sphere and willy nilly forced them to participate in a process that defined their place in society.
“Making Jews Legible,” as the first chapter is titled, sets the tone of the book. It introduces the reader to the difficulties encountered by the imperial bureaucracy in counting its Jewish subjects, initially for the purpose of taxation and later military recruitment. Foreshadowing subsequent themes in the following chapters, Avrutin deals with the first comprehensive attempt under Nicholas I (1825–55) to compile more accurate population statistics through the application of modern metrical techniques. But, as Avrutin explains, applied to Jews, metrical data entry and consequently its use was compromised essentially for two reasons. First, the task of data entry and maintaining the books was delegated to crown rabbis who in many cases were either incompetent or negligent, if not corrupt in taking bribes for falsifying vital data. Secondly, their task was complicated by Jewish religious and cultural customs which in many cases precluded concise information regarding the registration of births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. Avrutin credits Nicholas’ reign with laying the foundation for subsequent developments in the second half of the nineteenth century when metrical records facilitated the movement and integration of Jews within the empire.
The Great Reforms of Nicholas’ successor Alexander II (1855–1881) greatly benefited the Jews, as it removed previous restrictions in education and access to the Russian interior for select groups of Jews, among them artisans, merchants, and post-secondary students. According to Avrutin’s insightful observations, metrical records acquired a more positive social and political significance than was the case previously when they were used primarily to count and collect taxes. In short, they became a prerequisite for Jews “to enjoy basic institutional privileges and civil rights,” and, socially, they opened up opportunities in education, professional careers and residential mobility to an unprecedented degree (pp. 53–59). However, the “power of documentation,” as Avrutin titled the chapter about the Alexandrine sea-change in improving the condition and legal standing of Jews, could also assume grotesque forms of mistaken identity because of poor record keeping and the rendering of Hebrew names into Russian—so much so that a whole chapter is dedicated to “The Jewish Name.” At times, this assumed hilarious Gogolesque proportions that provided rich material for some of Sholem Aleichem’s satirical stories, such as the nightmarish case where a rabbi had failed to record the date of death of Reb Yosl’s son. Consequently, the “dead soul” remained alive as far as the authorities were concerned. Yet, “dead souls,” mistaken identities, multiple names, and their mistranslations aside, Jews themselves, according to Avrutin, came to rely on the “[metrical] document as a ticket for the participation in imperial social order,” and readily petitioned the government to correct faulty personal data (p. 85).
What Avrutin demonstrates in this slim, but densely written, book is that Russian Jews were both beneficiaries and victims of the Russian imperial state’s policies of identifying and managing its multi-ethnic populations through the application of modern statistical means and individualized documentary record-keeping of its subjects. He objectively highlights the degree to which Jews were disadvantaged by contradictory—if not schizophrenic—policies and regulations, which compelled some to break the law and others to resort to illegal means of identity fraud, fictitious marriages, multiple names and residences, forged passports, faked baptisms, et cetera. Yet many Jews petitioned the authorities to rectify what was lawfully their right of residence, professional status, correction of faulty data, and mistranslations of their names into Russian. These issues are topically discussed in Chapters Two to Five and refreshingly introduced in the form of biographical sketches.
Ultimately, as Avrutin convincingly demonstrates, imperial Russia’s application of modern “knowledge-based technologies” to count and classify its population in general and the Jews in particular was compromised by its inability to modernize politically. The legal-administrative order and the retention of exclusive policies vis-à-vis the Jews, foremost their porous containment in permanent places of residence, proved to be an insurmountable impediment for accurately documenting its Jews. In fact, the forces of social and economic modernization described by Avrutin in “Movement and Residence” (Chapter Three), contributed to this insuperability. Thus, the mutating forces of modernity without corresponding political changes not only undermined imperial “identification politics,” but also destroyed the empire itself. Avrutin is to be congratulated for telling this story in the form of a meticulously researched and referenced study. Although stylistically the book would have benefited from a more thorough editing of its, at times, wordy language and avoidable repetitions, it remains an outstanding contribution to Russian-Jewish history.
Wilfrid Laurier University