- Book Review Index
Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859–1914, by Natan M. Meir. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. 424 pp. $27.95.
In the twenty years since the collapse of communism and the opening of previously secret Soviet archives new scholarly works on Russian and Eastern European Jewish History have appeared based on original documentary research. Among them are monographs by Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia; John Klier, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–81; Jeffrey Veidlinger, Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (The Modern Jewish Experience); Henry Abramson, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920; and the book under review, by Natan M. Meir.
Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: a History, 1859-1914 is the first monograph on the history of the Kiev Jewish community from its reestablishment in 1859 to the beginning of World War I. Jews have lived in Kiev for over a thousand years, although this history was interrupted many times when Jews were expelled from Kiev by various rulers. The most recent expulsion of Jews from Kiev was ordered by Tsar Nicholas I in 1835. Under the rule of the more liberal Alexander II some categories of Jews were allowed to settle in the city, which remained exempt from the Pale of Settlements until the February 1917 revolution. In 1859, the right of residence in Kiev was granted to merchants of the first guild. This right was expanded in the 1860s to merchants of the second guild, artisans, retired soldiers, students of gymnasiums and universities, and Jews with higher education. As shown in Meir’s monograph, the Jewish population, including both legal and illegal Jewish residents, grew rapidly. Kiev always was very attractive for Jews as the only large city in the southwestern region of the Russian Empire, where life was more dynamic and rich, with more opportunities for business and education and better living conditions than in the small shtetls where the vast majority of the Jewish population lived in abject poverty. However, Jews were not unique in their desire to live in the city, as in 1874 three quarters of the population of Kiev were newcomers.
Local and imperial authorities and the gentile inhabitants of Kiev did not welcome such a rapid increase in the Jewish population. The authorities tried to reduce the number of Jews in the city by periodic expulsions of illegal Jewish residents. Kiev police often made night raids of Jewish houses and apartments searching for illegal Jewish residents, arresting and expelling them from the city in chains along with common criminals. Meir often cites Sholem Aleichem’s accounts of Kiev Jewish life, as this prominent Yiddish writer lived in the city for over a decade and knew quite well from his own experience what it meant to be a Jew in Kiev.
Meir shows that Kiev had a very special place in the Russian mentality as the “Jerusalem of Russia” because it contained important pilgrimage sites for Russian Orthodox Christians. Religious intolerance and economic competition bred a strong hatred of Jews among a significant part of the Kiev gentile population. This hatred reached its peak in two anti-Jewish pogroms in the city in 1881 and 1905. Meir also discusses the infamous blood libel trial of Mendel Beilis, organized by the tsarist authorities in Kiev in 1911–1913 with the purpose of discrediting all of Russian Jewry. Even though Beilis was acquitted, the jury still asserted that the killing of the Christian boy had a ritual character.
Kiev, Jewish Metropolis also reveals the bitter struggle for leadership inside the Kiev Jewish community. For many years the leadership belonged to the Brodsky family, prominent sugar industrialists and philanthropists. However, during the First Russian Revolution, the democratization movement spread to Jewish community structures and organizations, whose boards were now elected from wider strata of Jewish society, including artisans. Meir’s work introduces various Kiev Jewish leaders, such as the Vice President of the Kiev Jewish Community and prominent Zionist leader, Max Mandel’shtam; Rabbis Evsei Tsukkerman and Solomon Lurie; and depicts the cultural and religious life of Kiev Jewry in significant detail. The book also provides valuable information about Jewish education, the Yiddish press and the acculturation of Jews in Kiev.
It seems to me that Meir is overly critical of some wealthy Kiev Jewish leaders, repeatedly calling them “plutocrats.” Yet the Brodsky family, for example, did much for the Jewish community and the entire city. Two synagogues, the Jewish Artisan School, the Kiev Jewish Hospital, the Bessarabsky market, the Kiev Polytechnic and Bacteriological Institutes and other public buildings were built on the money of this family. The Brodskys, as leaders of the Jewish community, always vigorously defended the interests of the entire Jewish population and several times prevented expulsions of Jews from the city. The term “plutocrats” was often used by the Socialist and anti-Semitic press in reference to wealthy Jews in the early twentieth century, with obviously a very negative connotation. But considering the great contribution of Jewish industrialists and philanthropists to the development of the city and Jewish communal structures it is very difficult to accept this term.
Meir’s work would have benefited from greater attention to the overall historiography of Kiev. Works of Imperial Russian and contemporary Ukrainian historians could have been used to better describe the history of Kiev Jews in a wider context. One very significant political event, which shook not only Kiev Jewry, but the entire Russian Empire, the assassination of Prime Minister of Russia Peter Stolypin by the Jewish revolutionary and police agent Dmitry Bogrov, is barely mentioned in Meir’s text.
Kiev, Jewish Metropolis focuses mainly on Jewish communal institutions, philanthropy, Jewish religion, education and culture, as well as antisemitism and the persecutions of Jews in the city and Meir describes these topics very well in his monograph. The book is based on extensive documentary research performed in many archives in Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and the U.S., and provides many interesting illustrations and maps. Without any doubt this is a very important first monograph on the history of Jews in Kiev, which reveals many new aspects of Jewish life in the city and in the Tsarist Empire, and brings one of largest Jewish communities in Russia into the scholarly orbit.
Department of History