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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 667-674

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Oleg Vital´evich Budnitskii, Rossiiskie evrei mezhdu krasnymi i belymi, 1917–1920 [Russian Jews between Reds and Whites, 1917–1920]. 552 pp. Moscow: Rosspen, 2005. ISBN 5824306664.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the "Jewish century" in Yuri Slezkine's formulation, Russia and Romania remained the only European states that still limited the rights of their Jewish citizens.1 As Benjamin Nathans has recently reminded us, however, Jews in late imperial Russia faced both prejudices and novel opportunities.2 Be that as it may, discrimination drove Jews to seek their fortunes abroad whenever possible, to long for a homeland of their own, and/or to join the ranks of the revolutionary parties, becoming well-, even over-represented, among those arrested on political charges. The statistics do not say it all but make a compelling point: in the middle of the 19th century, approximately three-quarters of the world's Jewish population resided in tsarist Russia. Between Alexander III's accession to the throne in 1881 and the start of World War I, roughly two million of them abandoned the country. The vast majority of them immigrated to the United States. Well before 1917, the public expected Jews to participate actively in any future revolutionary explosion, because they had compelling reason to do so.

The association the Russian public made with Jews and the revolutionary movement ("11 anarchists were shot, 15 of whom were Jews") led to a growth in official and popular antisemitism in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1904–6. Indeed, when World War I broke out, the tsarist government expelled Jews scattered throughout the western borderlands. Despite its suspicion of them, the government drafted a half-million Jews into the Imperial Army, but it would not permit them to serve as officers. In 1915, Petrograd authorities ordered newspapers not to print the names of Jewish war heroes. By the time revolution came in 1917, the self-fulfilling prophecy had come true: most Jews backed Zionist or revolutionary parties (or hybrid combinations thereof). Yet, far from homogeneous, Russian Jews could be found in the central committees of virtually all political parties. The issues that divided Russians divided them, too. [End Page 667]

My knowledge of the role of Russia's Jews in a country sundered by war, revolution, and internecine strife heretofore remained incidental, undoubtedly owing in part to the marginalization of the topic for so long in Soviet historiography. I had read several general studies of Russia's Jews; biographies of socialists of Jewish origin; accounts of Jews during the Revolution found in general histories and in monographs devoted to political parties and to workers; and Isaak Babel´'s haunting images of Russian popular antisemitism in Red Cavalry. My own research on Saratov province deepened my familiarity with the role of Jews within the revolutionary movement, of Jewish political parties, and especially of antisemitism at the local level, both among ordinary people and among the intelligentsia.3 But it also raised questions, because I had not yet encountered an up-to-date attempt to draw together all these separate strands—and others—into a narrative that both sheds light on the Russian Revolution and Civil War through the prism of the "Jewish question" and suggests problems in need of further investigation. For this reason alone, I benefited considerably from reading Oleg Budnitskii's Rossiiskie evrei mezhdu krasnymi i belymi, which is based on three underlying assumptions: (1) it is necessary to stop viewing the Jews only as victims ("in this tragedy, Jews were among the victims and among the executioners" [8]); (2) the Jewish question must be considered within the broader historiography of the Russian Revolution and Civil War; and (3) the relations between Jewish and White leaders, far more complex than the historical literature has acknowledged, must be traced from the very start of the Civil War.4 In addressing these concerns, the author demonstrates an appreciation for the ironic...


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