- The Jewish Century
In Isaac Babel's unfinished novel The Jewess Boris Erlich ponders his role in the creation of a new socialist society in the Soviet Union: "[He] showed her Russia with so much pride and confidence, as if he, Boris Erlich, had himself created Russia, as if he owned it. And to some extent, he did. There was in everything a drop of his soul or of his blood. . . ." (p. 266). A similar sentiment lies at the heart of Yuri Slezkine's masterful and provocative book in which he boldly declares that the "modern age is the Jewish Age" and modernization is "about everyone becoming Jewish" (p. 1). All the defining "isms" of the modern age—capitalism, Freudianism, Marxism, nationalism, antisemitism, [End Page 347] totalitarianism—were intimately linked to Jews who served as their symbols, theoreticians, practitioners, and victims. While Jews no doubt figured prominently in these historical developments, such a sweeping declaration risks sounding as myopic as Boris Erlich's proclamation that the Soviet Union was in large measure his creation. At the same time, Slezkine's grand thesis has challenged scholars to rethink not only the modern Jewish experience but the meaning and implications of "modernity" itself.
According to Slezkine, Jews were Europe's service nomads (Mercurians) par excellence. Their transient life and vulnerability fostered the very characteristics and mentality that defined modernity—that is, to be "mobile, clever, articulate, occupationally flexible and good atbeing a stranger" (p. 30). During the Modern Age, Europeans (or Apollonians) imitated the Jews at being modern through urbanization, pursuit of wealth and learning, and engagement in traditional Mercurian professions such as law, medicine, science, and journal-ism. These Apollonians also adapted the primordial Jewish tendency toward clannishness or tribalism into their own version of nationalism or communism, which stressed common descent or destiny. Traditional Jewish collective identity and solidarity then became a model of good citizenship in the modern state. Slezkine's primary test case is his own place of origin, the Soviet Union, home to some 3.02 million Jews in 1939. Critical of the American-centric and Zionist historiography that stresses the New World or Palestine as the only successful solutions to the Jewish predicament in Europe, he argues that life in Soviet Russia was just as viable, if not a more significant option. This third "Jewish utopia" emerged as Jews migrated from the former Pale of Settlement to the Russian interior—to the proud capitals of Moscow and Leningrad. The socialist experiment allowed these ready-made Mercurians to seize the opportunities offered by a new modern, secular society. As Slezkine puts it: "No ethnic group was as good at being Soviet." As a result, he contends, Jews comprised a disproportionate figure in key positions of the Communist Party, Red Army, secret police, and other Soviet institutions. The Bolshevik solution to the problem of overrepresentation was to transform Jews into a normal nationality or to provide "the Mercurian head with an Apollonian body" (p. 246). The policy of korenizatsiia (nativization) in the 1920s and early 1930s, which promoted ethnic culture and autonomy, allowed Yiddish (but not Hebrew) culture to flourish. Slezkine traces this nationalization of ethnic Jews and "ethnicization of the Soviet state" to explain the parting of ways between the two, the rise of antisemitism, and the eventual death of communism. Born as one, the [End Page 348] author contends, the Russian and Jewish Revolutions died the same way: "together" (p. 331).
Naturally, one cannot help but admire Slezkine's breathtaking conceptualization of modernity. Viewed aesthetically, the arguments and literary texts flow seamlessly from one context to another. But on closer inspection, the very universality of the Eternal Jew that allows the metaphor to work is fundamentally problematic. Indeed, one of the critical questions spawned by the modern age has been "Who is a Jew?" While Slezkine is adverse to accepting the self-description of historical players (i.e., Trotsky's assertion that he was not Jewish but rather a Social Democrat), he does not oppugn his own (essentially Soviet) definition that includes all...