- The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew
One hears often of the "Russian Jew," the "German Jew," and the "Polish Jew." But "Ukrainian Jew" is far less common. This is precisely the point of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern's new book: while historians have traditionally depicted Jews as assimilating toward dominant, even "imperial" cultures, some Jews did make - to use Petrovsky-Shtern's phrase - the "anti-imperial choice" by taking on Ukrainian culture (or, for example, Slovak over Magyar or Polish over German or Russian culture). Readers familiar with this young but already well-known scholar's acclaimed earlier book, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), may be surprised at what appears to be a quite new departure. In fact, judging from the preface to the work under review here, the two books are much closer than may initially appear: "This book advances an alternative vision of the Jewish encounter with modernity" (1). Petrovsky-Shtern does not deny that the choice to adopt Ukrainian (over Russian or Polish) culture was exceptional but he argues strongly that it was a significant and even admirable choice that deserves closer study. Whether or not one accepts the author's central thesis, this erudite and well-written study deserves close reading by anyone interested in Ukrainian history or the Jewish experience in modern Eastern Europe.
Petrovsky-Shtern's approach to his topic is straight-forward: he selected five writers, figures all Jewish by birth and (with the normal complications) identity and all more or less important for Ukrainian culture. To each of these figures he devotes a chapter placing their "decision" in historical context and describing their importance to Jewish and Ukrainian culture and history. The author uses a number of archives in his researches but, unlike his first book, this work draws mostly on published sources; one might even describe it as a literary history.
It is likely that none of Petrovsky-Shtern's "heroes" will be familiar even to specialists in Eastern European Jewish history (but again, that is part of his point). Chapter 1 is devoted to Hryts'ko Kernerenko (Grigorii Kerner), born in 1863 to relatively affluent and apparently acculturated (to Russian) parents in Ekaterinoslav province. Kernerenko published five books in Ukrainian and while some of his poetry lived on in anthologies published as late as the 1920s, his name was almost entirely forgotten in the Soviet period. While Kernerenko's works have experienced something of a revival since the 1990s, his main significance for this book is to indicate the possibility of a Jewish writer taking the "Ukrainian turn" in a period when even publishing in that language (in the Russian Empire, in any case) was nearly impossible. [End Page 100]
All four of the other writers that figure here came to age in the Soviet period. Ivan Kulyk (1897-1937) represented the first generation of enthusiastic Jewish communists - with the twist that Kulyk's enthusiasm for world revolution went in tandem with a great love for Ukraine, its land and culture. Like many other Ukrainians and Jews, communists or otherwise, Kulyk spent some years as a young man in the new world, writing enthusiastically of a "Volhynia guerilla" aiding to liberate British Columbia and even bringing Jewish-Ukrainian Odessa culture to "pedantic Halifax" (79). Kulyk's works, not unusually for the time as Kenneth Moss's Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2009) has shown, brought together internationalism, Jewish identity, and a passion for the Bolshevik revolution. Unlike most of Moss's heroes, however, Kulyk embraced Ukrainian culture and patriotism and - like so many other Ukrainian communists and patriots, the system he embraced devoured him.
Raisa Troianker, a bit over a decade younger than Kulyk, began life in Ukraine, ended it in Murmansk above the Arctic Circle, and in between wrote poetry (initially in Ukrainian but after the age of twenty-one, when she moved to Leningrad, in Russian), earning a place in the Ukrainian cultural...