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  • Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia
  • Jarrod Tanny
Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia. By Eugene M. Avrutin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010. 232 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

What's in a name? A great deal, for the Jews of nineteenth-century tsarist Russia, as Eugene M. Avrutin demonstrates in Jews and the Imperial State. When Americans today consider the process of name acquisition, Ellis Island usually comes to mind, where the impoverished masses of Eastern European immigrants anglicized their Old World monikers as a pragmatic step toward integration and as a symbolic act of embracing their new society. But in nineteenth-century Russia the practice of name ascription served other, more critical purposes, and, as Avrutin argues, it was an important tool for the Romanov government to regulate and define its ethnically diverse subjects. For the tsarist autocracy, documenting and controlling Jewish identity was an aspect of population management, part of a larger process of policing Russia, a massive empire that was becoming ungovernable, hovering over the precipice of uncontainable social rebellion and political revolution.

The question of "who is a Jew" has been central to modern history, particularly after emancipation in Western and Central Europe eliminated the constraints that had impeded Jewish political participation and social mobility. It has for long been assumed that such a question was not an issue in tsarist Russia, where the autocracy kept its Jewish subjects "a people apart" through highly restrictive legislation and confinement to the Pale of Settlement. The Jews were juridically defined as "Jews" and this should have enabled the government to know who was Jewish; the state should have been able to easily track their movements and monitor their activities, which were seen by many in officialdom as economically corrupt and politically suspect.

Yet this was not so. Notwithstanding the plethora of legislation passed, Russia's government found it well-nigh impossible to accurately and transparently document its Jewish population. "At a time when the imperial Russian state placed increasing trust in the power of paper to govern its vast territories and communities," Avrutin maintains, "Jews appeared invisible in the public eye by continually defying conventional criteria of administrative classification" (p. 3). Consequently, the Russian officials charged with administering Jewish affairs exerted considerable effort to "make the Jews legible," as Avrutin puts it. What followed were decades of data collection, debate, legislative revision, and convoluted relations between the imperial state and its Jews, with the former struggling to preserve stability, and the latter trying to negotiate greater economic rights and the freedom of movement they craved. [End Page 221]

"Making Jews legible," was an issue in Russia right from the outset. Russia inherited a large and densely packed Jewish population at the end of the eighteenth century, when it colluded with Prussia and Austria to partition and annex Poland, then home to the world's largest Jewish community. Speaking Yiddish, dressing distinctively, and living by the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, Poland's Jews were easy to distinguish from their Christian neighbors. Because Russia was a repressive autocratic state that controlled millions of serfs and numerous ethno-cultural minority groups, its rulers believed that stability and security necessitated the regulation of Jewish movement. The Pale of Settlement, whose boundaries largely corresponded with those of Russia's Polish territories, came into being, and the majority of Russia's Jews were forced to live within its limits. Yet it became clear that the Jews of the Pale were not adequately documented: census data was incomplete, metrical books recording vital statistics were error-ridden, and tracking Jews by their names was of little help to officialdom, because Jewish nomenclature followed a system dictated by Judaic ritual, not the practices of a modernizing European bureaucracy. Knowing who was who, Avrutin argues, befuddled a regime that yearned for statistical transparency.

Jewish illegibility worsened as the nineteenth century wore on. The midcentury reforms of Tsar Alexander II followed by the beginnings of industrialization meant greater mobility for Russia's diverse ethnic minorities and a newly emancipated peasantry. Certain categories of Jews—in part determined by profession, military service, and education—were allowed to...


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