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  • The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
  • Alexis HOFMEISTER (bio)
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009). 344pp., ills. Selected Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-0-300-13731-6.

It is an unequaled advantage of historical biographies that they allow for insights into historical constellations that seem impossible to imagine by the standards of conventional wisdom. Since the life of individuals provides material that defies easy interpretation, it is a particularly valuable tool in the hands of the historian who wants to transcend the hitherto accepted boundaries of historical models of social change and historical necessity.1 In his introduction to The AntiImperial Choice, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern declares that he wants to bring down the long-established paradigm of the special relationship between Polish Jews and the imperial crown. This paradigm was held to be true for all of their successors, who followed their example after the partitions of Poland-Lithuania, whether in Habsburg, Prussian, or Russian garb. The main body of the book narrates the biographies of five Ukrainian Jews in the short twentieth century. The five chapters dedicated to the lives of these littleknown poets of Jewish origin are framed by a short introduction and a short epilogue. What holds these life stories together is the idea that there must have been traces of an anti-imperial, or at least anticentralist or federalist and, more important, anticolonialist tradition among East European Jews. One can discern in this idea the very opposite of Yuri Slezkine’s outline of the twentieth century, which he called a “Jewish century,” in which the Jews were the reckless conquistadores of the modern world, the Mercurians of our age.2 If, as Petrovsky-Shtern hopes, there were protagonists of modern Jewish history that could without doubt be labeled anti-imperial and anticolonial, the history of the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust as well as the history of Zionism have to be rewritten. The five protagonists of modern Jewish and Ukrainian history in whom Petrovsky-Shtern is interested were all born and lived an important part of their lives in the territory of contemporary Ukraine; they all expressed themselves in Ukrainian for at least part of their literary careers. But as the author writes: “for them the Ukrainian language [End Page 562] was not only a medium of literary discourse but also an object of anticolonialist reflection” (P. 22). For Petrovsky-Shtern anti-imperial and anticolonial thought are not different historical attitudes toward different historical contexts, since the Russian ancient regime and the Soviet Union to him are merely two sides of the same coin, because in both cases: “one could not simultaneously sympathize with Ukrainian strivings for independence and approve of an all-Russian patronizing attitude towards the Ukrainian little brother” (P. 12).

It is a pity that Petrovsky-Shtern does not elaborate on the concept of “Imperial Biography.” Even if this term has different reverberations in British imperial history and the history of imperial Russia, it has been used in both fields to acknowledge the importance of the bureaucratic elites for the functioning of political and cultural communication in both empires. Without communication between the center and the periphery – often in the form of face-to-facecommunication – the diversity of the heterogeneous spaces of empire could not be controlled. Individuals in the service of empire were often more than simply diplomats of the inner diversities of imperial spaces. They were the avant-garde of cultural transfer – kulturtregerstvo (the activity of being a bearer of culture), which is not by chance a Russian word borrowed from the German. Even if the Russian state by and large antagonized its Jewish population, there were individuals who functioned as a substitute for the often lacking bourgeois elite in the Western provinces. The Soviet state after 1917 allowed for much more social mobility and it used the abilities of the Jews for its own goals. It should nevertheless be emphasized that Petrovsky-Shtern is not proposing that the Jewish population of Russia was of a generally anti-imperial or anticolonial persuasion – he is speaking only of...


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