Yuri Slezkine – Conversations with History

Yuri Slezkine – Conversations with History


(electronic music) – Welcome to a Conversation with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Yuri Slezkine, who is professor of
history at UC Berkeley, and director of its Institute
for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. His most recent book
is The Jewish Century. Yuri, welcome to our program. – Thank you. – Where were you born and raised? – Moscow, Russia. – And looking back, how
do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world? – That’s a really big question. Well, they were against the regime, so I grew up anti-Soviet. So that’s the main contribution, I guess, to my political upbringing. – And was it a very political household that you lived in with your parents? – Yes, there were a lot of
conversations about politics. – And for quite a while, you
didn’t know you were Jewish, but one day you found
out a neighborhood girl who you, I guess, were
interested in was Jewish, and what did your father tell you? – Well, it actually was a boy, and I found out that he was
Jewish, and I told my father. I don’t remember how old I was, but anyway, I told my father,
did you know that so-and-so from apartment 15 was Jewish? And so my father turned to me and said, let me tell you something. – So after he told you, which I guess was that
you had Jewish ancestors. – On my mother’s side. He himself is not Jewish, but he told me, well, I’ll tell you
something about your mother. It was quite a blow. – In what sense? – Well, because it
wasn’t cool to be Jewish. – I see. (laughs) I see. And after that, how did that reorient you, finding out that you were Jewish? Was it something you kept inside or did your political ideas get influenced by that Jewish identity? – Well, the two influenced each other, because being Jewish, since it
was not a religious identity, and it was cultural in a
certain peculiar sense. So it was political to a great degree, and so being Jewish, at least in Moscow among
the intelligentsia, it meant being anti-Soviet. And so the two sort of
reinforced each other, that being anti-Soviet
meant, not automatically, but did mean in many contexts
that you were probably Jewish, and being Jewish meant
in a lot of contexts that you were probably anti-Soviet. Again, it wasn’t 100% guarantee,
but it was likely enough. – What year would this have
been when you discovered that you had Jewish ancestry? – In the mid-60s, I would guess. Early to mid-60s. – Right, so really at the
height of the Cold War? – Yes, although, again, the
Cold War is an American concept, not really a Russian one. – In what sense? – At the time, we didn’t
really refer to it as the Cold War.
– Cold War. – Or Cold War era. Now it’s used in Russia
to refer to that period, but at the time, Cold War was something that was associated with
Western terminology. – And so, let’s talk a little
about your Soviet identity, as a citizen of the Soviet Union. You said you were anti-Soviet, but help us understand
exactly what that means. Was it Communism or was
it the Soviet regime that was the thing that you didn’t like? – Well, both. The idea was that the idea of
Communism was a utopian one and perhaps an undesirable one, and that the regime based on
that idea was illegitimate. So it was both. It was being anti-Communist in principle and being anti-Soviet in
that the regime was seen as illegitimate. – Did you have an identity as a Russian? – I suppose so. But, you know, when you live in Russia, it’s a default identity, really. It didn’t mean as much
to then as it does now. Now I strongly identify with Russia. At the time, since everyone did, but it was also an
ideology to some extent, in that clearly I was taught,
as a matter of principle, to love the Russian language
and Russian literature, and as I actually tried
to write in the book, this love of the Russian
language and literature is a kind of secular religion in the Soviet Union, was
and still is in Russia. – In your article about
Russian Soviet nationalism or nationalism within the Soviet Union, there was a few sentences there. We’ll talk later about that article, but you wrote, “Every
Soviet citizen was born “into a certain nationality,
took it to daycare, “and through high school, “had it officially
confirmed at the age of 16, “and then carried it to the grave “through thousands of
application forms, certificates, “questionnaires, and reception desks. “It made a difference in school admissions “and it could be crucial
in employment, promotions, “and draft assignments.” So you’re describing a world
that you knew pretty well, I guess.
– Absolutely. – And so as a Jew, as a
person of Jewish ancestry, it’s a better way to
say that, you basically would put your Jewish identity, or not, or would it be a Russian identity? What were you in the context that this– – In my own mind, and indeed, there was, according to the prevailing
Soviet terminology, I was a half-breed, (Harry laughs) and I would refer to myself
when asked in conversation, by friends and so on, I’d
say I am half and half, half Jewish, half Russian. Because, again, Jewishness
was an ethnic category in the Soviet Union. It had to do with your
blood, not your convictions, or whatever religion. But I was, I guess, unprincipled enough to put down Russian in
all my official paperwork, because, obviously, it made it much easier to get into college and
to avoid being ridiculed and that sort of thing. Again, it wasn’t really
being unprincipled, because certainly when I was young and I didn’t really think
of myself as Jewish. I just knew that my mother
had a Jewish background. – So then tell us a little
about your education in the Soviet Union. What did you study? What were your interests? – Well, I was interested in history, but I studied literature. I was interested in literature as well, but history departments
were heavily ideological with a lot of time devoted to
the study of Marxist Leninism. So studying literature
seemed to be a better option. So I studied. I went to Moscow University, to the so-called philology department, where I studied
linguistics and literature. But I was always interested in history and so when I came over here,
I went to graduate school in the department of history. – And before you came
here to do graduate work at the University of Texas,
you did some traveling. Tell us a little about that because I think you mention in your book that it sensitized you
to some of the issues that you became interested in over time. You were in Mozambique.
– Right. – And that was after
your degree in Moscow, and before you came here. – Right, so I was there for
a year, and then I went back. – [Harry] Were you teaching? – No, I was an interpreter. – [Harry] Interpreter, okay. – Portuguese, Russian interpreter, and then I went back to Russia, worked for about a year and a half there in a publishing house,
and then I immigrated and I left for Portugal
where I lived for a year, and so I first came to this country as a Portuguese graduate student. – With a Portuguese passport? So you have multiple identities? – [Yuri] I do. (laughing) – Which makes you flexible
and also will be an insight when we talk about your work in a minute. And when did you come to
the University of Texas? What year? – It was in January 1983. – Okay, 1983. Before the Soviet Union collapsed. How did the collapse of the Soviet Union affect your thinking? – Well, it made me feel different about my home country. I mean, it made me feel different
about a number of things. Obviously, it’s not every
day that the country where you were born
disappears from the map. It forced me to think of Soviet history in different ways, I guess, but most important for
me, it made me realize that I had immigrated
from the Soviet Union, not really from Russia. So I identified more, I guess,
strongly with Russia today than I did before the
Soviet Union collapsed. So now that the regime, in
other words, is not in the way, it’s kind of easier to be Russian. – So in what ways was this disorienting? Or was it less disorienting
and giving you more a sense of who you were? – It was exhilarating and exciting. I felt bad I was here
during the events of 1991, the attempted coup d’etat,
the fall of the Soviet Union, the rallies, the demonstrations, the anticipation, the change. I started going back. I went back for the first
time in ’89, I think. – After the fall? – Right.
– Yeah. – Well, it was the Soviet
Union, it still existed, but the regime that I
had sort of grown up with was no longer there for
all practical purposes. So there was freedom of expression. There was street demonstrations. There were all kinds of
articles in newspapers. So it was a very exciting time to go back. – Before we talk about your book, let’s talk a little about doing history. What do you think are the important skills for students to have if they
wanted to pursue a career in Russian history? My sense is that, for you,
literature is very important in understanding what’s going on. – You mean Russian literature? Russian history specifically, as opposed to history in general. I think obviously you have
to know the language, right? In addition to being curious. And I think it’s true of
the study of any culture that you should know the
language and the culture. It may even be true of Russia because of this intense cult of literature in Russian society, and the
frequency with which people use quotations from poetry in their speech, in their writings. So if you want to
understand those nuances, then you better read a lot of literature. – Now let’s talk a little about your book, and I will show it to our audience again, The Jewish Century. It’s a very complex book with many themes and I wanna pursue some
of the important themes, and one is, in your first chapter, you place the Jewish people
in the context, really, of other people, similar
social and functional roles. Now I think you mention that
you were sensitized to this because of your trip to Mozambique. You saw the Indians there and their role. Talk a little about that, and then let’s talk a
little about your argument, seeing the Jews as what
you call Mercurians, as opposed to Apollonians. – Yeah, it’s not a very
particular regional observation, because the Indians are known,
or some people call them, the Jews of East Africa. But it was striking to me
when I was in East Africa to see Indians perform pretty
much the same functions as Jews had in Central Europe
and the Russian Empire. And not only perform the same functions, but being perceived in the same way, feared, disliked, admired in
pretty much the same terms. Moreover, I didn’t know
many Indians in Mozambique, but I knew some and my sense at the time was that they viewed their
neighbors, clients, customers, in ways that were similar
to the way the Russian Jews had viewed their Persian,
Ukrainian, Belarussian, Lithuanian neighbors. And so it just sort of struck me how similar their situations, and in some way, identities were, and made me curious about this
as a comparative phenomenon. – You conceptualize this status and role and name it after the
gods, the god Mercury. So explain what a Mercurian
is, in your terms, a concept which you apply both to the Jews and to the Indians and
other peoples, actually. – Well, what I argue is that
in traditional societies, and I do not, in this context, talk about industrial, post-industrial societies, but in so-called traditional societies, one could divide societies into two basic categories, food producers and service providers. Obviously, there are service
providers within any society, but what I find interesting is that there were whole ethnic groups, demographically complete societies that did not engage in food production, and specialized in providing services to the surrounding food
producing population. And those communities,
again, those ethnic groups that specialized exclusively
in the provision of services, I call Mercurians after the
god of commerce and trade and the god of messengers,
guides, healers, all kinds of border
crossers and go-betweens. – And what are their characteristics? – Well, they are strangers
by vocation, by trade, by definition. They have to be strangers in
order to perform their function and they can perform their function because they’re strangers. So in order to remain
strangers, they have to do certain things or be a certain way, behave in a certain way, and so it is true of most Mercurians, of most ethnic groups who do these things, that they tend to speak a
language that is foreign to the surrounding population. They either bring such
a language with them, or they invent one. They tend to have fairly
rigid dietary taboos. They do not share meals
with their clients. They tend to be endogamous. They do not share wives
with their clients, and if you don’t share wives
and meals with your neighbors, you clearly are going to
be a radical stranger. That is one way not to engage with others, not to be able to accept hospitality, or indeed to offer hospitality. They are, again by definition,
transients, wanderers, travelers, and that is true
not only of nomadic groups, but even of settled groups
such as Eastern European Jews who think of themselves as exiles, who may live in one place
for hundreds of years, but are committed to the idea that they are not from around here, that they belong somewhere else. And they tend to present
themselves in a way that would be sort of a
mirror image to the way they understand their hosts to be. Men usually pointedly nonbelligerent, so, again, not fighting is
a good way not to engage in cross-cultural interaction. The women, on the other hand,
are perceived as aggressive, and sometimes, therefore,
attractive, and so on. So they share certain traits. – [Harry] These groups? – All of those groups, right, and they tend to view their
clients and customers and hosts, however you call them, in similar ways, and
they tend to be perceived by those groups in similar ways, and I think it’s true of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and Indians in Africa, and the Lebanese in West Africa, or, indeed, in South America,
and all sorts of other groups, in the Middle East, in particular. – Now distinguish the Mercurians. Briefly tell us a little
about the other main category, which is identified with the god Apollo. – Well, Apollonian,
again, Apollo was the god of both livestock and agriculture. So Apollonian societies,
the way I use the term, are societies that are organized
around food production, that can feed themselves, societies that consist
in the traditional era, that used to consist mostly of peasants and various combinations
of warriors and priests who expropriate peasant labor
by controlling the access to land or salvation. But essentially those are societies whose origins are in
the production of food, or a particular way of producing food. Usually traditional
ethnographers distinguish between hunting-gathering, agricultural, and pastoral societies. And so what I am proposing is
that we add another category that was another way of making a living, that was actually quite
traditional and fairly common, this way that can be known as Jewish, or, if you will, Armenian, but it is an old way of
life, way of making a living, to specialize exclusively in
the provision of services. – You were talking again
about the Mercurian– – Right, sort of
juxtaposing the Apollonians and the Mercurians. – Now your hypothesis here really offers an important insight into
the roots of anti-Semitism. Talk a little about that. And not just anti-Semitism, the riots against Chinese
communities in Southeast Asia and so on and so forth. It sort of follows almost from
what you’re proposing, right? – Right, so the idea is that
there is really nothing unique about anti-Semitism. There may be something
unique about particular forms of anti-Semitism, but this particular dislike of the Jews is comparable and, indeed, very similar to the dislike of the overseas
Chinese in Southeast Asia or Indonesia, of the
Indians in East Africa, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire,
in what is now Azerbaijan, and so on and so forth. – Now the next important
element in the equation that you’re proposing is
really the extent to which Mercurians, and in
particular, the Jews in Europe played a central role
because of these skills, because of their social role
in positioning themselves as agents of modernity as
modernization came to Europe, changed Europe, through industrialization, through international commerce and so on. Talk a little about that because it becomes a
very important element in the story you’re telling. – Right. And again, I do not argue that
the Jews were instrumental in bringing modernity to Europe. What I am arguing is that
they were very successful at being modern because some of the things
that they had specialized in, finance, law, entrepreneurship, medicine, things that used to be dangerous, used to be viewed with suspicion,
were now in great demand, moreover, were now the
most fundamental features of modernity, those most in demand, those that would lead to
a great deal of success, prestige, and so on. And so these traditional
Jewish specialties, such as entrepreneurship, law, medicine, what would become the media, in other words, these
intermediary activities, would place them at the top, or at least in some key
positions in the modern world. And that obviously leads
to success on the one hand and to resentment on the other. – Now as a historian of Russia
and of the Soviet Union, you see the Jews as performing a very important role, bringing these skills to the aftermath of the Communist revolution. Talk a little about that, because this wasn’t the first time this had happened in Russia. In an earlier period, it had been Germans that had played an important role in the consolidation and
modernization of the tsar estate. – Right, well, the Jews
were prominent enough in some of the same spheres, banking, various forms of
entrepreneurship, law, medicine, in Imperial Russia as well, but there were various
constraints on their status, on how far they could go. And so after the revolution, with the evolution of the
so-called Pale of Settlement, of all kinds of restrictions,
residential and otherwise, they migrated en masse from
the former Pale of Settlement from where they used to live in what is now Belarussia,
Ukraine, and Lithuania primarily, to the big cities of the Soviet Union, and did exceedingly well in the
new Soviet education system. And that’s a big part of the story that I am telling in the book. What’s important to me
is not only to talk about the role of Jews in the
creation of the Soviet state, and by the way, not only
did they do very well in the Soviet education system, but they welcomed the Soviet regime more formally, so to speak, then most other groups in the Soviet Union. But, in any case, it was
important for me to point out that this was a migration, that we could talk about
this movement of Jews to Moscow, Leningrad, and other
cities of the Soviet Union in the same way we could
talk about the movement of their cousins, brothers,
sisters, at the same time to Palestine and to the United
States, among other places. – Just to pursue this point
about the Jewish impact as a result of the migration, it is also the case that
in the interwar period, and maybe even a little before, Jews assumed very important
roles in other parts of Europe, for example, Austria,
Hungary, and even Germany. – Right, right. But, again, in some of the
same spheres of activity, higher education, law,
medicine, and so on, science, journalism, entertainment. I suppose the greatest
difference was that number one, that, of course, private
entrepreneurship was outlawed in the Soviet Union, and Jews
suffered disproportionately as a result. So a very high proportion
of traders, businessmen, who were deprived of their
rights and often arrested, had their property
confiscated, were Jewish. On the other hand, I suppose
the other important difference was that in the Soviet Union, state employment was open. There was no official anti-Semitism at all in the Soviet Union. There were fairly effective
campaigns against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union in
the interwar period, and so that resulted in the fact that there was a very high
proportion of ethnic Jews. And again, we know
we’re talking about Jews as an ethnic group in this case, right? We can call them just immigrants from the Jewish Pale of Settlement, or people from Jewish homes, they were very well represented
in government positions, in the police, in the armed
forces, among generals, and so on. – And scientists, too. – And diplomats. As I’m saying, in the
science, medicine, law, that was common, right, throughout Europe, but if we look at some of the differences between the position of
Jews in the Soviet Union in that period, and the
position of Jews in Europe, the greatest differences would be the lack of this entrepreneurial
route in the Soviet Union, but on the other hand,
the openness of the state, and again, the fact that, of
course, the Russian Revolution resulted in the destruction
of the old elite, sort of gentry elite,
or ethnic German elite. They were gone. And so there was no
former pre-existing elite for these emerging young
Jews to compete with. So their success was even more spectacular than their success in
places such as Budapest or Berlin or Vienna or New York. – And now to the next chapter in the story that you’re telling, and that really is that
what Jews confronted after being the agents and
participants in modernization was the rise of a nationalism
which essentially tapped this need on the part of the people you identify with Apollo to exclude the strangers,
to turn against the groups, and in Europe, Jews were very important, that had helped bring this new era. But now the new era was encapsulated in the nationalist form. Talk a little about that. – Well, the Jews were
identified with modernity, and some of the most obvious new traits of European states, and
admired as a consequence, but also resented. In the Soviet Union, the
story was interesting in that, of course, the regime started out as a cosmopolitan internationalist regime, opposed to nationalism in principle, a regime that assumed
that a Communist future would be without ethnicity,
without tribalism. And that, of course, is
what attracted so many Jews to Communism, or at
least one of the things that attracted them to Communism, but that began to change
in the Soviet Union in the interwar period, basically
starting in the mid-1930s, and the Soviet Union began
to be identified increasingly with the Russian Empire. The regime began increasingly
to think of itself as an heir, of the Russian Empire, Russian culture, Russian sort of imperial idea, and so on. And it became associated increasingly with the Russian people
understood in ethnic terms, and particularly after the
so-called Great Terror, most of the new top
officials in the Soviet Union were newly promoted ethnic Russians of peasant and blue collar background. And so the atmosphere changed and the ideology began
slowly, but surely to change, and so all of a sudden, it turned out that this new Soviet intelligentsia, of which the regime was so proud, and Stalin, in particular, was so proud, was in some ways not Soviet
because it wasn’t Russian, because so many of them were ethnic Jews. And that became a more
or less explicit issue for both parties, for the
state, and for the former Jews who were now Soviet intellectuals
or officials, whatever, during the war, during World War II. – And the hidden secret here
was the importance of Russia and the Russian identity, which was submerged
within the Soviet identity as the policy makers were
reinforcing the ethnic identities of all the people who
were part of the Empire. – Right, well, yes. As I say, the Soviet Union
was increasingly represented as primarily Russia and
then various allied nations and quasi-states around it, and the Soviet people were represented as a fraternal group led
by the older brother, the first among equals, the Russians. And Stalin emphasized that during the war ’cause he clearly used
traditional Russian patriotism, well, Russian, actually, Christianity, as an important way to
mobilize the population, the majority of the
population for the war effort, and even more so after the war, more explicitly so after the war. One of Stalin’s most famous speeches was a toast he raised publicly after the war to the great Russian nation, which he characterized
as the glorious nation, a special nation that was responsible for
defeating the Nazis, and so on. So as a result of that, and there were other nations recognized as a part of the Soviet Union, but Jews were not. And, of course, at the same time that the Soviet state
was emphasizing the role of ethnic Russians, some
of these ethnic Jews, as a result of what the Nazis were doing, as well as a result of what
Stalin was doing and saying, were thinking of themselves
as Jews more and more, and wondering more and
more about what it meant. Because, clearly, since the
Germans singled them out from among the Soviets, and then some Soviets
began to single them out as not quite Soviet because they weren’t quite
Russians or anything else associated with the Soviet Republic. They began to wonder more and more, and, of course, that in turn
reinforced the suspicion on the part of some members of
this new ruling establishment within the Communist Party. – So the Jewish dilemma became that their great success
as cosmopolitans, in a way, now confronted different
types of nationalism or organizations that
promoted nationalism, and they were essentially
a people without a place where they could realize their
nationalism within Europe. – Right. In a world of various nationalisms, in a world of states organized around the concept of ethnicity, in a world of nation-states, they seemed to be outsiders and outcasts. In the Soviet case, it was ironic because they, in some
ways, were more loyal to the official ideology
than a lot of other people, more committed to it. And that made the dilemma all the stranger in the Soviet Union. And that’s what makes their
trajectory in the Russian case so peculiar, and that was one
of the questions that I had when I first approached this subject is sort of the riddle
of the transformation of the most Soviet and the most successful of all Soviet ethnic groups
into the most anti-Soviet and still the most successful
of all Soviet ethnic groups. The dilemma that struck
me in college, actually, when I surrounded by ethnic Jews, all of whom were members of this sort of Westernizing
anti-Soviet wing of the Soviet intelligentsia, and many of whom were the
grandchildren of Communists, and none of them at the time wondered how that transformation had occurred. ‘Cause they took their sort of anti-Soviet intelligentsia status for granted and we didn’t tend to
kinda wonder why it was so. – Now for the next chapter,
to explain what happens next, you turn to Sholem Aleichem’s
Tevye the Dairyman, which was made in America
into the musical and movie Fiddler on the Roof, and
you look at the choices of three of his daughters,
and in a way, each one of them makes a choice that actually was a choice
for the Jewish people, and that is a choice
between going to Palestine, finding at last the
homeland, going to Russia, which we’ve just talked
about and how that unraveled, and then thirdly coming
to the United States. Talk a little about those three options and how they played out. What was distinctive about America? What was distinctive about Russia? And what was distinctive about Palestine? – Well, you characterize them very well. Those three migrations, as you say, were also three ideological pilgrimages, three political, existential options, three ways of being Jewish
in the modern world, and, indeed, three ways of being
modern in the modern world. And so one was non-ethnic
liberal statehood in the United States. Another one was secular ethnic
nationalism in Palestine and the third was Communism, this hope to create a world without either capitalism or tribalism, a world that was sort of
based on the rejection of the American way on the one hand, and the Zionist way on the other, in the minds of many of
the Jews who opted for it. And so what is important
for me to emphasize is just how terribly important
the Communist route was, that the migration to Moscow
was incomparably larger than the migration to Palestine, and it was about as large as the migration from the Russian Empire to America, but it was much more politically charged. Again, this is not to say
that every participant in one of those three
migrations did it consciously and made a rational choice, but I think those migrations do reflect the three dominant positions
within the Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the time. – Now the Jewish community
in the United States, the Jewish community,
well, the Jews in Israel, and the Jews in the Soviet Union, their interaction, in a way,
played an important role in the fall of the Soviet Union in the sense that the Jewish Neocons here were influencing legislation
about immigration of the Jews from the Soviet Union, so this was a piece of the whole pressure on the Soviet Union which
led to its collapse, and the immigrants from the Soviet Union, one of their destinations was Israel, which needed more people
to balance the birth rates of the Arab population. What are your thoughts on that
interplay of these forces? This is not the only explanation of why the Soviet Union fell, but it’s a kind of a dialogue between these three communities that became very important
in shaping what happened. – Yes, it was. It’s very important, I think, to remember that the people who,
at about the same time, migrated from pretty much the same place to the United States, to
Russia, and to Palestine, that they were, in some
cases, interchange– They were the same people or
they were closely related. They would be relatives
literally in some cases or they’d be neighbors, and
some would go to New York, and some would go to Moscow, and very few would go to Palestine. And they retained, I think,
many of them retained some memory of their common origins. Certainly for the longest time, they corresponded with each other. Some people, and I have
some examples in my book, would go to one place and then to another and then to the third, and so on. Of course, many Jewish
immigrants to the United States were Communist. American Communism as an
ideology, as a movement, was largely a Russian Jewish phenomenon. There were many in Palestine
early on who sympathized with the Soviet Union. There were some Zionists in
Russia and so on and so forth. And throughout the century, they all kept sorta looking at each other, and I think in the eyes of
most Jews who immigrated from the Russian Empire, and that including parts
of Poland and so on, the Soviet option was by
far the most successful. I would say that for
the majority of the Jews in the interwar period. In the 1920s and ’30s, it
was the migrants to Moscow who had the best deal, who
were the most successful, who were associated
with the greatest hope, with this wonderful experiment,
and so on and so forth. But then, of course,
things began to change. The Six Day War, the emergence,
the creation of Israel, was a very important event, of course, and the war, the Six Day War, which played a very important role in creating a sort of new
nationalist Jewish ideology among Soviet Jews. It was at least as important
in the Soviet Union for the Soviet Jews as it was
for the American Jews here, and the turn in the United States within the Jewish
community from liberalism, in some quarters, let’s
say, to Jewish nationalism, the special relationship with Israel and a strong identification with Israel, support for Israel politically, special pride associated
with Israel, and so on. And so, of course, all those things, all three communities kept
influencing each other, and so speaking specifically of the collapse of the
Soviet Union, of course, those are not the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was an important
element in late Soviet history, and certainly in the story of Soviet Jews, that there was Israel that
presented an alternative, and helped them form
a new kind of national and nationalist identity. And then, of course, the
fact that American Jews in the 1970s, sorta late
’60s, 1970s, so many of them were turning from radicalism,
sort of 1960s radicalism, which in turn was clearly
related to genealogical to various forms of socialism
in the 1920s and ’30s, and sort of universal
liberalism, as I said, to various forms of Jewish nationalism, and a part of that, one
consequence of that, was the movement to help Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. – So in a way, we can say that
the American Jews realized best in the long term the Mercurian role. They received the most
fruits from the genealogy of having that Mercurian role, whereas in Israel, what
you had was becoming like the disciples of Apollo, basically. What were the consequences
of those things? Does that help us understand, for example, some of the actions that
Israel has wound up taking? That is, the notion that in Israel, the Jews were gonna be
like all the other nations, but now we’re engaged in activities that are being criticized
by the community of nations. – Yeah, clearly, the Zionist option was an explicit rejection of
the Mercurian way of life, as I call it, of sort of
diaspora Jewish culture. It was something embarrassing,
something to get away from. So the idea was to create
a nation of warriors, a nation of farmers. So it was resolute rejection of traditional diaspora Jewish life. As you say, in the
United States, of course, the greatest difference was the fact that the American state
is not ethnically defined, that the American nation
is not ethnically defined, and so Jews could pursue the
things that they were good at without being punished, so to speak, or resented by any group that could claim the monopoly of politics or could claim that the state was by right theirs, the way ethnic Russians could in Russia, and the Spanish could in Spain, and the Germans could and
certainly did in Germany. So in some ways, the United
States ended up being, or the American option ended up being the most successful one. – One final question,
and the question is this, and before you answer it,
I’m gonna read something from the preface of your book. In finding the story of the
Jews in the 20th century, what did you learn about yourself? That’s my final question. And then I wanna go back to your preface, where you write about
your two grandmothers, and excuse my pronunciations, but one of your grandmothers
was Angelina Zhdanovich, and she had Cossack ancestors and she lost everything in the revolution, and you write of her,
“At the end of her life, “she was a loyal Soviet
citizen at peace with her past “and at home in her country.” And your other grandmother
was Berta Kostrinskaia, and she was born in the Pale. She emigrated to Argentina. She returned in the 1930s to take part in the building of socialism. And then, quote, you
write, “In her old age, “she took great pride
in her Jewish ancestors “and considered most of her
life to have been a mistake. “This book is dedicated to her memory.” So my question is, in telling
this story about the Jews in the 20th century, what
did you learn about yourself? – Well, I now have a slightly better idea of what it means to be Jewish than I did when I first asked
my father about my neighbor. I also have a slightly
better idea of what it means, I am more self-reflexive about
what it means to be Russian, but I learned a lot more
about my grandparents than I did really about myself, although, of course, one
way to learn about ourselves is to learn about our grandparents, and that’s partly what history’s about. But I think I at least
try to answer the question and answered it more or
less to my own satisfaction of why such grandmothers
raised such grandchildren, sort of answered the
question that occurred to me when I was back in Russia in college. So that would be the most
important one, I guess. – Yuri, on that note, I wanna
thank you for being here. Thank you for writing this book and let me show the book
again, The Jewish Century, published by Princeton University. Thank you again for joining us. – Thank you. – And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History. (electronic music)

10 thoughts on “Yuri Slezkine – Conversations with History

  1. I had Professor Slezkine for History 171C: The Soviet Union, 1917 to the Present. I really wish I had that class on a webcast or podcast. It was one of my favorite courses!

  2. I remember learning in an ethnic politics class in grad school many years ago that there were certain groups, the Jews among them, that were known as "pariah" groups. These include the overseas Indians, overseas Chinese, Ibo (from Nigeria), Armenians, Lebanese (in Africa), and perhaps others. They weren't pariahs in the sense of untouchables in India; rather, they were often engaged in commerce and earned a lot of money, but as outsiders they didn't have the social standing or social acceptance that would have legitimized their wealth, so they were resented. Also, peasants didn't understand the role of the merchant or middleman, as he didn't appear to produce anything.

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