[Paleopsych] Berkeley Alumini Mag: Q&A: A conversation with Yuri Slezkine

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Q&A: A conversation with Yuri Slezkine
From the Berkeley alumni magazine

[Interview w/author of "The Jewish Century"]

In the 20th century, we all had to become literate,  urban, mobile, and
occupationally flexible. In other words, we all had to  become Jewish.

By Russell  Schoch

A few years ago, historian Yuri Slezkine set out to write a book about the 
early Soviet elite. He focused on a residential building in Moscow that 
housed the leaders of the Soviet Union of the 1930s. When he figuratively 
looked inside that building, a prototype of communist living, he found 
that it had been occupied in large part by Jewish immigrants from the Pale 
of Settlement, the restricted region in which Jews were allowed to settle 
in the Russian Empire. In attempting to understand their internal 
movement, and the two other great migrations of Russian Jews in the 20th 
century--to the United States and Israel--he was forced to step back and 
examine more broadly the role of Jews in the modern age.

The result, The Jewish Century (published by Princeton University Press), 
has been called ÿÿa passionate and brilliant tour de forceÿÿ and ÿÿan 
extraordinary book with continual surprisesÿÿ about modernity, the 20th 
century, and the history of the Jews. One of Slezkineÿÿs metaphoric points 
is that all of us have had to become ÿÿJewishÿÿ in the modern age because 
Jews have long been urban, mobile, literate, articulate, and 
occupationally flexible--traits the 20th century demanded. Slezkine uses 
the characters and writings of Pushkin, Joyce, Proust, and the Yiddish 
writer Sholom Alecheim to illuminate his beautifully written book.

Slezkine was born in Moscow in 1956 into a family that considered itself a 
part of the Russian intelligentsia. He learned English in part by 
listening to the BBC and read the collected works of Charles Dickens in 
Russian (and later in English). He has written: ÿÿI became half-Jewish in 
1967 when I told my father that Mishka Ryzhevskii from Apartment 13 was a 
Jew, and my father said: ÿÿLet me tell you something.ÿÿÿÿ He was told that 
his motherÿÿs family was Jewish, and that his grandmother--like one of 
Hodlÿÿs daughters in Sholom Aleichem ÿÿs Tevye the Dairyman--had left the 
Pale of Settlement, moved to Moscow, and embraced communism.

Although his first love was history, Slezkine studied Russian literature 
and linguistics because, he says, history was too politicized under the 
Soviets. His first trip outside the Soviet Union was in the late 1970s, 
when he found work as a translator in Mozambique, in East Africa. He 
returned to Moscow to serve as a translator of Portuguese, and spent 1982 
in Lisbon before taking a leap, the next year, to Austin, Texas. He 
received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas in 1989 and 
taught at Wake Forest University before coming to Berkeley in 1992. His 
earlier books include Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the 
North and two co-edited volumes, one of life stories of Russian women from 
1917 to the Second World War, and one on the myth of Siberia in Russian 
culture. His next project, he says, will be to return to that residential 
building in Moscow and finish the story he set out to tell before The 
Jewish Century intruded.

Daniel Boyarin, the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the 
Department of Near Eastern Studies at Berkeley, calls Slezkineÿÿs new book 
ÿÿa brilliant addition to Jewish studiesÿÿ and says that ÿÿit provides the 
best explanation I know of anti-Semitism.ÿÿ Yuri Slezkine discussed that 
and other issues of The Jewish Century in an interview as the fall 
semester began. A professor of history at Berkeley, Slezkine this fall 
also became director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and 
Eurasian Studies.

In your book, you say that Jews experienced three Paradises and one Hell 
in the 20th century. Hell of course refers to the Holocaust. What are the 

These are the destinations of the three great migrations of the late 19th 
and early 20th centuries. There are the two we all know about--from 
Eastern Europe, mostly the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to 
America and to Palestine. Then there is the one I am particularly 
interested in: from the Pale of Settlement to the Soviet cities. Most of 
the Jews who stayed in Russia moved to Kiev, Kharkov, Leningrad, and 
Moscow, and they moved up the Soviet social ladder when they got there. 
This third, invisible or less visible, migration was much bigger than the 
one to Palestine and much more ideologically charged than the one to 
America. And, for the first 20 years or so of the Soviet state, it was 
also seen by most people involved as the most successful. But, by the end 
of the 20th century, it was seen by most people involved--the children and 
grandchildren of the original migrants--as either a tragic mistake or a 

All three migrations were, in a sense, pilgrimages, and all three 
represented different ways of being Jewish, and of being modern, in the 
modern world: non-ethnic liberal statehood in the United States; secular 
ethnic nationalism in Israel; and communism--a world without capitalism or 
nationalism--in the Soviet Union. That, plus the Holocaust, of course, 
which stands for the dangers of not going on one of those three 
pilgrimages, represents much of the 20th century, I think.

Why were Jews so successful in the early Soviet state?

The story of the Jews in the early Soviet Union is similar to the story of 
the Jews in America. That is, they were especially successful in the 
realms of education, journalism, medicine, and other professions that were 
central to the functioning of Soviet society, including science.

Jews in the Soviet Union were much more literate than any other group, 
they were untainted by any association with the imperial regime, and they 
seem to have been very enthusiastic about what the Communist Party was 
doing. This was to some extent a conscious commitment to ideology, but 
mostly it was just because there were no more legal barriers against Jews. 
The doors opened, and they flooded in and did exceedingly well in the 
1920s and the first part of the 1930s.

My belief is that you canÿÿt understand the second part of the Jewish 
story in Russia--the anti-Semitic policies, and what happens to Soviet 
Jews later, their desire to emigrate, for example--unless you know the 
first part of the story, which is mostly about amazing success.

You write that Jews were important members of both the secret police and 
those who ran the gulag. This was news to me.

The fact was not known to me when I was growing up in the Soviet Union. 
Most people found out about it when they read Solzhenitsynÿÿs The Gulag 
Archipelago. He didnÿÿt make a point of it at the time, but he talks about 
the people who were running the White Sea Canal labor camps, and they were 
virtually all ethnic Jews.

What was your reaction?

Mostly surprise, because it seemed so incongruous to those of us who 
thought of Jews as the primary victims and primary opponents of the Soviet 
regime. But later I discovered that the role of communism in modern Jewish 
history was tremendously important. I donÿÿt think you can understand 
modern Jewish history without considering the Russian Revolution or 
understand communism without considering the role of the Jews.

What accounts for Jewish success more generally?

Jews belong to a certain community of peoples that engage in certain 
occupations in similar ways--and provoke similar resentments. Looking at 
it comparatively, one discovers that this specialization is very old and 
fairly common.

What is this specialization?

At different times and in different places, there were tribes--ethnic 
groups--that specialized exclusively in providing services to the 
surrounding food-producing societies. They include Roma-Gypsies, various 
so-called ÿÿTravelersÿÿ or  ÿÿTinkers,ÿÿ the Fuga in Ethiopia, the Sheikh Mohammadi in Afghanistan,
and of  course the Armenians, the Overseas Chinese, the Indians in East
Africa, the  Lebanese in West Africa and Latin America, and so on. I call 
them all Mercurians,ÿÿ as opposed to their ÿÿApollonianÿÿ hosts.

What do you  mean by those terms?

Apollo was the god of both livestock and agriculture. ÿÿApollonianÿÿ 
societies, the way I use the term, are societies organized around food 
production, societies that consist mostly of peasants, plus various 
combinations of warriors and priests who appropriate peasant labor by 
controlling access to land or salvation.

Mercury, or Hermes, was the god of messengers, merchants, interpreters, 
craftsmen, guides, healers, and other border-crossers. ÿÿMercurians,ÿÿ the 
way I use the term, are ethnic groups, demographically complete societies, 
that do not engage in food production, but live by providing services to 
the surrounding Apollonians.

In the modern world, Apollonians have to become more Mercurian--more 
Jewish, if you will; but Apollonian values, peasant and warrior values, 
essentially, live on, of course. The two attitudes, two ideal types, are 
still with us today, and the Jews, the most accomplished of all 
Mercurians, are still playing a very special role in the modern world--as 
the models of both success and victimization.

There are striking similarities in the way all Mercurians think of 
themselves and of their non-Mercurian neighbors, and in the way they 
actually behave.

Can you give illustrations of what you mean?

Essentially, the idea is that certain things in traditional Apollonian 
societies are too dangerous or too unclean to be performed by members of 
those societies: communicating with other lands, other worlds, and other 
tribes; handling money; treating the body; and dealing with fire by 
engaging in metal work, for example. All these are typical Mercurian 
specialities. Most Tinkers and Travelers started out as tinsmiths. My 
great-grandfather was a Jewish blacksmith.

Itÿÿs a very large world, if you think about it:  disease, exchange, 
negotiations, travel, burials, reading. And these were the things the 
permanent internal strangers, or Mercurians, were willing to do, compelled 
to do, equipped to do--or very good at doing.

And these occupations were not limited to Jews.

There were a lot of groups performing such functions. And, throughout the 
world, they share certain features and are regarded in similar ways. Think 
of Jews and Gypsies. Both were traditionally seen as dangerous internal 
aliens, homeless for reasons of divine punishment, and engaged in harmful, 
morally suspect activities. They were always seen as mirror images of 
their host communities: Their men werenÿÿt warriors, their women seemed 
aggressive--and, perhaps for that reason, attractive; they remained 
strangers by staying aloof, not intermarrying, not fighting, not sharing 
meals--just making, exchanging, selling, and possibly stealing, things and 
concepts. And so they were feared and hated accordingly, with the 
Holocaust as the culmination of that long history of fear and hatred.

And I think they were seen in similar ways because they were, in many 
ways, similar. Both were exclusive, nomadic service providers; both had 
rigid taboos regarding unclean food and intermarriage; both could only 
survive by remaining strangers--hence the prohibitions against sharing 
food and blood with their neighbors, and the obsession with cleanliness.

But Gypsies have certainly not had the success that Jews have had in the 
modern world.

I distinguish between the majority of Mercurians, including Gypsies, who 
engage in small, non-literate pariah entrepreneurship; and those, like the 
Jews, who specialize, among other things, in the interpretation of written 
texts. With the rise of the modern world, the Gypsies have continued to 
ply their trade in the diminishing world of folk oral culture, while the 
Jews have gone on to define modernity.

In any case, the ways in which Mercurians and Apollonians regard each 
other are similar wherever one looks. What is true of Jews and their 
peasant neighbors in Imperial Russia is, I think, true of Gypsies and 
their hosts, as well as of Indians and local populations in East Africa, 
and so forth.

Including the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia?

Yes. The Overseas Chinese too are supposed to be clever--too clever, 
perhaps. You can call on the usual anti-Semitic list: they are aloof, 
devious, unmanly, and so on. This is the way Apollonians describe 
Mercurians throughout the world.

And of course one could interpret these same qualities in a positive 
light. ÿÿ Cunningÿÿ and ÿÿdeviousnessÿÿ may become ÿÿintelligenceÿÿ and 
ÿÿa general commitment to the life of the mind.ÿÿ Gypsies are proud of 
being smarter than the non-Gypsies they deal with, as Jews are, or were in 
the traditional Jewish world. Mercurian views of Apollonians tend to be 
negative too: ÿÿsoulfulness,ÿÿ ÿÿ courage,ÿÿ and ÿÿearthinessÿÿ may become 
ÿÿstupidity,ÿÿ ÿÿbelligerence,ÿÿ and ÿÿ uncleanliness.ÿÿ

In other words, the oppositions mind/body, intelligence/physicality, 
impermanence/permanence, non-belligerence/belligerence remain the same and 
are agreed upon by everyone involved. Everyone knows which traits are 
associated with which group; the difference is in the interpretation.

Which leads you to conclude what about the Jews?

Seen in this way, some things about the Jewish experience and the 
traditional Jewish economic role become less unique, so to speak. To be 
crude about it, perhaps, itÿÿs not an accident that there was a Gypsy 

What do you mean?

That there are similarities between Jews and Gypsies and a whole lot of 
other peoples who engaged in similar pursuits that go beyond their common 
fate under the Nazis, or the hostility that they encounter wherever they 

This could change the way one understands anti-Semitism.

In my book, I tried to contextualize the Jewish experience, to explain 
both the Jewish victimization and the Jewish success.

On the particular question of anti-Semitism, my book makes the argument 
that anti-Semitism is not a disease, not mystical, not inexplicable. It 
makes the argument that the beliefs and perceptions and actions usually 
associated with anti-Semitism are very common, and that they are applied 
not only to the Jews.

Does your argument give you, personally, a different understanding of what 
it means to be a Jew, and of anti-Semitism?

Sure! Of course it does. I didnÿÿt write the book to preach anything in 
particular. But I hope that one conclusion people draw from this part of 
the book is that something that is understood is easier to combat. If you 
think of anti-Semitism as a mysterious epidemic, then itÿÿs hard to know 
what to do about it. When you feel you understand what brings it about, 
then it becomes more intelligible. And less dangerous.

But what of the Holocaust?

The Jewish Holocaust was in some ways bigger than any other event of that 
sort in the history of the world. But the perceptions on which it is based 
are perfectly familiar and very common. The history of the Overseas 
Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example, is a history of relentless pogroms 
as well as remarkable success.

Youÿÿve seen these common beliefs yourself?

Growing up in Russia one couldnÿÿt help noticing that the things people 
said or thought about Armenians were in many ways analogous to things 
people said or thought about the Jews. And there was my experience in East 
Africa, which is one reason I became interested in the comparison. In 
Mozambique, it was striking how similar the economic and social roles of 
local Indians were to the economic and social roles of Jews in Eastern 

Did you see the Indians at the time as ÿÿJewsÿÿ?

I did.  Everyone did. Theyÿÿre often called that--ÿÿthe Jews of East 
Africa.ÿÿ And the Overseas Chinese are sometimes referred to as ÿÿthe Jews 
of Southeast Asia.ÿÿ

But itÿÿs one thing to realize that the rhetoric is similar; itÿÿs another 
to recognize that the rhetoric is based on something people actually do, 
and that this goes far back into the past, and that itÿÿs much wider than 
the familiar example of the Indians and the Overseas Chinese.

In your book, you examine modernist literature in this way.

Joyceÿÿs Ulysses, for example, is the central text of modernism, and it is 
about that very opposition. The main character, Leopold Bloom, is a 
ÿÿhalf-Jewÿÿ ; and the figure of Ulysses is the ultimate earthly 
representative of Mercurianism, of cleverness, restlessness, diplomacy, 
ingenuity--all those things.

Is there a famous Apollonian Jew, to use your terms?

Irving Howe said that Trotsky was one of the greatest figures in the 20th 
century because he managed to be both a writer and a warrior; somebody who 
analyzes history while making it; somebody who is equally good at thinking 
and killing.

One could say that Israel, and Zionism generally, is an attempt to abandon 
traditional Jewishness for the sake of Apollonianism with a Jewish face, 
as it were. I suppose Ariel Sharon would be a Jewish Apollonian. He stands 
for the rejection of the world of the shtetl, the life of the Diaspora, 
the Pale of Settlement--the Mercurian way.

How do you mean that?

Life in the Pale means living with physical weakness, coupled with 
eloquence and intelligence; it means doing things others despise. It means 
being committed to Diaspora life and tradition. And Zionism was to be the 
ultimate rejection of that life and tradition. The state of Israel became 
a place where one could escape the fate of Tevye the Dairyman--the great 
Sholom Aleichem character. It became a place that existed for the purpose 
of avenging Tevyeÿÿs weakness through a rejection of Tevyeÿÿs cleverness 
and non-belligerence.

The Holocaust created an aura around Israel that made it different from 
all other modern states, that excluded it from some of the expectations 
that are usually associated with modern states--and from certain 
criticisms. Because of its very special role, history, and moral claims, 
Israel became the state to which standard rules donÿÿt apply.

Israel has been transformed from an attempt to get away from the ghetto 
into a new kind of ghetto, which is the only place you can say certain 

For instance?

Itÿÿs the only place in the Western world where a member of Parliament can 
say--and get away with it--ÿÿLetÿÿs deport all Arabs from Israel.ÿÿ Or 
where so many people can say, as part of a routine political conversation: 
ÿÿWe should create more Jewish children because we want this to be a pure 
ethnic state.ÿÿ Imagine someone saying the same thing in Germany: ÿÿLetÿÿs 
procreate to make more Germans because we have too many Turks here.ÿÿ

And Israel also can do things other states cannot do?

Yes, like build walls. There was an attempt to build a wall in a town in 
the Czech Republic--to separate the Gypsy area from the rest of the town.

What happened?

There was an outcry. It couldnÿÿt be done. So, this seems to me to be yet 
another tragic irony in the history of the Jews: The attempt to create a 
state like any other led to the creation of a state that is remarkably 
different from the family of states it set out to join.

But thatÿÿs only one of the three great migrations. The history of the 
Jews in America has been one of tremendous achievement and success. The 
history of the Jews in Russia has been a tragedy, in the most basic sense 
of the word: There cannot be tragedy without the initial hope and 
fulfillment, without the nobility of character that the fatal flaw would 
go on to undermine. Thatÿÿs how I see the story of my grandmotherÿÿs life.

And, using your Mercurian metaphor, you say that all of us in the modern 
age have had to become Jewish.

A central part of my argument is that the modern world has become 
universally Mercurian. Mercurianism is associated with reason, mobility, 
intelligence, restlessness, rootlessness, cleanliness, crossing 
boundaries, and cultivating people and symbols as opposed to fields and 
herds. Weÿÿre all supposed to be Mercurians now, and traditional 
Mercurians--especially Jews--are better at being Mercurian than anyone 

And that is the reason for their extraordinary success and extraordinary 
suffering in the modern world. That, it seems to me, is the reason why the 
history of the 20th century, and the history of the Jews in particular, is 
the history of three Promised Lands and one Hell.

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