Slezkine Redux

Yuri Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century (2004) has become a seminal book in recent decades for understanding the JQ. A Berkeley professor, Slezkine’s new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution is a massive study of the 1917 revolution. From Benjamin Nathans’ review of Yuri Slezkine’s new book:

Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new study, The House of Government, also situates the Russian Revolution within a much larger drama, but one that resists the modernization narrative and instead places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology…

Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century (2004) performed a similar volte-face, turning the story of Jewish assimilation on its head and moving Soviet Jewry from the margins to the center of the short twentieth century. Wide-ranging, witty, and provocative, it became the subject of academic symposia in the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Israel. Modernization, Slezkine argued, is about “everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible,” and thus “about everyone becoming Jewish.” Different groups accomplished this metamorphosis at different rates, “but no one,” he noted, “is better at being Jewish than the Jews.”

For centuries, diaspora Jews (or at least some of them—Slezkine was not overly interested in such distinctions) belonged to a human type he dubbed “Mercurians,” familiar strangers wherever they lived, “service nomads” whose professional profile, food rituals, cosmologies, and, not least, endogamy kept them distinct from the rooted, agrarian, martial, and much more numerous “Apollonians” around them. Diaspora Armenians and Chinese were Mercurians too. Ukrainians, Russians, and other peasant-dominated populations, by contrast, were Apollonians. Slezkine’s most important point, however, was that Mercurianism and Apollonianism, rather than being innate qualities of this or that group, were strictly functional categories. Individuals and ethnic groups could move in and out of them over time, and since the modern world increasingly rewarded Mercurian qualities, modernization was the story of what happened when more and more Apollonians began to switch sides—as did a few quixotic Mercurians, aka Zionists.

The Jewish Century, it turns out, was a kind of prequel to an even grander project, The House of Government. A striking proportion of the latter’s characters (and residents) were of Jewish background, reflecting the extraordinary presence of Jews in the early Soviet political, cultural, and administrative elite. By attending to the rise and fall of that presence in The Jewish Century, Slezkine in effect cleared space for exploring the Soviet experiment in its largest, world-historical dimensions. Readers will note cameo appearances by this or that figure in both books, but above all they will recognize the hallmarks of Slezkine’s highly distinctive way of thinking and writing about history. Serious novels, the literary critic Robert Alter once wrote, are a way of knowing, and much the same can be said of Slezkine’s work…

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