Red Kasrilevke : ethnographies of economic transformation in the Soviet shtetl, 1917-1939 / by Deborah Hope Yalen.
This dissertation is about the Soviet Jewish elite's encounter with the shtetl (Yiddish: small market town) during the 1920s and 1930s. In Imperial Russia, a significant number of Jews living in the shtetl worked as economic middlemen between city and countryside, a form of commercial activity deemed "unproductive" by conservative and radical critics alike. Following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik paradigm of a worker-peasant state rendered the historical role of Jews as economic middlemen—and the shtetl as a site of petty trade—ideologically untenable. This study examines the efforts of Soviet Jewish political activists and social scientists to confront the shtetl as both a practical and theoretical problem at a time when the Bolshevik regime was consolidating its power and entering a radically accelerated phase of economic modernization. This encounter between the Soviet Jewish elite and the "shtetl problem" represents an understudied chapter in the history of pan-European debates, dating back to the Enlightenment, which evaluated Jewish civic virtue and worthiness for emancipation in relationship to Jewish economic behavior.In attempting to transform the occupational structure of the Jewish population, the Bolshevik regime sponsored a profusion of studies addressing the "amelioration" of the shtetl's socioeconomic condition. This statistical-economic and ethnographic scholarship sought to gauge the pace of Jewish absorption into the industrial and agricultural sectors and—as a corollary of this process—the steady self-disintegration of the shtetl as an obsolete artifact of the old regime. Rather than demonstrating the demise of the Soviet shtetl, this scholarship inadvertently highlighted its endurance at the concrete and discursive levels. This dissertation explores these social scientific texts as narratives that collectively expressed the mentalités of a distinct time and place. While the image of the Eastern European shtetl in post-Holocaust memory is a deeply spiritualized one, contemporaries defined the Soviet shtetl of the interwar period in starkly economic terms as a site of unregulated commercial exchange that could easily become a conduit of counter-revolutionary ideology. In examining the "discourse" of the Soviet shtetl, this study contributes to scholarship on national identity, social scientific knowledge and modernity in both Jewish and Soviet history.
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