The metamorphosis of Jewish identities in nineteenth century Russia, 1801-1894 / James R. Weiss.
During the period between the ascension of Tsar Alexander I and Tsar Nicholas II, the Jews of Russia and Russian officials were engaged in a curious partnership. Both parties were concerned with determining the precise definition of Jewishness and how this would change during the course of the nineteenth century. Russian officials, in the main, wanted to refashion the Jews of Russia into Russophiles imbued with Russian mores and education but, on no account, were these “new Jews” to be considered true Russians since God had made them a distinct group from their Slavic neighbors. Being compelled to be a part of the Russian milieu and yet kept apart from Russian society, the best that a Jew of Russia could accomplish was to become a Russian with a Jewish accent. From the Jewish perspective, specifically the intelligentsia and certain native and foreign philanthropists, the Russian Jewish identity needed to be reformed in order to maintain its viability but not at the price of complete assimilation. Towards that end, a number of educational initiatives were presented to the Russian government and even approved, giving the appearance of a partnership, though their respective ends were hardly identical. Understanding the underlying motivations of each side is imperative. Aside from Russian xenophobia in all of its manifestations, Russian officials simply did not know what to do with approximately 800,000 Ashkenazic Jews after the Polish partition of 1795. Being unknowns, Tsar Alexander (1801–1825) attempted to make them familiar to the official Russian mind via the imposition of Russian education. With this exposure, the Jews would then become Russians of a sort which meant that they were no longer to be feared and could be utilized for Imperial benefit. In brief, this was the rationale of Russian officialdom. For their part, the Jews of Russia did not accept these policies passively. Beginning in the mid-1830's and continuing until the end of the century, the Jews of Russia, along with foreign allies, promoted, their own reforms, some of which met with favor from St. Petersburg. In the end, between wranglings and détente, the Jews of Russia prevailed by creating a number of identities which bore various degrees of Jewishness and yet allowed them to engage in the intellectual, social, and political milieus beyond the bounds of their community.
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