Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity
1Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 307 pages
1For some time now historians of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe and especially in Russia have been demonstrating that the “lachrymose history” that still lives on in popular memory is one-sided, distorted, and more akin to myth than to “objective history” (if one may use such a reactionary term). Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s new book which is only in part a translation of his earlier (and considerably longer) Evrei v russkoi armii, 1827-1914 (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003) continues this trend. The book’s fundamental thesis is easily stated: the army, from the period of Nicholas I to the end of the Russian Empire, served as one of the primary agents of Russia’s modernization and, in relation to the Jews, of their integration into Russian society (an entity which, after all, was also “under construction” in this period). Stated so baldly, this thesis may seem both overstated and lacking in novelty. More important is the fact that here for the first time it is argued in an unprecedentedly sustained, sophisticated, and well-documented way. Another twist from the well-known story of Russian and Jewish history in the nineteenth century is that for Petrovsky-Shtern, the period of Nicholas I – generally remembered as the terrible period of children kidnapped into military slavery – was in many ways actually more benign (at least in intent) than the final generation or so of the Russian Empire. In a sense one may read this book as a nineteenth-century counterpoint to Yuri Slezkine’s celebrated and controversial Jewish Century. Slezkine’s book centered on why Jews in the USSR were initially successful but later cast aside by the regime, while Petrovsky-Shtern argues that the Russian Empire missed an important opportunity for modernization by its failure in the course of the nineteenth century to carry through integrationist policies based on equality and justice.
2The book’s first three chapters concentrate on the reign of Nicholas I. Petrovsky-Shtern shows convincingly that while the Russian authorities always considered conversion to Orthodoxy a positive goal, they were generally reluctant to use coercive methods, sometimes even permitting Jews to observe holidays and not work on shabbes. To be sure, such “liberalism” was intermittent and dependent upon individual commanders, but in this book we gain a novel and fascinating view into Jewish religious life within the Russian army. Even the youthful cantonists who were subjected to severe pressure to convert often held out, at times (as official documents complained) encouraged by older Jewish soldiers. Petrovsky-Shtern presents an amazingly rich portrait of everyday life of Jewish soldiers, from struggles to obtain kosher food to health and sickness to deviant behavior (criminality, desertion) and its punishment. The fact that Jews often served in units stationed within or near the Pale of Settlement made it easier for most to retain their faith; as the author shows, even among cantonists the conversion rate seldom exceeded 20%. In short, Petrovsky-Shtern shows us a pre-reform Russian army in which most Jewish soldiers held onto their native religion but otherwise resembled their Christian comrades in arms.
3As is well known, the impetus for the Great Reforms of the 1860s and 1870s was military failure in the Crimean War. A modernized army was not only to protect Russia and preserve her great power status, but also to serve as an important engine of modernization. In fact, however, the army’s (and Russia’s) modernization fell far short of the ideal. Jews were barred not only from officer ranks but increasingly kept out of numerous other specific jobs such as “clerks, artisans, draftsmen, escorts, orderlies, munitions factory workers [and others]” (p. 174). Petrovsky-Shtern ably documents the valor and patriotism of Jewish soldiers that nonetheless had little effect in lessening the nearly universal antisemitism of the officer corps. But while these chapters on the post-reform period are, once again, full of rich detail on Jewish everyday life in the ranks and abundant evidence of official antisemitism, the author does not particularly take on the question of just why the army became more antisemitic under Alexander III and Nicholas II. Was this merely a reflection of the growth of anti-Jewish sentiments within the Russian Empire in the post-1881 period or a more specific policy of the military? The story is taken all the way into World War I when, as Eric Lohr and Peter Gatrell have shown in recent books, the level of vicious anti-foreigner and antisemitic feeling and actions became both more widespread and more aggressive in nature. Petrovsky-Shtern argues that the antisemitic agitation of the far right had already gained wide acceptance among the highest level of the officer corps. These poisonous prejudices would only increase during the war, leading the army chief of staff, General Ianushkevich (Januszkiewicz) to state in late 1915 “It is time to expel the Jews from the army.” (p. 250).
4This book is important in a number of ways. First of all, it is an immensely rich contribution to Jewish social history, opening up a world previously quite unknown even to most specialists. Secondly, it speaks to the growing (and very positive) “normalization” of Russian history, that is, the move away from Cold War “separatist historiography” and toward a comparison, explicitly and implicitly, of Russia with the rest of Europe and the world. Finally, this work is an important contribution to a new kind of military history, less interested in the shape of tank treads and howitzer calibers and more concerned with the impact the military has on society and politics as a whole. Petrovsky-Shtern can fairly be called an archival Stakhanovite (dozens of fondy in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Israel); even better, he integrates these archival documents with memoir, periodical, and printed sources into a delightful and enlightening read. In both Jewish and Russian history this is one of the most important books that will appear in 2009 and will form the point of departure for any future discussion of Jews in the Russian military.
Theodore R. Weeks, « Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 10 | 2009, Online since 07 December 2009, connection on 23 March 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/2313Top of page
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