Jewish Nationalism and Religion in Late Imperial Russia

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At the time of the French revolution, there was an ongoing change in Europeans’ perspectives of war throughout Europe. All of the sudden, clashes and struggles between armies shifted to being understood as battles between groups of identity and belonging, or nations. This concept of a single nation and its people fighting for common ideals under a shared ancestry (also referred to as the nation-in-arms ideal), laid the groundwork for European nationalism to develop and spread across the continent.  From this, questions regarding the definition of nation and what qualifies an individual to be considered part of that nation come forth. Specifically, in states and nations that are multicultural, problems develop in response to conflicting languages, cultures, and religions among national minorities. This was certainly the case in late imperial Russia. However, most historians will agree that the Russian imperial government had difficulties in dealing with growing national groups and implementing their nationalist policies upon them.

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Benedict Anderson’s important work Imagined Communities, is vital to our understanding of the meaning of nationalism and its spread across Europe. Anderson brings up the subject of Russification and refers to it as  stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire.  This represents the attempt to weld together both naturalization and the preservation of imperial power in Russia. By the time of the 1905 revolution, it was noted that this was more than just a social revolution and that non-Russian regions were even more bitter about these nationalist policies. It was just as much a revolution by non-Russian minorities against Russification as it was a revolution of workers and peasants against the tsarist regime. From this, nationalist policies died down and freedom of conscience was granted by the tsar. This roughly demonstrates how the weakness of the tsarist regime and the increasing development of nationalist groups, proved the imperial government to be unable to complete Russification or finish successfully nationalizing the empire. The main group to be observed is the Jewish population and how religion fit in with those nationalist policies.

In the book Nation and State in late Imperial Russia: Nationalism and Russification on the Western Frontier, 1863-1914 by Theodore Weeks, the author examines the fact that in Russia, there was not an exact fit between state and nation. This is one of the reasons that the tsarist regime was so ill-equipped to fully understand modern nationalism, much less maintain it. Weeks also looks at the notion of nationalism as a creation of modernization. For example, in examining the issues regarding the reform of the local government as well as the autocracy trying to Russify the southern province of Kholm by denying political and religious rights to the Poles, Weeks determines that through this the autocracy was trying to avoid the forces of change that were rooted in modernization and the developing national movements throughout the region. Instead, the autocracy chose to go in the direction of assuming that their powerful empire could be preserved as a strictly Russian empire, regardless of how effective the Russification policies were. Therefore, the policies adopted by the regime ended by achieving the very opposite of what they had originally set out to do. National tensions were now even more aggravated, and certainly not least because the local Russian nationalists proceeded in such a brutal and intolerant fashion.

It was the growing political and cultural demands by groups in the empire’s western territories, including Jews, of which the empire tried to pacify or neutralize. Jews alone were seen as a moral threat in terms of religion, however they were found to be the most unassimilable national minority group on the western frontier. Overall, Weeks explores the ways in which groups such as the Jews and their constant demands for greater local representation and more liberal policies caused the autocracy to react to events as they occurred, thereby never developing a real strategy to enforce this Russian national idea.

Eric Lohr’s historical work Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I focuses on how enemy aliens were dealt with during the war in terms of population and economics. One of the biggest issues with this was the fact that unlike most other countries, many of the enemy aliens in Russia held leading positons in business, economics, and investing and lived as private landowners with white-collar occupations. Because of this, the campaign expanded to include naturalized immigrants as well as citizens whose loyalty was questionable due to their race, religion, or former citizenship. With this, different groups were being categorized by the Russian government as a way to sanction them and determine what kind of enemy citizen they identified with and whether they could be trusted or not.

Looking back at Russification, it was intended to be the official way to nationalize Russia. This was done by way of cultural assimilation in an attempt to make Russia into a more homogeneous state. However, wartime nationalization was quite different. The wartime program broke with prewar Russification in that it no longer tried to nationalize individuals by assimilating them. Rather, it took identities as given and tried to nationalize larger abstractions, such as the commercial and industrial economies and the demographic make-up of the population, through the radical means of expropriation and deportation.  Therefore, more extreme measures were being taken to solve the problem of enemy citizens in Russia.

A prime example of a group that dealt with this categorization is the Jewish population. Long before the war, in the mid-19th century, Jews were already being forced from rural areas to big cities by means of restrictions on Jewish landownership. By the start of the war, Jews were seen as unreliable and not trustworthy. They were believed to have been more attracted to German and Austrian cultures and were engaged in spying for enemy states which fueled the Russians’ distrust of them. The Russian army began forced migrations of Jews which were accompanied by more violence, looting, and hostage-taking than any other minority group. However, in the end, this nationalist program did not achieve its initial goal. Rather than creating a sense of national identity, quite the opposite came true. With hardships of the war and the enemy alien campaign, the targeted groups became more unified than ever. They came to the aid of their brothers and formed a tight sense of community for themselves. Lohr refers to this occurrence as mobilization of ethnicity. 

In Theodore Weeks’s article Russification: Word and Practice, 1863-1914, he explores Russification policies during Russia’s late imperial period. More specifically, the complex meaning of the word Russian in order to understand Russification as a reality. For example,  could one be Russian’ in the sense of a loyal subject of the tsar, all the while cherishing one’s own nationality and native tongue?  Not particularly. This is exactly why categorizations such as Russian Jew or Russian Catholic were seen as contradictory and not accepted. Weeks poses some very important questions in this article that may help readers think more critically in terms of what defines being Russian and which cultures or religions do not fit in with that politically. All nationalism historians use their studies to attempt to define the boundaries and limits of nationalism. Weeks, on the other hand, works to define Russian as a term that is separate from nationalism. 

In Searching for Nationality: Statistics and National Categories at the End of the Russian Empire (1897-1917), Juliette Cadiot explores national identity and belonging in imperial Russia through a statistical lens. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, census results were usually objective and religious affiliation was typically understood to reveal nationality. For instance, instructions concerning confession stated that Orthodox were Russians, Catholics were Poles or Lithuanians, Protestants were Germans and Iudeii were Jews.  This demonstrates how census registration based on religious identity replaced registration based on national identity. When the census of 1897 was complete, criticisms regarding its organization and population numbers arose. When criticisms on the organization of the 1897 census arose, statisticians and political activists claimed that certain groups such as Jews, were severely undercounted. One of these political activists, Boris Brustkus, claimed that many formerly Jewish subjects who had converted to Russian Orthodoxy had listed Jewish as their primary language which in turn resulted in the census takers’ over counting of the population of Great Russians.

However, by the time of the 1905 manifesto, the Tsar had granted freedom of conscience which shifted religious distinctions to national distinctions. Due to this sudden tolerance towards confessional freedom, it became common for Jews to abandon their Jewish faith in hopes to convert fully to Russian Orthodoxy. The governor of Vilna even went through the trouble to appoint specially trained census takers to complete all Jewish registrations. This concern over the problem of religious defectors gave hope that nationality registration would make the evaluation of the imperial Russian government’s overall impact on the Jewish population much easier to conduct. Overall, this article investigates the lines drawn between national identity, language, religion, and geography. Cadiot uses statistics to look at these patterns and to develop a definition of nationality.

In Gregory Vitarbo’s article Nationality Policy and the Russian Imperial Officer Corps, 1905-1914 goes into the nationality policy project for the officer corps in which they attempted to establish service quotas for each nationality consistent with its percentage of the empire’s overall population. The goal was to preserve the prevalence of the Orthodox, ethnic Russian officers. It is not hard to believe, however, that certain minority soldiers such as Jews, were discriminated against, despite claims that the national question did not really exist within the army. In categorizing these groups, occasionally family name or physical features could be used to place minorities. As the Jewish soldiers faced hostility and discrimination constantly, the question of whether to maintain the restrictions upon them or to exclude them from the army altogether came into discussion. This reveals how what was going on within the military was a somewhat less severe reflection of what was happening in the Russian empire as a result of its nationalist policies.

This article produces another example of the negative effects of a shift between religious restrictions to national restrictions. This shift in the army caused a reduction of 20 percent Catholic officers to 6 percent Poles, which would result in a shortage of officers. The mixture between empire and nation pleased no one and antagonized everyone.  This quote borrowed from Joshua Sanborn by Vitarbo perfectly encapsulates why this nationalist agenda did not work in the military, much less in the Russian empire. The tsarist officer community had turned the nationalist lens upon itself and it certainly did not bode well for them. This failure ultimately foreshadowed the eventual collapse of the Russian nationalist regime. This method of analyzing a smaller institution using nationalist policies in order to draw conclusions about Russian imperial nationalism as a whole is a clever and different way to make an argument.

In the book, Shatterzone of Empires by Theodore Weeks, one chapter in particular looks at the spread of both Russian and radical ideas among Jews in Vilnus and how it resulted in Jewish nationalist groups forming. In 1903, the Choral Synagogue emerged and consisted of Jews who were more likely to speak Russian at home or in business dealings. And yet, for all the sympathy among the Jewish community for socialism and various forms of Jewish nationalism, the Russian governor of Vilna Province could still write in his 1903 report that if treated properly, the Jews could form a bulwark for Russian culture and patriotism in the city.  Therefore, the Jewish community in Vilnus maintained their traditional form, but also displayed new leanings towards nationalism and socialism. Similarly, to the last article mentioned, Weeks takes the nationalist lens and turns it upon the developing Jewish parties in Vilnus. From a shifting legal environment, Jewish nationalist ideas will emerge.

In the book Russian Monarchy by Richard Wortman, the author examines the common theme that popular Russian nationalism failed to succeed in Russia. He does this by arguing that it was rather the rulers of Russia who determined to build and rule an empire and who gave rise to a political culture governed by the imagery and designs of empire.  Overall, nationalism failed and the political nation was not unified by 1914. This can be understood to be one of the key factors leading to the political collapse of Russia during the revolution and war years as well as the end of Russian imperial nationalism. He presents this as the initial problem of Russian nationalism.

In John Strickland’s The Making of Holy Russia: The Orthodox Church and Russian Nationalism Before the Revolution, he aims to explore a lesser-known concept, that of how the Church can be seen as the leading source of nationalism. This is ironic however, considering that since the early days of the Orthodox church, ethnic identity was an insignificant factor in matters of ecclesial identity. It wasn’t until after the Great Reforms that the church became increasingly conscious of national community. Conscious that the Great Reforms had failed to resolve the problems of the empire, they believed that Russia could be strengthened by mobilizing the population to embrace national ideals As the overseers of the official Church, however, they insisted that the most important Russian national ideal was Orthodoxy.  From this developed the ambitious project of the making of Holy Russia.

One of the major issues discussed in the book is the relationship between the Orthodox Church and modern nationalism. The traditional diminution of the Church’s role in modern nationalism by previous historians, has been challenged in more recent studies. For example, looking back at Benedict Anderson’s presupposition that a process of secularization was essential before the imagined community of the nation could be possible, reveals this new way of thinking about this relationship. This argument that nationalism came to fill a religious void due to the effects of the Enlightenment and industrialization, in regards to Russian nationalism has been virtually ignored by historians until now, or so Strickland claims.

Strickland reveals how the Orthodox clergy produced a national ideal that was different from the rest of Western Europe which, he argues, makes it a great case study for nation-building in modern Europe. One of these differences being that one of the Church’s important ideals was to uphold the autocracy so that the tsar could rule as an apostle-like leader. Strickland also uses the term Orthodox patriotism instead of nationalism to describe the Church’s actions at this time. This shows Strickland’s thoughts on how closely intertwined the notions of religion and nationalist ideals really are.

In Jewish Rights, National Rites: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia by Simon Rabinovitch, the author examines the ideas of Russian Jewish nationalist leader Simon Dubnov along with the genesis and fate of his political movement. Known as the Folkspartey, these Jewish autonomists came to cast themselves as soldiers in a battle against assimilation.  For them, the solution to this was self-government and of course, autonomism. However, unlike the Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, or Baltic peoples, Jews could not demand territorial autonomy in Russia, but they could still use their own language, establish universities, and govern their own affairs. Rabinovitch’s main argument goes into how Dubnov’s ideas and influence stretched far beyond the Folkspartey alone, which never grew to its potential size and never really achieved solid support from other predominantly Jewish regions. However, his principles of autonomism offered a common model of national rights and autonomy that most of Russia’s Jewish political parties, including socialists and Zionists, applied as part of their own ideologies. This concept of autonomy developed in an environment where the idea that nations had certain rights was finally taking hold of Europe.

Rabinovitch goes into the details of Dubnov’s influence and evaluates it. One of his best accomplishments was encouraging opposing Jewish groups such as Zionists and integrationists to move toward a common ground of Jewish nationalism and autonomy in meetings such as the Union for Full Rights and the Kovno conference. In fact, Maksim Vinaver, a Russian lawyer and politician, said of Dubnov  you underestimate the impact of your books about Russian Jewish history and thought, which played the role of a magnet, attracting a rush to a new single center, and found a new way for the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia.  This magnet metaphor perfectly summarizes the initial influence of Dubnov and his set of ideals.

Theodore Weeks explored a similar topic in his chapter from his book Shatterzone of Empires when talking about the Choral Synagogue Jewish nationalist group. While Weeks gives a brief analysis of these Jewish groups and their formations, Rabinovitch dives deeper into the ideals and origins of such groups developing. He frames his analysis with the changing legal atmosphere of late imperial Russia and the emergence of the belief that all nations have rights. Although Weeks’s work is but a short chapter in a more complex book, he still addresses the important aspects of this Jewish national identity such as its relationship to the Zionist and socialist groups.

From this it can be seen that not much has evolved over a period of 27 years in terms of historians’ tendencies in writing about late imperial Russian nationalism. The most notable change is that throughout time, academic writings on this topic become more and more centralized to a very specific theme, event, or institution. From the broad analyses of late imperial Russian nationalism by Theodore Weeks, to the closer, deeper studies of John Strickland’s religious connections to modern nationalism, it can be concluded that Russian nationalism affected a broad range of cultures, yet in the long run did not accomplish its nationalist goals by the time the monarchy had collapsed due to the ever changing political and social climates.

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Jewish Nationalism and Religion in Late Imperial Russia. (2019, Jul 30). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from

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