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Jews and Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Jewish revolutionary activity, as discussed in this book, centered on revolutionary Populism. That based on Marxism was not to emerge until the 1890’s. (p. xii).

Interestingly, the anarchist Bakunin opposed the Jewish revolutionaries. He saw them as purveyors of “bourgeois socialism”, and followers of “German Jews”. (p. 25).


Nowadays, the abundance of Jews in radical movements is commonly blamed on Jews facing oppression. Ironically, the rise in Jewish radicalism coincided with, if not postdated, the spectacular rise of Jewish advancement in tsarist Russian society, notably the blossoming Jewish presence in secondary and post-secondary schools. (p. 13). In addition, most Jewish revolutionaries had come from well-to-do assimilationist families, and their radicalization had occurred not under the lash of oppression, but in a university setting. (pp. 18-19, 23).


The massive over-abundance of Jews, in revolutionary movements, is an inescapable fact. Haberer comments, (quote) Clearly, anti-Semitic generalizations insinuating a deliberate Jewish revolutionary conspiracy in Russian should not prevent us from recognizing the factual basis underlying the phobia in official and reactionary circles that the Jew was poised to destroy Holy tsarist Russia. There is, first of all, weighty statistical evidence which makes it hard to ignore that throughout the 1870s and 1880s Jews were a substantial element in Russian revolutionary activity. (unquote)(p. 254).

Although Jews apparently never became a majority of leading radicals up to that time, author Erich Haberer points out that Jews played an indispensable role in radicalism in Russia. He writes, (quote) The upshot of this development was that in 1886-89 (points 6, 7, 8 [on the graph]) revolutionary subversion without Jews had become unthinkable as they now accounted for between 25 and 30 percent of all activists in Russia. (p. 257). To keep these statistics in perspective, Jews amounted to only 4% of the population of the Russian Empire. (p. 292).

Jewish revolutionaries, even though not a majority, were largely responsible for “nursing” the revolutionary movements through difficult times, (quote) The traditional excellence of Jews in the less glamorous areas of painstaking conspiratorial work was now more in demand and of even greater importance in maintaining the movement than in the heyday of ZEMLIA VOLIA and NARODNAIA VOLA…In this respect the mid-1880’s, although ushering in the end of NARODNAIA VOLA, brought out sharply the salient features of Jewish revolutionary involvement. (unquote)(p. 239; See also p. 195).

In addition, it was the Jewish revolutionaries that tended to be responsible for making the radical movements even more radical, and for promoting the ongoing commission of terrorist acts. (p. 247).

The leading Jewish revolutionary, Aron Zundelevich, took political terrorism in Russia to new heights. The author quips, (quote) Evidently, Zundelevich deserves most of the credit for the rapid establishment of an effective terrorist organization that was unprecedented in the revolutionary history of Russia. (unquote)(p. 167; for details, see pp. 188-189).


Even when Jews were not the ones pulling the trigger, they commonly performed other tasks, on the ground, during assassination attempts. For instance, they could serve as signalers. (pp. 161-on).

Let us focus on the eventually-successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Jewish revolutionary leaders were the masterminds, even if the idea was first proposed by a non-Jew. (e. g, p. 164, 197). Haberer uses the following words to characterize this assassination, (quote) This momentous event, the final result of two years of systematic terrorist activity that witnessed Jewish participation in almost all its facets… (unquote)(p. 198).

Of the six tsaricides sentenced to death, only one was a Jew. (p. 198). However, repeated and deliberate decisions had earlier been made to avoid having a Jew be the assassin of Tsar Alexander II, in order to make it more difficult for Russians to hold Jews collectively responsible for the deed. (p. 165, 314).


Nowadays, we commonly hear the exculpatory argument that Jewish Communists were not really Jews, and the same argument is sometimes applied to 19th-century Jewish revolutionaries. Author Eric Haberer soundly rejects this talking point, notwithstanding the fact that most Jewish revolutionaries had departed from the usual Jewish customs. They were still Jews! Nor was their Jewishness incidental. He writes, (quote) The lives and careers of revolutionary Jews portrayed in these pages show time and again that Jewishness was a vital factor in shaping their ideas and activities as participants in the revolutionary movement, and thus extended in significance far beyond the accident of birth or incidental years of childhood in Jewish surroundings. Both on a subconscious and conscious level, their Jewish origin—whether in terms of upbringing, cultural influence, social conflict, self-perception, psychological make-up or personal aspirations—played an important role in their radicalization and apprehension of socialist doctrines and practices. (unquote)(p. 269).

Even the sublimation of one’s Jewishness was not permanent. As the pogroms increased in tsarist Russia, Jewish revolutionaries tended to undergo a renewed identification with their own Jewishness, and with the Jewish people. (p. 222).
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