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Leskov, ethnographer of the Jews

October 14, 2014

Some time ago I was looking at the word кагал and portrayals of Jews in Leskov’s “Episcopal Justice” (Владычный суд, 1877) and “Yid Somersault” (“Жидовская кувырколлегия,” 1882). I’ve just read an article by Gabriella Safran that tries to get at Leskov’s ideas about Jews through “a series of twenty articles on Judaism and Jewish rituals” that Leskov published in 1880, 1881, and 1884. Where did Leskov learn so much (sometimes inaccurate) specific information about holidays, prayers, rituals, and legends?

He appears to have taken the first drafts of his pieces in their entirety from a single book, Obriady evreiskie [Rituals of the Jews], that was published in 1830 in Orel, Leskov’s home town. It was edited by a person who was not the writer and who sometimes contradicted the writer in the footnotes. It may have been translated into Russian from German or Latin by a person with some knowledge of Hebrew and of Judaism who added the notes. The book contains twenty-seven chapters, the first sixteen of which cover precisely the same topics as Leskov’s articles, in the same order. (241-42, link added)

“In the same order,” even! But since Leskov is Leskov, the story doesn’t end with this unmasking of plagiarism; instead, it’s worth going into how Leskov did or didn’t follow his source material.

There are a lot of contexts for Safran to consider. The 1830 book was unflattering to Jews and full of inaccuracies, but, Safran thinks, it may have been a response to the more anti-Jewish 1828 book Обряды жидовские (Rituals of the Yids); responding to the 1828 book’s allegations that Jews were dangerous, the 1830 book claims they are harmless and silly (242). Leskov may have been staking out an analogous position in the 1880 incarnation of the debate: as others ask “do they threaten us or not?” he replies that their traditions are interesting and quaint (242-43).

From the first articles to the last, Leskov’s position seems to grow less anti-Jewish. It’s hard to tell, though: he promised to be hostile to the Jews when trying to sell the series of articles to Aleksei Suvorin (who, by the end of the 1870s, “was known as an outspoken judeophobe”), and the first four articles may have been calculated to please Suvorin or edited to be more anti-Jewish by Suvorin’s staff (237-39, 244). Safran also writes that “Leskov consciously battled his own judeophobic tendencies throughout his life, and especially in the 1880s,” and notes that as “judeophobic voices sounded especially loudly in the Russian press” in the wake of the 1881-82 pogroms, Leskov, always swimming against the current, moved away from judeophobia (as did Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin at the same time, 244-45).

Safran compares Leskov’s articles on the Jews to two distinct nineteenth-century traditions, Victorian anthropology and Russian ethnography. In England and Western Europe, anthropologists looked at a distant other and implicitly tried “to demonstrate that the group they described was less ‘civilized’ than the one doing the describing.” Meanwhile Russian ethnographers looked inward, seeking an understanding of what made “the Russian people […] unique” in a “nonjudgmental and descriptive” way, and were “concerned more with amassing data on the peasants’ beliefs, language, and folklore than with measuring skulls or determining whether all humans possess the same genetic heritage” (243-44). Leskov was like the Victorian anthropologists when he followed the 1830 book he was cribbing his articles from, and like the nonjudgmental Russian ethnographers when he expanded and embroidered on his source (244).

Even though in 1880s Russia “most non-Jews saw Judaism as an excessively formal religion, a perfect example of the ritualism that Tolstoy and his followers criticized,” Leskov couldn’t help becoming more sympathetic to Judaism as he immersed himself in rituals and legends. Safran draws a parallel between Leskov’s failure to condemn Jewish formal ritualism and his “only somewhat successful” efforts to transform stories from the Prolog (“an ancient collection of saints’ lives, sermons, and didactic tales”) so that they would “draw in the simple reader with their canonical plots, but then reveal the falsity of a Christianity based on formal observance of rituals and show the superiority of good deeds to traditional rites” (248). Leskov’s need to embroider everything he wrote instead of hacking it down to a rational minimalist kernel showed that “in the end, Leskov was more interested in the details of culture than in the heights of a noble philosophy, more compelled by the lure of an exotic vision than the arguments for a rational religion” (248). Jewish legends, such as one about the dead being thirsty and drinking out of ponds (246),  were so important to Leskov that he argued with Jewish correspondents about whether contemporary assimilated Jews believed in them — Leskov insisted they did, even if they wouldn’t admit it (249).

One more Jewish/Christian parallel that reveals a general pattern in Leskov’s worldview: Leskov contrasted the “Westernized brand of Judaism” of the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue — where by 1884 he knew some actual Jewish people (245) — to the “authentic folk culture” of a large synagogue on Pod’iacheskaia Street, calling the second group “Jewish Old Believers [starovery]” (249-50).

See Gabriella Safran, “Ethnography, Judaism, and the Art of Nikolai Leskov,” The Russian Review 59 (2000): 235-51.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2014 11:02 am

    Fascinating stuff! The more I learn about Leskov, the more eager I am to read him.

    Leskov insisted they did, even if they wouldn’t admit it

    This reminds me of Edmund Wilson telling Nabokov he was wrong about Russian history and literature.

  2. October 14, 2014 1:15 pm

    One of my dearest friends recommended Leskov as his favorite author, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Walter Benjamin wrote a very interesting analysis of Leskov.


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