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Slezkine’s Mercurian Century


“The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” Such is the opening line of Yuri Slezkine’s intriguing and controversial book, the Jewish Century. Slezkine charts modernity through the journey of one, albeit significant, ethnic/religious group: Russia’s Jews. It’s a story about shedding and becoming, triumph and tragedy; about how Russian Jews became more Soviet than Jew, and how in the end they were too Jewish to be Russian. The Jewish Century is also a narrative of how the twentieth century is about how all of us, in a sense, have become Jewish.

Slezkine’s argument is complex and its implications profound. If modernity is about becoming urban, mobile, and literate; if it is about being ripped from the land and thrust into the abyss of free labor; if it is about the dissolution of national borders and everyone becoming nomads; and if it is about the struggle of the self to reconcile the plethora of modern “identities”, then the Jews represent the most adaptive group to these changes. Within their culture and tradition is something best suited for dealing with the fact that in the modern age,

“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” (The Communist Manifesto)

The Jew is a chameleon, a shape shifter, a mimic man. Ironically, these are also stereotypes many have used to persecute Jews. In a way, the anti-Semites of the 19th century already wrote Slezkine’s argument. Except that their pen was not a computer in Berkeley, California. Nor were they driven by a deep academic humanism. Their passion was forged with the cold steel of violence. Their ink was blood. This is not to say that Slezkine rewrites all anti-Semite paranoia to the melody of a new key. Not at all. He turns them on their head. He takes their stereotypes seriously in order to measure the place of Jews in modern society. His study is the return of the repressed. In the end, his heroes are not the shifty-eyed Jew found in anti-Semite propaganda. They are the heroes of the twentieth century. Their tale is filled with irony, triumph, tragedy, and sorrow which make their experience transcend all classes, ethnicities, geographies, and cultures. The Jews are models for us all.

Yet, while the Jews are the models for the modern, their particular journey disavowals it. As we were becoming more modern, that is more “Jewish,” the Jews themselves were becoming more like us. They either suppressed their Jewishness in favor of identification with an over arching national identity: Russian, German, etc; or if their host country foreclosed assimilation, they became hyphenated, split: Jewish-American, Russian-Jew, German-Jew. They were almost the same but not quite, hampered by the primordialism of their “blood.” And blood was the curse of the modern age. As science categorized the “races” into advanced and primitive, blood became the marker of being in the last instance. Culture, with all its messiness and malleability, was streamlined into the fixed empiricism of science. Jews could therefore become Germanized and Russified but never really German or Russian. Their blood contained an essence, a one millionth of one percent that made them, despite all efforts, Jewish. If the modern age was about the mobility of body and fluidity of self, then the very ideology of modernity itself, the search for absolute scientific truth and origin, was its own contradiction. Because of their cultural adaptability, the Jews were never really fully outside, but because of their blood they could never be completely inside either.

This in-betweeness was the nature of what Slezkine calls the Mercurians. The Mercurians followed the example of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), who was “the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.” Mercurians are those groups who mockingly danced on the borders of the hegemonic. They are the Romani of Europe, the Sikhs of India, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, the Kanjar of Pakistan, and the Margi of Sudan. They are the diasporic populations who wonder the Earth as traders, beggars, shopkeepers and because of this they were the subject of primitive capitalist accumulation; the circuitry of a vast emerging economic network.

However, every concept has its Cain. For the Mercurians it was the Apollonians. These people were the settled and the agrarian. They also inhabited the halls of political power and looked at the Mercurians with a suspicious eye and branded them as the unwashed, the barbaric, and the primitive. For their part, the Mercurians stared back with the same piercing epithets. Instead of throwing themselves into the whirlwind of the modern, the Apollonians painstakingly tried to turn back the clocks of time. They built nations to ward off the specters of modernity for the world was theirs to lose. They were the universal to the Mercurians’ particular.

But the forces of capital were not easily tamed. By the late 19th century, the world the Apollonians knew, the world that they made turned on them. Qualitative presence of the market began trumping quantitative superiority of the fields. It became a world determined by dancing tables rather than the till. Concrete and steel replaced dirt and wood. The Appolonian nations became besieged from within and from without by ethnic and cultural aliens. The particular was rapidly becoming the universal. For those caught in this social-economic tempest, it was sink or swim. All the values that defined Apollonian life and tradition were now fetters to be overcome. All the values that defined the Mercurians became the template for modern man.

Though well suited for the birth of modernity, at the same time the Mercurians were potentially tragic figures. Contrary to some of their fellow Mercurians, like say the Romani, many Jews strove, out of desire or necessity, to go beyond the cultural and political borders that their culture professed or that others ascribed. So while mobility was integral to the Mercurian way, Russia’s Jews rejected it. Here Slezkine looks to Sholem Aleichem’s classic Tevye the Dairyman to develop a wonderful metaphor out of Tevye’s daughters: Hodl, Chava, and Beilke. All three desired to find solid footing in the quicksand of modernity. Hodl looked beyond herself to Communism to become part of a greater nation founded on the international of peoples. On the surface, Communism provided a conversion narrative to a higher organization of humanity with its attempt to perfectly wed Apollonianism and Mercurianism. That is, a state that produced Mercurians with Apollonian faces that was national in form and socialist in content. But Communism could only get ideally beyond ethnicity; it never could really overcome it. The Soviet attempt to right historical wrongs with its minorities required the constant positing of ethnicity as a concrete identity. I will return to this point below. Chava, on the contrary, became a Zionist and looked to the future Jewish nation to give her blood and culture hallowed ground. The myth of Palestine provided fulfilled biblical prophecy and utopian desire. A Jewish state, even adrift in a sea of Arabs, could potentially be the only place where otherness could turn into an expression of self. Beilke went to America, the most Mercurian of modern nations. American liberalism, it seemed, provided the best ideological compromise between Mercurianism and Apollonianism. It was a state without a nation. All of its immigrants forsake their various ethnicities to fit under the broad mestizo umbrella of Americanism. American capitalism, however, produced other contradictions that the mestizo umbrella could not reconcile. Some immigrants, because of their “race” were able to become more American than others. For others, only political struggle could Americanize, that is to say, “whiten” their skin. In the end, America’s supposed Mercurian equality turned out to be window dressing for a racialized Apollonian hierarchy. It was capitalist in form and racial in content. In the context of 1930s America, this made Liberalism the least ideologically attractive to Chava’s children. The American “wilderness” only conjured dreams of other, future worlds. There in the “land of Liberty”, Chava’s children remained “uncertain Jews and incomplete Americans, while believing their cousins in Russia were “native-born Russians and perfect Soviets.”

It is these “native born Russians” and “perfect Soviets” that are at the center of Slezkine’s story. He shows the metrics of Jewish representation in the Soviet project, from their high percentages in the Communist leadership and the secret police to their overrepresentation in Soviet intellectual and cultural circles. His statistics reverse any doubt as to Jews’ influence. Russia’s Jews, formerly relegated to the Pale became an essential part of the establishment of Soviet hegemony over Russian social and cultural space. If the long term goal of Soviet modernity was the birth of the New Soviet Person (novyi sovetskii chelovek), Soviet “Jews” overfilled the cribs of its maternity ward.

Then everything changed. Every major Soviet nationality had a room in the Soviet communal apartment of nations. Because the Jews had no geographical space of their own like their Armenian, Georgian and Uzbek brethren, they “fixed” themselves in the room of Soviet national identity. For a time, this room was a comfortable one. But the Soviet state eventually evicted them, like so many others. The Great Terror eliminated a whole stratum of Soviet elite and promoted in their place were mostly Russians of peasant and worker origin. This new strata buttressed by the Russian patriotism of the Great Patriotic War, “began to think of itself as the legitimate heir to the Russian imperial state and Russian cultural tradition.” This, along with Hitler’s “final solution,” made many Soviet “Jews” consider something that they hadn’t in many years, and for some, for the first time. Despite all their efforts to subjugate the self, they were, in the end, simply Jews. Culture couldn’t wash away blood. In the climate of the Cold War and the creation of Israel, which aligned with the capitalist West, Soviet Jews became an internal enemy just like any other. The expression of Jewish culture was now a nationalist act. Their assimilation became a mask that had to be ripped off to reveal their true face. Stalinist Russia sought to remove their influence through extralegal repression and violence. Post-Stalinist Russia did it through legal means: the social promotion of everyone but Jews.

The “discovery” of Jewish overrepresentation in the Soviet elite was more than a result of policy and paranoia. It was the outcome of a biopolitics that is at the core of modernity. The modern state’s desire to catalog its population according to a connection between blood and culture made all efforts to develop an individual identity born of free will a fruitless one. Populations, Soviet or otherwise, could never really escape the ethnic stamp the state gave them. Identity was always first a negotiation of categories that were a priori. Biopolitics was an Apollonian mechanism to fix the emerging Mercurian fluidity. States’ adoption of what Foucault called “governmentality” required its populations to be decipherable objects that could be compartmentalized into the prison house of the nation, and by that very act, those objects were transformed into subjects. The Soviet state was no different. The effort to fulfill the utopianism of Marx’s statement, “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,” (The German Ideology) was undermined by the very categories that were the metrics of Soviet progress. The state wanted, no, needed to know the quantity and quality of its population. It needed to measure its present self against its past and its future. The withering away of ethnicity demanded knowledge about the cultural and economic quality of said ethnicity. Every time the state asked: How many Jews there were in higher education compared to Uzbeks, it only unwilling regenerated what Althusser called the “reproduction of the means of reproduction.” Every statistical report on ethnicity maintained a compartment for the Jew, even if the Jews themselves had no desire to fill it. Thus, the Soviet project destroyed the Jew as a signifier as it simultaneously retained Jew as a signified.

By the 1970s, triumph and irony turned to tragedy. The postwar effort to marginalize Russia’s Jews from political, social, and intellectual life only generated doubt in their belief in Communism. As Slezkine puts it, “Communists might have children, . . . but Communism did not.” The Soviet system, which many of Hodl’s generation themselves helped create, appeared to her children and grandchildren as only the apogee of exclusion, violence, and repression. With Soviet Communism now thoroughly corrupt, and its utopian pretensions made utterly na?ve, Hodl’s descendants increasingly reconciled themselves to their other two options: Zionism and Liberalism. Thus, the one sided love affair with Russian Communism ended not because Jews weren’t willing to commit themselves. It ended because in the end when Communism looked into its lover’s eyes, it did not see a faithful communist. It only saw a Jew.

Still, a larger question haunts Slezkine’s study. Given that Russia’s Jews are one of many Mercurian groups, one can and should ask: what makes the Jews so different from other Mercurians? Why do they represent the modern, while to suggest similarly about the Romani would elicit laughter? Is it their cultural tradition, their prominence in the arteries of capital, and their presence in the high priesthood of Western knowledge? I think that it is this and more. Slezkine’s Jews represent modernity in part because their history deals with a particularly modern problem: the struggle to reconcile the fractured self into a coherent whole. As those living on the edge of society, straddling the border between inside and outside, the European/Russian Jew is fractured at birth. To be a Jew is both an ethnic and a religious category. For some Jews, to be religious is to automatically be ethnically Jewish, and thus in a disasporic context they remain more outside than inside. Yet, for the secular Jew who aspires to be more inside than outside, there is a tension, even a schizophrenia, around the fact that to be Jewish is to be part of an ethnic and a cultural lineage that may disavowal the religious but never really escape its cultural power to define what is Jewish. (As a side note, the issue of religion is glaringly absent from Slezkine’s book and requires comment. Unfortunately, I must refrain from commenting on this absence here.) This tension has the potential affect to push them toward a dialectical synthesis, not with Jewish ethnicity and religion, but with the hegemonic cultural space they occupy. One may, for example, identify him or herself as a German-Jew that is more German than Jewish. However, the hyphenation at the center of hybridity constantly points to the ethnic Jew, which points to the cultural Jew, which also points, no matter how much it is denied, to the religious Jew. This is not to suggest that religion is the determinant of Jewish in the last instance. It is only to suggest that as a category and possibly as an identity, Jewish cannot completely exist without it.

And why is this struggle for the self connected to the general problem of the self and modernity? The story of Jewish identity in Europe and Russia is an allegory for the displacement we all experience in the age of global capital. If we have or are still becoming Mercurian, the mobility of capital requires the mobility of people. The logic of capital, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is to transform us all into nomads. Yet, despite the increase in nomads, whether they be the Turk in Germany, the African in France, the Mexican in America, the Pakistani in Britain, or for that matter, the American in Russia, nation states and nationality still matter more than ever, making all those nomads out of place. They are the new diasporics marooned on the islands of nations. We diasporics are confronted with the same question the Jews of the nineteenth century were: Do I remain outside or proceed inside? And if I go inside, will they let me in and what will it cost me? Who will I become and will I still be me? Globalization turns us all into potential mimics for “power has wielded the most extreme violence against this mobility.” (Empire) This effort at fixity proliferate the discomfort of being almost the same, but not quite. It subjects all of us to what Homi Bhabha calls the repeated turn “from mimicry—a difference that is almost nothing but not quite—to menace—a difference that is almost total but not quite.” It is this movement between mimicry and menace that made the slippage from Jew to Soviet and back to Jew again so utterly tragic.

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