Scientific Auto-Biography


I received my initial higher education in science and engineering and began my studies in Jewish history only in the 1980s in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) without having prior formal training in history or Jewish studies. I neither had access to most relevant archival material nor contemporary Western publications in my field. Private libraries with collections of old Jewish books and journals, interviews with old-timers, discussions with professional historians, Russian and visiting foreigners were my primarily tools of self-education and research. An underground bi-monthly Leningrad seminar on Jewish history and culture I coordinated from 1982-1987 was instrumental for this purpose too. Already then I chose my research topic: the history of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg. The output - my first book "The Jews of St. Petersburg" - was first published in Leningradskii evereiskii almanakh (Leningrad Jewish Almanac, samizdat publication), and then in book form in 1989, in English (JPS, 1989) and in Russian (Sifriat Aliyah, 1989).

The book, written in the form of a guide book (though it was not a usual guide book), triggered a stream of publications on local (regional) Russian-Jewish history (krayevedenie). It was also the first study of a large Jewish community beyond the Pale, in my case – of the imperial capital. I devoted a special attention to the role played by the St. Petersburg communal leaders, its "organized Jewish public," and, especially to the Jewish liberal intelligentsia.

My second book, The Jews of Leningrad, 1917-1939: National Life and Sovietization, appeared in Russian in 1999 (Gesharim). It was based on my doctoral thesis completed at the Hebrew University.

Previous monographs on Soviet Jewry were usually devoted to Soviet Jewry as a whole, or to certain aspects of its life, for instance, to the Jewish sections of the Communist party, Jewish education, Yiddish literature, Jewish land settlement, and so on. My work was the first comprehensive study of a Jewish community of a large Soviet city in the inter-war period. The processes of integration, urbanization and sovietization of the Jews, which took place in Leningrad, greatly influenced Soviet Jewry as a whole for decades to come. In my work I showed, with facts and figures, the spectacular advance of the Jewish newcomers from shtetlach up the social ladder during the 20s and the 30s, and, as well as the price they paid, voluntary or reluctantly, for their advance. The Jews became the largest and most prosperous ethnic minority in the city. The price was paid by abandonment of the Jewish religion, language, culture, the loss of Jewish identity and possibilities to participate in any form of organized Jewish life.

I was among the first researchers to use Soviet archival material opened to researchers in the beginning of the 1990s, which enabled me to study the religious-communal life of the Leningrad Jews, of which little was previously known, as well as the history of a number of the short-lived Jewish organizations in the city (such as the Jewish University, Jewish Communist establishments, Zionist underground etc.), and "the Leningrad period" of such remarkable figures as Rabbi Yosef Yitskhak Shneerson, the historian of Jewish literature Israel Tzinberg, and the Hebrew poet Haim Lensky.

As I discovered, the former "organized Jewish Public" - remnants of the pre-revolutionary highly developed strata - adapted itself to the new conditions, helped the newcomers in their economic integration and in the preservation of their Jewish identity. Its activity lasted longer than one could expect.

The book "The Jews of Leningrad" was also a pioneering work, a comprehensive study of a St. Petersburg ethnic minority in the Soviet period written in the absence of a trustworthy history of the city. Consequently, immediately after the appearance of the book, it was awarded the prestigious Antsiferov Prize for the best book about St. Petersburg published in 1998-1999. The book was updated, translated into Hebrew and published by the Zalman Shazar Center (Jerusalem) in 2005.

My third book Our Legacy: The CIS Synagogues, Past and Present (2002, in English and Russian) deals with the fate of synagogue buildings in Russia, the USSR and the Commonwealth of Independent States throughout the 20th century, their changing legal status and their recent restitution and reconstruction. I wrote it using unique documental material I gathered as the coordinator of the CIS Communal Property Restitution Program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The book includes two hundred photos, old and new, the most valuable among them were from Central and Eastern Russia, regions generally overlooked by authors writing about Russian synagogues. The previous studies of synagogues of the FSU usually focused on architecture, and specifically the oldest buildings located in the area of the western border of the CIS.

The American Brother: The "Joint" in Russia, the USSR and the CIS written together with Mikhail Mitsel was published in 2004, in the form of a catalogue of the retrospective photo exhibition by the same name held in Moscow in October 2004. The book draws scholars' attention to 250 archival photographs and documents, most of them never published before. The introduction to the book surveys the 90-year long history of JDC's activities in Russia.

I have also written quite a few articles. One of them, "New Light on the Murder of Professor Israel Friedlaender and Rabbi Bernard Cantor" (published at the American Jewish Archive Journal) relates the circumstances of the murder of two JDC emissaries in the Ukraine in 1920, circumstances which had been distorted by numerous previous publications. It includes the 85-year old report of the investigation of the murder. This was far from a trivial case because of its political ramifications.

My another publication, written together with Israel Bartal, of the investigation, incarnation and death of a leading pre-war Polish scholar, rabbi and Jewish public figure, Moses Schorr, fills the two year gap (1939-1941) in the biography of this outstanding personality. It was first published in Russia at the Vestnik evreiskogo universitet and then in English at Polin.

In my article "'Tevye the Milkman’ as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution," I argue that the famous novel by Shalom Aleichem reflects certain views of the contemporary Russian intelligentsia rather than the realities of the Jewish life in the Pale.

My essay “Dubnov’s Theory of Autonomism and Its Practice in the Commonwealth of Independent States" examines Simon Dubnov's conceptions in the contemporary FSU context and concludes that, if one looks at the post-Soviet Jewish community in isolation, then Jewish autonomy is ineffective to prevent shrinking of the community, but on the global scale, it's role is still important.

My newer publications about the "refuseniks' movement" are a response to the growing interest in that important chapter of Soviet Jewish history. For example, my article "Assisting the Jews of Poverty and Struggle: A Package Program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and of the Israeli "Nativ" for Jews of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe," deals with a new and sensitive research topic – the material basis of the Jewish national movement in the USSR.

My two lengthy encyclopedia articles on Jews of Soviet Union (The Encyclopedia Judaica Years Book) are, in fact, not compilations, but new research, as they deal with recent developments in the USSR-FSU, while the article about the AJJDC ("Joint") (The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe) covers the last decades of the 20th century barely dealt with in scholarly publications.

Today my principal research topic is "The 'Joint' in Russia, USSR and the FSU." Although I have already published several articles on this topic (for instance, "Samuil Efimovich Lubarsky: Portrait of a Deputy Director of the Agro-Joint", East European Jewish Affairs), while a comprehensive study, encompassing the whole of the XX century, is still lacking. I hope to complete this job in the next few years.