Viktor Kelner, Shchit. M.M. Vinaver i evreiskii vopros v Rossii v kontse XIX-nachale XX veka [Shield. M.M. Vinaver and the Jewish Question in Russia in the late 19th-early 20th Century] (St. Petersburg: European University in St. Petersburg Press, 2018). 510 pp. 12 ill.

Vassili Shchedrin

An eminent scholar of modern Jewish politics in Russia, Jonathan Frankel thus summarized the impact of the 1881-1882 Pogrom crisis—it deal[t] a heavy blow to the hitherto prevailing faith in the onward march of liberalism as the natural solution to the Jewish question … Henceforward, the process of modernization in Russian Jewry brought with it an ever-growing adherence to post-liberal ideologies—to socialism, to Jewish nationalism, or to various sytheses between them.’ However, as the recently published study of Russian Jewish liberal politics by St. Petersburg historian Viktor Kelner demonstrates, after the crisis of 1881-1882 and until the 1917 Russian revolution, liberalism remained an influential ideology and a considerable force in Jewish politics in Russia. Kelner tackles the life and work of Maxim Vinaver (1863-1926), a leading Russian Jewish liberal politician, lawyer, national activist, and historian, but Vinaver is not the main subject of the book. From the outset, Kelner makes it clear that his goal is not to write the biography of Vinaver but rather to define Vinaver’s role and significance for modern Jewish politics in late imperial and revolutionary Russia (11). Thus Kelner focuses on Vinaver’s political strategy and contribution to Jewish political lobbyism in the Russian government, parliament (State Duma), and the informal political circles of the Russian intelligentsia (28). In Kelner’s book, Jewish political lobbyism in 1890s-1910s Russia, represented by the activities of Vinaver and organizations he founded such    as the Defense Bureau and the Union for Equal Rights, was shown as an integral—liberal—stream within  the Russian and Jewish political movement, along with the socialist and nationalist streams (9). Kelner also differentiates between shtadlanut, the traditional form of Jewish intercession in courts of power, and political lobbyism, a brand new form of modern Jewish politics (10). Kelner argues that by the end of the nineteenth century, traditional shtadlanut, seeking favors for the Jews from the authorities, was in crisis, so political lobbyism stepped into the arena of the Russian government and public politics, boldly demanding the lifting of legal restrictions of Jewish life in Russia and the protection and defense (acting as a virtual ‘shchit,’ a shield, the title of the book) of the Jews from antisemitic attitudes and actions (29-52).

The book begins with an examination of the context in which Maxim Vinaver and Jewish political lobbyism came into being. The political role of legal professionals in the 1890s, considered the era of political conservatism and anti-democratic reaction, is also analyzed. St Petersburg salons—informal gatherings where literature, historiography, and theater were discussed along with pressing political issues—proved to be a fertile ground where Jewish political lobbyism came of age and gained support (69-78). In this context, Vinaver developed both his identity and his political position as a Russian Jew (russkii evrei) (79). Vinaver’s outlook and politics were both Russian and Jewish: the two were closely intertwined, mutually dependent, and intergral, as reflected in his beliefs and actions. Vinaver's friend, the historian Simon Dubnow, noted that the Russian and Jewish sides of Vinaver were inseparable, ‘as if Jacob’s hand was still grasping Esau's heel’ (reference to Genesis 25:26) (82).

Russian public opinion, especially that of the intelligentsia, was sympathetic toward Jewish suffering in the 1900s (87). This disposition, among other things, encouraged Vinaver to create the first lobbyist Jewish organizations—the Defense Bureau (Biuro zashchity) and the Press Bureau (Biuro pressy)—to provide legal advice and support to alleviate residential restrictions for Jews and to monitor and refute defamation of the Jews in the Russian press. 1904 became a watershed year in the transition from traditional shtadlanut to Jewish political lobbyism in Russia (107-110). The Russian authorities were helpless against the rising tide of anti-Jewish violence triggered by the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and therefore, in Vinaver’s view, the time had come for concerted action of Russian and Jewish oppositional forces against the government. Vinaver also understood that in order to have a  political alliance with the Russian democratic opposition, the Jews needed an effective political organization. In 1905, with his help, the Union for Equal Rights (Soiuz polnopraviia) was formed on the model of the Defense Bureau.

During its short period of existence, from May 1905-March 1907, the Union was instrumental in negotiations that resulted in granting Russian Jews the right to vote in nation-wide elections and in public deliberations on the Jewish question in the State Duma, the first Russian parliament. Vinaver saw the Union as a non-partisan national organization aimed at transforming the Jewish subjects of the Russian empire into a considerable force in the future political constellation of a new democratic Russia. The Union distanced itself from both the Jewish socialists (the Bund), who wanted to overthrow the government, and the Jewish nationalists (various Zionist parties and groups), who saw no future for the Jews in Russia. In the words of one of the Union’s foundational documents, ‘The dual goal of the Union’s future political activity is the state [i.e. public] good and our people’s [i.e. Jews’] good’ (130-131). Vinaver’s own dualism, his leadership in the Union and in the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party (cadets), made him and his overall goal of Jewish equality in Russia vulnerable and subject to compromise in political negotiations with his Russian colleagues (146).

In the 1906 elections of the State Duma, Vinaver chose to run as a cadet, one of the leaders of the influential Russian party, rather than as a representative of the Union, an essentially Jewish organization. When elected, Vinaver staunchly opposed the creation of a Jewish national faction in the Duma. As a result, deliberations and important decisions pertinent to Jewish questions were in large measure influenced by Russian cadets and trudoviks (laborists) (148-150). In July 1906, when the First Duma was dismissed by tsar Nicholas II as a part of the constitutional coup, Vinaver effectively lost his leading position in Jewish politics, which, in the 1900s-1910s was increasingly dominated by radical socialist and nationalist parties. Vinaver saw the demise of his political mission as tragic and a personal failure  (169).

In 1906-1907, Vinaver openly clashed with Vladimir Jabotinsky, the emerging leader of the Russian Zionists, and Simon Dubnow, the historian and founder of the autonomist Folkspatei. Jabotinsky believed that Russian Jews should be entitled to political self-determination, since they did not share the political interests of the majority of Russians and would eventually emigrate en masse (177, 179). In Dubnow’s view, emigration—building a future Jewish spiritual center in Palestine and an economic one in America—would not solve the Jewish question but would and should create a solid foundation for autonomus Jewish political and cultural life in the Diaspora (206). In 1907, as a result of the growing influence of the Zionists in the ranks of his own organization, Vinaver, with a small group of his supporters, split from the Union for Equal Rights to form the Jewish People’s Group (Evreiskaia narodnaia gruppa), which would adhere to Vinaver’s old strategy, alliance with Russian liberal forces and working toward a Jewish future in the new democratic Russia (195-197). Vinaver also rejected Dubnow’s autonomism, arguing that ‘the Russian people is our political nation, while the Jewish people is our cultural nation, and for this reason the [idea of Jewish autonomy] is irrelevant’ (210). In the end, Vinaver was pushed to the margins of both Jewish and Russian politics. Among Jews, he was seen as a representative of the assimilated and Russified Jewish elite (172-173). The Union’s Russian-language periodicals and other publications were inaccessible to many Jews who were instead influenced by the Jewish socialist and nationalist press written in Yiddish (182). Vinaver was increasingly perceived by Jews as an essentially Russian politician, one of the leading cadets (205). However, his legitimacy was in question among some leading cadets, such as Petr Struve, who did not recognize any separate Jewish interest in Russian politics, arguing that the idea of the Jewish nation is a ‘fantasy and a product of the ill-conceived policies and abnormal legal conditions’ (180-181).

Due to reactionary changes in the electoral legislation,  Jewish representation in the Russian parliament shrank from 4 deputies in the Second Duma (1907) to 2 deputies—Naftali Fridman and Lazar Nisselovich—in the Third Duma (1907-1912). However, the Jewish question—the lifting of legal restrictions in the Pale of Settlement—continued to be one of the top priorities, and even a moral imperative in Russian politics (218). The Duma was also a political arena where Vinaver could still lobby for the Jewish interest, by backing the Jewish deputies and using his influence among Russian cadets  (222). In 1910, the Third Duma considered a proposal to abolish the Pale. Ultimately, the proposal was rejected, however, for the first time, the Jewish question surfaced in public politics as an important issue of national importance (224). Vinaver was also active in Jewish communal politics. In 1909, he took part in the preparation and proceedings of the Meeting of Jewish communal activists (Soveshchanie evreiskikh obshchestvennykh deiatelei)—120 deputies from 46 communities—in Kovno, aimed at finding common ground among the politically fragmented Russian Jews. After the meeting, Vinaver led the Kovno Committee, an auxiliary body attached consulting the Jewish deputies of the Duma (250).

The Kovno Committee did not mobilize nation-wide Jewish support for Vinaver’s lobbyism, but the 1909 Chirikov incident, a clash between Russian and Jewish literati in St. Petersburg over representation of the Jews in Russian literature, revealed a shift in the Russian intelligentsia’s attitude toward the Jews, now increasingly seen as too loud and intrusive (269-273). The involvement of the Russian public in the Beilis Affair, a blood libel case against Mendel Beilis, revealed that Beilis’s Russian defenders were motivated by hostility toward the government rather than sympathy for the Jews (281-282).


At the outbreak of the First World War on July 26, 1914, Fridman, the Jewish deputy to the Fourth Duma, declared that Russian Jews considered themselves Russian citizens and would defend the fatherland (307). Vinaver created two new lobbying bodies—the Political bureau and the Information bureau (Politicheskoe biuro and Informatsionnoe biuro) in order to coordinate Jewish politics in the Russian parliament during the war (310).

In 1915, the tsarist regime tried to avoid responsibility for military defeat and territorial loss, blaming ‘the treacherous Jews,’ and the attitude of the Russian public and liberal politicians shifted again. The Jewish question once again came into focus and Vinaver’s lobbyism gained momentum. Disparate segments of the Russian political spectrum openly supported the Jews, like the authors of the literary collection ‘The Shield’ (Shchit) prepared and published by leading Russian writers Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreev, and Fedor Sollogub. The lifting of anti-Jewish legal restrictions was no longer seen as an obstacle to the war effort and became a rallying cry in democratic politics (365). According to the sources, one of the first decrees of the Provisional government after the 1917 February revolution was to abolish all legal restrictions concerning religious and ethnic minorities in Russia, including the Jews. The decree bore the distinct traces of Vinaver’s work (366).

After the February revolution, Vinaver focused his work on Russian rather than on Jewish issues, cautiously avoiding key appointments in the Provisional government. Many other Jewish politicians, however, sought important posts and even ministerial offices. Their growing representation in the post-revolutionary government gave rise to antisemitic sentiment in Russian society (372). After the 1917 October revolution, Vinaver finally accepted the office of minister of international relations in the Whites’ regional government in Crimea. The Whites’ leaders hoped to use Vinaver’s patriotic belief in a future democratic multi-national Russia, to try and gain support for their cause from international Jewish leaders. However, those same White's commanders, who sought the Jewish support, proved to be unable and sometimes unwilling to curb increasingly violent antisemitism of their own troops. It deeply frustrated Vinaver and ultimately doomed his political mission (391).

After immigrating with his family to France in 1919 and until his sudden death in 1926, Vinaver continued his work both as a member of the Paris cadet group and as the publisher of a trilingual—French, German, and Russian—journal ‘the Jewish Tribune’ (Evreiskaia tribuna, 1919-1925). According to Vinaver, one of the journal's main goals was to demonstrate that liberal Jewish politics still existed as a viable alternative to both Bolshevism and Zionism, and that the establishment of a liberal, multi-ethnic Russia could be a sound solution to the Jewish question and a bulwark against rising European antisemitism (409, 411).

In his conclusion, Kelner argues that Vinaver lost his two principal political battles—both ‘as Mordechai [his Jewish name at birth] and Maxim’—as a Russian cadet and a Jewish lobbyist. However, Kelner continues, Vinaver’s failure reveals not only his tragedy but his greatness (437, 450). Going against the historical current does not mean going against history. Thus, Vinaver’s life and work, which resulted in failure, secured him a place in Russian and Jewish history.

It is true that Vinaver and liberalism lost, and as a result, like Vinaver’s British fellow Jewish liberal Lucien Wolf,  he was ‘consigned by much of Jewish historiography to that dismal oblivion reserved for losing sides.’ 2 Kelner’s book not only reclaims Vinaver for Jewish history, but also provides a meticulously detailed picture and richly documented analysis of long-ignored aspects of Jewish politics in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia. By showing the Jewish role in Russian politics, Kelner’s book makes an important contribution to Russian and Jewish historiography. Kelner’s use of previously unknown primary sources and inaccessible literature, makes the book an invaluable source reader for students and researchers of Russia and Russian Jews during the three tumultuous and fateful decades of the 1890s to the 1920s.

1 Jonathan Frankel, ‘The Crisis of 1881-82 as a Turning Point in Modern jewish History’ In David Berger, ed. The Legacy of Jewish Migration: 1881 and Its Impact (New York: Brooklyn College Press, disributed by Columbia University Press, 1983), 10.

2 Mark Levene, War, Jews, and the New Europe. The Diplomacy of Lucien Wolf. 1914-1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 12.