Russia in 1905

Over a hundred years ago in 5665/1905, a New York Times reviewer lashed out viciously at the recently published Russia as it Really Is, by the English doctor, Carl Joubert. “The book by Carl Joubert is that of a fanatical Russophobe,” the reviewer ranted, “a man who condemns not only Russia and the Russians in toto, but also the Servians, Bulgarians, and Armenians as ‘cutthroats,’ utterly worthless, and not deserving our sympathy.”

Any Jew living in Russia knew that, unfortunately, Joubert was stating the plain truth. Indeed, he had garnered his information by spending nine years among Russia’s nobles, peasants, and Jews.

“During that period,” he writes, “I have visited every Government [province] in the Empire. I have associated with every class; I have been the guest of Princes and the bedfellow of peasants. I have feasted in the palaces of St. Petersburg with the dissolute, and I have sat at the feet of the greatest thinker and philanthropist in Russia… I have acquired the languages of the country, Russian and corrupt Russian, Polish, Lettish, Lithuanian and Yiddish.”

Just as the fish rots from its head, so in Russia, so the source of all evil was the Holy Tsar of Russia, known as Zemhla Bogh (The god on Earth), Adjuster of the Earth, and Peace and Goodwill on Earth. These grandiose claims were foisted on a population comprised mainly of moujiks [peasants], for whose fatalistic acceptance of tribulation Joubert harbored a grudging admiration:

“He never wishes for anything nor frets for what might have been. He has no ambitions beyond his daily needs… Riches for him are a sufficiency of black bread and salted herrings and a little vodka. If he can get it he will soak himself in vodka, but he is quite content with his stakan of tea if he cannot. He will steal when there is no chance of detection, and lie as a matter of course.”

Nonetheless, he warned, this infinite capacity for suffering would one day burst out in destructive cataclysm. “Beneath these qualities there is a smoldering fire, which occasionally breaks out and is at once suppressed by order of the Tsar. But it is never altogether extinguished, and some day it will get beyond control…”

Of course, the moujik had his evil side where ignorance and superstition superceded humanity and decency. Joubert discusses the poor Grodno Jew who made his living selling pirrogs (meat pies), traveling every week by rail to a neighboring market town to sell his wares.

“One day he took his seat in a third class railway carriage with his basket of pirrogs to go to the market. There were two moujiks in the carriage with him. Now the pirrogs were still hot from the oven, and the smell of them rose through the blanket, which covered the basket and fi lled the compartment with a grateful odour. The two moujiks… across to where the Jew was sitting, and seizing the unfortunate vendor by the collar thrust him through the window, and took possession of the basket of pirrogs… When the train arrived at the next station a search was made by the railway police, and the basket of pirrogs was discovered intact in the possession of the two moujiks. They could not account for the presence of the basket, and they were arrested. But it was only a Jew who had been killed, and the sympathies of the gendarme were with the two moujiks.

“’Why did you not eat the pirrogs and throw the basket away?’ he asked confidentially.

“’You forget,’ said one of the moujiks, ‘that today is Friday, and it is not allowed to eat meat.’

“To murder a Jew was nothing to them as they were merely following the example set by the ‘Little Father,’ But to eat pirrogs on a Friday was an unpardonable sin, which no self [- respecting] moujik would commit.”

Joubert claimed that beneath a thin veneer of respectability, most of the Russian aristocracy, judiciary and police were no better than the dregs of their society.

“It is useless to disguise the fact, that all Russian men, from the Holy Tsar downwards, are, with few exceptions, moujiks. The hot Tartar blood is so close to the surface that the thin veneer of civilization is unable to keep it in check.

A moment of anger, a pair of flashing eyes, an extra glass of vodka, will suffice to reduce the polished Russian gentleman to the level of the moujik.

With the example of the governors and judges before them, it is hardly to be expected that the police should be free from guile. They are not.”

Any Jew in Russia would have agreed to Joubert’s depiction of the Russian policeman, whose palm had to be kept well greased.

“He will touch his cap to you like an English crossing-sweeper when you cross the road; and the other hand is always behind him palm upwards. If you happen to be a humble subject of the Tsar living in the neighborhood of his beat, it is as well to place something in it now and again; for he has it in his power to make things unpleasant. He divides the spoil with the thief, and he can give useful information to the burglar as to the easiest method of entry into your house, for he makes a particular study of the windows and doors of the habitations of which he is placed in charge…”

The only group of people Joubert really approved of was the Jews. “I devoted a great deal of time whilst I was in Russia to the study of the Jews, and the problems which surround their existence as subjects of the Tsar… Their language, the Yiddish, I acquired whilst living amongst them. Their religion and laws I already knew when I went to them, having studied the Talmud for three years in Jerusalem, though I am not myself a Jew.”

In general, he found that they were filled with genuine piety and selflessness, bringing the “Shirtless Rabbi” as an extreme example.

“I used to know a Rabbi in Minsk who was called ‘the Shirtless Rabbi.’ He earned the nickname from the fact that he was unable to keep a shirt on his back… When a beggar approached him in the street and asked alms, the Rabbi would say, ‘My brother, I have no money, but come with me.’ The beggar would follow him to a side street, and there the Rabbi would divest himself of his shirt and give it to the beggar, saying, ‘Take this, brother, you will be able to get something for it.’”

Doubtful whether such a person could exist, Joubert searched the rabbi out and put him to the test.

“I disguised myself as a beggar, with the help of an old suit of clothes… I followed him, and poured into his ear a tale of starvation and woe. A moment later I regretted it. For the good Rabbi turned upon me a look of genuine compassion and sadness… ‘Oi, 0i!’ he said gently, ‘follow me, brother.’ He stopped suddenly at a dark corner of the street, and throwing off his coat, divested himself of his shirt, and, rolling it into a bundle, came towards me with his face wreathed in smiles. He thrust it into my hands saying, ‘May G-d bless you, but that is all I have.’”

Later, the writer compensated the loss with half a dozen new shirts to which the rabbi’s wife remarked, “What a piece of luck, Mendel! You will be able to give away your shirt six times now.”

Joubert was enthralled at the Jews’ devotion to every detail of the Law and their voluntary submission to their rabbis’ guidance.

“The Rabbi in Israel is indeed a marvelous person,” he raves. “How much simpler it would be if, in the great civilized world, where we mistrust and hate our neighbor and attribute the basest of motives to his every act, even to his acts of charity; where we fly at each other’s throats armed with the talons of the law in defense of what we are pleased to call our rights… how much simpler it would be if we could have our Rabbis, learned, simple-minded, disinterested, to whom we could bring our troubles and our wrongs, and rest assured that they would right them…”

“I once knew a Jew in Vilna who went into partnership with a Christian Pole in the old clo’ line. After a time the Pole took it into his head that his Hebrew partner was not acting squarely by him. There was some trouble over a consignment of second-hand clothes and the market quotation for rags. Words ensued, but neither would give way. Suddenly a happy thought struck the Pole. ‘Pudjim do Rabhinovo (Come to the Rabbi!)!’ he shouted.”

Joubert concludes by mocking the ironical situation that despite its persecution of the Jews, Russia prides itself on condemning Turkey for its mistreatment of the Armenian Christians of its empire.

“Now Turkey does not pretend to Christianity, and the rule of the Sultan may not be all that is admirable,” Joubert complains. “But his treatment of the Armenians is not one whit worse than the treatment of the Jews by Russia. There is this difference, the Jew is a peaceful and law-abiding subject, but the Armenian, though he wears the badge of Christianity, is a murderer and cut-throat at heart, and has brought the trouble on himself…

But because the Turk is a Mahommedan and the Armenian a Christian, therefore Christian Russia, who murders the Jews by thousands, is deputed by the rest of Christianity to suppress the Turk.” Not long afterwards, Turkey slaughtered over half a million

Armenians during and after World War I. Despite Turkey’s claim that this was largely due to the Armenians’ supporting the Russian enemy during World War I, this slaughter is widely regarded as the first modern genocide.

Joubert ends his book with a warning to the Tsar that if he does not drastically alter his approach, his days will be numbered.

“The grant of equal rights in the eye of the law to all your Majesty’s subjects without respect to creed, colour, or race, is an elementary form of justice which is only to be expected of an enlightened monarch. Freedom of speech and of the press are not regarded as dangers to the peace of civilized countries. It is only by granting reforms such as these that the day of revolution can be averted…The smoke, your Imperial Majesty, is issuing from the eaves of your house, and I have taken the liberty of warning your Majesty of the fact.”

The Tsar and his family were executed by Communists in July 5678/1918; nine years ago in 5760/2000, the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church declared them saints.

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