The Jewish Eurasianism of Yakov Bromberg

_ Stephen Shenfield. Providence, 1 May 2012.

“Non-Russian” Eurasianism

Eurasianism is generally discussed in the context of ethnic-Russian nationalism. This is understandable enough: after all, its best known proponents were and are ethnic Russians. However, in view of the self-consciously multi-ethnic and multi-confessional content of Eurasianist ideas the question naturally arises of the extent to which these ideas may appeal to other “Eurasian” peoples. And in fact Eurasianist ideas can readily be found among some, though far from all, of the non-Russian peoples of the post-Soviet region. For example, a variety of Eurasianism is an important component of the official ideology, both domestic and international, of the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan. Even more pertinent to my theme is the Eurasianism espoused by “official” intellectuals in the “autonomous” Republic of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation.

Non-Russian ethnic groups might be open to the appeal of Eurasianism. Such groups are likely to be those that on account of cultural ties and/or practical considerations seek not separation from Russia but its transformation into a multi-ethnic Russia within which they will enjoy autonomy and equal status. Such groups are also likely to be those with some grounds to identify themselves with one of the great states that at one time or another have dominated the “Eurasian heartland.”

For example, the Tatars fit the bill, and so do the Kalmyks, who are of Mongol descent. And so do the Jews, for they can look back to another of the states listed by Khakim–the Kaganate of the Khazars, another semi-nomadic Turkic people of the steppes. At the height of their power in the seventh to tenth centuries, the Khazars ruled over a vast realm in what is now southern Ukraine, southern Russia, and the Northern Caucasus. The ruling caste adopted Judaism as the state religion in 740, although in practice Khazaria always remained a multi-confessional as well as multi-ethnic polity. The capital city, Itil, consisted of four quarters: Jewish, Moslem, Christian, and pre-monotheistic. Khazaria qualifies in this respect as a microcosm of “Eurasia.” Moreover, like the Golden Horde, the Khazars left their cultural imprint on Muscovy despite wars between the two. Prior to the diffusion of Cyrillic, Hebrew script was used throughout Khazaria to transcribe Slavic speech, and three letters of the Cyrillic alphabet were modeled on Hebrew counterparts.

Bromberg’s biography

Unfortunately, I have been able to find very little biographical information about Bromberg. He was born in 1898, but I do not know when he died. From Budnitskii (2005) we learn that he was called up for military service in 1916 and became a cadet at the Kiev Konstantinovsky College. He took part with his fellow cadets in fighting against the Bolsheviks in Kiev in November 1917, was taken prisoner, and was interrogated by a commissar’s council.5 Apparently, he was the only one among his Jewish friends who chose not to seek some way of avoiding military service, whether by studying medicine or by means of self-inflicted injury (Budnitskii 2005).

From this we may infer with a fair degree of confidence that Bromberg came from a well-to-do family who shared the social and patriotic values of Russian high society and sought acceptance therein. Jews from this kind of background–there were not many of them–tended to support moderate reformist parties like the Octobrists and Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). In 1917–21 they faced a painful dilemma: as members of the upper classes they loathed the Bolsheviks and felt drawn to the Whites, while as Jews they were alienated by the Whites’ anti-Semitism. Despite the latter, some did conclude that the Whites were a “lesser evil” and resolve to lend them active support. Later, in emigration, a group of such Jews established a Patriotic Union of Russian Jews Abroad, based in Berlin, where they published what they intended to be the first in a series of collections of essays entitled “Russia and the Jews” [Rossiia i evrei] (Bikerman et al. 1923).

Although Bromberg does not appear to have belonged to this group, he shared many of their attitudes. In “The Jews and Eurasia” he criticizes the Whites, whose ideology he regards as superficial, but he “[does] not wish to throw dirt on its truly heroic tragism” merely on account of the “anti-Jewish excesses of its evil geniuses” (Bromberg, 1931). It is not clear to me exactly when he left Russia or joined the Eurasianist Movement; his main works appeared in the Russian émigré press during the first half of the 1930s. At some point he left Europe for the United States and settled in New York. In 1934, in response to a questionnaire in [I]Evraziiskie tetradi[/I] (Eurasian Notebooks) on the topic “Is the World Moving Toward Ideocracy?” (the Eurasianists considered ideocracy a good thing, provided that the ruling ideas were the right ones), he sent that journal his acerbic reflections on the “vulgar materialism” and mercenary nature of American life.

Bromberg as a religious and political thinker

Bromberg’s main concerns are the degeneration (as he sees it) of Russian Jewry, the revival of true Judaism, and the relations between Judaism and Christianity. He stresses the special historical and spiritual affinity between Judaism and Christianity, and more particularly between Judaism and Orthodoxy, and calls for mutual respect between the two faiths and the renunciation of proselytism. In this connection he expresses his approval of the position adopted by his fellow Eurasianist, the Orthodox priest and theologian Lev Platonovich Karsavin (1882–1952), who speaks of the “primordial tie between the Jewish people and Russia” (Bromberg, 1931).

Bromberg cites Khazaria as a model of religious tolerance. He adds that the Khazar episode completes a historical cycle in which Judaism was a proselytizing religion and the Jews attempted to “go beyond their ethno-cultural confines”. He appeals to two other historical precedents that to his mind demonstrate the special affinity between Judaism and Orthodoxy. One is the sects – the Sabbatarians, for instance – that have sought to return to the Old-Testament Judaic roots of Christianity. The other is the so-called “heresy of the Judaizers” of 1470–1520, which was patronized for a time by the court of Tsar Ivan III. In contrast to the received version of the “heresy,” which attributes it wholly to Jewish proselytism, Bromberg sees it as an attempt to create a hybrid faith: “The Crimean Jew Scharia brought with him to Moscow (actually to Novgorod) the seed of a new doctrine that tried to reconcile the Old and New Testament aspects of the [Judeo-Christian] religious tradition”.

Bromberg repeatedly deplores the apostasy, moral depravity, and hypocrisy of the stratum he calls the Jewish “peripheral intelligentsia” (or “semi-intelligentsia” or “pseudo-intelligentsia”). Echoing a theme that is salient in “Russia and the Jews”, he argues that the disproportionate participation of this stratum in the Bolshevik movement, which – he is convinced – has “demonic roots,” cannot be dismissed as a coincidence. It should instead prompt Russian Jews to heed the warnings of the biblical prophets and engage in “repentance and purification of [their] spiritual weaknesses” and “healthy and sincere self-criticism of the sins of [Jewish] spiritual and religious-cultural life” such as the “shameful sin of self-idolatry”.

Bromberg’s approach to religion is that of a fundamentalist reformer rather than that of a traditionalist. Thus he rejects the exegetical talmudic literature as irrelevant to present-day problems. “We Russian Jews [have to] work out an independent and original system of ethnic-religious views that will precisely outline the dogmatic-philosophical content of Judaism in relation to other religions and be capable of illuminating and comprehending all the nooks and crannies of man’s spiritual life in these turbulent times”. This would seem to place him in the same camp as Reform Judaism. However, he also hopes for a revival of “the stream of messianic-eschatological energies that has dried up in our spiritual life” – a stance directly opposed to the anti-messianic spirit of Reform Judaism.

Russian-Eurasian culture, Bromberg believes, provides the conditions needed for the revival of Judaism. “In our search for a model for the renewal of our own faith, [we can draw on] the rich tradition of Russian thought and have the legitimate right to take pride in the contribution of Jewish thinkers to that tradition”. One of the Russian-Jewish thinkers of whom he has an especially high opinion, despite the political and religious differences between them, is Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon (1869-1925). Like Gershenzon himself, Bromberg aspires to create a Judaic counterpart to the Orthodox Christian theological revival of the Silver Age.

An area of partial convergence between Gershenzon and Bromberg concerns the foundations of statehood. Both categorically reject nationalism and the principle of national self-determination, both in general and as applied to the Jews – that is, Zionism. They do so, however, from rather different positions. Gershenzon rejects nationalism – especially nationalism of the “Germanic” type, to which Zionism in his view belongs – as incompatible with liberal ideals. Bromberg, as an Eurasianist, denounces national separatism in the former Russian empire as a threat to “the organic unity of multi-tribal and multi-confessional Russia”. But he is also against liberalism as well as nationalism (including Zionism) as “a false political ideal of the state built exclusively on rational and utilitarian foundations”.


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