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Brafman, Iakov Aleksandrovich

(1825–1879), a notorious Russian convert from Judaism and author of the most successful and influential work of Judeophobia in Russian history. Iakov Brafman was born to a poor Jewish family, grew up almost uneducated and rebellious, and clashed with the kahal (the Jewish self-governing community) in his native Kletsk. When faced with the draft, he chose to convert, becoming first Lutheran and later Russian Orthodox.

As a relatively successful Christian missionary in charge of converting Jews, Brafman was promoted to be a Hebrew instructor at the Minsk Ecclesiastical Seminary. He furthered his career by criticizing institutions of traditional Jewish society, following the lines of Russian reactionary thought that denigrated and vilified all Western liberalism, particularly such nineteenth-century phenomena as the Grand Sanhedrin (Napoleon Bonaparte’s Rabbinic Assembly of 1807), the Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860), and the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia (OPE; 1863), viewing them as occult Jewish conspiracies.

To back up his claim that West European Jewish institutions were plotting the destruction of Russian Orthodoxy, Brafman focused on the kahal, the quintessential East European communal entity that was legally abolished in 1844. According to him, the kahal utilized the ethics of the Talmud to secretly control East European Jews and indoctrinate them in unconditional obedience to ruling Jewish authorities; he also claimed that Jews were taught to hate Russian society.

Brafman summarized his views in a book titled Evreiskie bratstva mestnye i vsemirnye (Jewish Brotherhoods, Local and International; 1869) that he further buttressed that same year with Kniga kagala: Materialy dlia izuchenia evreiskogo byta (The Book of the Kahal: Materials for the Study of the Jewish Life), a collection combining forged, misrepresented, and misinterpreted Hebrew documents allegedly taken from Minsk kahal registers of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Brafman expanded and published both books in a two-volume edition, Kniga kagala: Vsemirnyi evreiskii vopros (The Book of the Kahal: An International Jewish Question; 1879), which immediately became the standard introduction to Jewish life and culture for the Russian imperial bureaucracy.

Brafman’s writings on the kahal and the Talmud disposed Russian authorities positively toward him, securing for him the new position of censor of Jewish books in Vilna, membership in the Russian Imperial Geographical Society, and a reputation among Russian conservative thinkers. In late imperial Russia, the antiliberal doctrines of Kniga kagala shaped the antisemitic mentality of the state bureaucracy, triggered the rise of Russian Judeophobic literature such as Vsevolod Krestovskii’s novel T’ma egipetskaia (Egyptian Darkness; 1888), justified curtailing several Jewish civic liberties in the post-1881 counterreform era, and, translated into French, German, and Polish, created an indispensable frame of reference for the antisemitic bestseller Protokoly sionskikh mudretsov (Protocols of the Elders of Zion; 1903). Early twenty-first century publications on the Jewish question of such Russian neoconservative thinkers as Vadim Kozhinov, Stanislav Kuniaev, and Oleg Platonov testify to the astonishing longevity of Brafman’s myth of the anti-Russian, anti-Christian, intimidating and secret international Jewish kahal.

Suggested Reading

Savelii Dudakov, Istoriia odnogo mifa: Ocherki russkoi literatury XIX–XX vv. (Moscow, 1993); John Klier, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–1881 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 169–173, 263–288; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The ‘Jewish Policy’ of the Late Imperial War Ministry: The Impact of the Russian Right,” KRITIKA: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002): 217–254, esp. 219–227; Hans Rogger, “Reforming Jews—Reforming Russians,” in Hostages of Modernization: Studies on Modern Antisemitism, 1870–1933/39, ed. Herbert Strauss, vol. 2, pp. 1208–1229 (Berlin, 1993).