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Gershenzon, Mikhail Osipovich

(1869–1925), historian, literary critic, and anti-Zionist. Born in 1869 in Kishinev, Gershenzon attended a local gymnasium. Unable to gain entrance into a Russian university where there were quotas for Jews, he was sent to study engineering in Berlin. There he audited courses on history, especially those taught by Theodore Mommsen and Heinrich von Treitschke. Returning home, he gained entrance to Moscow University, ironically arriving at the same time that thousands of Jews were forced to evacuate the city.

During the late 1890s, Gershenzon began publishing articles on Russian intellectual history. In time he became known as a master stylist in Russian. Applying ideas from decadence and modernism to the study of Russian national culture, Gershenzon composed complimentary portraits of such heroes as Pavel Chaadaev, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Aleksandr Herzen. In addition, Gershenzon depicted the aristocratic culture of Russia under Nicholas I as a patristic idyll where kindness, stupidity, and noble insouciance joined together to form a society that was spiritually “whole.” For Gershenzon, spiritual wholeness and completeness were operative categories that defined whether a person was positive or negative.

Although refusing to convert, he did not practice Judaism nor believe in its tenets. Instead he conceived of a cosmic force that united all beings and objects together in the universe. His interest in modern Judaism culminated in his two books that were published in early Soviet Russia: Kleich very (The Key to Faith; 1921) and Sud’by evreiskogo naroda (The Fate of the Jewish People; 1922). In these works, Gershenzon linked the biblical testament to his own conception of a cosmic religion. He also criticized Zionism for its apparent ideological similarities to European nationalism, which, Gershenzon claimed, was responsible for the oppression of Jews. Gershenzon’s life and work reflects the achievements of a generation of Jews who acculturated to Russian culture and identified with the universal promise of improvement for all humanity.

Suggested Reading

Iacob Berman, “Gershenzon: Bibliografiia,” Trudy Pushkinskogo Doma Akademii Nauk SSSR 52 (1928); Arkadii Gornfel’d, “Gershenzon, Mikhail Osipovich,” Evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 6, col. 423 (St. Petersburg, 1906–1913); Brian Horowitz, “M. O. Gershenzon and Intellectual Life of Russia’s Silver Age” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1993); James P. Scanlan, “Introduction,” to A History of Young Russia, by M. O. Gershenzon, trans. James Scanlan, pp. vii–xxxi (Irvine, Calif., 1986).