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Iushkevich, Semen Solomonovich

(1868–1927), fiction writer and playwright. Semen Solomonovich Iushkevich grew up amid Odessa’s multiethnic population, which remained as a background in his literary imagination throughout his life. Acculturated urbanized Jews were his characters of choice. After marrying at 17, Iushkevich left home and supported himself by working as a pharmacist’s assistant and contributing to the Odesskii listok (Odessa Sheet). Between 1893 and 1902, Iushkevich lived in Paris, where he graduated from the medical faculty of the Sorbonne.

Some critics consider the 1897 publication of Iushkevich’s story “Portnoi. Iz evreiskogo byta” (The Tailor: From Jewish Daily Life) in the narodnik (populist) journal Russkoe bogatstvo (Russian Wealth) the start of a new period in Jewish Russian literature. Iushkevich made the Jewish question a piece of the thematic repertoire of mainstream Russian prose and drama in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Published in the Jewish Russian magazine Voskhod (Sunrise) in 1902, the short novel Raspad (Disintegration; written in 1895) made Iushkevich famous. In 1904, his collection Rasskazy (Stories) sold a record 6,000 copies. Iushkevich published numerous works of fiction in those decades, including the short novels Ita Gaine (1901), Nashi sestry (Our Sisters; 1903), Ulitsa (Street; 1911; written 1908), and the three-volume satirical novel Leon Drei (1908–1919).

Iushkevich focused, unabashedly, on urban extremes—abject poverty, crime, and prostitution. With naturalistic openness, he described his characters’ sexuality and bodies. Jewish readers and critics took pride in his achievement but also voiced anxiety about some of its aspects. Some felt that by airing dirty Jewish laundry, Iushkevich gave ammunition to antisemites. Not always out of their love for Jews, Russian critics praised his “courage” and “honesty.” Uneven and perhaps at times lacking in artistic refinement, the talented Iushkevich felt neither self-conscious nor apologetic about his treatment of Jewish characters.

Through the writer Nikolai Teleshov, Iushkevich entered the Sreda (Wednesday) circle of neorealist writers and became affiliated with Maksim Gorky’s Znanie publishing house. To Gorky, Iushkevich dedicated his well-known novel Evrei (The Jews; 1904), which graphically and shockingly portrayed anti-Jewish violence. After the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, Iushkevich moved temporarily to Berlin and turned to playwriting. His dramas and comedies were staged by major theaters in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and in the Russian provinces.

Iushkevich left Russia in 1920. In 1921, he went to the United States, where his works appeared in Yiddish periodicals and in book form, and his plays were staged in Yiddish translation. Iushkevich remained prolific in Russian émigré publishing. In 1924, he settled in Paris, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Suggested Reading

Boris Czerny, “L’antisémitisme dans les oeuvres de l’écrivain russe-juif S. Juskevic,” Cahiers du Monde Russe 41.4 (2000): 535–560; Shimon Markish, “Yushkevich, Semyon,” in The Blackwell Companion to Jewish Culture: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, ed. Glenda Abramson, p. 817 (New York, 1989); Ruth Solomon Rischin, “Semyon Yushkevich, 1868–1927: The Man and His Art” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1993).