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Minskii, Nikolai Maksimovich

(Pseudonym of N. M. Vilenkin; 1855–1937), poet and essay writer. Born in a village in the Vitebsk region of Belorussia, Nikolai Minskii graduated from a Russian gymnasium with high honors and received a degree in law from Saint Petersburg University. In 1882, he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in order to marry.

In the mid-1870s, Minskii began to publish in the prestigious journal Vestnik Evropy (Messenger of Europe), in time becoming a regular contributor. In particular, his use of Russian populist themes won him wide acclaim. His pessimist themes in the 1880s highlighted the sickness and impotence of his generation, but he did not write about Jews. Nonetheless, one literary historian showed amazement and called Minskii “the first full-blooded Jew to win a reputation in Russian letters.”

While Minskii made his career entirely in the Russian world, he did express pro-Jewish viewpoints in weekly feuilletons written for the Jewish weekly in Russian, Razsvet (1879–1881). Under the pseudonym Nord-Vest, Minskii stood up in defense of Jews, instilling a sense of pride in Jewish history, culture, and religion. In one article, he pointed to Talmud scholars; instead of mocking them, which was the fashion of assimilated Jews, he lauded them as incorruptible idealists. In his acclaimed play Osada Tul’china (The Siege of Tulchin; published in 1888 but written earlier), Minskii used the historical theme of the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres in an attempt to draw perspective on the pogroms of 1881–1882. Emphasizing the clash between two Jewish leaders, one who calls upon Jews to die with dignity “as our forefathers did,” and another who calls for self-defense, Minskii echoed debates that were taking place among Russian Jews at the time.

By the end of the 1880s, Minskii began to advocate radical individualism and disaffection from politics. His stands led many to perceive him as the “father of Russian decadence.” Minskii also grew closer to the editors Akim Volynskii and Liubov’ Gorevich of the journal Severnyi vestnik (Northern Messenger), who promoted symbolism. Joining with the radicals in 1905, Minskii fled arrest by emigrating to Paris, where he stayed in contact with Russian literary circles. Although his works elicited antisemitic reactions in the Russian press, Minskii sought to become a Russian writer and in many ways achieved that goal.

Suggested Reading

Vasilii L’vov-Rogachevsky, A History of Russian Jewish Literature, ed. and trans. Arthur Levin (Ann Arbor, 1979); “Minskii, Nikolai Maksimovich,” Kratkaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 5, pp. 362–363, (Jerusalem, 1990); Akim Volynskii “Menzely nashego dnia,” Voskhod 1–2 (1888): 1–15.