Jewish cultural figures who would become members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee signing an appeal to world Jewry to support the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany, Moscow, 1941. (Front row, left to right) Dovid Bergelson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Ilya Ehrenburg; (second row) David Oistrakh, Yitskhok Nusinov, Yakov Zak, Boris Iofan, Benjamin Zuskin, Aleksandr Tyshler, Shmuel Halkin. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Martin Smith)

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Nusinov, Yitskhok

(1889–1950), Soviet Yiddish and Russian literary critic and scholar. Yitskhok Nusinov was born in the Volhynian town of Chernigov, where his father, a maskil, held a lease on a glass factory. Involved in Bundist revolutionary activity from 1905, Nusinov graduated as an external student from a Warsaw secondary school in 1910, and two years later helped organize one of the first Yiddish schools in Ukraine. Subsequently, he traveled to Italy and Switzerland for medical treatment, also studying literature and philosophy at Lausanne University and participating actively in the cultural life of the Russian émigré colony.

After returning to Russia in 1917, Nusinov served as a Bund leader in Chernigov. He was arrested the following year in Kiev by Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian authorities and sentenced to death, but he escaped from prison. Nusinov soon joined the Bolshevik Party and was appointed head of its Jewish section, the Evsektsiia, and of the Kultur-lige in Kiev. He moved to Moscow in 1922 and subsequently completed a doctorate, published in 1927, on the historical novels of Victor Hugo and Anatole France.

Nusinov then taught European and Russian literature at various institutes of higher education; he held professorial positions in Western literatures at the Institute of Red Professors and the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, where he also taught in the department of Yiddish language and literature. In addition, he was affiliated with the Communist Academy in Moscow and the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev, and belonged to the editorial boards of several Yiddish periodicals. Until 1939 he headed the Yiddish Section of the Soviet Writers Union. During and after World War II, he was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC).

A highly prolific and versatile writer, Nusinov was a leading Soviet authority on Marxist literary theory and West European literatures. His areas of expertise included Spanish, French, English, German, Russian, and Yiddish literature. As one of the five principal editors of Literaturnaia entsiklopediia (Literary Encyclopedia; 11 vols., 1929–1939) and author of numerous introductions to Yiddish literary works, Nusinov had a definitive impact on the perception of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Until the early 1930s, his work was marked by strict adherence to Marxist interpretation from a class-deterministic sociological point of view; later his approach became less dogmatic.

Still, between 1932 and 1936 Nusinov emerged as the major opponent of György Lukács and Mikhail Lifshits in the debate on the relationship between a writer’s class affiliation and literary imagination. Nusinov represented the dogmatic deterministic position against the more flexible dialectical approach of his opponents, but he had fallen out of step with the official line and was condemned officially for “vulgar sociologism.” Nusinov retained his academic positions but lost his influence as an ideological authority.

Nusinov’s contribution to Yiddish culture has two dimensions. During the late 1920s, he published valuable analytical studies of Sholem Aleichem’s early works, of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, and Y. L. Peretz. Simultaneously, he was actively engaged in contemporary Soviet Yiddish literature, taking a moderately critical but generally benevolent position with regard to modernist experimentation. In his preface to Itsik Kipnis’s novella Khadoshim un teg (Months and Days; 1925), Nusinov argued that Soviet Yiddish literature was bound to reflect petit-bourgeois class consciousness as long as most of the Jewish population belonged to that social group. As late as 1929, he appraised the symbolist writing of Der Nister as “helpful” for the construction of Communist society.

Nusinov’s critical output in Yiddish comprised thousands of pages of articles, reviews, and introductions dealing with contemporary authors in the Soviet Union and abroad, as well as with classic Russian writers (Tolstoy, Gorky, and Chekhov) and general problems of literary theory (Problemen fun der proletarisher literatur [Problems of Proletarian Literature]; 1932). Although Nusinov occasionally came under attack by the zealots of proletarian literature, he managed to steer clear of political troubles. He was dealt a fatal blow, however, during the anticosmopolitan campaign, when he was accused of defaming the national character of Russia’s greatest poet in his 1941 study Pushkin i mirovaia literatura (Pushkin and World Literature). He was arrested with other members of the JAC in January 1949 and died during interrogations in November 1950.

Today Nusinov is mostly remembered as a dogmatic Marxist who opposed the more sophisticated theorists of Lukács’s school. While many of Nusinov’s ideas are outdated, his erudite studies in Yiddish literary history remain valuable, and his tireless efforts to promote Yiddish literature among the Russian reading audience deserve recognition and appreciation.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism (Syracuse, N.Y., 2005); Mikhail Krutikov, “Soviet Yiddish Scholarship in the 1930s: From Class to Folk,” Slavic Almanach: A Year Book of the South African Society for Slavic, Central, and East European Studies 7.10 (2001): 223–251; Alexander Pomerantz, Di sovetishe haruge-malkhes (Buenos Aires, 1962).