Boys entering the Mefitse Haskalah (Disseminators of the Enlightenment) school, affiliated with the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia, Vilna, 1929. (YIVO)

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Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia

An educational and civic association devoted to the acculturation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (known in Russian as Obshchestva dlia Rasprostraneniia Prosveshcheniia Mezhdu Evreiami v Rossii; OPE) was founded in 1863 during a period of liberalization. It remained active until it was forced to close in 1929 under the Bolshevik government’s program to abolish independent political and cultural institutions. The OPE experienced three phases of programming, reflecting the internal state of the Jewish community in Russia and adjusting to its changing relations with the Russian government.

The OPE was established by Evzel’ Gintsburg (Günzburg) and other wealthy Jews of Saint Petersburg. Its tasks were designed to ensure that Jews fulfilled the government’s own categorization of “useful” Jewish lifestyles; that is, Jews were thought to be helpful to the state if they worked as merchants (contributing high taxes), farmers, artisans, or held university degrees. The OPE provided opportunities for Jews to learn Russian, to gain knowledge of secular subjects, and to attend Russian schools. Its organizers hoped to achieve their aims by exploiting their well-established contacts with government officials. These cultural goals were not divorced from the desire to win increased rights for Jews.

OPE initially extended grants to a limited number of Jews to help them attend institutions of higher education, gave money to Ha-Melits, the Hebrew newspaper for the proliferation of general education, and sought to publish Hebrew-language books on Russian history. Committed to the idea of integration, the leaders were hostile to Yiddish and to traditional rabbis for keeping Jews alienated from their neighbors. Because the founders revered ancient Jewish history and shared a maskilic passion for secularization, they regarded Hebrew with deep respect.

Since they were geographically far from the Pale of Settlement, the Saint Petersburg leadership was eager to engage Jews in other parts of Russia to promote its programs. In 1867, OPE established a branch in Odessa. While activists there shared the vocabulary of enlightenment, they had a different conception of what it meant. Rather than seeking to cultivate a Jewish intellectual elite, the Odessa leadership encouraged radical Russification. As a newly created community devoid of ingrained traditions, Odessa was open to Jewish integration. Its leaders, intellectuals such as Lev Pinsker and Emmanuel Soloveichik, demanded, for example, that the Pentateuch be translated into Russian so that Jews could read it in the vernacular. They believed that this innovation would have a greater impact in helping Jews learn Russian than any number of stipends and initiatives. Furthermore, they wanted to create a network of modern schools, especially Sunday schools, to promote adult education. Finally, they were eager to reach out directly to individual Jewish institutions, with inspections of local heders and the direct provision of subsidies for instruction in Russian. Afraid of potential governmental reactions to Odessa’s radicalism, Saint Petersburg refused to provide funding, making it impossible for the branch to realize its plans. Ultimately, the pogrom in Odessa in 1871 signaled the death of the branch, since, in addition to damaging Jewish property, it eroded the belief that social progress would eradicate antisemitism.

A breakdown of positive relations with the government occurred in the 1870s, triggering noticeable caution among Saint Petersburg’s Jewish elite. When Iakov Brafman published The Book of the Kahal, he convinced the Russian bureaucracy that Jews belonged to a worldwide conspiracy. Although the government did not shut down OPE, it discouraged the establishment of new branches, forbade the organization to send rabbis abroad for training, and took over the allocation of stipends to university students. When the Odessa branch reopened in 1877, its sole function was to provide aid to the poor and training for artisans. For its part, Saint Petersburg reaffirmed its devotion to the regime when, during the pogroms of 1881–1882, Baron Horace Gintsburg pleaded with Tsar Alexander III to protect Jews. Gintsburg’s loyalty also prevented him from criticizing the government’s position that pogroms were caused by Jewish exploitation of the peasantry. Not surprisingly, Gintsburg rejected the idea of creating an emigration bureau in 1882, since such an organization “would make it appear as though Russia’s Jews were not loyal citizens.”

In the early 1880s, Albert Harkavy, a historian and OPE secretary, suggested that the society revitalize its defunct publishing activities. He oversaw the publication of the Russian-Jewish Archive, a three-volume collection of documents from governmental archives on East European Jewry. In the mid-1880s, Harkavy invited young Jews from Saint Petersburg to meet in his home to discuss historical documents. This group in time became OPE’s Historical-Ethnographic Commission. Its researchers combed Russia’s legal codes for rulings relevant to Jews; their work culminated in Acts and Inscriptions: A Compendium of Materials on the History of the Jews in Russia, three volumes published between 1897 and 1903. Such activities inspired Jewish national feelings in the next generation of OPE leaders; accordingly, Maksim Vinaver, Aleksandr Braudo, and Leontii Bramson transformed OPE into an institution that reformed Jewish elementary schools. Local Talmud Torah schools examined heders, trained teachers, and shaped curricula and instructional materials. Feelings of Jewish nationalism were so pronounced at the OPE school in Saint Petersburg that half the school day was devoted to subjects related to Jewish culture.

The situation in Odessa was more volatile because of major ideological differences among the intelligentsia. Conflict ensued during the 1902 elections to the OPE Steering Committee and in meetings about the Jewish curriculum of OPE-sponsored schools in Odessa. Although Zionists and nationalists, including Ahad Ha-Am, Ben-Ami (Mordekhai Rabinowicz), and Simon Dubnow, vilified the other sides as “hopeless assimilators,” the forces in favor of Jewish integration were victorious, indicating that the majority of Odessa’s members apparently still felt loyal to the idea of integration. These people believed that the function of the schools was to enable Jews to make a living, despite official legal discrimination and the natural processes of modernization, which displaced traditional Jewish industries.

The year 1905 was pivotal for Russian Jewish intelligentsia. In Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and at new branches in Kiev, Moscow, and Riga, younger radical members attempted to seize power from the conservative establishment. In Saint Petersburg, Vinaver led OPE to express support for the revolution and to publish an indictment of the government’s past treatment of Jews. Radicalism in politics opened up doors for other ideological conflicts. Fights broke out between so-called Yiddishists, usually friends of the Bund, and Hebraists who were Zionists. After the revolution failed, OPE devoted its attention to formulating systematic school policies. Using funds provided by the Jewish Colonization Association, OPE created an institute for training teachers in Hrodna (Grodno), where for the first time teachers were asked to integrate Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian into a single curriculum; published a monthly journal devoted to Jewish education (Vestnik Obshchestva rasprastrananiia prosveshchennia mezhdu evreiami v Rossii [The Messenger of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment]; 1910–1914); and supported advanced studies through the program of Higher Courses in Judaism, held at David Gintsburg’s home.

OPE lost some of its influence between 1906 and 1914, a time during which the government permitted Jewish cultural institutions to thrive. In earlier years, when it had been illegal to establish independent Jewish organizations, the organization had served as an umbrella under which historical studies, educational reform, Jewish political life, and discussions about religion could take place. But when autonomous organizations were given the right to exist, the various OPE commissions became full-fledged organizations in their own right. The Historical-Ethnographic Society and the Jewish Literary Society were accordingly both established in 1907. Saint Petersburg alone saw the growth of philanthropic societies that aided Jewish teachers, elementary students, and artisans; other organizations assisted the indigent in finding inexpensive apartments. Though OPE lost its prominence, the truth is that it had sown the seeds for the majority of the new institutions.

During World War I, OPE played a positive role as a member of Evreiskoe Komitet Pomoshchi Zhertvam Voiny (EKOPO), the relief organization for Jewish refugees. Holding authority over schools for refugees, OPE used its power to insist that the language of instruction be Yiddish, the “native language of the students.” This decision was controversial and incited the ire of Zionists and pragmatists who believed that refugees needed a knowledge of Russian above all else. After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks gradually expropriated OPE property, including the organization’s famous library and its fruit orchards in southern Russia. Although meetings were held throughout the 1920s, the emigration from Russia of senior leaders caused disappointment, and persecution made activity difficult for OPE leaders.

What had started as an attempt to acculturate Russia’s Jews ended ironically with too great a success: the Jews of Soviet Russia became entirely integrated, spoke Russian fluently, intermarried, and became masters of Russian culture. OPE, however, had fought not for blind integration but for collective Jewish national identity. National identity, however, was prohibited under Soviet rule. Having facilitated the modernization and cultural maturity of Russian Jewry for more than 60 years, OPE, however, did not end its life. Its cultural and political initiatives were continued beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union in North America, Europe, and Israel.

Suggested Reading

Elias Cherikower, Istoriia obshchestva dlia rasprostraneniia prosveshcheniia mezhdu evreiami v Rossii, (St. Petersburg, 1913); Simon Dubnow, Kniga zhizni, vospominaniia i razmyshleniia: materialy dlia istorii moego vremeni, 3 vols. (Riga, 1934–1937); Shoyel Ginzburg (Saul Günzberg), “Di familye Baron Gintsburg: Dray doyres shtadlones, tsdoke un haskole,” in Historishe verk, vol. 2, pp. 117–159 (New York, 1937); Brian Horowitz, “The Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia, and the Evolution of the St. Petersburg Russian-Jewish Intelligentsia, 1893–1905,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry (2004): 195–213; Petr Marek, Ocherki po istorii prosveshcheniia evreev v Rossii (dva vospitaniia) (Moscow, 1909); Solomon V. Pozner, Evrei v obshchei shkole: K istorii zakonodatel’stva i pravitel’stvennoi politiki v oblasti evreiskago voprosa (St. Petersburg, 1914); Leon M. Rozenthal, Toldot ḥevrat marbe haskalah be-Yisra’el be-Erets Rusya mi-shenat hityasdutah 624 (1863) ‘ad shenat 646 (1885), 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1885–1890); Genrikh B. Sliozberg, Baron G. O. Gintsburg: Ego zhizn’ i deiatel’nost’; K stoletiiu so dnia ego rozhdeniia (Paris, 1933); I. Trotskii, “Evrei v russkoi shkole,” in Kniga o russkom evreistve ot 1860–kh godov do revoliutsii 1917 g.: Sbornik statei, 2 vols., pp. 349–360 (New York, 1960); Steven J. Zipperstein, “Transforming the Heder: Maskilic Politics in Imperial Russia,” in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein, pp. 87–109 (London, 1988).