Simon Dubnow (left, with white beard and holding bouquet) being greeted by dignitaries at the railway station during a visit to Vilna, 1934. The white-haired man in the center of the picture is probably Tsemaḥ Szabad, the well-known physician and communal leader. (The Institute for Labour Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon, Tel Aviv, Israel)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Dubnow, Simon

(1860–1941), Russian Jewish historian and ideologue of Jewish Diaspora nationalism. Simon Dubnow was born in Mstislavl in the Belorussian sector of the Russian Pale of Settlement to a religiously observant family; his father worked in the lumber business, a common Jewish occupation at the time. One of Dubnow’s brothers, Wolf, became a Biluist (a group of Russian Jewish youth who pioneered modern settlement in the Land of Israel) and emigrated temporarily to Palestine after the pogroms of 1881–1882. Their grandfather Bentsiyon was known throughout the region as an esteemed rabbinic scholar who taught according to the rigorous methods of the Gaon of Vilna.

After becoming bar mitzvah, Dubnow persuaded his parents to allow him to attend a government school for young Jews in order to learn Russian and gain access to a modern education. On his own, he read in the literature of the Haskalah, including novels by Avraham Mapu and poetry by Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, moving on to the more daring Hebrew authors of his time such as Mosheh Leib Lilienblum. Like many “free-thinking” Russian and Jewish youth of his generation, Dubnow fell under the influence of mid-century Russian positivists (the so-called “nihilist” social and literary critics, such as Dmitrii Pisarev and Nikolai Chernyshevskii), the British utilitarians and Darwinians (Thomas Buckle, John Draper, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer), and the German materialist philosophers (Jacob Moleschott, Karl Vogt, and Ludwig Büchner). In his autobiography, Dubnow claims that already in his youth he rejected what he viewed as the superstitious beliefs and obsolete practices of Judaism, decided for a while he was a deist, and finally concluded that he disbelieved entirely in God and religion. He remained a devout secularist for the rest of his life, although he came to appreciate the historical role of religion in maintaining Jewish identity.

Jakob Lestschinsky (second from right), historian Simon Dubnow (center), Meyer Abraham Halevy from Bucharest (left), and other delegates to the YIVO Conference pose at the grave of Tsemaḥ Szabad, a physician, leader of the Folkist party, and founder of YIVO, Vilna, 1935. (YIVO)

Over the four years that Dubnow spent in Vilna, Dinaburg, and Mogilev, he failed to pass entrance examinations to attend a gymnasium. Frustrated in his hopes to acquire a university education, he lived in Saint Petersburg from 1880 to 1884, illegally because it was outside the Pale of Settlement, working as a journalist and book reviewer for new Russian Jewish periodicals, primarily Voskhod. Dubnow’s early essays called for sweeping Jewish cultural reforms in Russia in anticipation of eventual emancipation along the lines of recent changes in Central Europe. He said later that he hoped at that phase of his life to study the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment.

Forced to leave Saint Petersburg, Dubnow married and returned with his wife to Mstislavl, where he underwent an emotional crisis. Although he was one of the few Russian Jewish intellectuals whose optimism about the future of Jewish life in Russia was not immediately shaken by the pogroms of 1881–1882, he became despondent as the decade drew to a close. Inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Renan, he decided that a completely universalistic, scientifically detached point of view was not possible and that he could achieve his mission through working for the good of the Jewish people.

In the late 1880s, Dubnow came under the influence of Heinrich Graetz, whose comprehensive history of the Jews was a model for the world history of the Jewish people that Dubnow later published. Meanwhile, his optimistic expectations for the abolition of legal restrictions on Jews by the tsarist state were frustrated by the imposition of quotas on Jews in higher education and restrictions on residence rights even within the Pale. The cruel expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1891 finally convinced him that a Western model of Jewish emancipation was not in the offing in Russia: an entirely different approach was necessary, one more rooted in the historical and social realities of Eastern Europe.

In 1890 the Dubnow family moved to Odessa, where he became part of an illustrious group of intellectuals committed to a nationalist conception of Jewish identity but distanced from religion, a group that included Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg), Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, and other eminent Jewish literary figures and Zionist intellectuals. Dubnow shifted his position from the spiritual nationalism of Graetz and adopted, instead, the completely secular conception of a historic Jewish will to survive on the part of the vital core of the people; he believed that this national will drove Jews repeatedly to adapt creatively to changing environments. The surge of minority nationalism in the tsarist empire and a primary orientation toward the masses rather than the elite by Russian populists, especially Petr Lavrov, sparked Dubnow’s increasingly positive appreciation of the psychological strengths of the still largely traditionalist and ethnically distinct Jewish masses.

From Simon Dubnow in Saint Petersburg to Shmuel Niger in Vilna, 19 June 1914, stating his intention to fulfill a long overdue debt to Niger's journal, Di yudishe velt, by sending a Russian article, "On the Issue of Jewish Higher Education Abroad," the first chapter of which had recently appeared in Voskhod and caused a stir. He has no time to translate it into Yiddish but wants to publish it in a venue that will be read by Yiddish readers. Dubnow adds in a postscript that he finds Di yudishe velt lacking in popular history and historical-literary articles. Yiddish. RG 360, Shmuel Niger Papers, F147. (YIVO)

Dubnow’s first original contribution to East European Jewish history was a series for Voskhod on the origins of Hasidism (1888–1893). In 1891, he issued a call for the collection of Russian Jewish historical sources, including minute books of the local and regional communities; in so doing, he laid the groundwork for the reconstruction of the semiautonomous Jewish communal institutions in Eastern Europe that became central to his theory of Jewish nationalism.

In 1896, Dubnow published his first history of the Jews, Vseobshchaia istoriiaevreev (A General History of the Jews) based on German Jewish textbooks but structured according to a sequence of cultural “hegemonies” exerted by one or two key Diaspora communities in any given period. This textbook, rewritten and expanded several times, had a huge impact on Russian Jewish youth and the reading public, culminating in Dubnow’s 10-volume World History of the Jewish People, which appeared in German, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages in the 1920s and 1930s. Dubnow labeled his historiographical approach “sociological,” inasmuch as it emphasized how Jewish social institutions served as substitutes for a state. These quasi-political forms were a manifestation of Judaism’s ability to transcend the usual physical requirements of nationhood and thus, in Dubnow’s theory, exemplified the subjective nature of national identity, an identity essentially based on feelings of unity and common historical memory.

In 1897, the year of the formation of the world Zionist movement and the Bund, Dubnow began to publish a series of essays in Voskhod, defining his own position. He argued that because Jews were already a (diaspora) nation, they did not require a physical homeland outside Europe but needed to modernize their communal institutions and gain constitutional recognition for them in a multinational state. He rejected Zionism on the grounds that it was an illusory solution to the pressing problems of the Jewish masses, especially in Eastern Europe. He also rejected socialism, especially the Marxist form that was both the foundation of Bundist ideology and a growing influence among young Zionists. He felt that Marxism wrongly held as all-important the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie, whereas it was the Jewish people as a whole that was under antisemitic attack. The creation of a parliamentary duma as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905 seemed to indicate that Russia might be finally on the way to becoming a liberal, multinational state. In 1907 Dubnow collected and published his essays on contemporary issues as Pis’ma o starom i novom evreistve (Letters on Old and New Judaism). That same year, with Dubnow’s help, the small political Folkist party (Folkspartey) was founded to espouse this combination of political liberalism and cultural autonomy for Jews as a fully legitimate national minority.

By 1905, Dubnow and his family had settled in Saint Petersburg, where he participated actively in the efflorescence of Russian Jewish historical research in the immediate period before World War I. He helped found the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society that issued the scholarly journal Evreiskaia starina and taught at the Institute of Jewish Studies supported by Baron David Gintsburg (Günzburg). Dubnow continued publishing ever more comprehensive editions of his history of the Jews, as well as specialized works on the Russian Jewish past. He rejoiced in the overthrow of the tsarist regime in 1917 but was adamantly hostile to the Bolshevik takeover and its destruction of independent cultural institutions and personal freedom.

Dubnow’s call for minority cultural rights for Jews and other nationalities resonated with the minority-rights provisions of the Versailles treaty. His Folkspartey found limited support in interwar Poland, but his ideas profoundly affected the Bund there (one of whose leaders, Henryk Erlich, was married to Dubnow’s daughter Sophia). The Bund incorporated Dubnow’s ideology of cultural autonomy and stressed the importance of Yiddish in its program.


Scholars at an international scholarly conference at YIVO, Vilna (now Vilnius, Lith.), 1935: Elye Tsherikover (seated, fourth from right), Simon Dubnow (third from right), Raphael Mahler (standing, second from right), and others. (YIVO)

was given permission to leave Russia in 1922. He settled in Berlin amid a prominent group of East European Jewish intellectuals, although he lived in relative seclusion while working on a new edition of his World History of the Jewish People. During this period, he also prepared an edition of the minute book of the Lithuanian Jewish va‘ad (council) from 1623 to 1762, a Hebrew version of his History of Hasidism in the Period of its Rise and Growth (Toldot ha-ḥasidut; 1930–1932; dedicated to his friend Ahad Ha-Am), and essays on Yiddish and the East European Jewish past. After the founding of YIVO in 1925, Dubnow became a loyal supporter of the institute, which was in large part the creation of his ex-students and disciples; he delivered the plenary address at the tenth anniversary conference in Vilna in 1935, the same year that branches of YIVO’s historical division organized lectures in different cities devoted to Dubnow’s work. 

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Dubnow moved to Riga, where he began to publish his autobiography Kniga zhizni: Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia; Materiali dlia istorii moevo vremeni (Book of Life: Reminiscences and Reflections; Material for the History of My Times; 3 vols., 1934–1940). He was murdered in the Nazi-established ghetto in 1941.

Suggested Reading

Sophie Dubnov-Erlich (Sofiia Dubnova-Erlikh), The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnow: Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish History, trans. Judith Vowles, ed. Jeffrey Shandler (Bloomington, Ind., 1991); Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, trans. Israel Friedlaender, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1916–1920); Simon Dubnow, Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (Philadelphia, 1958); Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews, trans. Moshe Spiegel, 5 vols. (South Brunswick, N.J., 1967–1973); Benjamin Nathans, “On Russian-Jewish Historiography,” in Historiography of Imperial Russia: The Profession and Writing of History in a Multinational State, ed. Thomas Sanders, pp. 397–432 (Armonk, N.Y., 1999); Robert M. Seltzer, “Simon Dubnow: A Critical Biography of His Early Years” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1970); Robert M. Seltzer, “Coming Home: The Personal Basis of Simon Dubnow’s Ideology,” Association for Jewish Studies Review 1 (1976): 283–301.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 1,2, YIVO (Vilna): Ethnographic Committee, Records, 1911-1940; RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 211, Samuel Rosenfeld, Papers, ca. 1900-1942; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 339, Jacob Lestschinsky, Papers, 1900-1958; RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 366, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, Papers, 1910s-1950s; RG 421, Daniel Charney, Papers, 1920s-1959; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 451, Ephim H. Jeshurin, Papers, ca. 1900-1960s; RG 462, Koppel Pinson, Papers, 1930s-1940s; RG 567, Samuel Wiener, Collection, 1925-1965; RG 584, Max Weinreich, Papers, 1930s-1968; RG 701, I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers’ Union, Records, 1903-1970s; RG 80, Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (Berlin), Records, 1802-1924; RG 81, Elias Tcherikower, Papers, 1903-1963; RG 87, Simon Dubnow, Papers, 1632-1938.