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Kovner, Avraham Uri

(Arkadii Grigor’evich Kovner; 1841/42–1909), Lithuanian maskil and pioneer of modern Hebrew literary criticism. A native of Vilna, Avraham Kovner studied at several yeshivas in the Minsk region, and after reaching adulthood discovered Hebrew maskilic literature. After a personal and intellectual crisis, he abandoned his wife and daughter and resettled in Kiev. There he was exposed to the radical strains of Russian and West European culture and began to write in Hebrew, taking the name Albert Kovner. From 1862 to 1868, his essays on social and literary topics were published primarily in Ha-Melits, but also in Ha-Magid and Ha-Karmel. Some of these essays were later reprinted in Ḥeker davar (An Inquiry; 1865) and Tseror peraḥim (A Bouquet of Flowers; 1868).

Kovner’s earliest Hebrew writings reflect the views of a moderate maskil who supported the government’s Russification policies. However, by the time he produced his essay Davar el sofre Yisra’el (A Saying to the Writers of Israel; 1864), he was attempting to incorporate the radical principles of Russian literary criticism, as formulated by Vissarion Belinsky’s school, into Hebrew literary criticism. Kovner thus recommended that a new hierarchy of values be applied to the field of human knowledge, with the exact sciences at the top of the scale, history in the middle, and aesthetic literature at the bottom. Literary works, in his opinion, should relate to the real world, and should be written in simple language free of flowery phrases. Prose in general, and the novel in particular, would, in Kovner’s opinion, be preferable to poetry. The role of criticism is to point out the social benefits to be obtained from a literary work; in Kovner’s case, criticism would measure the degree to which an author’s work ameliorated the status of Russian Jewry. In line with the “utilitarian principle,” the Hebrew language would be discarded after fulfilling its temporary mission of introducing Haskalah to the broader Jewish public.

Kovner’s essays were controversial. Opponents attacked his views in their own writing; for example, Tsevi Dan ha-Bavli’s Shoresh davar (The Root of the Matter; 1866) and Avraham Ber Gottlober’s Igeret tsa‘ar ba‘ale ḥayim (A Letter on Cruelty to Animals; 1868) drew links between Kovner and the Pisarev nihilists (followers of D. I. Pisarev, who demanded critical thinking instead of relying on authorities). Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh maintained that Kovner’s spiritual universe was plagued by an internal contradiction: at the same time that Kovner was actively producing Hebrew literary works, he was casting doubts on the value of the Hebrew language altogether. One of the very few who supported him was Yosef Yehudah Lerner, who wrote Doresh el ha-metim (Preacher to the Dead; 1868) in Kovner’s defense.

In 1866 Kovner moved to Odessa and began writing in Russian for journals read by the Jewish intelligentsia. In 1871 he arrived in Saint Petersburg, where he published a critique on Yehudah Leib Gordon’s anthology of short stories, ‘Olam ke-minhago (The Way of the World; 1868 and 1873) and Perets Smolenskin’s Ha-To‘eh be-darkhe ha-ḥayim (Wandering from the Paths of Life; 1871–1872) in the Russian Jewish journal Evreiskaia biblioteka. In this essay, Sovremennaia evreiskaia beletristika (Current Jewish Literature; 1973), he enumerated the elements of the perfect novel, using as his source Belinsky’s notion of the social novel.

Between 1872 and 1873 Kovner published feuilletons in the Russian liberal newspaper Golos, which was edited by Andrei Kraevskii. In 1874, he argued with Kraevskii, and went to work as a clerk at Avraam Zak’s bank in Saint Petersburg. In April 1875, Kovner forged his employer’s signature on a check. He was arrested, and his trial, which took place in Moscow, caused a great stir in the general as well as the Jewish press. He was found guilty and sentenced to prison for four years.

From his jail cell in Moscow in 1877, Kovner began to correspond with Fyodor Dostoevsky. They debated theological questions, and Kovner denounced the writer’s antisemitic preconceptions. At the same time, he asked Dostoevsky to assist him with the publication of his prison writings. Dostoevsky replied positively and even addressed Kovner’s views on the “Jewish Question” by publishing a series of articles in his own periodical Dnevnik pisatelia (A Writer’s Diary; 1877). That same year, Kovner’s sentence was commuted and he was exiled to Siberia where he could “settle freely.” From 1881 to 1893, he worked as an accounts manager for the state censorship bureau in Tomsk. Though he regained his civil rights, he was barred from returning to the Russian heartland. At this point, he wrote a novel and a treatise on atheism, “Pochemu ia ne veriu?” (Why Do I Not Believe?).

In 1893, however, he became engaged, converted to the Christian religion of his fiancée, and changed his name to Arkadii Grigor’evich Kovner. Despite the conversion, he remained a steadfast atheist. In 1894 he returned to European Russia, and from 1897 was employed by the government-controlled censorship bureau in Łomża. Kovner was buried in the Provo Slavic section of that city’s Catholic cemetery.

Though Kovner seemingly left the Jewish community, in 1903 he titled a section of his autobiography “Iz’ zapisok’ evreia” (Impressions of a Jew). In 1904 he wrote a response in Hebrew to Re’uven Brainin’s review essay of Kovner’s critical legacy. During this period, he engaged in correspondence with the Russian antisemitic writer Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov, who had begun to show an interest in Judaism. In 1908 he published Iazyk faktov (The Language of Facts), on the “Jewish Question,” in which he analyzed the increasingly troubling manifestations of antisemitism and the issue of the emancipation of Russian Jewry, a cause to which he was dedicated for the remainder of his life.

Suggested Reading

Leonid Grossman, Ispoved’ odnigi evreia (Moscow and Leningrad, 1924); Dan Miron, “Ben takdim le-mikreh—shirato ha-epit shel YaLa”G u-mekomah be-sifrut ha-haskalah ha-‘ivrit,” Meḥkare Yerushalayim ‘ivrit 2 (1983): 127–197; Harriet Murav, Identity Theft: The Jew in Imperial Russia and the Case of Avraam Uri Kovner (Stanford, Calif., 2003); Max Weinreich, Fun beyde zaytn ployt: Dos shturemdike lebn fun Uri Kovnern, dem nihilist (Buenos Aires, 1955).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler