In the late 1980s, an all-but-forgotten scholar named Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi (1903-1989) helped lead a revival of Jewish studies in the Soviet Union, his life having already spanned the entire history of the USSR, and then some.
Borovoi’s younger colleagues widely praised him. His voluminous work included such diverse topics as the origins of banking in Russia, Alexander Pushkin, and aristocratic culture of the nineteenth century.
“Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi’s contribution to our nation’s historical scholarship was so broad and multifaceted that one can only regret that fame and appreciation during his life were not extended to him in full,” wrote noted Russian scholar R.S. Ganelin after Borovoi’s passing.
Surviving the Soviets
Borovoi was a survivor, thriving as a Jewish academic despite numerous public and professional denunciations. Countless colleagues were forced to flee or were repressed in various way. In explaining his survival, Borovoi simply claimed that he benefitted from extraordinary good fortune.
Yet in reality, he protected himself by “meeting the needs” of the Soviet historical establishment, selectively interpreting the past, adopting aspects of the Soviet ideology from his time, and presenting Jews in ways that conformed to the political climate and demands of the Communist Party. In fact, he became an accepted member of the intellectual elite, despite not becoming politically subservient in retaining his integrity as a serious scholar of Ukrainian and Russian-Jewish history.
In general, the Soviet intellectual milieu in the 1920s was characterized by contradictions.
Judaism was condemned and its representatives – rabbis, communal leaders, and teachers – were repressed. Yet at the same time the government offered support for secular and pro-Communist Jewish culture. The Communist government frequently funded Jewish schools, museums, and scholarly institutions. In Kiev and Minsk, special scholarly institutions dedicated to the Yiddish language and culture were established. Scholars were employed and valuable libraries and artifacts (expropriated from other centers) were collected for study.
Strides made by scholars in the last years of tsarist Russia significantly advanced Jewish studies, yet the Soviet government aimed to keep scholarly work within strict ideological bounds. In particular, the authorities prohibited mentioning Zionism or using Hebrew, while promoting Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class.
In the mid-1920s, there was a push to integrate Jewish scholarship into the general literary life of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The production of Judaica in Ukraine noticeably increased. In this way, the government showed sensitivity to Ukrainian language and culture as part of a policy to cultivate the loyalty of national minorities.
As a historian, Saul Borovoi had come of age in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of World War II. He was born in Odessa to parents who enthusiastically supported modern Hebrew literature. Family guests included Mendele Mocher Sforim, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Borovoi’s father was a funder of Moria, the renowned Hebrew publishing house.
In 1924, the younger Borovoi received a law degree, enrolling in the Institute of Archeology around the same time.
Although there were voices against his promotion, influential scholars supported his advancement and he obtained a faculty position at Odessa’s Commercial Institute in 1932.
Not until 1940, however, did Borovoi defend his doctoral thesis on the Jews of Ukraine in the 16th and 17th centuries.
During World War II, he spent three years in Samarkand, and after his return to Odessa, he resumed employment. In 1952, Borovoi was targeted for arrest during the Doctor’s Plot, but apparently escaped harm by virtue of his cramped living quarters. According to his account, NKVD agents were disappointed to find that he lived in a communal apartment, when as a professor he could have acquired a three-bedroom flat.
In fact, he left Odessa to escape arrest and stayed with relatives in Moscow. Stalin’s death saved him from further harm and within a year he was rehired at the Commercial Institute.
Unable to publish on Jewish history, Borovoi turned to general economic history.
His memoirs, Vospominaniia (Memoirs), published posthumously in 1993, provide a masterful portrayal of Jewish Odessa, vividly transmitting the atmosphere of pre-Soviet and then Soviet Odessa, Borovoi portrays notable portraits of the age as well as disquisitions on central historical themes and academic problems that he himself experienced.
Converts, Nihilists and Revolutionaries
In his articles from the early and mid-1920s, Borovoi portrayed the types that would reappear throughout his work. They include tsarist-era converts to Christianity, Jewish nihilists and revolutionaries, Jewish advisers to the tsarist government, and even merchants who collaborated with anti-Semites – “bad Jews” – in the words of Shulamit Magnes, a specialist on modern Jewish history.
Borovoi also focused on the internecine fighting among non-religious Jews from various factions, including radicals and government workers. Each side attacked the other using denunciations and gossip even though they had the same goal of radical russification.
In the mid-1930s, Borovoi faced a perilous political situation directed against historians who “deviated” from the party line. Arrests for “bourgeois” leanings and “nationalist deviations” were just some of the trumped up charges. During this period Borovoi began his analysis of Jews in the Ukrainian uprising in the seventeenth century. Although he portrayed Jews who broke from the Jewish collective, here he also emphasized Ukrainian-Jewish unity.
Defending the Cossacks
Making use of documents that had not been available to earlier scholars, Borovoi took issue with the conventional interpretation that Jews were innocent victims, torn between Polish noblemen and Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks. According to Borovoi, Jews were fully engaged on the side of the Polish landlords whom they served and on whose victory their livelihood depended.
At the same time Borovoi made an unexpected discovery – that there existed Jewish Cossacks who aided the Ukrainians. In his view, two kinds of Jews lived among the Cossacks. One group consisted of Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy and joined as fighters (rarely) or as Christian clergy. For such Jews, membership in the 17th and 18th century Ukrainian Cossack state known as the “Hetmanate” offered escape from the fear of being captured and sold as slaves or for ransom.
According to Borovoi, Cossacks also found allies in merchants who abetted the exploitation of peasant labor. Jews, who earlier had bought and sold the peasants’ produce for the Polish lords, fulfilled the same function for the Cossacks. In this way, Jews helped expand trade with the Turks in the South and Europeans in the West. Eventually Cossack fortunes fell as the tsarist government shifted trade routes to avoid a Cossack transit tax.
Although documentary evidence offers little information about Jews who came to live in the Hetmanate, Borovoi identifies certain individuals by name – for example, Moisei Gorlinskii and Musia Iosifovich.
Surprisingly, he claims that Jews who worked for the Cossacks were not objects of discrimination:
“Our materials testify with enough conviction that Jews in the Sech (Cossack camp) at this time were not subject to any special discipline and did not experience any special inhibition in their activities. Therefore, we have the right to speak of Jewish ‘equality’ in the Sech, of course in that framework where equality could exist for the non-Cossack population of Zaporozh’e [that was] restricted in participating in its political life.”
Oddly Borovoi uses the term “ravnopravie”— “equality,” a goal of Jews in tsarist Russia—to describe a coercive reality based on fear of Cossack violence.
Rather than criticize Jewish Cossacks for betraying their co-religionists at a time of crisis, Borovoi focused on their unity with the Ukrainians. Although the number of Jewish Cossacks was statistically insignificant, Borovoi exaggerates their importance, presumably to demonstrate the friendship between Jews and Ukrainians.
It would be too dogmatic to see Borovoi as an apologist of Ukraine. What he argues instead is that control by the military officials known as “Hetman” in Southern Ukraine in the late 17th century did not do away with Jewish trading in the area, but actually increased it.
According to Borovoi, for those Jews who found work trading with the Cossacks, conditions in those territories might have been superior to conditions elsewhere in Europe. The records show much rougher economic and social conditions in Poland, for example. By making these comparisons, Borovoi could in some way justifiably proclaim that there was “no persecution” in dealing with the Cossacks.
Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time.
When it came to some of the tragic events of his own lifetime, Borovoi refused to differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians, underscoring the link between Jews and non-Jews. Although noting examples of collaboration by officials and certain intellectuals, he expressed pride in the help extended by Odessa’s non-Jewish population during World War II, writing:
”Towards the end of spring of 1942, they [Jews] began to receive a tiny ration [around 200 grams of bread, frozen potatoes, and so on]. Furthermore, their position gradually worsened. Although Jews lived and worked in isolation, nonetheless, between them and the local population some contact developed. The majority of the local population related to Jews with sympathy, and this was something fundamental, almost essential, that helped save those whom the bullet of the executioner and epidemics had missed. Thanks to the peasants, they [Jews] could somehow feed themselves and hold out until liberation day.”
Borovoi also gave special praise to Soviet partisans who perished in the fight against Fascism, noting that a number of these patriots were Jewish.
Remembering Jewish Suffering
Yet Borovoi never forgot Jewish suffering during this period. Having acknowledged the pain inflicted on all Soviet peoples by the Nazi invasion, he described the martyrdom of the Jewish people in particular. Transmitting eye-witness accounts of mass shootings, the suffering of marches in the terrible cold, and other impossible horrors, Borovoi mapped out the areas of Odessa and its suburbs that had been transformed into a killing field:
”The Domanev territory located in the north-eastern part of Odessa county was the most abandoned and far from Odessa’s train routes. It was designated as the best place for the creation of the ghetto – or to put it precisely – the place of mass extermination. Bogdanovka entered into our tragic history forever as the Majdanek of the Transnistria… The other terrible place that one should remember is Akhmechet Headquarters – a real death camp located twelve kilometers from the village of Akhmechet on a pig farm. It was not a coincidence of course that pig farms were chosen as places of extermination. In this [decision] the ‘humor’ of the fascist executioners was expressed.”
Although Borovoi had at times minimized the significance of the Jewish collective, here he expressed his deep sympathy for the martyrs. At the same time Borovoi expressed his deep distain for Jews who denied their heritage to save themselves. It is possible that Borovoi felt survivor’s guilt.
With his escape from Odessa as a member of the institute’s faculty, he left his father and brother in danger. His father died on the road and thousands of his neighbors went to their graves because they did not have sufficient influence to acquire a spot on the list of the saved. In any case he now praised the Jewish collective that he had earlier viewed with skepticism.
Regarding his own life, Borovoi asserted that antisemitism did not play a significant role, yet the recollections in his memoirs of post-war Odessa are chilling:
“I looked hard at the traits of my native city. A great deal was new, that was difficult to get used to, and to which one could not become reconciled. On the gates of many houses one could see crosses painted haphazardly. It signified that the house had been cleansed of Jews. The house managers and officials were not hurrying to erase them. They were still visible almost a year after liberation. More than once and for a long time one could hear from behind, ‘The pests have come back.’ The word ‘pest’ in the mouth of Odessites who had survived the occupation acquired a distinctly ethnic connotation.”
Longevity and Legacy
In the last years of Stalin’s rule the Jewish theme was off-limits even to Borovoi. His book on the Jews in Ukraine in the 17th century was never published, although a leading Moscow publishing house, the Sabashnikov Brothers, had accepted it for publication. Nonetheless, parts of the book appeared as articles in journals.
Borovoi’s longevity was due in part to his low profile and his refusal to join to the Communist Party during the purges. He also refrained from defending his dissertation until he was thirty-five. However, he always affirmed his loyalty to the Soviet Union.
In his memoirs Borovoi stated:
“Nonetheless I have been happy in my life. I survived the difficult years of revolution, civil war, hunger, and epidemics. I was not repressed in the thirties or the early fifties, and that was a happy coincidence. The most serious illnesses passed me by. I was able to spend my life engaged with my favorite subject. I was lucky to meet many good, kind, and smart people…”
Although Borovoi’s research conformed to what was considered acceptable by the Soviet authorities, it would be wrong to view him as an ideological spokesman for the party.
He depicted Jewish individuals differentiated by class and identity, educational achievement, and professional status. Even so-called “bad Jews” were symbols of modernity and radical change.
Borovoi offered compelling studies that showed the fissures, internecine conflicts, and internal weaknesses among the Jews of Eastern Europe. His treatment of history was far from one-dimensional.
A version of this article appeared in Russian-Jewish Tradition: Intellectuals, Historians, Revolutionaries. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.