What Made This Top Russian Jewish Author Descend into Madness?

Lev Levanda spent decades advocating for Jewish assimilation into Russian culture. It all changed after pogroms shook the empire...

Brian Horowitz
Lev Levanda, seen here in the 1860s, was a leading promoter of "russification", yet ultimately concluded that his life's work was "without purpose". Photo from the National Library of Israel's Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

In 1888, Lev Levanda, one of Russia’s most renowned Jewish writers, died in an insane asylum outside of St. Petersburg. He was 53 years old. In the decades before the pogroms of 1881-82, he, along with many others, had called for “russification” as a solution to the “Jewish Question”. Russification meant that Jews should speak Russian, study in Russian schools, join its cultural life; in other words, love Russia. All that came to a crashing end with the pogroms of 1881-82, and the subsequent antisemitic legislation known as the May Laws.

Levanda’s life is significant in our own day for a variety of reasons. Through Levanda we can learn a great deal about Russian Jewry of the 1880s. He was a central figure in a brilliant generation of maskilim, Jewish intellectuals of the 1860s, who were the first Jews to enter Russian culture in large numbers. He was one of the fathers of Russian-Jewish literature (creative writing and journalism by and about Jews in the Russian language). However, in the 1880s, after the pogroms, he began to write differently, expressing the anger of a cultural insider who had been rejected by his adoptive parents. Levanda’s choices help us piece together a history of Jewish discourse about Russia, Russian literature, and Jewish culture in the key decade after the pogroms of 1881-82.

Illustration of Jews being harassed during a pogrom in Kiev, while police look on. Published in the February 4, 1882 edition of The Penny Illustrated Paper (Public domain)

In his day, Levanda was widely known thanks to his literary output. Among his major novels are Seething Times (Goriachee vremia), The Grocery Affair (Delo bakaleinykh tovarov), Sketches of the Past (Ocherki proshlogo), The Big Fraud (Bol’shoi Remiz), The Magnate’s Anger and Mercy (Gnev i milost’ Magnata), and Avraam Iezofovich (1887). In 1860, he was one of the original founders of Rassvet, the first Jewish newspaper published in the Russian language, and he was also a consistent contributor to Voskhod, the long-standing Russian-Jewish newspaper established in 1879. Besides Jewish newspapers, Levanda also contributed to Vilenskii Vestnik (The Messenger of Vilna), a paper later known for its antisemitic bent.

Levanda’s initial reaction to the pogroms was fury.  However, once the initial shock of the pogroms passed, Levanda reexamined his ideas and found them wanting. He began to express new views in the Russian-language press, using the pseudonym “W”, though it is unclear why he needed a pseudonym at all given that many knew the author’s true identity, and the censors ripped apart some of his articles in any case.

Himself a Russian-language author, Levanda had often used sarcasm, irony, and skaz narrative (use of a voice other than the author himself), just as Russian authors did. But now, in the 1880s, he used these tools not to affirm his affiliation with the Russian literary tradition, but to mock it. Instead of showing confidence in the attainment of the great nineteenth-century value of progress – the triumph of reason over superstition, prejudice, and oppression – Levanda put his doubts into print. In fact, his writings from this period reflect a mind racked with pain.

Portrait of Lev Levanda printed in Vilna, ca. early 1860s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The titles of his articles in the 1880s give an indication of his mood. “Flying Thoughts of One Unable to Grasp It” (“Letuchie mysli nedoumevaiushchego”), “Modest Conversations about Last Year’s Snow” (“Skromnye besedy o proshlogodnem snege”),  “On the Subject of How a Mountain Gave Birth to a Mouse” (“O tom, kak gora rodila mysh”), and “Convoluted Speeches” (“Bezsviazye rechi”).

He was especially agonized by the nefarious role of Russian literature in the persecution of Jews. Formerly his moral lodestar, Russian literature was now a tool of his enemies. It had been used to betray its ideals of universalism and ethical idealism. Simultaneously, Levanda turned his bile on the community of writers who projected optimism. He recoiled at their frivolous attitude toward serious issues, referring to their attitude as concern with ”last year’s snow”.

Focusing on a famous line from Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet”, in which the great Russian author refers to “burning the hearts of people with the word,” Levanda condemned Jewish journalists, despite being one. By mocking a poem that for Russians of his generation represented a sacred promise to help the underprivileged, Levanda committed blasphemy.  By criticizing Pushkin and Russian society, Levanda indicated that the promise of social-progress (as projected in the Pushkin poem) was a lie. The poem reflected Levanda’s rage at Russian literature. Pushkin, who previously represented everything good, had also turned upside-down.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov, 1836 (Public domain)

Levanda continued his assault on Russian literature by reinterpreting Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous poem, “Who Lives Well in Russia?” For Levanda’s generation, Nekrasov represented the idea of moral progress. Levanda purposefully distorted the poem, thereby reversing Nekrasov’s reputation and possibly disowning the entire Russian literary tradition. In an article from June 1881, he quotes Nekrasov’s poem, adding his own subjective commentary in parentheses at the end of each line:

You are poor (in bread)
You are rich (in drunken stupor)
You are powerful (in appetite)
You are powerless (in will)
Mother Russia!

Levanda pummeled other sacred cows, such as the Jewish youth on which he had placed so much trust to help enact social change. However in 1885 he depicted a different group, one that betrays traditions and family honor for the sake of material success:

“The wild flow of the present day, having washed away the stable, proper, and comfortable home of earlier days, left in their place a huge, full, joyless, and thin swamp, in which creatures with human form, one uglier than the next, dawdle, flounder, rise from the water, cling, press against one another, push, and strangle each other, so that each holds himself somehow on the smelly surface, although at the price of the others’ destruction.”

Levanda also expressed disappointment in Russian officials, another category of people in which he had placed his faith. From his previous beliefs in the good nature of Russian officials, to the promise of Jewish youth, the value of Jewish journalism and, above all, Pushkin and Russian literature, when it became clear that his former ideals were empty of promise, Levanda disowned them.

He also began to seek new ideological solutions to the problems of his day. For a brief moment he became enamored with Zionism, or more precisely, Hibbat Tsiyyon and its goal of developing a Jewish home in the Land of Israel. In 1884, his article, “The Essence of the So-Called ‘Palestine’ Movement (A Letter to the Publishers),” appeared in the volume, Palestine: a Collection of Articles and Information about the Jewish Settlements in the Holy Land, edited by Vasily Berman and Akim Flekser.[1]

The clothing of these late 19th century Zionist pioneers in Rehovot reflects Russian influence. Part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Levanda hailed the successes of the fledgling movement that no one had expected would survive. The Zionists, he wrote, had forged a new path, started something practical by settling in the Land of Israel. Levanda raved about a change in psychology, underscoring the difference between generations. Earlier, he wrote, Jewish intellectuals (including himself) sought solutions in theory; they wondered, how to solve the “Jewish Question”? Their answer depended not only on ideas, but also on the ruling powers. Since these theories had brought few results, the new generation turned to praxis.

Levanda explained:

“Has the solution to the Jewish question progressed from the time of Haman to our present day? […] The thing is this, through bitter experience, I have become convinced that theory, useless theory, will not drive the Jewish Question out of the vicious circle where it got stuck at the very beginning of its appearance. Our national instinct whispers to us: ‘Try to introduce practical action, basing it not on words, but actions from which one may expect results.’”

Nonetheless, Levanda only tenuously attached himself to the movement, and certainly did not assume a leadership role. In fact, before long, Levanda cut his ties with Hibbat Tsiyyon, rejecting its ideology and focusing on Russia, and the more general cultural achievements of Jewish diasporas.

“In its essence Jewish national identity composes an exceptional phenomenon in history so much so that, despite logic and the most convincing theories, a definite territory is perhaps more harmful than useful. Jewish national identity strengthened itself and became crystalized precisely at the time when the Jewish people’s land had been taken away.”

Although Levanda seemed to advocate something like “diasporism,” the view that the Jews have developed more effectively outside of the Land of Israel than in it – he did not focus on this idea for long.

During the mid-1880s, the seeds of his nervous illness were growing. As a child, the folklore scholar Mortkhe Rivesman saw Levanda in Vilna and wrote about him:

“The patriotism of L. O. Levanda and many other Jewish ‘russofiles’ declined significantly. One should presume that the break in his sermonizing about ‘assimilation’ with the Russian people who had become the anchor of autocracy shook his entire spiritual world. He even became a Proto-Zionist and died from a painful spiritual ailment at age 53.”

Simon Dubnov describes meeting Levanda in 1886:

“Finding myself in Vilna, I considered it my duty to visit L. O. Levanda who was ill. I was warned about the writer’s strangeness; during the last years he had locked himself in and avoided meeting people, but I wanted to see the author … the bard of enlightenment and russification who had turned into a Proto-Zionist before my very eyes.

The conversation was lifeless until I mentioned his articles, The Fates of Jews in Congress Poland, that had been published in Voskhod. […] Here my partner became animate and bragged with a child’s exclamation. ‘Of course I was called upon to write such things because I know Polish literature well.’ And then again a strange coldness wafted from the twisted figure of this man who was far from old (he was only 52) with his obviously disturbed soul. With a mournful feeling I left this living symbol of the extinguished torch of ‘enlightenment,’ and a bit more than a year later, I read in Voskhod about Levanda’s death in a psychiatric hospital near Petersburg.”

Observers give us a good perspective, but the emotions that Levanda felt may be perceived from his own expression. He doubted, worried, and suffered. One can grasp his emotional condition by examining his response to the suggestion to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a writer. In this exchange of letters (we only have Levanda’s letter to Alfred Landau, the editor of Voskhod, and the Hebrew poet Yehuda Leib Gordon), we perceive Levanda’s emotional loneliness as well as his refusal to consider his literary work as an achievement or service to the Jewish people.

Landau believed that Levanda had improved the lives of thousands of Jews who had learned Russian from reading him, and wanted to recognize Levanda’s career.

On June 16, 1885, Levanda replied to Landau, refusing any honors:

“I do not want it [a celebration] because it is not the time for anniversaries, because I am not in the mood for celebrations now, because if I don’t care to recognize the fact that the Jewish public has been reading me for 25 years, they shouldn’t cheer that I’ve been writing for them for 25 years, but, alas, without purpose. I know more than anyone else about it, and therefore I do not acknowledge any services rendered on my part and did not correct anything through my writing. It’s sad, but true, and the truth is more valuable to me than holy incense, especially one undeserved.”

Levanda wanted the anniversary to pass without notice, as it seemed inauthentic to him. Incidentally, Levanda detested Landau personally which probably also contributed to the former’s hostility. Levanda’s assertion that he wrote “alas, without purpose” is somewhat difficult to understand logically. Jews, the vast majority of whom were Yiddish speakers, had in fact rushed to learn Russian. By saying that his 25 years of writing had no purpose, his point was to imply that integration into Russian culture ultimately had no purpose. This claim was obviously influenced by the pogroms, which, as far as he was concerned, had invalidated his decades of literary activity.

Lev Levanda’s disappointment alone could explain his insanity, but other factors clearly contributed, as well: his inescapable emotional reaction to the pogroms, potential feelings of guilt, resistance to physical integration with Russians, and his apparently ultimately fruitless soul-searching. These multiple and overlapping factors illuminate his degenerative emotional condition.

Following the bloody pogroms and enactment of the so-called May Laws, antisemitic legislation that impeded the movement, business, and education of Jews in Russia,  Levanda saw his dream and life’s work shatter before his very eyes.  Russian Jews, led by Levanda and others, had been living in an illusion all the while.

His emotional journey and descent into madness ultimately reflected the dilemmas, disillusionment and despondency of at least one entire generation of Russian Jews.

A version of this article was originally published in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. 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.


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