What do we know about the life of the Jewish community in Sloboda Ukraine in the 18th and 19th centuries? (Pt. 2)

[Editor's note: Russia’s unprovoked and criminal war against Ukraine suspended the regular work of many organizations, reorienting their efforts. So it is with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. In the coming weeks, we will run interviews and articles done before the beginning of the war, which reflect the myriad of interests undertaken by Ukrainian journalists, scholars and writers.]

How did the people of Sloboda Ukraine identify themselves? What influences changed this identity?

We continue to discuss this topic in the second part of our conversation about Sloboda Ukraine on the Encounters program, dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

Read the first part of our program: Sloboda Ukraine is a region of a great encounter of various cultures — Volodymyr Masliichuk

Our guest today is Volodymyr Masliichuk, Doctor of Historical Sciences, associate professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and the editor of the website Historians.in.ua.

How is the life of the Jewish community in Sloboda Ukraine documented?

Vasyl Shandro: Professor Masliichuk, you partially outlined the general background in the previous program. Of course, there was the impact of wars and migrations, and these migrations were often not the result of people's own volition. Perhaps this phenomenon was widespread in the world at the time, as it is today, and people have different motivations that lead them to leave one place and settle in another. What do we know about the life of the Jewish community in Sloboda Ukraine? What has been recorded, documented, on the one hand, in the archives, and on the other — in folklore, which, for the historian, can be the basis of research and a way to focus attention on this subject?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: This is an extraordinarily important question because, having grown up near Kharkiv, in Sloboda Ukraine, I rarely — very rarely — heard examples of folklore about Jews, although I was always interested in them. Mostly, perhaps, owing to the specifics of my locality, but there were tales about the Roma ("gypsies") and sometimes about Russians, who were usually called moskali and katsapy. I rarely heard about Jews. Why? For the banal reason that the folklore milieu is mostly a rural environment. There were few Jews in rural Sloboda Ukraine: mostly tavern keepers who managed taverns for landowners. In other words, this is a very important point. As concerns the history of Jewry, we have before us very rich archival source material, and that material is fascinating, of course.

Growing up near Kharkiv, in Sloboda Ukraine, I rarely heard of examples of folklore about Jews, although I was always interested in them

The first and most well-known, substantial mention of Jews in Sloboda Ukraine is an account of the conflict involving the bishop of Bilhorod, Dosyfei Liubymsky. For some reason, his surname was Liubymsky, even though he was a native of the town of Liubyn, near Lviv (he should have been "Liubynsky"). Well, let him be Liubymsky. Why the conflict with Jews? Because Dosyfei found out that a Jewish rabbi was living in Rokytna, Prince Boris Yusupov's sloboda [free settlement exempted from taxes] — this was the year 1732. He lived in a tavern, where other Jews gathered, and there he conducted religious services that were observed by the Orthodox folk. I will remind you that an ukase was issued in 1727, banning the activities of Jews on the territory of Left-Bank and Sloboda Ukraine and mostly throughout the Russian Empire. Liubymsky became outraged, and later reckoned that there were also Jews living right next to Kharkiv itself, in the village of Liubotyn. Consequently, he issued irate ukases urging that the all-imperial ukase of 1727 be obeyed and demanding that landowners expel the Jews and that Orthodox people not take notice of them. Those ukases of his did not lead to any consequences, and as a result of other conflicts, Liubymsky was forced to leave his episcopal see in 1734.

We come across other fascinating facts. It is since that time that we can observe the presence of Jews in the regiments of Sloboda Ukraine. There are interesting facts about Jewish tavern keepers in the town of Boromlia, the Okhtyrka regiment, in the 1740s. These are general data about the starting points.

What occupations could Jews pursue in Sloboda Ukraine?

Vasyl Shandro: What occupations was it possible to pursue? What document regulated activities, if indeed such a document existed, either written or not? Was the idea that the Jews kept taverns or engaged in some kind of commerce only a stereotype, or was it actually true in the eighteenth century?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: Only very relatively, of course. Because, for example, in later periods, after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when the Pale of Settlement was established, Sloboda Ukraine became the only other gubernia where Jews were forbidden to settle. I have come across a document dated 1797, which contains a list of Jews who lived in Kharkiv. I don't have it at hand right now, and from memory, I will note that only two of the twelve were tavern keepers. The others were tailors and made pozumenty [ribbons or braids embroidered with silver or other metallic thread for embellishing clothing and upholstered furniture]. There were also craftsmen. There was one big advantage that distinguished Jews: Out of the small group of families, of the twelve Jews listed as living in Kharkiv — males, of course — there was one teacher. In other words, Jews needed Torah studies, and this was very important. If they were forbidden to settle here, they would obtain a special certificate in the places from where they had come. Of course, those cities were situated next to Sloboda Ukraine: Poltava, Myrhorod, Khorol, and, of course, Katerynoslav. And these are very important things. In other words, this certain stereotypicality of our notions, which makes us think that a Jew had to keep a tavern, is linked to the rusticality of our perceptions.

There is a certain stereotype that says a Jew had to operate a tavern

I also researched delinquent behavior during the period of the Kharkiv Viceroyalty, from 1780 to 1796, and there was a scandal involving Samuil Berkovich, who was robbed by a teenager. The Jew, Berkovich, was a roving tailor. He hired teenagers as his assistants and traveled in the vicinity of Sumy, Sumy County, Myropil County. And this plays a very important role, indicating that certain types of trades, certain types of activities were represented by Jews as early as the eighteenth century.

Prohibitions and pressure on the Jews

Vasyl Shandro: Would it be not entirely appropriate to talk about statistical data, considering the lack of records or documents? I am talking about what happened quantitatively to the presence of a Jewish community in Sloboda Ukraine after that ukase, when it was forbidden to settle there. Did this mean that those who were living there had to leave the territory?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: If you look at Jewish history, this is the history of many, many prohibitions, but these bans were not very effective, that's understandable. After some time, a retreat would take place; a retreat with an understanding that Jews, thanks to their corporate connections, revitalized commerce and, to a certain extent, the trades. If you wanted commerce and the trades to develop in these areas, you had to reduce the pressure on Jews and allow them to engage in certain trades. That is why to a certain extent, even the 1727 prohibition and the one in 1732, as well as subsequent bans during the eighteenth century, forced Jews to leave, forced them to live or trade illegally, but with respect to Sloboda Ukraine, they did not resolve certain issues regarding the final ban on Jews settling or engaging in their trades.

If we look at Jewish history, it is a history of many, many prohibitions

I will refer once again to certain facts from the history of Kharkiv. The merchants of Kharkiv, especially in 1802–1804, applied considerable efforts to force Jews out of the sphere of commerce. We know about a number of documents. Very active in this respect was the notorious merchant Kuvshinnikov, who wrote denunciations and complaints, and collected signatures demanding that Jews not be allowed to trade in Kharkiv. In 1805, there was even a submission presented to the higher authorities to forbid Jews to trade and reside in Kharkiv. It was signed by the former mayor Yegor Uriupin, who was known for his contribution to the founding of Kharkiv University. 

Volodymyr Masliichuk.

Vasyl Shandro: What was the purpose of this series of prohibitions? What were the authorities afraid of, or what were they trying to protect themselves from in this way?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: You see, it was not just the empire. I mentioned the local merchant class; of course, they feared competition — the fear that the Jews would bring in cheap goods and that their own resale would not succeed. This is one aspect. Another is the empire and the start of the prohibitions. There were also very many superstitions, very many "requirements" concerning these prohibitions. This was a different population that had preserved its corporate nature. It undermined this unity of the space where a struggle for Orthodox space was also ongoing, etc. In other words, wherever the influence and legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were felt and where it was necessary to revitalize the trades and commerce, Jews were permitted: in Right-Bank and Left-Bank Ukraine and, of course, the Southern Ukraine space, where Jews had to be allowed to reside for the purpose of "developing" it. Next, as regards the empire, this fear that certain foundations would be undermined and would, in a way, change the world also played a role to a certain extent. But I must repeat that at all times, imperial policies were dominated by these medieval, to put it bluntly, notions about Jews, about this payload of Orthodox rhetoric, according to which the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. In other words, as soon as the state sought to emphasize its religious, confessional essence, restrictions against Jews were introduced. We can observe this from the 1830s, a period marked by the formation of the ideologemes of "Official Nationality."

To put it bluntly, imperial policies were dominated by medieval notions about Jews. There was a payload of Orthodox rhetoric, according to which Jews were responsible for Christ's crucifixion

However, these things are very, very idiosyncratic. The period of the 1830s, marked by the discovery and rhetoric about Official Nationality — the unity of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality — was when Jews began to appear en masse in Kharkiv.

Contacts between various ethnic groups and Ukrainians in Sloboda Ukraine 

Vasyl Shandro: What is generally known about the contacts between various ethnic groups and those who were part of a visible minority, both Jews and Germans, whom you have already mentioned, and perhaps Armenians, perhaps Tatars, and those who were in the majority: Ukrainians? What do we know about these contacts? Could these people be friends, live as neighbors, own a joint business, socialize, and marry each other? Did the life of these different communities have an impact on the places where they lived? I mean locations, names of streets, perhaps some kind of architecture, names of natural landmarks — toponymy in general? In other words, how visible is this multilayered, multicultural life of several centuries ago?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: Beyond all doubt, all this was very much reflected, and everything was very present. There was a district in Kharkiv called Moskalivka, that is, it is clear from the very name who lived there. It is very well known. Certain locations existed. As for minorities, it is quite difficult to determine these locations when we talk about Sloboda Ukraine. [This is also true] with regard to Jews prior to the abolition of the Pale of Settlement despite permission to settle here during and after the Crimean War, even permission for retired soldiers who had been mobilized during the empire's military needs — because Jews were never needlessly mobilized — they were not subject to conscription in the mid-nineteenth century. Accordingly, there was permission to establish a synagogue for soldiers in Kharkiv (downtown, on Mishchanska Street, which became the street of the Jews). We can say very little about definite locations. These were often scattered settlements. I am haunted by Kharkiv as the center of Sloboda Ukraine. You see one of the main streets was called Nimetska — today's Pushkin Street. When we look at a list of residents in the late nineteenth century, there will be only a handful of Germans. They gave rise to this street, but later they migrated, settling in other parts of the city. Here it is difficult to talk about this.

When we talk about interaction, there was a lot of interaction. Again, you see that, if we are talking about what was said at the beginning of the program, about folklore, we find fascinating observations made by ethnographers: who spoke with lords and who spoke with the ordinary population. Jews and Germans spoke mostly with lords, that is, the upper strata. The people who adapted more to the Ukrainian population were the Roma ("gypsies"). And this is very interesting because unique Roma surnames with the -enko suffix demonstrate a clear Ukrainian character during this period, the late eighteenth century. Roma had more contact with the lower strata, with deviant culture. They resold horses and worked as blacksmiths. Even the Kharkiv word raklo, which means a person of deviant behavior, is the Roma word for russkii, an outsider of Slavic background. Raklo meant a person who was different. They could address a Russian or a Ukrainian as raklo, and this was meant as something out of the ordinary, not as a definition of different ethnic groups. This is the uniqueness of the Sloboda Ukraine dialect. This is a very, very important point; I would pay a lot of attention to this.

Of course, Jews and Germans were in contact with the lower strata, which were often not so low. They were often craftsmen, say, or representatives of the merchant stratum. But this is a very, very important phenomenon on which attention should be focused. In the given context, of course, these contacts existed. They were present on the most diverse levels. The only thing that I would say is, to quote my friend, the Kharkiv historian Andrii Paramonov, that the history of the Jews of Kharkiv will not be written.

Vasyl Shandro: Why?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: Because this history is the history of many deviations. First of all, Jews often became embroiled in criminal matters that were not entirely pleasant. Second, it is quite evident that Jews appeared in this space. Already by the 1780s, even small Jewish communities were unable to establish order in their midst: there were constant disputes, intrigues, appeals to the imperial authorities, the refusal to acknowledge [the decisions of] courts or rabbis. This will be characteristic of the documentation concerning Jews in this space: not so much conflict or misunderstandings with the outside world as misunderstandings in their midst. This is a very noticeable feature.

Court proceedings because of different ethnic origins 

Vasyl Shandro: With regard to extant and accessible criminal cases and documents, do they contain cases relating to these points of otherness and confrontations because of this otherness? Was this prevalent in Sloboda Ukraine? Here I mean not just the Jewish community but others as well.

Volodymyr Masliichuk: Of course, this will be very typical, in that who and what are always defined. The only thing that I have not come across, with some exceptions, which will be very characteristic of Left-Bank Ukraine to a certain extent, is that crimes were committed on a certain ethnic basis. This is when one criminal in Left-Bank Ukraine asked another criminal during the latest round of questioning in court (they described the proceedings): Can one kill a Jew? Of course, the word zhid not evrei features in the documentation. The second criminal replies: “One can, one must, because they are such-and-such ("not our own kind," "they crucified Christ"). There was practically none of this in Sloboda Ukraine, but ethnicity was indicated; persons were marked as being different. We will frequently encounter this, especially in relation to Germans. One time I came across something regarding Jews, the writing of documents or some fragments, but not in the language of the courts but in German and "Hebrew," respectively. Such documentation can also be found in criminal inquiries and property disputes. It is very interesting, but no one is examining it.

On the subject of medicine, for example, the first medics in this space were Germans, and not just in Sloboda Ukraine but also in Left-Bank Ukraine and Kyiv. Sometimes a certain medical verdict or some medical findings were written not in the language of the empire, not in Latin, but in the German language, next to which was the translation. All these points exist, and we will encounter examples of hostility as well. The most glaring example of enmity is vividly described because it took place frequently on the intellectual level. I am referring to the persecution of foreign professors, lecturers, and foreigners after 1812, following the victory over Napoleon, when patriotism increased dramatically in the Russian Empire and was officially boosted. Consequently, German professors, German lecturers, and German students experienced some persecution, although they, too, had wanted to fight Napoleon. Often, they had ended up here because of the Napoleonic Wars; this was typical of the times. The most well-known incident was the expulsion of Professor Johann Schad from Kharkiv Imperial University, which case was also marked by xenophobic overtones. Or the derision to which students subjected the fascinating adjunct Orest Schumann, who, incidentally, was one of the first discoverers of the Donbas. Schumann is an interesting figure, one of the most fascinating members of the German community.

The geographic definition of the Ukrainian people took place in Sloboda Ukraine

Vasyl Shandro: What does all this offer us today? The idea of Sloboda Ukraine as being not quite a monolith of 200–300 years ago but a gathering place of much that was diverse and interesting?

Volodymyr Masliichuk: You see, we understand our own through understanding that which is different, not our own. I will remind you that what we call the geographical definition of the Ukrainian people took place precisely in Sloboda Ukraine. The eminent researcher and professor Roman Szporluk constantly emphasizes this. This was done by an ethnic Russian named Ivan Pereverzev, one of the Kharkiv-based authors of a topographic description of the Kharkiv Viceroyalty with a historical foreword in the 1780s, in which he delineated the borders of what he called the South-Russian people. He defined the borders of the Ukrainians — the border, as we would say, "from the Sian to the Don," from Galicia to Sloboda Ukraine. In other words, what happened? He, a native of Great Russia, heard that people in Kharkiv spoke differently, that there was a different population here with different customs. I must emphasize that in the eighteenth century, Kharkiv still had a powerful Ukrainian coloring that would gradually disappear during the nineteenth century, and he reflected on the specific features of the local population.

In the eighteenth century, Kharkiv still had a powerful Ukrainian coloring, which would gradually disappear in the nineteenth century

In other words, the beginnings of the intellectual formation of the new Ukrainians contained elements of a borderland and would continue to do so. Thus, Sloboda Ukraine and Galicia would be decisive in the creation of what we would call the Ukrainian national project. Where there is a meeting of cultures, there also exist those tremendous intellectual grounds for understanding oneself and understanding another.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.