Review of Marina Mogilner’s A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness

James Nadel

Mari­na Mogilner, A Race for the Future: Sci­en­tif­ic Visions of Mod­ern Russ­ian Jew­ish­ness. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022. 352 pp. $49.95.

Turn of the century Jewish intellectuals, challenged by the nonterritoriality of the Jewish diaspora, produced innumerable ways to nonetheless define this population’s unity and identity. In late nineteenth century Russia, as Marina Mogilner tells us in her new book A Race for the Future, Russian Jewish physical anthropologists proposed a unique – and, to contemporary readers, surprising – understanding of transnational Jewish groupness: one based on race. At a moment when imperial institutions imposed racial categories onto their populations, these Jewish “scientists” embraced such designations and even found in them a powerful means for resistance. They were not alone in this endeavor. As Mogilner well chronicled in her earlier monograph, Homo Imperii, a cadre of physical anthropologists working in the Russian Empire saw in race studies not an opportunity to create hierarchies around which they could define superiority and inferiority. 1 1 Marina Mogilner, Homo Imperii: A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013). Rather, they conceived of race as a means for understanding – on rational, scientific, natural-historical grounds – the bewildering ethnic, cultural, and religious differences they daily encountered living in a multicultural imperial polity. 2 2 This was not just a Russian story. As Deborah Coen has demonstrated, meteorological scientists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire found a metaphor for the coexistence of ethnic difference in the wind patterns that emerged from the many regions that made up the imperial territories. Deborah Coen, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire and the Problem of Scale (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Specifically, Russian Jewish scientists used their research to both insist on the “Jewish race’s” belonging to a universal humanity and to claim its durable uniqueness. The don of Russian Jewish race sciences, Samuel Weissenberg, theorized that Eastern European Jews had at some point “mixed” with local races and therefore constituted their own racial type that was native to the Russian Empire. He thereby affirmed Eastern European Jews’ place as rightful “aboriginal[s]” of the Russian lands and at the same time demonstrated their persistence as a distinct group (50). By contradistinction, the anthropologist and populist activist, Lev Shternberg, wrote of an essential, primordial Jewishness. No outside force – like the assimilatory Russian culture – could shake the Jewish “national-psyche”, which had been preserved through a supposedly millennia-long tradition of endogamy (126-7). The result in both studies was surprisingly similar: a call for both imperial belonging and a degree of national autonomy, an assertion of Jewish difference that did not preclude Jewish existence in Russia.

Considerations of racial difference among Jewish intellectuals were not entirely novel in the late nineteenth century. Iris Idelson-Shein has demonstrated how, over the course of the eighteenth century, Jewish authors increasingly relied on racial tropes in their efforts to define communal boundaries. 3 3 Iris Idelson-Shein, Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race During the Long 18th Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). Idelson-Shein even discusses the son of the Vilna Gaon – Ben Elijah – who completed Hebrew translations of natural-historical treatises. In so doing, Ben Elijah articulated and defended a notion of Jewish “purity” that is not dissimilar from Shternberg’s focus on endogamy. Ben Elijah deviated in his translation to insist that Jews who “do not intermarry with other nations are thus always of a darker complexion than their European compatriots” (148-150). Mogilner’s protagonists, however, aimed to bring their ideas to bear on the actual world through active organizing. In studying the essential characteristics of the Jewish race, Eastern European Jewish intellectuals felt they could construct “authentic” information about their own population towards helping Jewish communities excel within the Empire and beyond (149). If the arrival of Russian – and then Soviet – modernity spelled doom for particularism, then these figures sought to prepare Jews for this transition by emphasizing a subaltern epistemology of self-understanding. 4 4 In this regard, this Jewish racialist research has a more contemporary analogue: African American doctors and activists working with the Black Panthers in the 1970s. Just as Shternberg racialized Jewish culture and physical appearance as a means of bolstering national difference within the imperial context, these medical professionals working outside the official hospital context politicized sickle cell anemia as a physical metaphor for the experience of minority life in the United States. The reason, they emphasized, that this genetic condition affected African Americans particularly was that their bodies – their very blood – had been designed for the particular environment of Africa. The American setting had harmed them, but now they could be healed by those that truly understood their pain. Using the same phrasing as Shternberg, these figures offered “authentic” care, born from communal understanding. See Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), especially chapter 4. Following the 1905 Revolution, a matrix of organizations providing this type of “social medicine” emerged across the wide expanses of the Russian Empire, unifying in 1912 under the banner of the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish People (hereafter, OZE, 173-180). The medical professionals and officials of this organization sought to identify the physical and moral qualities of the Jewish social body in order to “eugenically” engineer it towards a positive future of self-improvement, a broad national rejuvenation. This mission seemed all the more pertinent as the violence of World War I and the Russian Civil War threatened the physical safety of Eastern European Jews. The organization’s goal was not to eliminate Jewish difference, but rather to protect and perfect its physical form.


In what practical sense did this biopolitical focus appear amidst efforts of Jewish communal organization in the first part of the twentieth century? Although it is beyond the scope of and bears no mention in Mogilner’s book, the frontier city of Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan) illustrates well the ways in which “the Jewish physical body [was] imagined as an authentic national space…” by activists from across the spectrum of Jewish politics (241). Baku was itself a center for Jewish medical activity at the start of the twentieth century, as doctors and dentists migrated to the southern border along with thousands of other Russian Jews who sought to be employed in the flourishing oil industry. 5 5 The Azerbaijani national archives in Baku are filled with requests from Jewish doctors and dentists seeking to take up residency in the city. Indeed, the first health minister of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, Yevsey Gindes, was a Jewish migrant from Kyiv. In addition, about 150 kilometers north of Baku, there resides a large community of Kavkazi Jews – descendants of Persian Jews who migrated up the Caspian coast in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, neighboring Georgia had its own population of “native” Jews, some of whom migrated to Baku during this same period. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Baku, Russian Jewish migrants encountered these “Georgian and Mountain Jews” (gruzn un berg yidn, as they were called in the local Yiddish press) and considered to what extent they all belonged to a shared religious, racial or ethnic community – in terms that would have been somewhat recognizable to the scientists that populate A Race for the Future.

With the fall of the Russian Empire and the formation of an independent Azerbaijan in 1917, Baku’s many “national minorities” were given the right to establish their own institutions, including “national schools” and organizations for representation in the local Duma. 6 6 For some details on this arrangement see, Tadeusz Świętochowski, Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: the Shaping of National Identity in a Muslim Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Although the “Baku National Jewish Council” that formed as a result was run primarily by Russian Jewish migrants, this body was bestowed by the new Azerbaijani state with the responsibility of operating a “Jewish” school for the entire Jewish population of the city – including Kavkazi, Georgian and Russian Jews alike. Subsequently, a polemic broke out in the Council’s deliberations, the contents of which were preserved in the Zionist Russian-language periodical, Kavkaskii Evreiskii Vestnik, and the Council’s Yiddish newspaper, Kavkazer Vokhenblat: Should the “Eastern” Jews of the Caucasus be permitted to join their “European” counterparts in this new, “united” school? How would this integration of the Jewish nation be accomplished logistically, considering that Kavkazi had their own language (Juhuro) and little exposure to the “enlightened” education that Russian Jews expected for their children? What would it mean to form a national institution through the combination of these groups, especially when some Russian Jews opined that their local co-religionists were “dirty” and not physically fit to be included? 7 7Kavkaskii Evreiskii Vestnik, no. 36 (45), October 17, 1919, p. 2.

As one might expect after reading Mogilner’s monograph, the explicitly racialist perspective was offered by a local doctor – one Ya. K. Varshavskii, who argued that “pedagogical” issues could be solved by separating Georgian and Kavkazi children into their own classes before mainstreaming them into the national school. Varshavskii remarked that “there exist sharp peculiarities in different ethnic groups of Jews…as a result of hereditarily [nasledstvenno] accumulated habits and experiences,” and he argued that special attention in their own schools had allowed many “non-European Jews” to eventually take advantage of higher education opportunities. Hereditary differences needed to be first taken into account in order to gradually merge the local Jewish population into a normative national culture. From Varshavskii’s point of view – which one commenter applauded for its “scientificity” – the path to eventual equality ran through the acknowledgement of the racial difference, that is, the literal difference of Jewish bodies.

Taking the opposing stance were the Council’s Zionists, who – while appalled by Varshavskii’s segregationist approach – nonetheless summoned the image of the body as a container for Jewishness. In the Yiddish press, an anonymous “school friend” suggested that immediate education in a national setting would allow the “soul” of Georgian and Mountain Jews to emerge from its supposedly degraded environment. “European Jews coming to the Caucasus from places like Mogilev or Kyiv” would act as archeologists. Repositories of authentic Jewishness themselves, Jews from the Pale were best equipped to “find the road to the soul of the Georgian and Mountain Jews” by “excavating” this kernel of national identity from the “different surrounding cultures” in which they were buried. 8 8Kavkazer Vokhenblat, no. 3 (10), p. 1. Real Jewishness, in this formulation, existed within each Jew living in the Caucasus, whether they be “European,” Kazkazi or Georgian. Each individual stood as a national space unto themselves, an experimental ground ripe for growth and renewal. In this debate, communal organizing found its purpose in fostering such an internal, supposedly ineradicable, Jewish essence. Even as the participants argued about the locus of this difference, they agreed on its literal existence.


Mogilner’s final chapters consider how Russian Jewish race scientists fared in the Soviet Union, when the state apparatus threatened to subsume the network of Jewish health institutions that they had pioneered. In Mogilner’s estimation, Russian Jewish race scientists could act as “quite independent agents” in this new setting. OZE’s main organizers could even, in their own journal, “mold” their racial approach to the Marxist doctrines of Soviet academia (254). This uneasy alliance existed until the dual pressures of Stalinism and Nazi race science made the discipline – and its practitioners’ existence – intolerable. Race studies had become the white supremacist scourge with which we are more familiar, and the notion of a Jewish racial self-help movement in the Soviet Union disappeared.

Mogilner’s story, however, does have an alternative fate; a Yiddish one that exceeds the purview of her monograph. In 1917, the OZE started to produce its newsletter in Yiddish in the hopes of popularizing its efforts, calling the forum Folksgezunt. After World War I, while the OZE activists continued their work under Bolshevik control, a splinter group emerged, comprising the organization’s branches in the now independent Poland and under the name Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej (TOZ). It was operated by the renowned Yiddishist pedagogue and physician Tsemakh Szabad – the father-in-law of Max Weinreich – and produced its own Folksgezunt until at least 1936. The persistent traits here are not so obvious and TOZ avoided the explicit discussion of racial character. The newsletter focused instead on the description of medical issues and anatomy. 9 9 When discussing Jewish populations in particular, the authors centered their work on social and economic conditions that affected the health of individuals within Jewish communities. To take one example, see a discussion of environmental conditions that resulted in Polish Jews contracting tuberculosis: Folksgezunt, no. 3 (87), February 1928, p. 51. A TOZ conference in June of 1928 contained only one presentation directly related to “race.” Folksgezunt, no. 12 (96), June 1928, p. 224. Nevertheless, in its new form, the organization never gave up hope on a thorough revolution in the fitness of the Jewish people. In an “article for discussion” from 1928, Dr. L. Vollman declared that the TOZ could not under any circumstances abandon its focus on “child-rearing.” The main priority that the TOZ could not farm out to other institutions was “...the cultivation of a future physically-healthy and strong Jewish generation.” 10 10Folksgezunt, no. 5 (89), March 1928, p. 88.

What’s more, in this exact period when a focus on race sciences among Russian Jewish intellectuals gradually evaporated, Yiddish journals in the United States and the Soviet Union – including those of the Comintern – started to print poetry and prose that dealt directly with the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities. 11 11 See, especially, Amelia Glaser, Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020). Yiddish authors found, particularly in racist violence against African Americans, a productive metaphor for anti-Jewish exclusion in general and, eventually, for fascist anti-Semitism. An analytical transformation accompanied the linguistic shift. The study of “race” by Jews now consisted not of pseudo-scientific description, but rather of literary and sociological examinations that empathetically related different experiences of racism to one another. 12 12 For the sociological example, see the discussion of Max Weinreich’s investigation of “minorityhood” in Kenneth B. Moss, An Unchosen People: Jewish Political Reckoning in Interwar Poland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021), chapter 3. To greater or lesser degrees, these pieces contain their own racialist assumptions and essentialist depictions, even as they evoke an internationalist solidarity. 13 13 Marc Caplan, “Yiddish Exceptionalism: Lynching, Race and Racism in Opatoshu’s ‘Lintsheary’ in In Geveb (June 2016). For a discussion of how Soviet Yiddish literary scholars attempted to avoid these issues, see Eli Rosenblatt, “A Sphinx upon the Dnieper: Black Modernism and the Yiddish Translation of Race,” Slavic Review 80, no. 2 (Summer 2021): 289-289. In what ways, if any, had these authors observed or embraced the biopolitics so explicitly on display in war-torn Eastern Europe? To what extent, if any, were they influenced in their depictions by the rhetoric of hygiene promoted by the TOZ and similar organizations? Answering such questions takes one far afield from Mogilner’s main concerns, but they should perhaps drive further research into Yiddish articulations of race and racism in the 1930s.

A more formal aspect of the OZE also survived through the interwar period: its geographical scope. The “TOZ Bulletin” in the back of Folksgezunt reported on followed TOZ activity throughout Poland, as well as OZE’s parallel efforts in other areas of the former Russian Empire – including in the cities of Bessarabia and Lithuania. This had been a concern of OZE already during World War I and the Russian Civil War. Mogilner points out that during this period, OZE took great pride in their ability to stay in contact with local branches, even during the turmoil and “rupture” of this moment. A Jewish “unity” of healthcare efforts would prevail in the face of the new borders that now marked a formerly shared imperial social space (182).

In the initial issue of the TOZ bulletin, the editors announced a similar purpose. The nodes of TOZ activity in the provinces and in other countries existed within a disparate network. 14 14 Several years later, in his journal Di Yidishe Ekonomik, the Jewish statistician Jacob Lestschinsky would speak to the need for a similar unity in the work of the Jewish intelligentsia, metropolitan and provincial alike: “we believe that through systematic work and through a well functioning center there can come – through the provincial intellectuals – entirely worthy material.” Jacob Lestschinsky, Di Yidishe Ekonomik, no.1 (1), May 1937, p. 4. The bulletin would act as the medium through which the many local medical professionals dedicated to the Jewish people would communicate and maintain “tight connections” with one another, towards inducing a broad “Jewish physical enlightenment.” 15 15Folksgezunt, no. 3 (87), February 1928, p. 49. Even as the organization’s focus on race had fallen away, its activities sought to institutionalize diasporic ties. This, more than anything else, is what was inherited from one generation to the next.

Nadel, James. “Review of Marina Mogilner’s A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness.” In geveb, June 2023:
Nadel, James. “Review of Marina Mogilner’s A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed Jun 23, 2024.


James Nadel

James Nadel is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University, working on Russian-Jewish, Russian Imperial and Soviet history.