The forgotten story of a surprising anti-imperial, nationalist project at the turn of the twentieth century: a grassroots movement of Russian Jews to racialize themselves.
In the rapidly nationalizing Russian Empire of the late nineteenth century, Russian Jews grew increasingly concerned about their future. Jews spoke different languages and practiced different traditions. They had complex identities and no territorial homeland. Their inability to easily conform to new standards of nationality meant a future of inevitable assimilation or second-class minority citizenship. The solution proposed by Russian Jewish intellectuals was to ground Jewish nationhood in a structure deeper than culture or territory—biology.
Marina Mogilner examines three leading Russian Jewish race scientists— Samuel Weissenberg, Alexander El’kind, and Lev Shternberg—and the movement they inspired. Through networks of race scientists and political activists, Jewish medical societies, and imperial organizations like the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population, they aimed to produce “authentic” knowledge about the Jewish body, which would motivate an empowering sense of racially grounded identity and guide national biopolitics. Activists vigorously debated eugenic and medical practices, Jews’ status as Semites, Europeans, and moderns, and whether the Jews of the Caucasus and Central Asia were inferior. The national science, and the biopolitics it generated, became a form of anticolonial resistance, and survived into the early Soviet period, influencing population policies in the new state.
Comprehensive and meticulously researched, A Race for the Future reminds us of the need to historically contextualize racial ideology and politics and makes clear that we cannot fully grasp the biopolitics of the twentieth century without accounting for the imperial breakdown in which those politics thrived.
This is an important, provocative work that should be read by anyone interested in the history of race in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.
Mogilner makes a tremendous contribution to the understanding of the ‘Jewish Question’ in the nineteenth century in this thoroughly researched and fluidly written volume.
A brilliant work of intellectual and cultural history. Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Mogilner argues that the language of race science—and the embrace of biopolitics by Jewish social scientists—possessed powerful exclusionary potential, even as it was used to study, improve, and protect the population of Russian Jews. I have no doubt A Race for the Future will become the standard book on the subject for many years to come.
A gripping story of the power of ‘racial science’ as a paradigm of global modernity, its emancipatory attractions to educated Russian Jews, and the assimilative impetus of the Russian empire that made Jewish self-racialization, oddly, an anticolonial gesture. A brilliant and erudite scholar, Mogilner endows this mind-bending story with a deep appreciation of its historical actors’ diverse intellectual trajectories, motivations, and political entanglements. This groundbreaking book sparkles with insights into Russia’s unique imperial predicaments.
Bold and highly original. Challenging the entrenched misconception that race was peripheral to group identity in imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union, Mogilner shows how Jewish self-racialization was paradoxically a project of anticolonial resistance. With its clear and engaging prose, this will be a crucial reference for historians of empire—or anyone interested in how subaltern actors exercise agency within a colonial setting.
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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