The titles on university-press books are often too grand for the narrow studies that shoulder them, but in The Jewish Century, Yuri Slezkine sweeps across the ages to offer a fresh angle on the Soviet world. A Berkeley historian who left Moscow in 1982, he invokes classical mythology as well as Proust, Babel, and Sholem Aleichem. Of Tevye’s daughters, Slezkine homes in on Hodl, who abandoned her faith and family for the proletarian revolution. “Hodl’s grandchildren—fully secular, thoroughly Russified, and bound for the United States or Israel—are an important part of the Jewish story; Hodl herself is not,” he writes, attempting to work her back in.

Your previous books examine Russia’s relationship to Siberia and the Arctic. What inspired you to write about Soviet Jews?

I was actually researching another book, about a residential building in Moscow that housed many members of the Soviet government in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the House on the Embankment. Every Muscovite knows about it—there’s a novel by that name—and I was beginning to write a history of it when I became interested specifically in the Jewish contingent within that house, the Jewish members of the Soviet political elite.

Most of my friends at the Moscow State University were ethnic Jews whose grandparents had been Communists. What interested me was the connection between those people in that building and the life I remembered in the Soviet Union. I decided to write a chapter about the Jewish inhabitants. It became a long essay and, eventually, the book that you have read.

What was life like during your college years?

By the 1970s, the Soviet intelligentsia was to a considerable extent anti-regime, antisocialist and anti-Soviet. But people had different views of what it meant to be anti-Soviet. Some people responded by becoming aware of their Jewish ancestry, in some cases becoming Zionists. Others preferred to leave for the United States or just be in opposition in the Soviet Union. Many in this latter group were ethnic Jews.

And which camp did you fall into?

I suppose I was influenced by all of those. It was not always easy to distinguish, you know, because there was some sense of being Jewish, and then some sense of belonging to the Russian intelligentsia.

Why do you view the Jewish contingent in the House on the Embankment, and the rest of their generation, as immigrants?

That’s how some of them, at least, thought of themselves. Those people were all first-generation Muscovites, so there were interesting parallels among the Jewish migrations from the Pale of Settlement to America, to Palestine, and to Moscow, Leningrad, and other big Soviet cities. The Soviet migration was similar in many ways to the Jewish migrations to Vienna and Budapest and Berlin in the 19th century. So I did some work on the Jewish emergence from the ghetto and the entry into modern European life.

But you reach even further back than that.

Right. [laughs] So then reading about the 19th century, there were various theories put forth—by Jews and others, some anti-Semitic in tone and others not—about the reasons for Jewish success in the modern world: Why do they do so well in some professions? Why are they so good in the world of education? Those questions we’ve heard so many times were first formulated and debated in the 19th century. I was as interested by these questions as anybody. And I decided to offer my own explanation, or rather as I was reading I was thinking about this, so what is now my first chapter is my attempt to offer an explanation.

And that begins with your distinction between Mercurians and Apollonians. Can you explain what you mean?

In describing traditional preindustrial societies, people talk about agriculturalists and pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. What I’m proposing is that there was another mode of existence: providing services, especially those considered unclean and dangerous by the majority population. I call those people Mercurians, or service nomads, as opposed to the Apollonians, who are food producers. There have been various ethnic groups over the centuries that were Mercurians, that specialized in commercial mediation, medicine, travel, diplomacy, and other intangible, marvelous, and frightening things. Jews are one community among them. There are many others in Africa and Asia.

So from this anthropological perspective, the history of the Jewish people isn’t so unique after all?

They belong to an economic mode that is fairly common in world history. But within that group, they have a very special role to play. What distinguishes Jews is, first of all the amount of time that they spent engaged in that activity, the degree of commitment, the versatility within that specialization. And the fact that Jews were the ultimate middleman minority of the European continent.

Wasn’t Russia an exception before?

Jews were always Mercurians in the Russian empire. They were important in the western borderlands, in the Pale of Settlement. But in the center of the Empire, mostly because Jews weren’t allowed to live there, ethnic Germans were in that role. They were extremely prominent in 18th and 19th century Russia, but eventually some became Russified, and many were deported during World War I.

And in place of the Germans came Jews fleeing war and pogroms, economic migrants, Red Army veterans. What became of them in the big cities?

One remarkable consequence was their move into Soviet educational institutions. Many memoirs of the 1920s and early 1930s focus on being a student, being poor but being excited, being able to live in a great big city at the center of the world revolution—a revolution that would make ethnic hostility a thing of the past, you know. Most young immigrants got tremendous new opportunities, all the greater because the state was discriminating against the members of the pre-Revolutionary elite. Among those who had not been compromised by service to the imperial state, Jews were by far the best prepared and did better than anyone. And there was this sense—shared by many, but we’re talking about Jews in particular—of great excitement, of limitless opportunities.

In some ways, this is like what immigrants coming through Ellis Island experienced.

Except in the Soviet Union in those early days, there were really no legal or quasilegal barriers. There were anti-Semites all over the place, but there was nothing to prevent those immigrants from going to the best Soviet colleges.

Jews as a group were the most successful group in the Soviet Union before World War II in terms of upward mobility, educational accomplishment, participation in political institutions, membership in the professional and intellectual elite. Jews did extremely well and many of them were very much taken by the Soviet project of building socialism.

When and how did things change?

The internationalist cosmopolitan Soviet state stopped being internationalist and cosmopolitan sometime in the 1930s. Soviet intellectuals, professionals, and other officials of Jewish descent also changed. They became interested in their Jewish ancestry, conscious of having kinship ties to the people who were being killed by the Nazis.

So people who earlier in their lives hadn’t thought of themselves as Jews—who thought of themselves as Soviets, and by many standards had been the most Soviet of all Soviet nationalities—began to think of themselves during the war as meaningfully Jewish in some sense. At the same time, the Soviet state began to think of itself as meaningfully Russian in a kind of ethnic-roots way that made Jewish participation in the state and overrepresentation in the elite problematic. The two clashed, which led eventually to persecution by the Soviet state.

You dedicate The Jewish Century to your grandmother.

Both my maternal grandparents were Jews from the former Pale of Settlement. They met in Argentina, where they had emigrated from the Russian Empire. They were both Communists, and they went to Birobidzhan in 1931 to build socialism. They didn’t spend much time in Birobidzhan. When they arrived in Moscow, they found a very large number of fellow Jewish Communists, almost all of whom, if they lived long enough, would live to regret the choices they made.

Many people avoid dwelling on Jewish involvement in the Russian Revolution, since it’s a premise of so many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Is this a delicate question, that Communism played such an important role in the life of my grandmother and so many other Jews? Well, of course it is. Can there be very unsavory answers provided to that question? Of course. But I don’t think that is any reason for us, for me, not to ask those questions, not to deal with the story of my grandmother.

So much Jewish history in this country somehow doesn’t deal with the story of my grandmother. And it isn’t that everyone’s grandmother should be in history books. But I think Jewish Communists, both in America and in Russia, where there were many more of them, wrote an important page in the history of the 20th century. And suffered a very tragic fate.

Why has Jewish history overlooked people like your grandmother?

At bottom, there is the question of who is Jewish. When you write about people who proclaim their Jewishness, then it would make sense to tell the story of the Revolution, much of which would be about pogroms. And then you would move directly to the early signs of official anti-Semitism on the eve of the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself, and Stalin’s version of anti-Semitism. And, that, of course, would eventually lead to the emigration and everything else.

But that story leaves out most Soviet Jews—people who were happy to be Soviets for a while until they were told or they realized that it was not quite possible. A lot of the people I write about didn’t want to be Jews, didn’t necessarily think of themselves as Jews, were strongly antireligion—in some cases militantly and aggressively so, in other cases just indifferent. And yet the reason so many of them didn’t want to be Jewish has to do with their Jewish past. All of that is part of Jewish history.

You spent the summer in Russia. Were you working on a new book?

Well, now I’m trying to get back to my original project. It was hard for me to work on that book because I kept returning to questions having to do with the Jews, but now that I’ve exorcised that demon, I can go back to the other residents of that house.