“While Judea Remains Silent”: Biblical Israel in Russia’s Self-Image

David Herman, University of Virginia

In The Icon and the Axe, James Billington notes one of Russian culture’s most striking dualities: on the one hand a thousand-year-old tendency towards anti-Semitism and on the other, a curious tradition of identifying Russia with Israel. “The anti-Jewish fervor that was built into the Muscovite ideology […] bespeaks an inner similarity between the ancient claims of Israel and the new pretensions of Muscovy. A newly proclaimed chosen people felt hostility toward an older pretender to this title” (72). Billington’s examples concentrate on the historical and the sixteenth century. This paper will examine these issues as they appear in key texts on Russian nationhood. For it can be asserted that repeatedly over the course of a millennium Russian writers have chosen to think through the question of the identity and fate of their nation with reference (not always explicit) to the Chosen People of the Old Testament.

There are many examples to choose from, including those catalogued by Billington and, in the eighteenth century, Stephen Baehr. While adding to their list in other periods, I will concentrate mainly on several of the best-known texts that meditate on Russia’s position in history: the initial discussion of Judaism in the Primary Chronicle, Hilarion’s contemporaneous sermon “On Law and Grace,” and Čaadaev’s “First Philosophical Letter.” Among these, Hilarion’s Sermon provides the most vivid example of the complexities of the Russian attitude. On the one hand, the Sermon follows the Old Russian ambivalence in valorizing the New Testament over the Jewish Bible while nonetheless quoting – and thinking metaphorically – predominantly out of the latter. At the heart of Hilarion’s treatment of Russia’s newly forged national identity as a Christian nation entering truly world history for the first time stands a metaphor structured bipolarly (law vs. grace/Hagar vs. Sarah). In Hilarion’s antinomies, the overcoming of Jewishness is paraded as history’s central achievement – and yet in his haste to mark off a gulf that can divide and oppose Russia permanently to ancient Israel, Hilarion has made places for Jews on both sides of his ledger, destroying the very separation he aims to create. This simultaneous gesture of rejection within identification, I will argue, is a key to Russian attitudes towards Israel and Judaism.