Art as refuge: Jewish publishers as cultural brokers in early 1920s Russian Berlin

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The past twenty years have seen a renewed interest in the academic study of the history and culture of Eastern European Jewry. This upsurge was supported by the availability of new source material and the application of innovative media for electronic data storage and retrieval. At the same time, the field of textual studies broadened to include the study of context, and new conceptual frameworks developed to encompass both the humanities and social sciences.

Yet, when it comes to the study of the Jewish mission in the context of Russian emigration, scholarly views still tend to be blurred. Adequate research methods are needed to fully understand the process and consequences of the kaleidoscopic fluxes of people and ideologies in a time of rapid social change during the years following the October Revolution.

The aim of the present article is to improve this understanding. Borrowing the paradigm of “cultural brokerage,” the article advances a conceptual model laid out by Nicholas Jaspert on Jewish intermediacy in medieval Spain, and offers a path towards new insights into the complex and interwoven agency of Jewish publishers from Russia who, during the short but dynamic period of 1921–24, turned Berlin into a centre of transcultural activity. There were three main prerequisites for this: Berlin emerged as the first and, as it turned out, an ephemeral capital of Russian emigration; it became the centre of Russian publishing, and served as a hub for the globalisation of Russian art. More specifically, Berlin’s rise as a centre of Russian publishing is linked to a number of further coincidental factors, including the literary requirements of the Bolshevik elites, the city’s position as a centre of publishing competence and profit par excellence, Jewish expertise and mobility, and the favourable economic conditions during the German hyperinflation.
The article demonstrates how Jaspert’s categorization of mobile agents as others, emissaries, and go-betweens allows us to scrutinize their space of activity, the preliminary character of their intermediacy, and the broad ideological spectrum of their outputs during the very period in history that saw the Russians or at least a considerable fraction of them become a “people of the book.”

Beyond the scope of this article, it is hoped that the aforementioned descriptive distinction of the activities of agents will be a tool that enables us to pursue a more systematic and nuanced approach when analysing the Jewish contribution to Russian emigration.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9-42
Number of pages34
JournalTranscultural Studies
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jul 2016


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