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A Jewish Woman of Distinction

The Life and Diaries of Zinaida Poliakova

ChaeRan Y. Freeze

Zinaida Poliakova (1863–1953) was the eldest daughter of Lazar Solomonovich Poliakov, one of the three brothers known as the Russian Rothschilds. They were moguls who dominated Russian finance and business and built almost a quarter of the railroad lines in Imperial Russia. For more than seventy-five years, Poliakova kept detailed diaries of her world, giving us a rare look into the exclusive world of Jewish elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These rare documents reveal how Jews successfully integrated into Russian aristocratic society through their intimate friendships and patronage of the arts and philanthropy. And they did it all without converting—in fact, while staunchly demonstrating their Jewishness. Poliakova’s life was marked by her dual identity as a Russian and a Jew. She cultivated aristocratic sensibilities and lived an extraordinarily lifestyle, and yet she was limited by the confessional laws of the empire and religious laws that governed her household. She brought her Russian tastes, habits, and sociability to France following her marriage to Reuben Gubbay (the grandson of Sir Albert Abdullah Sassoon). And she had to face the loss of almost all her family members and friends during the Holocaust. Women’s voices are often lost in the sweep of history, and so A Jewish Women of Distinction is an exceptional, much-needed collection. These newly discovered primary sources will change the way we understand the full breadth of the Russian Jewish experience.

Paper: $29.95 | Cloth: $90 | E-book: $39.95
ISBN-13: 9781684580019
Pages: 400 | Size: 6.125 in. x 9.25 in.
Date Published: December 20, 2019
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Freeze has painstaking recontructed what she terms the “complex jigsaw puzzle” of this social world…. The result is an intimate portrait of the daily trials of a young woman seeking to define herself in the midst of a large and extravagantly wealthy family living in a highly structured patriarchal society undergoing rapid change.

Slavic Review

Reviews

  • The remarkable diaries of Zinaida Poliakova, deftly edited by ChaeRan Freeze, open onto the world of the “Russian Rothschilds,” a world of high culture, vast privilege and the skillful, constant fashioning of a hybrid Jewish-Russian identity. A superb biographical essay extends Poliakova’s story to fin-de-siècle Paris; the whirlwind of the Holocaust; and the harsh realities, both personal and financial, of her postwar life in England. ... An important contribution to modern Jewish history.

    Esther Schor
    Princeton University
  • This impressively annotated translation of Poliakova’s diaries provides a revealing depiction of the world of the Jewish elite in late Imperial Russia as experienced by a young woman from one of its most prominent families.

    William G. Wagner
    Williams College
  • An essential resource for scholars and students that transforms our understanding of the Jewish business elite in Imperial Russia. The brilliant introduction illuminates the lives of its Russian protagonists and the world of the great Jewish business dynasties in the first age of globalization — and it does so from a shockingly intimate and surprisingly unfamiliar angle. ... A major contribution to the field; it deserves a wide audience.

    Abigail Green
    University of Oxford
  • I expected these books to show that the rise and fall of Jewish business dynasties tracked the great sweep of modern Jewish history – from the faltering hopes of emancipation, first kindled in late 18th-century Europe, to the Holocaust. To my surprise, in most cases, their demise came earlier. Whether in Austria, Russia or China, it was precipitated above all by war and political revolution, not by the expropriation and extermination of Europe’s Jews. After 1917 many of the Poliakovs and Gunzburgs were already stateless. For those who fled Nazi Europe, or died in Auschwitz like many of Zinaida’s family, the Holocaust marked the end point in a long process of decline.

    London Review of Books
  • ...memoirs of Jewish women’s lives in the tsarist empire ... are not only remarkable historical sources, but also wonderful to use in the classroom. Whether for general Russian history classes or for learning about the Jewish experience in eastern Europe, they grant us access to the domestic sphere, educational institutions, marriage markets and aspects of interpersonal and intercommunal interactions not typically available in archival documents. ... The discovery and publication of a diary of a Jewish woman from the late nineteenth century is thus a rare and valuable source. ...Freeze has painstaking recontructed what she terms the “complex jigsaw puzzle” (xv) of this social world.... The result is an intimate portrait of the daily trials of a young woman seeking to define herself in the midst of a large and extravagantly wealthy family living in a highly structured patriarchal society undergoing rapid change.

    Slavic Review

About the Author

Chaeran Freeze

ChaeRan Y. Freeze is the Frances and Max Elkon Chair in Modern Jewish History at Brandeis University. Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia was a 2000 recipient of the Koret book publication grant.

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