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The Gunzburgs, the Russian Rothschilds who weren’t persecuted

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Published: 15 May 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

A new biography of the Gunzburgs reminds us that not all Russian Jews were persecuted revolutionaries

IN HISTORY OUR EYE is often drawn to the “normal,” the experience of the many whose importance requires no justification. Yet there is value to the exceptions, those cases that force us to reconsider our assumptions.

Most Jews in Russia were poor and marginalised, yet some were wealthy beyond measure and deeply connected to elites that constituted the centre of the Russian Empire. Most Jews found deliverance during the Russian Civil War at the hands of the Red Army, which—though guilty for a number of pogroms of its own—saw anti-Semitic violence as wrong, as an evil to be defeated.

Yet there were some who found their cause in the arms of their enemies, a cause worth dying for where most Jews saw a cause worth dying to defeat. John Stuart Mill once wrote that, in history, the danger is not in mistaking fact for fiction, but mistaking part of the truth for all of it. As Lorraine de Meaux reminds us in her book The Gunzburgs: A Family Biography, Russian Jewry was large; though it had its poverty and desperation, it had wealth and elegance as well.

A historian of Russia who has worked on Russian cultural and intellectual history, de Meaux brings us the story of a Russian Jewish family exceptional in nearly every way. Rich, acculturated, and politically connected, it defied stereotypes over the course of its time in Russia, embodying one of the most remarkable—and unusual—experiences of Russian Jewry.

FULL STORY The Russian Rothschilds (Tablet)

Photo: Gunzburg family/Halban publishers

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