Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
The 28 individuals profiled in these pages are bound by a single thread: each served a Russian tsar, emperor, or empress sometime between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beyond that, they were an exceptionally diverse lot – in addition to businessmen, diplomats, scholars, and doctors, there was a police chief, one of Russia’s most effective ministers of finance, and two very different “court jesters.” Taken together, their influence on the course of Russian history was profound.
Berdnikov’s book, which has enjoyed considerable popularity in Russia, has been called “a weighty document of historical truth,” and been acclaimed for its “calm impartiality,” for the “sincerity of the author’s voice,” and for the depth and breadth of Berdnikov’s research into archives and other historical sources that have only recently become accessible.
Lev Berdnikov, a native of Moscow, earned his Ph.D. in eighteenth century literature. He has conducted extensive primary source research into this period of Russian history and others, including during his tenure as a senior researcher at what was then the Lenin Library. He is well known in Russia as a historian with a gift for extracting fascinating but little-known stories from dusty archives and forgotten sources. The author of six books and over 400 essays and articles, Berdinkov received the Gorky Literary Prize for his 2009 book Clowns and Jesters (Shuty i skomorokhi), and in 2010 was honored by the Bulat Okudzhava Cultural Fund for the Americas. Jews in Service to the Tsar is the first of Berdnikov’s books to be translated into English. It has been called “a weighty document of historical truth” that is “beautifully written,” a book with “calm impartiality.” Berdnikov has lived in Los Angeles since 1990. He is a member of the Moscow Union of Writers and serves on the editorial committee of the Danish journal New Shore (Novy Bereg).
Nora Seligman Faorov is an accomplished Russian to English translator. Among her recent published translations is Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle by Oleg Khlevniuk (Yale UP: 2008). She is associate editor of SlavFile, a newsletter for Slavic translators and interpreters, and a frequent translator and contributor to Russian Life magazine and Chtenia, a literary journal of translations from Russian. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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