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REECAS NW Redux | Religion and Identity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Europe and Central Asia

Port in Odessa

June 18, 2015

By Nancy Elliot

The REECAS NW panel on Religion and Identity featured contributions from Matthew Cotton (UW History PhD student) and Anatoliy Klots (UW Slavic Studies PhD Student) on Jewish studies topics   Odessa through the prism of Isaac Babel’s prose and the post-Soviet oeuvre of filmmakers like Dmitri Astrakhan and Aleksandr Proshkin. Jennifer Webster (UW History Lecturer) rounded out the panel with a consideration of Baqshy healer women in Kyrgyzstan as a means of exploring the relationship between Islam, ethnic and gender identity, and modernization in Central Asia. 

Hellfire and Revolution: The Jews of Odessa and the Works of Isaac Babel

isaac-babel Jewish Soviet Identity Odessa

Isaac Babel (1894 – 1940) was a journalist, playwright, and short story writer with roots in both Ukraine and Russia.

Matthew Cotton

In his presentation, Matthew Cotton provided a brief history of Odessa as the capital and cultural/commercial center from Catherine the Great’s New Russia to the turn of the 20th century. Located on the shores of the Black Sea, central to European and Asian markets and boasting a pleasant Mediterranean climate, Odessa became a prosperous port city (primarily for Russian wheat exports) and a “beacon of opportunity” for Jewish and gentile populations. Amidst this cosmopolitan setting, a new liberalism developed (made famous by the popular claim “Odessa   a city surrounded by seven miles of hellfire”) that included secularized education and social mobility for skilled and connected Jews, as opposed to the quiet life of the traditional shtetls. However, many were unable to participate in the new found prosperity and succumbed to a life of organized crime or poverty, which became the focus of Babel’s first writings. Odessa Tales is his semi-fictional description of the city’s culture, economics, revolutionary politics and emergent anti-Semitism.

The era of the Bolshevik revolution found Babel living in Petrograd, where Maxim Gorky became his radical-left literary mentor. During this time, Babel became the “preeminent literary spokesman of Jewish supporters for Lenin’s revolution.” His best known works throughout the Soviet period are the Red Calvary stories about the Polish–Soviet War, which focuse on the confusing dichotomy of Russian anti-Semitism in the Soviet military.

Unwilling to tone down his gritty realism when Stalin came to power, Babel was arrested in 1939 and was executed on January 15, 1940 in a Lubyanka prison cell. During the Thaw, his works regained much of their popularity, especially among the dissident community.


Jewish Identity in the Russian Cinema of the Early 1990s

Anatoliy Klots

Anatoliy Klots explained that during “perestroika” (1985 – 1991), Soviet filmmakers hurried to use new found freedom of expression by producing films on topics previously forbidden in the Soviet Union, many of which focused on the Jewish experience including the Holocaust and Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign. He specifically discussed the placement of Jews in Soviet culture, as depicted in two award-winning films produced in the early 1990s, Get Thee Out! and To See Paris and Die.

Jewish Russian Identity Cinema- Izydi Get Thee Out!

The Film Izydi! (Get Thee Out!) by Dmitriy Astrakhan reflects Jewish struggles in the late Soviet period by way of the stories of Babel and Aleichem.


Influenced by the works of Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, as well as Alexander Kuprin, the film portrays, in parable form, the constant fear of violence felt by Jews during the deterioration of the Soviet Union. The Jewish main character, Motl, is presented as a symbol of masculinity (handsome, virile, dark haired and bearded) that runs counter to the typical depiction of Jews as victims. Throughout the movie, Motl is haunted by premonitions of pogroms and rumors of future ethnic cleansing.


As a Soviet Jew (vs. a more traditional shtetl Russian Jew), Motl is highly assimilated into the Russian culture and language and conspicuously devoid of any distinctive Jewish symbology, such as wearing a yarmulke, speaking Yiddish or being seen praying. When an actual pogrom is revealed at the end of the film, Motl chooses to not hide and, with the support of his gentile neighbors, takes up arms against the perpetrators. This final atypical scene reflects the belief of the filmmaker in the old international solidarity ideals espoused by Soviet propaganda, in that Russians will reject the emerging fascism and oppose its related violence.


To See Paris And Die (Jewish Identity and Film)

Aleksandr Proshkin’s film “To See Paris and Die” is set in 1960’s era Moscow and details the efforts of a mother set on getting her son out of the country. She hides his Jewish identity from him, but the secret is revealed.

The second film that Klots discussed, called “To See Paris and Die,” was a popular early nineties production directed by Aleksandr Proshkin.

Set in 1960s Russia, Elena is the main character who manipulates her musically talented son, Yuri, to enter a concert pianist competition in Paris – a destination she had always longed to visit but couldn’t otherwise afford. When Elena discovers that her son’s rival was disqualified for being a “concealed” Jew, she uses her overt anti-Semitism as a defense mechanism to protect against discrimination. As such, Elena strongly opposes Yuri’s engagement to a Jewish girl and, when he marries her, commits suicide. After which, Elena is exposed as being an ethnic Jew.


The film deals with Russian-Jewish relations in society, where Jewishness is considered an “incurable infectious disease.” In an attempt to counteract the effects of this perspective, many Jews tried to “Russify” themselves by changing their names, altering ethnic identification in documents and adopting Russian religion, culture and language to protect their children from discrimination. This was the antithesis of the approach recent generations took during the Bolshevik Revolution, as described in previous literary and cinematic works. Viewers, however, are left with hope of a free society when the film ends showing the revived flag of the “new” Russia and posters announcing Yuri’s upcoming performance in Red Square.


Becoming a Baqshy: Indigenous Healers in Rural Kyrgyzstan

Jennifer Webster


Kyrgyz Women Islam Identity Religion REECAS NW

A Kyrgyz in the traditional garb of a married Islamic woman. -photo by Ekaterina Ivashchenko

As part of her ethnographic field research in the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan), Jennifer Webster interviewed a baqshy woman, who was born in 1952 and accepted her spiritual calling in 1994. In Islam, a baqshy is a shaman or spiritual healer who functions as a ritual specialist whose power is derived from holy shrines. Baqshy are considered intercessors, seers, aura cleansers and diviners. Their calling is apparition-based and, until accepted, can cause them to become quite sick. The recipients of their healing skills tend to be women and children. Islamic healers in Kyrgyz are categorized as baqshy, who work through spirits; mullahs, who pray to Allah; and folk doctors, who employ knowledge of naturopathic remedies.



Nancy Elliott has an MBA in International Business and a passion for international relations. She served as Governor Gregoire’s Open World International Exchange Program administrator that brought a delegation of Ukrainian government officials to Washington State, and regularly travels to Poland as a member of the Washington Business Week delegation to teach international business to Polish, Czech and Lithuanian high school students.