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Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries

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Edited By Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

This volume offers a view of modern Russian intellectual culture as shaped by the dynamic of conversions. The individual contributions examine a rich variety of personal conversions occurring in a culture in which the written word enjoyed a privileged status and, historically, was closely linked to the sacred. However, the essays presented go beyond the original meaning of conversion as a change of religious beliefs. They address shifts in style, aesthetic outlooks, and mindsets, political and ideological transfigurations as well as religious conversions in the true sense of the term.
Whether at the level of culture, society or biography, the study of conversions opens the way to profound reflections about questions of identity, cultural ruptures, and continuity. The awareness of former conversions and the possible «convertibility» of one’s own ideological, spiritual or social stance has been among the central traits of Russian intellectual culture during the last two centuries.
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Our House Russia? Conversions from and to Judaism in Oleg Iur’ev’s Novel Poluostrov Zhidiatin

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In a trilogy consisting of the novels Poluostrov Zhidiatin. Roman palindrom (Peninsula Zhidiatin. A Palindrome Novel, 2000),1 Novyi Golem, ili voina starikov i detei (New Golem, or the War between the Old People and the Children, 2004) and Vineta (2007)2 Oleg Iur’ev (born 1959) depicted biographies of Russian Jews shortly before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and discussed the identity of contemporary Russian Jewry and its future both in and outside Russia. The first novel, on which this chapter focuses, depicts two families, the Iazychniks and the Zhidiata, who live on an imaginary peninsula at the Finnish border on the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and of whom the former appears to be Jewish and the latter Russian. Their true religious identities and spiritual inclinations are kept secret; the public “Russian” and “Jewish” identities are actually masks that make correct identifications and simple definitions impossible. In fact, masquerade is one of the central leitmotifs of the entire trilogy and, as will be demonstrated at the end, constant references to Billy Wilder’s famous movie Some Like it Hot in the first part have more meaning than meets the eye.3

Clear distinctions between the “Jews” and the “Russians” are no longer possible when readers learn that the Iazychniks, perfectly assimilated Leningrad Jews, in fact consider themselves to be Russians; some family members prefer Orthodoxy over Judaism and even come very close to a formal conversion. At the same time, the Zhidiatas, who appear...

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