Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture, 1880s to 2008

Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture, 1880s to 2008

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Henrietta Mondry

Series: Borderlines: Russian and East European-Jewish Studies
ISBN: 9781934843390 (hardcover) 
Pages: 300 pp.
Publication Date: November 2009

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Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture, 1880s to 2008 explores the construction of the Jew’s physical and ontological body in Russian culture as represented in literature, film, and non-literary texts from the 1880s to the present. With the rise of the dominance of biological and racialist discourse in the 1880s, the depiction of Jewish characters in Russian literary and cultural productions underwent a significant change, as these cultural practices recast the Jew not only as an archetypal “exotic” and religious or class Other (as in Romanticism and realist writing), but as a biological Other whose acts, deeds, and thoughts were determined by racial differences. This Jew allegedly had physical and psychological characteristics that were genetically determined and that could not be changed by education, acculturation, conversion to Christianity, or change of social status. This stereotype has become a stable archetype that continues to operate in contemporary Russian society and culture.


Henrietta Mondry is professor and director of the Russian program at University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Her recent books include Populist Writers and the Jews: In the Footsteps of Two Hundred Years Together (2005, in Russian) and Pure, Strong and Sexless: Russian Peasant Woman's Body and Gleb Uspensky, (2006).


This book is a welcome addition to the small but growing literature that aims to address the neglect of ‘race.’ . . . It represents a welcome theoretical shift away from the tendency to view religious-based anti-Semitism and racialized anti-Semitism as being somehow distinct.
— Brendan McGeever, in Revolutionary Russia
Henrietta Mondry’s Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture, 1880s to 2008 is one of the most important books to appear in the burgeoning field of Russian-Jewish studies this decade. Taking seriously the problematics of real Jews in the Russian-speaking lands, Mondry examines the fantasies about their bodies in writings from Anton Chekhov to the new Russian racial science of the 2000s. This is a readable and engaging study offering methodological and critical insights into anti-Semitism and its images. It provides the reader with a detailed understanding of the function of such images over the past century from Romanoff Russia through the short and bloody history of the USSR to Putin’s Russia. It gives one pause about the continuities in Russian images of the Jew into the future.
— Sander Gilman, author of The Jew’s Body
By bringing together previously unexamined Russian-Jewish and Russian antisemetic texts, the book makes an important contribution to Russian-Jewish cultural studies. Furthermore, Mondry expands the frame of deciphering the mechanism of ‘othering’ the Jew by examining the construct of the Jewish body in the works of Jewish and Russian writers. . . . Mondry’s work is a must-read for those seeking to understand the perpetual existence of a racializing and mythological vilification of the Jewish body.
— Nadja Berkovich, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
[A] major and very timely contribution to the field of Russian–Jewish studies, given that contemporary Russian anti-Semitism still breeds on a long-standing cultural tradition of racial pseudo-science in the treatment of Jews. . . . By incorporating a whole range of disciplinary perspectives, from anthropology and psychology to genetics and political history, Mondry’s engaging study shows how the Jewish physical and ontological body became a site onto which Russian culture at various historic times inscribed a negative meaning, constructing it as pathological, carnal, incestuous, picaresque, criminal, or sadist. The monograph would be of interest to any scholar of Russia who wants to learn how Russian culture sought to tackle the ‘eternal’ question ‘what is Russianness?’ by answering a rather different one—‘what is Jewishness?’.
— Elena Katz, University of Oxford, in Slavonica, April 2011