Yuri Slezkine opens The Jewish Century with speculative historical sociology. He divides the people of the world into two categories: peasants and other primary producers he labels Apollonians, and merchants and craftsmen he terms Mercurians. In medieval Europe, especially in its eastern region, Jews were major purveyors of mercantile and professional services to the rural majority. Because twentieth century populations became more urban, mobile, literate, and occupationally flexible, i.e., behaved more like Jews, Slezkine calls it the Jewish Century.
Slezkine makes little attempt to prove his thesis, asserting it, then turning to his major interest, the experience of Eastern European Jews in the twentieth century, which he calls the story of one Hell and three Promised Lands. He pays little attention to Hell, Hitler’s Holocaust, concentrating on the three great migrations--to America, Palestine, and cities of the Soviet Union. More than half the book, and its most informative and valuable pages, are devoted to Jews in Communist Russia.
Drawing on what he himself observed growing up in Russia, and the memories of his grandparents, Slezkine describes the fervor with which many Eastern European Jews hailed Communist promises of a society free of racial prejudice and exploitation of the poor. He examines the rapid movement of Jews from rural areas, in which Czarist Russia had confined them, to large cities, and their relative success in the 1920’s and 1930’s in reaching high positions in the Soviet state. After World War II, anti- Jewish government attitudes, knowledge of the Holocaust, and pride in the success of Israel, caused a rethinking of early enthusiasms, prompting an increasing desire to leave Russia. Surviving members of the first generation of idealistic Jewish Communists, themselves disillusioned, found it hard to answer their grandchildren’s question: how could you have believed that?